A sitting black and white dog looking into the camera with red, pink, and yellow flowers on its collar and a large pink bow on its head. Next to it is a decorated Christmas tree.

Photos with Santa Paws: Ruminations on Pets, Precarity, Consumption, and Family

Children have posed for photos with Santa, willingly or otherwise, for more than a century, but recent pics star new subjects: pets. Pet stores, along with department stores, malls, and community groups, now host special pet-friendly photo sessions. Lists abound online of such photo ops, as well as tips for how to get that perfect shot out of a reluctant, nervous, or distracted dog or cat. Silly as they may seem at first glance, photos with Santa Claws or Paws reveal not only the extent to which owners consider pets as family, but also how consumer culture recognizes and targets pets as their own market. In full disclosure, I examine this issue as a self-professed “dog mom,” albeit one taking a critical eye to our consumption habits.

Keeping pets and considering them family (or even as children) emerged as a cultural practice in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of urbanization and industrialization.1 Viewed less for their economic value as laborers, pets lived in the home and performed social and emotional functions. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, non-human names — like Spot, Champ, and Happy — communicated pets’ relative social distance from human family members.2

Human–animal bonds further transformed in the 1970s and 1980s, elevating and integrating pets within families in increasingly anthropomorphic and agentive ways. It’s not a coincidence that these decades also saw the founding of most U.S. pet cemeteries, imbuing the passing of a pet with similar emotional weight and religious ritual.3 Likely as a result, scholars turned sociological attention to pets and human–animal relationships with a burst of research activity in the 1980s and 1990s.4

A white dog gazes into the distance while lying under a Christmas Tree
Madame Curie, snuggling on the Christmas tree skirt. (© Averill Earls)

While not new, pet kinship has shifted further in recent decades. Within some families, the relationship between pets and their owners has changed to one between “furbabies” and their doting parents. Pet feeding clearly illustrates this change.5 In recent years, pet food trends mirror those for humans, emphasizing consumer concerns for more organic, “whole,” high-quality, and healthy ingredients.6 Take for example the organic dog biscuits I wrote about last year and, um, taste tested. (They were delicious).

One can imagine who likely performs the extra labor required to prepare a pet’s raw food meal or to cook from scratch rather than pour kibble in a bowl. I see connections here to Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston, and Norah MacKendrick’s research on the “organic child,” that is, “an idealized notion of a ‘pure’ child that is kept safe from the harmful impurities of an industrialized food system.”7 While deeply valued and aspired to, this ideal at the intersection of “good” motherhood and ethical eating also poses a gendered, resource-intensive burden. Similar dynamics of gendered responsibility, guilt, and anxiety increasingly shape how (and why and what) we feed pets.

Relatedly, pet parents (or “pawrents,” if you’ll go there) invest increasing time and resources on pet socialization, training, and veterinary care, as well as recreation such as doggy daycare and excursions like nature hikes. Such pet parents also spend a significant sum on consumer goods from the typical collars, leashes, treats, and chew toys to luxurious beds, clothes (including pajamas), costumes, and more. To ease separation anxiety, they also purchase in-home pet camera surveillance systems akin to the high-tech baby monitors now normalized in middle-class parenting. Monthly pet subscription services also proliferate. Founded in 2012, BarkBox generated $150 million in sales in 2017 delivering treats and toys to doorsteps. The company boasts that 95% of customers have purchased more than one.

Along with killing Applebee’s, golf, and diamonds, millennials are often blamed for taking pet kinship to the next level. Journalists love to argue that we pick pets over people, opt for pets instead of real babies, and put pets first when buying a home — if we’re fortunate enough to afford a house in the first place. These “millennials ruin everything” pieces miss that our generation is having fewer human babies in large part due to financial insecurity, job precarity, student loan debt, high childcare costs, and climate change concerns. These factors collectively have shaped some millennials’ desire and ability to parent.8

Within this trying context, it’s not much of a jump to see how and why millennials outpace other generations in pet ownership.

Furthermore, pets online — from Twitter accounts like WeRateDogs to the Aww Subreddit to the millions of first-person pet accounts on Instagram (including my own pup) — provide a bright spot in a digital world that for all its connection, speed, and wonder also seems to grow more toxic with each passing day. Cute puppy and kitty videos are a salve for the masses, but particularly for this generation. Once forwarded in long email chains, such videos and photos (and GIFs) now circulate in myriad ways. And it’s online that you’ll find those lists of the best doggy Santa photos like this and this.

The chance to take a photo with Santa has long lured shoppers into stores to engage in holiday spending rites. Pet photos with Santa can tell us a number of stories about consumer trends, but also about holiday traditions, social shifts, and definitions of family. As the expansion of pet consumer goods stretches toward the potentially ridiculous, the wish to give gifts, to share experiences, and to spread love, especially at the holidays, only reinforces the social position of pets, whether you call them furbabies or not.

Notes

  1. Nickie Charles, “‘Animals Just Love You as You Are’: Experiencing Kinship across the Species Barrier,” Sociology 48, no. 4 (August 1, 2014): 717. Return to text.
  2. Stanley Brandes, “The Meaning of American Pet Cemetery Gravestones,” Ethnology: An International Journal of Cultural and Social Anthropology 48, no. 2 (July 15, 2010): 99-118–118. Return to text.
  3. Ibid. Return to text.
  4. Consider the helpful literature review in Jessica Greenebaum, “It’s a Dog’s Life: Elevating Status from Pet to ‘Fur Baby’ at Yappy Hour,” Society & Animals 12, no. 2 (July 1, 2004): 121. Return to text.
  5. Yup, Nursing Clio’s resident food studies writer did indeed just make this silky-smooth transition to food! Return to text.
  6. Some of this concern was warranted, given the poor quality and safety of some pet food, as discussed in Marion Nestle, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008). Return to text.
  7. Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston, and Norah MacKendrick, “Feeding the ‘Organic Child’: Mothering through Ethical Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Culture 13, no. 2 (July 1, 2013): 97–118. Return to text.
  8. Anne Helen Petersen addresses this so dang well in her TinyLetter, “Selfishness or Survival.” Return to text.

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