Meet the people who view their pets as ‘substitute children’

As the world becomes a more uncertain place, birth rates are dropping.

From despair about the state of the environment to infertility, there are many reasons why people might not have biological children of their own – whether through choice or not.

And, increasingly, pets – or ‘fur babies’ as they are sometimes referred to – are becoming an alternative for people who want a place to direct their love and caring instincts, that doesn’t involve bringing human offspring into the world.

This is not a selfish act in any way – despite what Pope Francis might have to say.

‘It makes sense that certain people just don’t feel that connection with having children,’ psychologist Emma Kenny tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Maybe it’s to do with feeling responsible for the planet, maybe it’s just because they want to prioritise themselves.

‘It could be because it’s costly, or they want to focus on their career, or they just don’t want to.

‘Whatever the reason, they certainly shouldn’t feel guilty.’

There is nothing selfish about taking on a pet and giving it a good home, and your unconditional love, agrees Sally Baker, senior therapist at Working on the Body.

The reasons for getting a pet are vast. ‘Pet ownership has gone up over the course of the pandemic because we are all more isolated,’ says Sally. ‘Pets keep us company, and love us unconditionally.’

‘Animals always need you, whereas children won’t,’ she adds. ‘Children change, animals don’t – you always know what you are getting with a pet and taking care of them is very rewarding in so many ways.

‘In a complex world full of complicated relationships that are often conditional, pets cut through that – and just love you unconditionally, every day.’  

For some people, pets are the children they weren’t able to have.

Tracey Morgan lives in Shrewsbury with her boyfriend and their 12 rescue cats.

‘I’m so angry about the Pope stating people are selfish for having pets instead of kids,’ she tells us.

‘I am 43, all my life I’ve wanted children but sadly due to health issues – severe endometriosis – I am not able to have them.’

Tracey and one of her 12 cats (Picture: Tracey Morgan)

Tracey has always been a huge animal lover and now has a house full of rescue animals – taking on abandoned animals who need help arguably being one of the least selfish things a person can do.

And it comes with benefits for all.

‘They are my family,’ she says. ‘They make my day, every single day.

‘They had been let down badly by humans, so the fact I can look after them, love them, and keep them safe, is a huge privilege.

‘I suffer with my mental health so my pets help me no end with unconditional love and give me a reason to keep going. I honestly think if I had no one to look after I wouldn’t be here.’

Emma explains that pets have a huge benefit for our mental health and wellbeing – and often provide a place for people who are looking for somewhere extra to put their love, but can’t have, or don’t want children.

‘Most human beings have a need to direct their energies positively towards others, whether that’s humans or animals,’ she says.

‘I think that responsibility and purpose is good for the human psyche: If you feel responsible for something you have a level of purpose, and when you have purpose, you have meaning, and life feels worthy. 

‘Lots of us use animals that way, as we have this overflow of positive love and we don’t want it to go to waste.

My pets are 100% children to me as I’m unable to have my own

‘Mentally and physically there is so much evidence that  dogs, cats and other animals reduce stress, make us happier and healthier, and enable us to feel that we have meaning in this world.’

Karen Rhodes, 43, lives in Suffolk with her husband, Bill and is a proud pet-mother to two dogs, Bertie and Arthur. An animal lover though-and-through, she also runs Luxury Dog Hampers, a company that does what it says on the tin.

Karen wanted to have children but has unexplained infertility and underwent three rounds of IVF, which were sadly unsuccessful. Her dogs mean everything to her.

‘My first dog Bailey was so important to me when I first started my IVF journey,’ she says. ‘If I hadn’t had him I would have definitely suffered with depression.

‘He was a constant comfort and would rest his head on my lap when I was feeling down.’

‘Sadly he’s no longer with me and losing him was like losing a child. I still struggle with the loss of him, which was nearly two years ago.’

Karen says that her dogs are 100% her children (Picture: Skip50)

However, shortly after Bailey passed away, Bertie and Arthur came into her life.

‘They are my world and I try to take them where ever I go,’ Karen says. ‘I’ve even cancelled plans if they’re not able to come with me.

‘They bring me so much joy and happiness and have given me a reason to get up and out of the house when I feeling low.

‘They are 100% children to me as I’m unable to have my own. They’re so spoilt and I spend more on them than I do myself, just like others spend on their children.’

Karen says that she thinks the Pope’s comments were hypocritical, asking: ‘Didn’t he not have children so he could serve God?’

‘Thinking back, I’m glad I’m child-free now, she adds. ‘The thought of bringing a child into this world terrifies me.

‘I think the Pope should consider how overpopulated we are and how the human race is decimating our planet, that’s much more important than the small percentage of people owning pets instead of having children.’

Some people, like James Kerslake, 42, living in North London, haven’t found themselves in the right place, at the right time, to have children – and so have made the decision to get a dog instead, to fulfil a desire to have a familial relationship.

Loki has become James’s best friend and long term companion (Picture: James Kerslake)

James tells Metro.co.uk that he came out of a 12-year relationship without having had a family or married, and found himself single at 40.

Having just launched his cocktail business, he realised that having kids might not happen for him, despite the fact that he would have liked to.

‘I didn’t want to miss out on being a father, as I felt this is a relationship I wanted to have in my life,’ he explains.

‘So I made the big decision to get a dog and experience at least that sort of parental moment – after being a lifetime cat person. And now me and the dog are inseparable, and he’s my life – just like a child.’

Loki – who James describes as ‘absolutely crazy but amazing’ is a cross between a pomeranian and a husky. After being thrown in at the deep-end, having never had a dog before, Loki has had a hugely positive impact on James’s life.

Originally from New Zealand, James doesn’t have any family in the UK, or many friends who he still see – so he spends the majority of his free time with Loki, who is more than ‘just’ a dog to him.

‘When I think about places to go away for weekends and trips this year, I’m thinking about dog friendly places, hotels by the sea, where we can go together and enjoy it together,’ he notes.

‘He’s definitely not a “pet”, but more a proper companion who I love spending all my time with – just like if I had a romantic partner in a long term relationship.’

‘It was a huge step at first,’ he adds, ‘with the potty training, all the other bits of training, sleep patterns, etc, it was like having a baby. There were lots of sleepless nights.’

James tells Metro.co.uk that he thinks the Pope’s comments are: ‘textbook of his generation of antiquated, self-entitled thinking that humans have’.

‘It’s fairly universally accepted now that the world is massively over-populated, and humans are having an intensely detrimental effect on the planet,’ he says.

‘In order to live in balance with the world around us, our population needs to be limited. People choosing pets over kids is one way of achieving this, without enforcing any draconian measures such as one-child-rules, and people are choosing this of their own free will.’

Founder of Dotty 4 Paws, Kate Taylor, 44, from Wiltshire argues that looking after dogs is just as much of an undertaking as raising a child.

‘Pope Francis may refer to us childless folk as selfish,’ she says.

‘He may imply that we are shirking our responsibilities to society and taking the “easy option”, but I’d argue that raising a dog properly takes just as much commitment as raising a child. In some ways more.’

Kate with her fur babies, ‘Gertie and Poppy’ (Picture: Kate Taylor)

‘Dogs rely on their owners for everything, just as a young child does. The difference is a dog is never going to grow up and fly the nest.

‘When you welcome a puppy into your life you are committing to nurturing that animal for potentially 20 years plus.’ 

Kate has two cross-breed terriers, Poppy and Gertie, who she has had since they were puppies.

‘Poppy in particular has been my rock throughout some very distressing events in my life,’ Kate adds. ‘She has provided comfort and given me strength where friends and family were unable to.

Kate says that she ‘shamelessly’ considers these dogs to be her children. ‘Dogs are the family that I would choose,’ she says. ‘They provide unconditional love, are always grateful, always happy, and always pleased to see you. How many human children can you say that about?’

It wasn’t by choice that Kate and her husband didn’t have human children, she explains, adding: ‘Life doesn’t always turn out how you planned it’.

‘I’ve learned to embrace life with my dogs, appreciate what I have and make the most of it. I wouldn’t change my life for the world.’

My dog really does mean everything to me

It’s important to recognise that it’s not just people who haven’t been able to have kids who view their pets as ‘substitute children;. For many, having children just didn’t appeal to them – and loving an animal instead is what they’ve chosen to do.

As Sally points out: ‘You should only have children if it’s something you’re sure you want to do. It’s a huge undertaking and, while rewarding for many, it’s not for everyone – and that’s not something that should ever be questioned.’

This was the case for Niki French, 52, who lives in Twickenham with her boyfriend of six years.

‘I chose not to have kids,’ says Niki. ‘I simply never felt a maternal urge.

‘I have two lovely nieces, and being the fun auntie is awesome, but I never wanted my own.’

She has, however, been ‘animal mad’ her whole life. ‘The unconditional love you get from a dog is so pure,’ she says.

Handsome Bodie, who is nicknamed ‘Lemon Juice’ (Picture: @jorobbensphotography)

Until recently, Niki couldn’t own a dog, due to the commitments of her career. However, she quit her sales and marketing job three years ago to work with dogs – setting up her business Pup Talk.

Shortly after, Niki and her partner got Bodie, their three-year-old collie lurcher cross, from Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. Niki describes him as ‘a wonderful ball of energy and over-excitement’ and says that he is ‘so gorgeous, he makes your eyes hurt’.

‘He really does mean everything to me,’ she shares. ‘Every day he makes me laugh.’

And pets aren’t the ‘selfish’ option – they come with many sacrifices, and lifestyle changes, in order to properly care for them. Niki knows this all too well, saying that she and her partner arrange their life around Bodie. ‘We have changed our life to make it as easy for him as we can,’ she says.

‘It means social occasions are only possible if we have a friend that can come round and be with him, if we’re out for more than four hours or so.

‘My partner Ash is the lead singer in a band and I used to go with him to every gig. Now I stay at home with Bodie.’

While a popular choice, it’s not just cats and dogs that can be fur babies.

Rabbit babies having Christmas dinner (Picture: Zoe Crowther)

Zoe Crowther, 24, is a journalist from Nottingham, who now lives in London. She has two rabbits, Truffle and Daisy, who she considers to be her ‘own little children’.

‘Growing up as an only child with a single mum, I’ve had rabbits since I was about eight,’ she says. ‘As I’ve got older, they’ve gone from being fluffy siblings to my own little children.’

Zoe explains that the rabbits have been such a comfort to her family, through the most difficult of times.

‘They made us laugh with their unique personalities, they gave us something to talk about when we were all cooped up indoors, and they were there for us to mutually love.’

Of the Pope’s comments, she adds: ‘I think as a society we focus too much on what animals can do for us and not enough on what we can do for them.

‘Both our rabbits are rescues and I can’t think of anything less selfish than taking on animals who have been mistreated and are in need of a home.

‘There are so many reasons why people might not be able to have children or might not want to.

‘Having a pet is still a big commitment and people should do their research to make sure they can give them a good life. If they can, the rewards are endless.’

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