Cute outfits, birthday parties and luxury daycare, the last two years have given rise to a new, spoilt breed of dogs. Christobel Hastings investigates the rise of the pampered pooch.
It’s an ordinary Wednesday night and I’m scrolling through Instagram, looking at photos of a glossy-haired cavalier King Charles spaniel. There are shots of it swaddled in blankets and being pushed on a swing. It poses with a pink-frosted birthday cake – presumably, its own – and frolics in a paddling pool. The one that holds my attention the most, however, is a gallery of the dog rolling through the park in a pushchair like an actual baby. It’s captioned ‘They see me strolling’, and it’s seriously adorable.
The star in question is Coco, aka @littlemisscoco_thecav, a pup with an enviable wardrobe and thousands of followers. Her “mummy” is 36-year-old Holly, a writer who lives with her husband in London and brought Coco home in March 2020. “She’s our little fur baby and we adore her,” Holly says. They do everything together, including frequenting their local coffee shop. “The staff fetch Coco a blanket and give her toys. I have a latte and she has a puppuccino.” For the uninitiated, that’s whipped cream served to spoilt dogs in a coffee cup.
Holly isn’t alone in her puppy infatuation. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 3.2 million UK households have acquired a pet, and there are 18.5 million photos tagged #furbaby on Instagram. Supermarkets have warned that the “unprecedented” boom in pet ownership may cause a shortage of some dog and cat food products. Interestingly, the rise has been driven by Gen Z and millennials, with 59% of new owners aged between 16-34, and 38% of them claiming their pet is just like having a new baby, according to a survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.
Take a quick scan of social media, and you’ll notice that it’s also this generation behind the increasing “baby-fication” of our pets. Where we once tutted at 00s paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and her pampered chihuahua Tinkerbell hanging out of a Louis Vuitton bag, today you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a photograph of a dog in a baby grow on your Instagram feed or a friend’s announcement that she’s a “dog mum” now. It’s little surprise, then, that the market for pampering pooches is booming: take Dandie Dog Café in north London, which opened its doors at the end of last year to provide everything from shepherd’s pie cupcakes to bespoke yoga classes for its four-legged visitors, or luxury daycare centre Urban Mutts, with its puppy social club and spa facilities. There is even a newly opened private members’ club for dogs in south-west London called WagWorks – and there’s already a waitlist, of course.
If you’re among the millions of people who suddenly found themselves working from home in March 2020, it’s not hard to see why the pandemic sparked a surge in pet ownership. Cooped up and craving companionship, a four-legged friend offered homebound workers comfort and distraction as well as an excuse to go out for a daily walk, something 30-year-old Erin discovered with the arrival of her sausage dog Milhouse in March. The main reason for getting a puppy, she explains, was to give her partner, an NHS doctor on the frontline, a boost after a long shift. But Milhouse enforced some much-needed work-life balance, too. “He’s helped us prioritise what’s important and keeps us grounded,” she says. “Even on the grimmest, darkest days he never fails to make me laugh, and the time I’m out and about with him is when I stop looking at my phone and just take in my environment.
If you’ve noticed that interacting with a dog perks up your day, you’re also not imagining it. A study from Washington State University discovered that stroking a dog for 10 minutes can decrease your heart rate and blood pressure and cause your muscles to relax. “Research has also shown that if you look into a dog’s eyes, this positive effect is compounded by the release of oxytocin, the love hormone,” explains psychologist Dr Soph Mort, author of How To Be Human. More than that, some experts believe our desire to look after cute animals is innate. “In 1943, the Nobel prize-winning zoologist Konrad Lorenz put forward the idea of kindchenschema. He believed that when we see certain infantile characteristics, an innate desire to take care of that infant is activated,” adds Dr Mort. “Research has shown that puppies have similar effects on us. Their large eyes and heads that seem slightly too big for their bodies reportedly triggers kindchenschema, which is why so many of us see a pup and find ourselves suddenly wanting to care for and nurture it.”
This ability of adorable animals to bring out our maternal or paternal instincts goes some way to explaining why some see pets as pseudo children. In fact, research shows that many millennials are delaying actual parenthood in favour of a pet these days. According to a new poll from Legal & General, dogs have become a midway point for those looking for an addition to their household, with nearly 70% of 25-34-year-olds claiming they got a dog during lockdown as a substitute for a baby. With financial instability, inaffordable housing and pandemic isolation playing a part in the baby bust – the UK’s birthrate dropped a further 4% last year – it seems that pet ownership is fast becoming a social experiment.
“I think so many people, myself included, aren’t quite ready for the next stage, whether it’s for money reasons or because there are other things we’re waiting on,” says Erin. “Having a pet is a way of trying parenting on to see how it suits you, and I think for a lot of people who might live far away from their families, it’s also a way of having a similar familial bond.” While Erin and her partner have had to make more of a conscious effort to go on dates where the focus is on them (“otherwise our conversations start to centre around the dog’s routine”) the arrival of Milhouse has made the couple feel like a family. “I’m definitely maternal towards him; we’ve raised him from a tiny puppy and he depends on us, so I do consider him to be a little furry child. Before I became a dog owner I never thought I’d be that person, but here we are.”
To truly understand why we’re making our dogs their own Instagram accounts and carrying them around in baby slings, though, we have to look at what makes millennials unique as a generation. The fact is, our life trajectories – and opportunities – are far different from those who came before. One in five women is now childfree by midlife, and 80% of the time it is because of circumstance, rather than infertility, according to data from the ONS. A recent YouGov poll uncovered that one of the most common reasons for people choosing not to have children is that it is simply too expensive.
“For many, delaying those steps – putting down roots and nurturing another human – isn’t out of choice. It is because those milestones are out of reach. And in this case, a pet is a wonderful intermediate step,” says Dr Mort. Psychotherapist Glenda Robert says that over the past two years, she’s observed a rise in couples using pets as a stepping stone towards children, and due to the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, these attachments have become significantly deeper. “Some millennials have built such a bond with their pets that it can lead them into making a decision to not replace their pet by having a child at all, as they view pets as having fewer needs than a baby – they’re less complicated to care for.” That’s not to say the edict to return to the office hasn’t brought a new set of complications for pet owners, with rescue shelters reporting a surge in dogs looking for adoption in recent months. Meanwhile, bosses have realised that “pawternity leave” and allowing dogs at work are now prized benefits among a dog-infatuated workforce.
Millennials are also known to be the most anxious generation, with diagnoses of generalised anxiety disorder more than doubling from 9.08% in 2008 among those aged 25 to 34 to 21.69% in 2020, according to ONS. But thanks to trials of emotional support dogs and office pets, many of us are now well aware of the soothing effects of being around furry friends. Holly, who has a number of rare health conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, says Coco has been a “huge boost” to her mental health and given her a sense of direction in her recovery. “She gets me up each day, gets me out for fresh air and is amazing company,” she says. For Erin, too, a perk of buying a puppy was feeling less isolated and more connected to her local community. “We have a local Hackney WhatsApp group for all the miniature dachshunds in the area, so it’s been great for getting to know our neighbours,” she says. “It’s been the biggest unexpected highlight.”
When it comes down to it, the past two years have been bleak and often lonely, and dogs – whether it’s our own, a friend’s or simply those we see on our daily walk – have given us reason to smile. An endless source of unconditional love, they shower us with affection, keep us active and ensure we take a moment to stop and smell the flowers. So, really, who’s pampering who?