Fur babies or fur egos? Pets as extensions of the self

Pet owners likely feel better about pampering a pretend child than an extension of their own selves.

Tim Wall Headshot Small Headshot
An Oil Painting Of A Dog Looking In A Mirror
created by Tim Wall using DALL-E 2

The term fur baby has become shorthand for a complex of concepts. One core aspect of the fur baby phenomenon is that pets have become surrogate children, as opposed to living mouse traps, sheep protectors or pests. Worldwide, people increasingly consider pets to be parts of their families. Beyond simply being included, pets may be the preferred family members for some. For example, I occasionally receive press releases about survey results that suggest people would rather be stranded on a desert island with their pet or that parents care more about their fur babies than their own flesh-and-blood offspring. Other surveys suggest people care more about what their pets eat than about their own diets.

This humanization of pets has fueled the premiumization of pet food. As pet population growth slows or stagnates in some developed economies, including the U.S., premiumization has become a major driver of revenue growth. Rising prices take the place of rising volumes in pet food profitability as people gravitate towards smaller dogs and cats. Pet food marketers have certainly noticed the premiumization trend and encourage the view of pets as people.

“…if pets are an extension of us, spending on one’s pet may be equivalent to spending on oneself.”

Perhaps this view of pets as fur babies is off the mark. Perhaps pets serve as extensions of the self rather than members of the extended family. A blog on Marketing Made Clear explored this idea. The blog’s author, Will Green, director of sales and marketing at pet food brand Paleo Ridge, examined dog ownership through the lens of the psychological concept of the extended self.

Like the adages that “the clothes make the man” or that “things we own end up owning us,” the extended-self concept holds that individuals view themselves as the gestalt of certain objects, people and surroundings that the individual feels to be part of themselves.

Consumer behavior researcher Russell Belk developed the extended-self concept in the late 1980s, building on a foundation laid by William James a century earlier. Belk posited that people partly define themselves through their possessions and other external objects, people and locations.

Pets as part of people

“The extended-self formulation envisions that certain possessions and certain other people are seen to be a part of us,” Belk wrote in Current Opinion in Psychology. “They extend our identity beyond our mind and body alone. When they are damaged, die, or are lost, we feel their loss as an injury to the self… Self-extension is readily seen with tools, musical instruments, and weapons that literally extend our capabilities. But it is also the case that self-expressive clothing, automobiles, homes and home décor, the places we frequent, the people we know, and the books we read are also partly constitutive of our selves.”

Green added dogs to Belk’s list of items and beings that people feel as part of themselves.

I would go one step further and say that most pets can be extensions of the self. Dogs, cats and other pets can be status symbols meant to represent oneself to the world, like the joke that people tend to resemble their pets. Individuals may purchase trendy dog breeds, such as Labradoodles, as a form of conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, a person might adopt a pound puppy mutt or take in a scrappy stray cat to represent their own ethos. A person with a pet python may feel they too are as unconventional as their companion reptile. An exotic pet can reinforce a person’s unique identity to themselves and the world. Pet ownership also leads to lifestyles that serve as extensions of our selves. Purebred dog owners may join a kennel club that reinforces their sense of elite pet ownership. For others, dog parks become a location where a pet owners feel both ownership of space and self-definition. For python parents, reptile shows can be places where they feel welcome and part of a community that defines who they are.

If pets are more so fur egos than fur babies, how does that affect effective marketing? Green pointed to vegan and other diet choices that a pet owner may choose for themselves and their pets. Even for obligate carnivores like cats, vegan pet owners may demand that pet food formulators develop balanced diets for felines without any animal products. Pet owners may feel that what is ethical for them is also ethical for their pet.

Scientists have observed this extension of pet owners’ selves to their pets. A study published in the journal Asian Social Science examined the extended-self concept applied to dog product purchases in Malaysia.

“Dog owners who view their dogs as their extended self, made purchase decisions as though they were purchasing and consuming these products and services for themselves,” the study authors wrote.

Another study looked at pet owners’ extensions of their selves to their pets when purchasing fashion clothing for their pets.

“Pet brand retailers using messages regarding possessions could result in the consumer being willing to pay more,” the study authors wrote in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services. “This supports Belk’s proposition that if pets are an extension of us, spending on one’s pet may be equivalent to spending on oneself.”

Nevertheless, I doubt people will start referring to their pets as fur egos, rather than fur babies. Pet owners likely feel better about pampering a pretend child than an extension of their own selves. Being selfish is frowned upon, while being generous to one’s children tends to be lauded. Yet, even if people call them fur babies, they may be psychologically babying a projection of their own psyches.

Page 1 of 5
Next Page