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Are You Ready for the Grandpets?

The holidays are a time for family — and that often includes ‘fur babies’

spinner image children coming home to visit bringing their pets
Illustrations by Serge Seidlitz

Penelope Lemov has four grandchildren, but it feels like six. “Our children’s pets are members of their families, and we have to treat them that way,” says the 84-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland.

Pets fulfilling the role of children was first noticed in the 1980s, says Shelly Volsche, a Boise State University anthropologist. But the trend has grown. She knows “pet parents” in their 60s who never had children but have largely treated their pets like kids.

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And more people are choosing to remain childless these days; among 18- to 49-year-olds who don’t have kids, 44 percent say they’re not too likely or at all likely to ever have children, the Pew Research Center found. And a 2022 study from ConsumerAffairs notes that 58 percent of millennials prefer having pets to children.

Pet parents may choose to stay home from work when their pet is sick, whip out the credit card for pricey vet bills, set up playdates or buy high-priced pet food and bring their pets on vacation or to visit family.

This can create some family tensions, especially among older people who had a different relationship with their pets.

“It’s not as clear-cut as ‘Millennials are crazy,’ which we sometimes hear,” Volsche says. “It’s more a matter of society providing opportunities beyond getting married and having children. Companion animals can be a good middle ground for some.” 

Philip Tedeschi, founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, knows how this works. At gatherings with his three adult children, there are as many dogs on hand as people, so he's used to the pet-human dynamics at the holidays.

Here are six grandpet visit tips from Tedeschi and Volsche - to keep everyone out of the doghouse.

Arrange for a calm entrance.

Animals can get overwhelmed. Greet the pet individually in the backyard or another placid environment.

Prepare a refuge.

Make the room where the pet is staying peaceful. If possible, your child should bring the pet’s bed, for familiarity, or at least some favorite toys. Let a dog decompress there for 30 minutes before rejoining the gathering, Tedeschi advises. Allow cats more time to acclimate.

Request a heads-up.

Ask your child, “Can you call us ahead when you’re half an hour away?” Tedeschi says. That will give everyone at the gathering enough time to prepare for the pet’s arrival.

Adjust to the pet’s routine.

This is one area where a grandpet may really be like a grandchild. It’s best to keep a pet on a familiar schedule as much as possible. If a dog is used to taking a walk in the morning, accommodate that.

Talk it out.

Communicate with guests ahead of time to make them aware that a pet will be present, and assess everyone’s comfort level.

Respect the pet owner.

Volsche’s top tip is not to judge how your child treats a pet. And little efforts matter, she says. For example, Volsche’s mom avoids putting garlic seasoning on part of the holiday duck so her child’s pet can have some, as garlic can be toxic for dogs and cats.

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