It’s the era of pampered fur ‘babies’

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Two of Naomi Mutua’s pet cats. Many youngsters have taken to keeping pets in their houses ranging from kittens to puppies. Photo credit: Daily Nation.

I always tried to leave work a little early. I would opt out of evening engagements and would not dream of taking an out of town trip without making plans for somebody to take care of her.

At least not when she was so young. I bought special food along with my weekly grocery shopping.

I worried about toilet training and too much versus too little stimulation, and when she was sick I had a doctor on speed dial.

I don’t have a baby. At least not a human one. I had a kitten. Her name was Mouse, and she had more personality in her little paw than most people develop their entire lives.

Sadly, Mouse died on Thursday.

I adopted Mouse seven weeks ago, joining the ranks of millennials who choose to keep pets as significant markers of adulthood.

GLOBAL TRENDS

We might be getting married later in life or not at all, we might be delaying childbirth in favour of building careers and we might never own homes given the current state of the real estate market.

But we are keeping pets, perhaps more than our parents did, if global trends are anything to go by. Instead of the pitter-patter of children’s feet on the floors of our small apartments, you are more likely to hear the scurrying about of cats and dogs.

Although there are no local statistics, global trends indicate that the demand for pet food in developing countries is growing faster than in western economies.

According to data in the US pet food market, for example, developing countries now buy 10 per cent more pet food than they did 10 years ago.

People have said owning a pet is the millennial version of dodging parental responsibility, especially when you are at an age where everyone seems to worry about when you will get a spouse, children, a house among other ‘signifiers’ of adulthood.

DIFFERENT LIFE

Somehow, if you do not have these things by the time you are in your late 20s, it is time to call an intervention and save you from a life of perpetual singlehood, which is equated with misery.

What baby boomers, our parents, do not seem to understand is that we were handed a whole different deck of cards than they were.

In their early 20s and while on their first jobs, they could afford to get married, have children and buy homes. Life is very different for us.

Unemployment rates keep going up, even as more of us get university degrees. And once we finally secure jobs, we are often underpaid and overworked, making barely enough to live by.

So, yes, we will delay parenthood, it only makes economic sense. A friend once said that looking at her payslip every month was effective birth control – she just could not imagine bringing a child into the world on the little money she took home every month.

Pets, therefore, might not be a replacements for children, but they make perfect “practice” babies. If you are inclined towards starting a family, successfully taking care of your furry friend prepares you for parenthood in some important ways.

When I got Mouse, for instance, I was aware of the very real financial and social responsibilities of sharing my home with a pet.

Keeping pets costs money – they need food, kitten litter, vaccinations and spaying. Most of all, they demand attention, and patience, and care; a lot of the emotional labour that you would have to perform for a child.

COSTS

She was a big responsibility that demanded financial sacrifices on my part, as well as the emotional capacity to take care of an animal that relied on me for basic needs.

Cats are famously independent and there are studies to suggest that they would fare just fine without human care as long as they had access to food and water.

And with Nairobi’s numerous dumpsters, food would be no problem. But it was comforting to know that Mouse, for the most part, chose to stay in my house because she wanted to (I’m a better option than a random alley).

And as long as she was in my house, she deserved care.

Kenya does not have any official statistics on pet ownership, but anecdotal evidence suggests that more of us are choosing to share our homes with pets, and choosing to take care of them in ways that our parents did not. Basically, we are attaching sentimental value to something that was once taken for granted.

We all remember the village dogs we threw stones at, or the cats we kicked.

“The older generation had no time for pets, they were pragmatic . A dog guarded homes and cats ate mice. There was no sentimentality like today,” says Dr XN Iraki, a senior business lecturer at University of Nairobi.

FUR ‘BABIES’

He explains that the shift in how we perceive pets will lead to more people getting pets, and spoiling them rotten.

“Millennials have fewer responsibilities and fewer children, therefore, they have have more time for pets. Their parents have invested more in them and they have more disposable income to use on luxuries like pets. The fact is that pets are the new measure of coolness,” he tells the Nation.

Moses Wanderi, 29, is a newly minted cat lover, and as sentimental as they come about his fur ‘babies’.

“I was apathetic about animals. They looked good from far, with other people, but it was never for me. Then my sister got a cat and left her in my care. And that’s how Twinkle Toes came into my life. She is here to stay,” he says.

Twinkle just had four kittens (Mouse was one of her kittens), and Mr Wanderi says the most notable change in his life has been an increased food budget.

“I now spend Sh150 more on food every day for the cats. They eat omena and meat. I don’t buy commercial feeds for them,” he says.

Mr Wanderi reports being more responsible than before, and having to factor in the cats into the decisions he makes.

“For instance, I can’t just leave without making arrangements on how they will be fed and watered, and who will change their litter and ensure that they are generally okay. It’s almost like having a child,” he says.

PARENTHOOD

He, however, doesn’t have to deal with the constant question about parenthood that many cat lovers, I included, gets thrown at us. They vary in degree of offence and usually look like:

“Is your cat a replacement for a real child?”

“Have you now become a cat lady, giving up all hope of a husband and children?”

“What if your potential mate doesn’t like cats?”

A lot of these questions are designed just to bait us, and are as a result of the “lonely cat lady” stereotype that has become entrenched into popular culture.

As with all stereotypes, it is lazy and largely inaccurate. I have developed stock answers that communicate that I am in no way interested in responding to invasive questions from perpetual strangers, based on only one life decision: “No, it is not. It’s better as it requires far less attention or money than a child.”

“Yes, because science has proven that you cannot have both a husband and children, and a cat. The world would explode.”

“Then what business does he have trying to be my potential mate?”

Naomi Mutua, an ailurophile – if there ever was one – confesses that she, too, often has to fend off questions from people who make assumptions about her just because she owns cats.

“People think that I am substituting humans with cats which is untrue. My rejoinder every time is ‘what makes you think that I can’t have both? Besides, my cats are family, and anyone who comes into my life must be ready to share it with them,” she says.

She owns four, although the number of felines in her house depends on how many others she is fostering at the time. “I foster a lot of cats as they await adoption so currently there are seven cats in my house. They are always coming in and out so the number is never constant,” she adds.

EXPENSES

As you can imagine, the food costs for her cats are quite high coupled with healthcare expenses, loving so many furry ‘babies’ comes at a price.

“I spend about Sh9,000 on cat food a month, since I buy commercial cat food, which I supplement with meat. Vet costs can easily cost up to Sh50,000 a year, when you factor in vaccinations and medicines when they fall sick,” says Ms Mutua.

Cats, or any pets, really, are clearly not only a labour of love, they are a drain on the wallet.

It is probably because of these expenses that Dr Iraki thinks that pet ownership could be a viable indicator of upward socio-economic mobility.

“Pets are expensive to maintain so only those high in the social-economic ladder can afford this. Dog food often costs more than human food,” he says.

In this way, he says, pets become measures of self-actualisation because we acquire them after satisfying basic needs. “You can’t buy a pet when hungry. The fact that they are up the hierarchy of our needs means they reflect some aspect of self-actualisation,” he says.