In the last 20 years pets have gone from the backyard to sleeping on our beds, then showing up in every corner of America. Pet Nation tells the story of this seismic shift and the economic, media, legal, political, and social dramas springing from this cultural transformation.
Since 1998 the pet population in the U.S. has almost doubled -- about two-thirds of the country now owns a pet. No longer left to wander the neighborhood, dogs and cats eat special food, get individualized medical attention, and even fly in the cabin. As founder of the Animal Policy Group, Mark Cushing provides an inside look at the rise of Pet Nation, tracking the myriad ways pets are acquired (a "Canine Freedom Train" runs south to north), reporting on pet rights legislation (and the unseen problems that come with elevating their status), pet healthcare (revealing the truth and myths about large scale breeders), and discovering that despite what many organizations would have us believe, there is a shortage of dogs.
Insightful, surprising, and full of great stories, Pet Nation opens our eyes to the big changes happening in front of us right now. It shows us not only what our love of animals says about pets, it shows us what it says about ourselves.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Cushing / PET NATION
• 1 •
IN THE BACKYARD NO MORE
The Transformation of Pets in American Society
Two strangers meet in a park, each walking with a dog on a leash. They don’t ask each other where they work, or live, or went to college; or about the kind of car they drive, or their favorite football team. They say one, perhaps, two things: “What kind of dog is that? What’s her name?” Twenty minutes later, they know everything about each other’s pet and then part ways as friends. Not have-each-other-over-to-dinner friends, but friends who look forward to seeing each other, and their dogs, again.
When you consider the condition of pets in America before Pet Nation, it seems as if everything was photographed in black-and-white or sepia, all stills and no video. Pets were scattered here and there, nearly invisible, as if they didn’t matter. Then they began to appear everywhere. Before long, pets were transformed from a diversion to the center of our culture and so many lives. This wasn’t a purely personal experience; pets became social glue, the common bond between people with little else in common, who would never otherwise have spoken to each other. That’s the essence of Pet Nation, and why I wrote this book.
I majored in medieval and renaissance history at Stanford (how’s that for spotting a trend?), went to law school, and became a business trial lawyer. I figured I’d spend my life in a courtroom, raise a family, and see the world. If you had asked me for a thousand scenarios that might unfold in my life, building the Animal Policy Group and becoming a leading advocate and adviser in the pet world would not have made the list. Not even close. Fortunately, that is what happened. In 2005, I received a phone call from Banfield Pet Hospital’s founder, asking me to lead a pet lobbying effort with our federal government in Washington, DC. This was possible then because everything was changing with pets in America.
Dogs and cats went from the backyard to the bedroom, and then dogs headed out the front door of the house to every corner of the United States, every town, suburb, and city. Pets stepped into political and legal arenas, stirring up issues and passions we’d never thought about before. My daily world became the dramas at the intersection of pets and American society. My career as a trial lawyer and DC-based lobbyist morphed into a full-time, national practice, fighting battles and advancing causes related to pets. No one else had the job I created or, rather, shaped for myself. This job had never existed, and I’ve battled, cajoled, lobbied, and persuaded ever since.
Pet Nation reveals that something about us—not about dogs and cats—has changed without our realizing what happened. Pets aren’t a fad. They are more like the medicine America needs now for individuals and communities to feel better, and to do better. This is the story of what happened, how it happened, where it happened, and why. We explore issues challenging Pet Nation today and a culture that wasn’t prepared for dogs and cats to move center stage. We study the human-animal bond, legal restrictions, political conflicts, colorful history, cutting-edge research, and a pet health-care system that’s turned upside down. What I have discovered is often entertaining, occasionally surprising, and sometimes shocking. It’s an insider’s account of what no one saw coming twenty years ago, or could stop if they tried.
Now, let’s begin with a few stories about dogs and cats.
March 14, 2019
The flight to Orlando, my third red-eye of the year, was delayed, but not without diversion. Besides the usual suspects tapping away on their iPhones and laptops—business travelers, Palm Beach dowagers, and families bound for Disney World—there was a new and decidedly more exotic passenger in the American Airlines Admirals Club that night. Well groomed, with a jeweled necklace, a Louis Vuitton case, chestnut-brown coat, and long eyelashes, Suzette made a stir. From time to time, she sampled a few candies proffered by her traveling companion, a woman in her thirties with a similarly understated fashion flair, took a sip of Tasmanian Rain bottled water, then sat back and closed her eyes, waiting for the flight to board. Three years old, this long-haired Chihuahua was accustomed to the comforts of business class. Seated across the aisle from her owner / pet parent / friend on the flight from Phoenix, I learned that Suzette had a busy social calendar, a passport of her own, more Instagram followers than I will ever have, and a full, pampered week ahead of her in Boca Raton.
November 16, 2018
A Huffington Post article by Elyse Wanshel tells a different story, in which two beautiful cats became the fulcrum for a modern Seattle wedding of two women that would make any ailurophile purr. In the article, Wanshel describes the efforts of two newlyweds—Colleen, 27, and Iz, 26—to entertain their guests at their wedding. Since the ceremony was performed at a Quaker meetinghouse, they were not allowed to serve alcohol while a photographer took their post-wedding portraits. Inspired by their two older, disabled rescue cats Ladybird and Pangur, Colleen and Iz devised a plan. As Colleen told Wanshel, “When we were brainstorming something alcohol-free for our guests to do while we took family pictures, kittens came up and things flowed from there.” Instead of a “cocktail hour,” they invented a “kitten hour,” starring six kittens from the Seattle Animal Shelter that were made available.
While Ladybird and Pangur were otherwise engaged at home, “sleeping on the couch, watching squirrels out the window and thinking about killing them,” the kittens entertained the wedding guests, and all the kittens eventually landed adoptive homes. Encouraged by Iz and Colleen to donate to SAS (from which they foster cats) as wedding gifts, several guests filled out adoption papers. Perfect wedding toasts in the form of “Ladybird” and “Pangur” cocktails brightened the reception.
Welcome to Pet Nation.
What Is Pet Nation?
We live in a brand-new country, one with new codes of behavior, social mores, and artifacts—iPhones, Facebook, texting, Tinder, emojis, tattoos, cars that drive themselves, fake news, miniature helicopters called drones that deliver pizza to your doorstep, virtual assistants who schedule appointments and remember birthdays. And pets, lots of pets. It’s as if American society said, “Let’s toss out the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and start over. Let’s invent a new world.” Pet Nation is a country where 75 percent of our pets sleep on their owner’s bed, and where millions of dogs and cats have their own social media accounts, receive birthday cards they cannot read, and wear expensive Halloween costumes only once. And it’s not just cats and dogs, as you’ll see in chapter eight. The range of species in Pet Nation is breathtaking.
America has a whopping 185 million cats and dogs. That’s more than one for every two people, or 1.4 per household. Two of three dog owners consider their dog their “best friend,” and this trend is not relenting. As more people acquire their first dog, 26 percent of existing dog owners have two dogs, 10 percent have three dogs, and 7 percent have four or more. The sign above the door to a local groomer’s shop reads, “Dogs are like potato chips. You can’t have just one.” Today, 30 percent of millennial couples acquire their first dog before their first child. In 2000, there were seventy-three million cats and sixty-eight million dogs in America; now there are ninety-five million cats and ninety million dogs.
After two centuries on the margin, as likely to receive a kick in the ribs as a holiday treat, dogs and cats rose to the status of children in less than thirty years. How did this happen? And why is this fervor focused on cats and dogs? There are other kinds of pets (birds, ornamental fish, ferrets, snakes, turtles) in Pet Nation, all loved and fussed over by their owners, as I discuss later in the story, but dogs and cats “rule the roost.” The national mantra became “If it’s good enough for Mom and Dad, or the kids, then Rover and Mittens deserve the same.”
Dogs and cats free people from the emotional labyrinths that have cut them off from other people. In the words of Temple Grandin, the author and animal behaviorist, “Animals make us human.” My friends know the names of neighborhood dogs but not the names of their neighbors themselves. On city and suburban sidewalks, dogs are “connective social tissue.” A dog walker wearing headphones and a jangle of apartment keys strolls down the street, texting as she goes, bouncing off other pedestrians like digital bumper cars. Then she sees an Irish Setter pulling its owner down the block. They meet; the dog walker stops; smiles at the stranger; admires the dog; asks its age, name, and provenance; snaps a picture; and then moves on. If cats are question marks, dogs are exclamation points.
The Pet Revolution
It was a long and treacherous journey from the backyard to the bedroom for American pets in the twentieth century. It took that long for people to work through a culture of abuse and indifference that consigned dogs and cats to a second-class status in America. The word “pet” first entered the English language around 1500 as a term for “a spoiled child,” then assumed a second meaning in 1530 as “an animal kept as a favorite.” This was not a word commonly heard during the next three hundred years, since few domestic animals enjoyed that status during the period. The rare exceptions were those animals belonging to royal households, other members of the European aristocracy (who prized dogs for hunting and, secondarily, companionship), and the rare families who treated pets (dogs, cats, parrots, and sometimes more unconventional species such as squirrels or crows) as beloved members of the family.
During the Victorian era (1837–1901), the concept of “kindness to animals” entered public discourse. This prompted the establishment of the first English animal charities, such as Our Dumb Friends League, in London, in 1897. Today this organization is known as the Blue Cross; it finds homes for unwanted animals and educates the public in the responsibilities of animal ownership. There were also pockets of animal compassion in America during that period, both public and private. Animal-welfare organizations took shape, like the ASPCA in Manhattan, in 1866, and SPCA in Buffalo, in 1867, to protect animals and to rescue those in need. Those initiatives eventually led to the revolution that has unfolded over the past twenty years, which has unleashed social and economic forces (not to mention actual four-legged dogs and cats) with astonishing results for both people and pets. In short:
After gestating for one hundred years, Pet Nation exploded in the 2000s, a complete and radical reversal of every part of the human-pet dynamic.
While it wasn’t a political coup d’état, in the literal sense of a subordinate party unseating a ruling power, dogs and cats ended up on top. Previously, people owned and dominated dogs, treating them as chattel, working beasts, or disposable household accessories. Through no effort of their own, pets have become royalty, at least for the 65 percent of American households that own them.
Pet Nation has produced dramatic changes in the socioeconomic order of the United States.
Pet Nation was ignited by a shift in the way people think about pets. Who these change agents were, and how they became the architects of the new pet paradigm, will be revealed in chapter two.
Table of Contents
1 In the Backyard No More: The Transformation of Pets in American Society 1
2 How Pets Went Viral 37
3 The Whole Damn Country Has Run Amok: The Pet Land Grab 75
4 The Secret to Pet Nation: The Human-Animal Bond 113
5 Dog Shortages and Canine Freedom Trains 139
6 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Legal and Political Fights Are Just Beginning 175
7 Pet Health Care Will Never Be the Same Again 209
8 "It Isn't Only Dogs and Cats" 239
9 Pet Nation: Is There More to Come? 273