During the early hours of one morning in January 2021, Beth Greer, 34, received news that her father had passed away from coronavirus. She was home alone, with the exception of her three-year-old Cavapoo, Ivy. “The moment I read the message, before it had even sunk in, Ivy appeared by my side and immediately tried to put her paws on my shoulders; it’s her way of giving me a hug,” she says. “In quiet moments, Ivy is always there to listen. She obviously can’t respond in the traditional sense, but she does in her own way.”
This is just one of the many reasons why Greer, who is married and has chosen not to have children, feels so connected to Ivy. “My relationship with her is quite parental,” she explains. “She is very much a part of the family.” Such comments are not uncommon among pet owners. But they have been undermined by recent remarks made by Pope Francis, who suggested that couples who prefer pets to children are “selfish”.
On Wednesday, the world leader told an audience at the Vatican: “Today … we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children. This may make people laugh but it is a reality.”
The Pope’s views have sparked criticism for several reasons. Some people have argued out that, given he has no children himself, the world leader is in no position to comment on the parental choices of others. Others have highlighted the numerous reasons people might choose to not have children, such as financial pressures, or the climate crisis. For pet owners like Greer, however, the main gripe is that the Pope’s comments show a lack of understanding of the close relationship they have with their four-legged friends.
“His comments were a sweeping generalisation,” says Greer. “ Having children has not happened naturally for me and I don’t wish to put myself and my marriage through the stress of investigating it further. I don’t believe that makes me selfish, it’s personal choice.”
Vet and wildlife presenter Dr Sean McCormack adds that the Pope’s comments “miss the mark”. “Getting companionship and emotional support from our pets is more crucial than ever and the life affirming bonds that come with pet ownership should be celebrated,” he says. “Far from being a selfish act, taking responsibility for an animal in need is selfless, loving, caring and admirable.”
Greer is just one of many pet owners who thinks of her pet as a child. Lucy Gordon, 33, who has opted not to have children, describes her dog, Wilbur, as both a “child and a friend”. “My boyfriend now calls me ‘mummy’ most of the time because of him,” she adds. “Like children, dogs are precious and depend on you to look after them and feed them, and so you are absolutely a parent to your dog.”
While pets may take the place of children for those who have chosen not to have them, they can also be a lifeline for those who can’t. CiCi Reagan Twining, 30, suffers from chronic pain due to several health conditions that would render childcare near-impossible. “I’ve decided to remain child-free while lavishing all my maternal affection on my little girl, who just happens to be covered in fur,” she says of her three-year-old dog, Harley.
“We have a very close relationship,” she adds. “I put her needs before my own. She has a ton of toys and beds, eats the best food, and even has health insurance when I don’t. We sleep in my bed together, eat midnight snacks together, and I take her to the park to hang out with her other four-legged friends. If that’s not motherhood, I don’t know what is.”
Animals have provided similar comforts to Joe Nutkins, 42, whose diagnosis with chronic fatigue syndrome in 2018 made the prospect of having children much less feasible. “We already had dogs, Norwich terriers, and thought children would complete the family. But after the diagnosis, I worried about what I might potentially pass down to kids,” he says. Instead, Nutkins and his husband completed their family with a new Norwich terrier, Merlin, having lost their two older dogs the previous year. In spring 2019, the couple also bought three hens, and have since hatched chicks and rescued some ducks. On top of this, they purchased one more dog and four parrots. “ It turns out our family had much more to give,” he says, noting that his “fur and feathered family” feels “complete”.
Much research has been conducted into the roles that pets play in our lives. Studies have found that pets can make us happier, offer support to vulnerable children, and help to combat loneliness. Additionally, research has suggested that certain hormones, such as oxytocin, create a special bond between pets and their owners, with one study from 2019 highlighting how this brings people closer to their dogs, specifically.
There has also been scientific evidence to suggest that people might even really care for their pets as if they were children. For example, in 2014, one small study of functional MRI brain scans in 18 mothers found that the participants exhibited similar neural responses in terms of reward, emotion and affiliation when looking at images of their children and their dogs. There were some differences, however, with dogs sparking more activity in the fusiform gyrus region , which is involved in facial recognition, while children triggered more activity in the tegmentum area, which is involved in reward and affiliation.
“Pets can play a crucial role in people’s lives, for some people, being the only source of support and attachment,” says Dr Kelly Rushton, research associate at the University of Manchester whose work has highlighted how pets can benefit people psychologically. “They can offer unconditional love with no judgement, and, akin to parenthood, the responsibility and dependency that results from having a pet can give people purpose, a reason to get up in the morning.”
Many of the studies into pet-human relationships have focused on how beneficial animals can be to our mental health. One study from 2018 led by Rushton, for example, found that pets helped owners to manage their feelings and provided a distraction from the stress of having mental health problems.
For Maria Antoniou, 46, who is married without children, her dog, Kia, was crucial when it came to getting through the various lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. “Without her, I think I would have slipped into a dark hole,” she says. “There were days where I could have quite easily stayed on the sofa in my PJs but having Kia meant I had to walk regularly, which kept my mental health positive and lifted my spirits on the hardest days. She is also a conversation starter. I’ve made so many dog walker friends and hardly ever leave the house without seeing someone we can talk to.”
Gordon has also found solace in Wilbur, whom she bought when she was suffering from regular bouts of anxiety and depression. “Whenever I have a moment when I can see that I’m starting to spiral, we head out for a walk or have a cuddle on the sofa and it helps so much,” she says. “Having that unconditional love and someone there with you all the time helps get through any bad times.”
The same was true for Greer when she was grieving the loss of her father. “I’ve never been one to focus too much on fitness, but maintaining the routine of regular walks, and getting out in the countryside with Ivy gave me something to focus on during that period, and became a blessing during lockdowns.”
Despite all this, though, to some, the Pope’s comments highlight more of a societal misunderstanding than anything else. One that shows just how much emphasis we place on traditional nuclear families. “But a successful society doesn’t just need parents,” says Rushton. “It needs a thriving population, which requires the opportunity for people to feel loved and needed, regardless of their choices. Pets provide that and so much more, and their provision is never-ending.”