He had over a dozen servants (who bathed and fed him), he wore fine pearl necklaces, and his owner wanted to name him consul of the empire. His name was Incitatus, Caligula’s favorite racehorse, according to Suetonius, a first-century AD historian.
The Roman emperor treated his horse extravagantly. Those were times when animals were given human privileges.
Almost 2,000 years have passed since then. Currently, history is repeating itself in Mexico, where pets are cared for inappropriately. Here’s what the experts have to say on the subject.
The projection of desires
According to Luis Daniel Alviso de la Serna, a neuropsychiatrist at the Manuel Velasco Suárez National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery (INNN) in Mexico City, the phenomenon of humanizing pets is a form of projection through which some people are trying to fill a void in their lives.
“It’s a behavior of excessive love towards animals in which it’s not possible to differentiate between human beings and pets,” he says.
This is how people try to transfer affection for someone they desire to an animal they have at their side.
“Certainly, it’s important to give pets all the affection you can, but that’s completely different to thinking you should treat them as you would a child, for example. Identifying this often won’t depend on the person who is experiencing it, but on those around them,” explains Alviso de la Serna.
Humanizing animals means not identifying their own needs. It means not being able to distinguish the limit between what the owner wants for the animal and what the animal’s nature actually requires.
“The humanization of pets isn’t classified as a pathology, because one characteristic of this is that it causes a dysfunction, which isn’t apparent in people who have this behavior,” explains Alviso.
However, if the animal’s needs are analyzed, it can be seen that there’s a problem stemming from an alteration in their owner’s behavior.
“So, it’s important to talk to these people not so much for their own good, but for the good of the animal,” advises Alviso.
Only (dog) children?
According to Iker Asteinza, veterinarian and director of Animal Home, a pet hospital located in Mexico City, the most frequent mistake made by human beings is providing an unbalanced diet to their pets, supposedly to pamper them.
“I’ve seen people give chicken legs to Chihuahuas, which weigh three kilos, when an eight-year old child would be satisfied with the same piece. So, the weight is totally out of proportion with the small dog’s size,” says Asteinza.
Some owners also tend to imagine that their dogs are sad and so they administer substances for human use.
“So, you see poisonings with medicines such as ibuprofen or aspirin. This can even cost the lives of the animals,” warns this director.
According to Asteinza, people want to take care of their pets so much that they lose the capacity to interact, which is why veterinarians are seeing more and more dogs that aren’t very good at socializing with other people or with other animals.
“Something similar happens with overprotected only children. When they go to a party, they find it difficult to get involved with other children,” he explains.
What’s more, the main reason for taking dogs for a walk has to do with them exercising and socializing. This is lost when they go outside as if they were human babies.
“Taking a dog for a walk in a stroller is to fulfill the fancy of owners who want to show off their dogs, but without them exercising or anyone interacting with them. Without a doubt, dogs would be much happier walking and sniffing than being in a stroller,” asserts Asteinza.
Furthermore, this is inconvenient because their feet need daily contact with all types of surfaces.
“Pets come to us with very long ingrown nails because they don’t have the natural wear and tear necessary as a result of walking,” states Susana Acosta, an animal care expert at the Kiin Veterinary Hospital.
As for grooming, it’s generally advisable to bathe dogs once every two months, according to Acosta.
“Nevertheless, we have met owners who bathe their dogs daily and this leads to them developing atopy (inflammation of the skin), allergies, and very dry skin. This is because bathing so often breaks the normal and healthy lipid layer of dogs, which helps prevent infections or irritations,” explains this specialist.
According to Iker Asteinza, dogs don’t require clothing, and this can provoke reactions such as hives or itching. He adds that putting clothes on dogs has more to do with the owner’s fancy than with what pets really require.
“Dogs are used to withstanding certain temperature changes, especially in Mexico City where the climate is mild and where no dog needs support from any extra clothing,” he states.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
In the current pandemic, Asteinza has observed a greater number of cats that have had more problems from being at home all the time with their owners.
“People who are still working from home are spending more time with their cats, but they’re not used to so much cuddling or hugging. So, we’re seeing more cases of felines with stress-related illnesses such as urinary tract obstruction and aggressive behaviors,” he says.
While in the case of dogs, which do feel very happy spending time with their owners, the opposite of what happens with cats is occurring now that people are gradually going back to work outside the home.
“As they spent so many months living day and night with their owners, dogs resent the change and present problems of separation anxiety,” comments Asteinza.
The attachment that certain people have to their pets is such that, for example, when a veterinarian injects their dog, causing it to yelp, they accuse them of animal abuse and question the professionalism of the expert.
“They don’t realize that, just as it’s normal for some children to cry when a doctor injects them, the same thing happens with the dogs under the care of the veterinarian,” highlights the director of Animal Home.
Anthropomorphizing their pets means that owners fail to fulfill their obligation to keep them in good health. This phenomenon is also considered “animal abuse” according to international standards applied in veterinary hospitals throughout Mexico.
To be more in contact with the public and to let them know what’s best for pets and how to choose a good veterinarian, Asteinza has collaborated in the creation of the Mexican Association of Veterinary Hospitals (AMHVET), which he expects will be officially launched next year.
He mentions that AMHVET will contribute to reducing abuse disguised as love towards pets in Mexico. This is something that’s happened at least since the time of Emperor Caligula, who ended up having Incitatus cruelly killed because he lost a race on the imperial racecourse.