What Defines a Pet

by Marissa Steingold




Back in 1952, Patti Page crooned “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”—forever immortalizing the sale of a pet. But today’s pet owners often downplay this monetary exchange. When selecting a dog, we know he is “the one” from the way he approaches us, stares longingly or somehow differentiates himself from the pack. Ascribing agency to an animal allows us to make the romantic leap that the pet has chosen us, just as we’ve chosen it, and since pets are supposed to be our best friends (not our slaves!), a pet’s will is a significant component of the modern pet narrative. 

But what if the pet doesn’t actually know it is a pet—like a wild animal or a robot? Is it still a pet? This question of agency has become increasingly complex in the age of social media, AI and robotics. Many animal lovers find themselves unable to care for a pet due to a host of life situations: infirmity, allergies, a lack of time or money, travel, fear of an aggressive animal, or a prohibition in their dwellings. Though dogs’ and cats’ places in our lives will never be entirely replaced, we must reconsider our traditional notions of pets to account for the recent proliferation of virtual pets, cyberpets and companion robots. 

Not surprisingly, the concept of a “pet” is difficult to define—probably because it means so many different things to different people. Oxford Dictionary offers three definitions:

  1. A domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship or pleasure
  2. A person treated with special favour or affection.
  3. Treated with special attention or evoking particularly strong feelings.[1]

None of these meanings is limited to a specific being; rather, the common thread concerns the emotional interest of the pet owner. “Petness”—as sociologist Jen Wrye puts it—is a social construction relating to the subject (the pet keeper) more than the object (the pet), so if a specific animal, vegetable, mineral or cyber specter feels like one’s pet, then it is.[2][3] Even in situations where a non-sentient pet will never comprehend its role, petness still applies. Hence, Wrye insists that relationships with virtual, cyber and robotic animals are not merely “petlike,” but pets in their own right.[4] Let us discuss a few.

Over 8,000,000 Tomagotchis—tiny digital creatures housed in an egg-shaped computer—have sold since their conception in 1996. Invented by a mother of young children living in a small Japanese apartment[5], Tomagotchis require great care (feeding, bathing, medicine, exercise), and they can even become sick and die. Despite Tomagotchis’ digital existence, many Tomagotchi owners become devoted to their pets, and mourn their deaths. Perhaps the time and energy required to care for a Tomagotchi encourages the owner-pet bond, and Tomagotchis’ ability to express emotion (they possess a happiness meter) also produces an interactive experience. 

Other virtual pets exist solely online, such as Neopets, who function as avatars in a cyber game. For Wrye, a lack of embodiment allows such cyber pets to engage in more dramatic, fantastical situations than are possible in the material world.[6] But because Neopet interaction resembles video game play, caring for them is synonymous with winning the game. When playing a video game, one invests time and energy toward staying alive, so when a Neopet dies, I suspect this signals the loss of the game rather than the death of a cherished one. That’s not to say that a Neopet owner could not experience real emotional bonds, or that Neopets aren’t really pets, but interacting with them seems markedly different from traditional pet play.

In my view, relationships with embodied pets come closer to the type of interactivity we expect in a pet. For example, sociologists Peter Kahn et al found that young children flinched apprehensively in response to the Sony Aibo’s movements, even though they fully understood that the dog was mechanical.[7]  While the children in the study did not respond this way to plush animals, the Aibo tapped into behaviors associated with live dog play.  We already have an idea of how we might interact with a dog, so the Aibo allows us to access this prior knowledge. For Tomagotchis and Neopets, on the other hand, we have to learn how to play with them. But this is a double-edged sword, for our expectations can lead to disappointment if the robotic dog won’t perform exactly like a real dog. The Aibo is neither soft nor cuddly, nor can it do everything a real dog does, but I suspect that future robotic dogs will become increasingly convincing. 

Moreover, a robotic dog can be programmed to be less needy, less violent, and more affectionate than a living dog. Caring for a live pet is costly, but the only resource the Aibo consumes is electricity. There are no stray, rabid Neopets wandering the streets, nor do Tomagotchis maul postal workers.  And without a self, we needn’t fret about their well-being. (Consequently, PETA has advocated virtual pets for owners who cannot or should not keep a live pet.[8])

Bioethicist James Hughes cautions against one potential pitfall of virtual pets: that people might (legally) abuse them to the point that we become desensitized to the mistreatment of live animals and people.[9] This would mirror psychologists’ findings that repeated exposure to video game violence desensitizes people to violence.[10]  And though non-sentient pets can be programmed with “needs,” it seems unlikely that owners would put virtual pets’ desires before their own. Kahn therefore deems relationships with traditional live pets more “moral” than ones with robotic pets, for the live animal “teach[es] children that their own desires don’t always come first.”[11]  But children already have to be taught to respect live animals—as well as other humans, toys and property. So too must parents teach their children how to treat and value a robot. 

Defining a pet-owner relationship solely on the basis of the owner’s agency may strike some people as shallow, and Kahn and others suggest that deep attachments to non-sentient virtual pets are less appropriate or healthy than those with live animals.[12] But this viewpoint seems dated. Not long ago, humans were derided for sleeping with and mourning their pets, but today’s domesticated dogs and cats have been promoted to members of the family.  While one might argue that devoting valuable resources to the care of live animals is misguided when millions of humans are starving, lonely or endangered, pets are so socially acceptable that few Westerners complain. Perhaps we are now on the verge of a virtual world epoch shift analogous to the (decades-old) pro-animal movement responsible for PETA, no-kill shelters and doggie daycare.

Even if we accept virtual pets, we must ask whether our relationships with them are inherently one-sided. How can virtual pets affect the world if they lack a self? Social scientists have posited that selfhood is not necessary to exist in the social realm.[13]  Take online bots, for example: though disembodied and non-sentient, they possess an image and distinct personality much like that of a human. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter constantly weed out bot accounts, for humans take offense to bots masquerading as humans (and decades of sci-fi featuring androids living among humans have probably heightened our fears). If a bot can pass as a human, then we seem replaceable, therefore lessening the perceived value of humankind. Perhaps transparency is indeed the key to incorporating non-sentient bots into our lives, for this enables us to categorize and treat them according to our specific value system. 

But here’s the rub: we already understand that the animals we live with are not humans, yet we still tend to anthropomorphize them (and it’s socially acceptable to do so). There’s a certain alchemy in pet ownership—we live with an animal, learn to appreciate its distinct quirks, and eventually it becomes much more than an animal to us. No one tells us how to feel about a pet; perhaps we fall in love immediately, or a bond forms over time. The same may apply to non-sentient pets. Even though they lack a self, they cast a spell over us—a bewitchment we have ironically enabled through our constant attention to them. 

We wonder why millions of people devote time and energy to a pet that only exists in cyberspace, but we still don’t fully understand why people keep live pets in the first place. Though some pets are “functional” (i.e., herding dogs on a farm), urban pets are a losing economic prospect. And yet, Americans take on more and more pets every year. One theory suggests that dogs’ and cats’ large eyes and heads resemble human babies, tapping into our drive to care for others, and possibly stimulating the release of oxytocin.[14] According to Edward O. Wilson, pet keeping is a natural phenomenon for humans, possibly related to our inherent love of nature—what what he terms “biophilia.”[15] But does “biophilia” extend to our love of the unreal—seemingly the very opposite of nature? If keeping a live animal connects us to our animalistic roots, then perhaps keeping a robotic or cyber pet signals the melding of the virtual, mechanical and natural. Cyber pets offer a way for our virtual imaginations to become equally real and meaningful by affecting us socially, and, likewise, robotic pets represent the ultimate achievement of human ingenuity. When we look into the eyes of a live dog, we connect with nature, and when we look into the eyes of a robotic dog, we see ourselves in nature. 

Oxford Dictionaries.com. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pet.  Accessed 9/10/2018.

[2] Wrye, 1043.

[3] Wrye, Jen. “Beyond Pets: Exploring Relational Perspectives of Petness.”  Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 34/4 2009, 1037.

[4] Wrye, 1059.

[5] Bloch, Linda-Renée and Dafna Lemish. 1999. “Disposable love: The rise and fall of a virtual pet.” New Media and Society 1(3):284. 

[6] Wrye, 1048.

[7] Kahn, Peter, Batya Friedman, Deanne Perez-Gradados and Nathan Freier. 2006.

“Robotic Pets in the Lives of Preschool Children.” Interaction Studies 7(3): 424.

[8] Macdonald, G. Jeffrey. “If you kick a robotic dog, is it wrong?”  The Christian Science Monitor. 2/5/2004.  https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0205/p18s01-stct.html. Accessed 9/2/2018. 

[9] Qtd. in Macdonald.

[10] It still remains unclear whether this syndrome actually causes further violence. See Carnagey N. L., Anderson C. A., Bushman B. J. (2007). “The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence.” J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 43 489–496. 10.1007/s10964-014-0202-z

[11] Qtd. in MacDonald.

[12] Wrye notes that …”nonliving pets are either unnoticed or dismissed as inferior and trivial,” 1034. 

[13] For example, see Hacking, Ian. 1999. Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[14] Nagasawa M, Mitsui S, Shiori E, Ohtani N, Sakuma Y, Onaka T, et al. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science (2015) 348:333–6. doi:10.1126/science.1261022

[15] Biophilia is definied as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”  Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, 416.