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In Malaga province there are now twice as many pets as children

An owner takes his pet dogs through Malaga city in a pushchair.
An owner takes his pet dogs through Malaga city in a pushchair. / Salvador Salas
  • Social changes

  • The number of domestic pets is growing in towns and cities, a phenomenon which sociologists attribute to individualism and loneliness

Pet ownership is a growing social phenomenon. These days, animals are increasingly seen as part of the family, with all the repercussions that go with that. This is a trend common to towns and cities in most developed countries, and Malaga province, including the Costa del Sol, is no exception. In fact, pet ownership has increased so much that there are now more domestic animals in homes in the area than there are children.

Figures from the College of Veterinary Surgeons of Malaga show that 428,779 dogs and 65,784 cats are registered (494,563 in total), which is practically one pet for every three people in Malaga province (1.6 million).

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Statistics (INE) shows a local population of 260,225 children under the age of 14. This means there are 234,338 more animals than children: almost double.

Rural areas have more pets

If we look at Malaga city on its own the difference is not as great, although pets do still outnumber children: 88,179 youngsters and 110,000 animals, which is 20 per cent more. The trend is similar in all large towns, but is more acute in rural areas, partly due to their lower birth rate and also because so many dogs are used for hunting and security.

Why has this happened? Luis Ayuso, professor of Sociology at Malaga University, says this is a very contemporary debate, and he points out that some political parties are now calling for pets to be regulated as family members, with all that that would entail from a legal and judicial aspect.

He points out the growing number of single-occupant homes, "where animals adapt very well as a tool for combating loneliness". This is why a high number of elderly people are now enjoying what he defines as "animal warmth".

Low birth rate

"We are heading towards more individualised societies. In 2050 Spain will be the country with the highest number of elderly people, after Japan. We have the lowest fertility rate in the world," he explains. He also warns of the great difficulties families are having in creating new generations, because more young people are preferring to have pets rather than children.

Combined with the ageing population, there appears to be a progressive evolution towards a "society of emotions", which Ayuso describes as the feelings people experience. "A dog is always delighted to see you, and that makes you feel happy," he says.

He says the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the evolution of this new society. "We have more tools than ever to relate to others these days, whether face to face or digital. We are highly connected, personally and digitally, but our feelings of loneliness are increasing, and that is a very interesting paradox," says Ayuso.

More social awareness

Everything that has to do with pets, from food, hygiene and grooming to healthcare, is a growing business in this crisis. Juan Antonio de Luque, president of the College of Veterinary Surgeons of Malaga, says that in the past decade society has become more aware of animal health and wellbeing, especially for dogs and cats.

"Nowadays, people think of them as another member of the family, and that forces vets to be properly trained and have the latest technologies and knowledge for their treatment and care," he explains.

In the spring, a Law of Animal Wellbeing is expected to be approved in Spain, so this public concern is on the way to being reflected in national laws and municipal bylaws.

Malaga is the Andalusian province with the most vets and also one of the highest number in Spain, a major network which De Luque's believes covers people's pet care needs. There are also five veterinary hospitals in the province.

De Luque also points out that a veterinary career is still one of the most popular with students, and this is leading to more private veterinary clinics starting up. At the same time, more women are choosing this profession: at present 80 per cent of newly qualified vets are women.

People take more care of pets

The fact that a growing number of people are acquiring pets instead of having children also means that they look after their animals as if they were their offspring.

"These families think of their vets as pediatricians, for the whole of the animal's life. They are very loyal to them," he says. For that reason, he is among those calling for the IVA rate to be cut, because it has repercussions on animal health. "If they are considered part of the family, why should people be charged more for their care?" he asks.

Carmen Manzano, president of the 'Protectora' animal shelter in Malaga, strongly objects to the word 'pets'. She says they are members of the family. "What is important is not just loving animals but also respecting them, because if they are respected they will not be neglected," she says. She agrees that there is greater awareness nowadays, especially in cities. "It is much easier, more comfortable and cheaper to have a dog than a child, and they cause you fewer headaches," she says.

This explains why a growing number of young couples are reluctant to become parents, but are not afraid to adopt a dog or cat, because those don't interfere with their comfort and, if their life changes, many still think they can abandon the pet and nothing will happen. "The responsibility people feel for a child is not always extended to animals," she says.

Animals want to be animals

On the other hand, Manzano is critical of the trend in treating pets like human beings. "Animals want to be animals. They shouldn't be dressed up or have their fur dyed. They are part of the family, but that doesn't mean they want to be treated like humans," she says.

She agrees that many people who adopt an animal do so because they are lonely. Most are looking for a small dog, because they live in small apartments and small breeds are easier to handle.

In terms of adoptions, the past year has been marked by the pandemic, because during lockdown they restricted adoptions due to fears that the animals would be abandoned afterwards. The number of pets adopted by people in other countries, on the other hand, has continued to increase.

"Dehumanisation"

"We humanise animals and dehumanise people; as bullfighter Paco Camino said, it is sad to see dogs in houses and grandparents in old people's homes". These are strong words from José María Mancheño, the president of the Andalusian Hunting Federation, who is critical of animal baptisms, birthdays and weddings.

"Many who attack hunting are people who treat their animals like members of the family. We suffer these attacks on a daily basis and they are hurtful," he says.

Mancheño points out that "our dogs are much happier running in the countryside than curled up under a table," he insists.