The words that follow are written in part from the perspective of a former mental health professional with dual training in Abnormal Psychology and Special Education. Though I left the field to become a full-time writer, I have continued my studies in the mental health realm. As with several of my articles for NewsBreak, personal anecdotes are included. Attributions for this article are also included and linked below.
I have written several fully-attributed articles for NewsBreak readers on the matter of pet loss. See here for “The Importance of Being With Your Pet in its Dying Moments Despite Your Grief,” and here for “Why Do We Put Sick Pets to Sleep?” I have also shared with NewsBreak readers a tough but honest piece about being one-half of a childless couple when I had long expected to one day become a dad. You can read that piece here, entitled “When Life Had Other Plans, and I Could Not Be a Father.”
I have chosen to link those articles at the beginning of this article for the sake of perspective. My mental health background aside, I have also had personal experience in these matters.
In the scenarios of childless individuals and couples, pets are most often considered children. According to Jessica Klein in her BBC report, “The Child-Free Couples Who Treat Their Pets Like Children,” the article’s subtitle is particularly telling: As the number of US couples without children increases, a growing number of them are favouring – and pampering – pets as they would kids.
Klein’s article goes on to state: “One way that child-free families express their nurturing side is through their connection with pets,” says Dr Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine and the author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence.
The concept of pets and childless individuals and couples have been professionally studied for many years, and not solely in the U.S. See here for a well-regarded 2005 thesis from South Africa’s University of Pretoria, “The Caring Relationship: A Qualitative Study of the Interaction Between Childless Married Couples and Their Dogs,” by Esti van Heerden for her Masters in Research Psychology.
From the thesis: Four elements that are commonly found in a caring relationship were identified and looked at as to whether they can also be found in the relationship that develops between a childless married couple and their dog. The four elements, love, attachment, need fulfilment and ritualization also formed the broad predetermined themes investigated in this study.
Heerden’s conclusions mirror my own, which also takes into account other pets including cats, birds, reptiles and fish. Simply, the four elements listed are said to bond the childless individual or couple with their pet as they would a child if they had conceived.
Distinction of Pet Attachments For Individuals and Couples Without Children
It is generally agreed by larger studies that owning a pet when childless mimics the dynamics of being a parent.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Institute of Health, poses this question in its August of 2021 article of the same name: “Can Pets Replace Children? The Interaction Effect of Pet Attachment and Subjective Socioeconomic Status on Fertility Intention.” See here for the article, which takes into consideration individuals and couples who prefer to remain childless today and have cut the U.S. fertility rate substantially from the year 2000.
Also, see here for a May, 2021 Pew Research study on the matter, “With a Potential ‘Baby Bust’ on the Horizon, Key Facts about Fertility in the U.S. Before the Pandemic.”
According to the abstract, “Relationship between Pet Ownership, Pet Attachment and Decision to Have Children Among Single People in the United States: A Need for Flexible Child Care Facilities in the United States,“ authors Diane Ezekiel Aruah, Virginia Obioma Ezekiel, and Cookey Ibiere Tom concluded the following: Research has found that as pet ownership increases, fertility declines in the United States. Many single people have lost interest in growing families due to high cost of child care and lack of time. You can find that abstract in its entirety here.
Professionals in both psychology and sociology appear to largely agree the degree of loss suffered from childless pet owners is similar but distinct at once from those who have children. No matter if one is childless, many if not most pet owners (statistics vary on that determination) grieve the loss of their pets as they would a family member. As has been determined by well-regarded studies such as those linked above, however, many childless individuals or couples grieve the loss of a pet as a de facto loss of a child.
This does not mean or otherwise imply a childless individual or couple grieves more, only that the consideration of such a loss may be defined in more specific terms.
The degree and duration of the grieving process differ from individual to individual. There is no right or wrong in terms of one‘s emotional response to the passing of any type of pet, which is most frequently accompanied by a heightened sense of emotional adjustment regardless of child status.
Thank you for reading. I hope this article has been helpful.