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Pets Aren’t People

“I like dogs more than people.”

So goes a slogan (or some variation thereof) one can find stamped on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers everywhere.

Honestly, I can relate. I really love my dogs.

Although all pets have particular and ongoing needs, they aren’t as demanding as people. My dogs don’t argue with me. Even when they steal my seat, they move if I ask them to (although often I don’t). They don’t pick movies to watch that I don’t like. They don’t ask me to defend my last social media post or argue with me about elections, vaccinations, conspiracy theories, or penal substitutionary atonement. They don’t ask me to review their books, edit their essays, or have meetings. They don’t play music too loud or make jokes I don’t get.

Moreover, ample research touts the health benefits of spending time with pets—including lowered blood pressure, less anxiety, decreased cholesterol levels, and ease of PTSD symptoms. Given all this, it’s not surprising pet ownership in the United States has increased significantly over the past three decades: as of this year, 66 percent of U.S. households own a pet, up from 56 percent in 1988.

As an animal lover who has experienced many joys from the countless pets I’ve cared for over the years (along with some of the inevitable sorrows), this trend makes my heart glad. Animals (and dogs in particular, in my opinion) are one of the best gifts God bestowed on us. Animals, especially pets, ground us, teach us, and show us how to live more fully in the present.

But animals aren’t people.

Not a Replacement

One can love animals and pets, as I do, and yet recognize that these creatures can’t take the place of humans. I can’t share my hopes and dreams with my dogs. They don’t ask me how my day was. They can’t enjoy a painting with me or discuss a novel or share their Wordle score. They don’t see Jesus in me and in so seeing develop a desire to show Jesus to the world or to pass the faith down to future generations. Time with pets cannot replace time with people.

Animals are one of the best gifts God bestowed on us. But they aren’t people.

Yet, according to a recent report in The Atlantic on findings from the American Time Use Survey—an annual government poll of how people in the U.S. spend their days—“real-world socializing has declined for both men and women, for all ages, for all ethnicities, and for all levels of income and education.”

Further, while face-to-face time spent with people has steadily declined between 2003 and 2022, according to the story, the time Americans spend with pets has doubled during this same 20-year period. Increased time with pets is marked among women in particular:

In 2003, the typical female pet owner spent much more time socializing with humans than playing with her cat or dog. By 2022, this flipped, and the average woman with a pet now spends more time “actively engaged” with her pet than she spends hanging out face-to-face with fellow humans on any given day.

Not coincidentally, this phenomenon occurs amid a drastically falling birth rate in the U.S.—it dropped nearly 23 percent between 2007 and 2022. Some people think of themselves as “dog parents,” treating their dogs as if they’re children.

We can push dogs in strollers, dress them up, and care for them as if they’re children, but they can’t care for us in our old age and they lack emotional complexity. Unlike children, our dogs will always adore us, and so they fail to remind us we aren’t meant to be worshiped. Try as we might, pets cannot replace people.

Distinct in Design

We human creatures do, by God’s design, have a special relationship with animals. God created animals (on the same day he created human beings, by the way) for his glory and pleasure, just as he created us for the same. And God specially assigned Adam to name the animals. It was in fulfilling this task that Adam recognized his aloneness among them.

This part of the creation narrative indicates how animals are both like us and not like us. Animals share with human beings the breath of life, that life force mentioned in Genesis 7:15, but they don’t bear God’s divine image as told in Genesis’s creation account.

It’s significant, however, that after the flood, God made a covenant not only with Noah and his descendants but with “every living creature” (9:9–11). Moreover, the book of Jonah ends with God chastising the prophet for his lack of compassion for the city of Ninevah, which God cares about because of both the people who live there and many animals (Jonah 4:11). God loves animals, and he calls us to as well.

Spending more time with animals is probably a good thing in our overly automated, digital, and virtual modern world. In preindustrial societies, people spent much more time with animals, whether the animals they raised for food and labor or those that transported them before the age of the automobile. The issue isn’t the amount of time one spends with animals (whether livestock, carriage horses, or pets) but rather what role we’re asking them to play in our lives.

Properly Ordered Loves

We were made for fellowship with other image-bearers, just as the creation narrative shows in Adam’s recognition that he needed a companion who was like him. (Even animals recognize their own kind and respond accordingly.) To love people well means recognizing we were made to be with one another, offering friendship, compassion, affection, and simply time.

Likewise, I cannot love my dog well if I love her for being something other than what she is. It’s not loving a dog well to expect her to function like a machine or meow like a cat or fill a need only a person can. Not to put too fine a philosophical point on it, but to love a dog is to love a dog in all her doggy-ness.

This principle is true for all God’s creation—animals, people, rocks, minerals, and plants too. All that God created he created with design and purpose. To love each other and all creation well is to love who and what they are as God made them. (So spare me the cozy knitted sweaters for chickens, by the way. God created them perfectly able to withstand the winter without clothing.)

The issue isn’t the amount of time one spends with animals but rather what role we’re asking them to play in our lives.

As with all our loves, love for pets must be properly ordered. To love pets well requires us to love them for what they are—and not what they’re not. And to love people well means spending time with them face-to-face, in the flesh, embracing them with all their complexities, all their demands, and even their questionable movie choices.

It’s people we come from at the start of life, people we turn to through all our lives, and people who’ll surround us and love us at the end of our lives. Perhaps the next time you take your dog to the lake, you can ask a friend you haven’t spent time with in a while to come along. Such isn’t making the best of both worlds but making the best of this one glorious world God created.

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