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So there are some old articles, like this one, which have discussed how pets (especially small pets) are on the rise with young adults, while birth rates are down. This talks about how delaying having kids is a short-term/ individual win for the family, as mothers' income increases every year she delays getting pregnant, but then the long-term effect is a society strained with many more old people than young (for one).

While of course correlation isn't causation, I can easily see how the desire for establishing a solid career before starting a family & feminism & hustle culture & the eco-crisis, how all of these issues and more could make young adults more apprehensive about starting a family & decide to postpone it. Yet, there is still a biological urge to parent, and so in comes the fluffy ball of joy. The pet/ pet services industry is growing so so much.

Are there researchers that have investigated this trend/ cluster of behaviour, and what conclusions (or initial observations) have they come to? I know there are studies that tackle parenthood and pets as a whole, but that is not what I'm looking for. I don't think simply aggregating all families can lead you to any useful conclusions since it conflates different scenarios & motivations. It's like saying everyone earns an average of $100k/ year, when some make millions a year and others are dirt poor. I'd be specifically interested in research where they tried to isolate this pets-as-kids cluster.

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Short answer: A full substitution isn't really the prevailing view among researchers, but a partial substitution is possible in some cases.

While it's tempting to think that an increase in pet ownership may contribute to the decline in fertility rates in many developed nations, the available data suggests that it's more likely that having fewer children simply leaves more resources (time, attention, money) available for parenting pets, as it does for many other leisure activities that are equally on the rise.

However, as suggested, there are many different reasons for pet ownership, and no doubt among some subset of adults, pets fulfill certain needs that might otherwise be fulfilled by children, such as emotional, social, and self-esteem support, and possibly the need to nurture, protect, train, or otherwise parent.

There are several good literature reviews that consider this question specifically, and are worth a read if you are interested in in-depth analyses. Note that evidence is relatively sparse at this time, so conclusions are by no means definitive.

Volsche (2019): Understanding Cross-Species Parenting: A Case for Pets as Children

Though child-free pet parents are highly engaged, invested, and bonded with their pets, this should not suggest that they are confusing pets for children. Though Veevers (1980) found that there are those within the child-free community who engage in pet parenting as a substitution for human children, she warns that the “fur baby” stereotype is less common in practice; a vocal minority within the population.

Serpell & Paul (2011): Pets in the Family: An Evolutionary Perspective

Among the Bororo people of central Brazil, ownership of pet macaws is almost entirely limited to women, and the standard Bororo explanation for why some households keep more of these pets than others is that these are the homes of women who have previously lost many children (Crocker, 1977).

These authors review several reasons for pet ownership, including parenting practice, and finding mates, both of which might contribute to (rather than reduce) fertility rates.

Aruah, Ezeh, & Tom (2019): Relationship between Pet Ownership, Pet Attachment and Decision to Have Children among Single People in the United States

Although the want for children has reduced, the need to love and have a companionship has not. Human beings still crave for someone to care for and nurture, and so they acquire pets. ... animal companionship can provide a sense of nonjudgmental social support, a form of support that can be difficult for people (including supportive spouses or friends) to provide and for some, pets may become like surrogate friends, mates, or children.

There is also an interesting study by Hahn, Wang, & Yang (2013) that considers actual causation (rather than just correlation) by checking the effect of abortion legalization - a policy change that resulted in fertility decline - on pet ownership:

... abortion legalization raised the probability of owning pets by 15 percentage points for working women, but by only 8.8 percentage points for women not in the labor force.

These results suggest that pet ownership is more affected by wealth than child rearing, as non-working women - despite having more free time - did not increase their pet ownership as much as working women following the legalization of abortion in their state.

We find that the demand for pets is affected by liberalization of birth control methods, suggesting a substitutable property of pets for children.

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From what I've seen, in my view, the answer is a simple yes.

As for studies, there is an article in Psychology Today which cites a particular study called 'Interspecies Parenting: How Pet Parents Construct Their Roles'.

Links to both below:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/head-games/201903/why-some-people-think-pets-children-and-others-dont

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322261554_Interspecies_Parenting_How_Pet_Parents_Construct_Their_Roles which can also be viewed at https://doi.org/10.1177/0160597617748166

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    $\begingroup$ Just as a tip when linking to journal articles, while researchgate is providing a free access to the pdf, the link may break and therefore a doi address will provide a reliable link for those occasions. $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2021 at 8:32

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