FurBaby Evolution ?

I know what MY puppies would do to this pink crib/crate bumper set...

Where does this Furbaby, Pet Parent thing come from?

What causes humans to anthropomorphize to such a level that it seems caring and right to line dog beds with pink appliqued baby bumpers instead of clean straw? To project their own emotions, culture and interpretations onto domesticated animals? According to pet industry surveys, just over half of pet owners will buy their pets a Christmas present this year. While I’m quite sure dogs enjoy novel stimuli and interaction as much as anyone, I feel pretty sure they still have a religious belief structure that does not yet embrace Christmas! Advertisers, having already conquered our children, have turned to our pets in the hopes of wresting yet another dollar out of our pockets. Given the FurBaby climate, I’m sure we’ll all be a bit poorer soon!

What is it about dogs that turns us so mushy?

The lead article in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine , entitled “Can the Bulldog be Saved?” shines some light. It was, generally,  a rather predictable discussion of how damaging breeding for extreme traits is to purebred dogs ( I must agree), but the bit of the article I found relevant to the Furbaby issue is this comment by a Bulldog owner:

…the breed brings out a particularly strong parenting instinct in many people. “Even as adults, bulldogs look almost infantile — like plump little babies,”

It was followed by this from James Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

Serpell says that our human tendency toward anthropomorphic selection — which he defines as “selection in favor of physical and behavioral traits that facilitate the attribution of human mental states to animals” — is partly responsible for the modern bulldog’s predicament.“We have, to some extent, accentuated physical characteristics of the breed to make it look more human, although essentially more like caricatures of humans, and specifically of children,”

Interestingly, the author goes on to observe:

Advertisers and animators have long recognized that giving an animal big eyes and a big head is a surefire way to endear it to humans. When Walt Disney created Bambi, the studio wanted the character to be an accurate depiction of a deer. But when the original Bambi sketches were deemed not “cute” enough, Disney shortened Bambi’s muzzle and made his head and eyes bigger.

I have often noted that it seems as soon as a breed splits into working and companion lines, the muzzles shorten, backskulls broaden and limbs thicken. The tendency towards neonatal traits often includes lower set ears, larger eyes and a more dependent personality. A study on the domestication of the Silver Fox introduced an intriguing discussion on the possibility that the gene mutation that allows domestication ( not all animals have it) carries with it the genes for these more juvenile body types – a domestic phenotype, if you will.

These excerpts from a National Geographic article on the domestic Fox farm research project encapsulate the idea

Domesticated animals are known to share a common set of characteristics, a fact documented by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. They tend to be smaller, with floppier ears and curlier tails than their untamed progenitors. Such traits tend to make animals appear appealingly juvenile to humans. Their coats are sometimes spotted—piebald, in scientific terminology—while their wild ancestors’ coats are solid. These and other traits, sometimes referred to as the domestication phenotype, exist in varying degrees across a remarkably wide range of species, from dogs, pigs, and cows to some nonmammalians like chickens, and even a few fish.

Fascinatingly, researchers working on the domestication project found that…

 Selecting which foxes to breed based solely on how well they got along with humans seemed to alter their physical appearance along with their dispositions. After only nine generations, the researchers recorded fox kits born with floppier ears. Piebald patterns appeared on their coats. By this time the foxes were already whining and wagging their tails in response to a human presence, behaviors never seen in wild foxes.

Some domestication researchers believe all these changes are linked solely to the gene mutation, while others point to what they believe is the unavoidable influence of the human handlers in choosing future breeding stock for the project.

Why do we see these physical changes so drastically in the dog and less so in other domesticated animals? In a 2004 Nova article, A Potpourri of Pooches,  I found this explanation…

Another part of the reason is that dogs’ bodies, particularly their skulls, undergo a major transformation between newborn and adult. (The skulls of newborn cats, by contrast, are already of adult proportion, which, along with less zealous breeding, may be one reason why the domestic cat is not nearly as motley as its household nemesis.) These physical changes are wrought by genes turning on and off at different times. By toying with the timing of nasal growth and other stages of development, breeders have engineered an assortment of canines worthy of the creative powers of Maurice Sendak.

While I have no issue with breeds being developed both mentally and physically to best suit their jobs, it is clear we have to be vigilant to avoid extremes that may compromise quality of life. I think this must include special attention to understanding and respecting what comprises a normal, healthy social and behavioral life for our pets. It just may include snoozing under the porch and rolling in deer poop –  which does do such a number on those cute pink dresses, darn!

3 thoughts on “FurBaby Evolution ?

  1. Really meaty column! I have seen some of those programs on the wide variation in dogs and how it came about and about the research at the Russian silver fox farm and been intrigued. It was also interesting to see that the argument for nurture–wolf pups taken at birth and raised by researchers could only behave somewhat like a domestic dog up to a certain age–didn’t hold up in explaining canine domestication. That seems to deflate the belief that so many folks have that wolves can make good pets if raised correctly. Love this topic. Keep on writing!! Gayle

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