‘Pet parent’, ‘it’: Words reflect changes, and your words matter

Is an animal kept in the home an “it” or a “fur child”? Are we “guardians,” “owners” or “parents”? ” How you answer may depend on your gender, your age and your opinion of the proper place of a “pet” — itself a word most people use, others hate but that still doesn’t feel like the one-word-fits-all it used to be.

The English language is always changing, and what we call our closest animal companions is changing now. When we veterinarians choose the “wrong” words – even if literally correct – we may send the wrong message to some of our clients. Further, the words we choose may not even be true to our own values and beliefs: We often say what we say just out of habit.

Not a new situation

Would it surprise you to know that infants and young children used to be routinely referred to with the gender neutral “it”? I was surprised, but it’s true. That may have been in part a subconscious coping skill developed because of the high rates of infant mortality before the age of modern medicine. While most people would now use “he or she” instead of “it,” the old usage still pops up: Look at this dictionary entry, which uses both “he or she” and “it.”

While I’m not a linguist, I’d guess that it didn’t feel right to call a baby “it” when we started allowing ourselves to bond because it was a good bet that the majority of infants would reach their first birthday. The language changed because the circumstances did; the same goes for … well, I’m just going to say “pets,” so bear with me.

I can’t get my head around “guardian,” no matter how much I try. When I’m talking to people with pets, I find myself following their cue: If they see themselves as “pet parents,” then I’m fine with using that, too. If they find that term uncomfortable to use, “pet owner” it is.

While it may seem that those who are closest to their pets are the ones that go the Mom/Dad/Fur Baby/Fur Children route, I think it’s a mistake to assume so. The use of more “cutesy” terms seems – from my observation – to be used more by women than by men, with perhaps more of a generational split as well, with younger people more likely to verbally identify pets with family-style words than their elders. (The issue of “pet parents” really gets under some peoples’ skin, as noted in this recent article. The writer takes Nationwide  to task for using “pet parent,” but honestly, I think we are merely reflecting the word choice our members use and prefer.)

Does it matter what you say?

With my veterinary colleagues, I’m more likely to use “pet-owner.” I guess describing the relationship as it’s legally defined appeals to the more technical side of my nature. But with pet-owners – see, I’m talking to my colleagues – I lean to “pet parent,” while listening for contextual clues.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule and the language will continue to evolve, but I believe that using the gender neutral “it” is off-putting to clients, and I think that’s best weeded out of our language as veterinary professionals. When you use the same pronoun for a cat as you would for a chair, you may be unconsciously setting yourself up as someone who doesn’t really care that much. I know that’s not true, but the perception can bite you, perhaps even making it less likely that clients will listen to and act on your recommendations for the care their pet needs.

While I think “it” is out, “pet” seems to have staying power, and I have no problem using “pet” instead of “animal companion” or some other term. But I’m always trying to use the words that help me communicate the best, and if I have to say “fur baby” to help that animal’s “owner” accept my advice as a veterinarian or understand how pet health insurance makes  difference in the lives of pets, then that’s just what I’ll do.