I am not a pet person. I am horribly allergic to cats and dogs and have never had one. I live in a city where dogs outnumber children. I am constantly having friends show me pictures of their pets or tell stories about them. They sometimes refer to them as their kids, and I can see that they are disappointed that I don’t show the same interest in them as I do pictures and stories about friends’ actual human children. But honestly, I don’t know what to say in their pet sharing. Any good go to pleasantries you can recommend to keep me from being an asshole in these situations.
The first thing that flashed in my mind when I read this was:
I’m not going to get into a long discussion about whether pets are closely comparable to “actual human children” (but stay tuned – an essay on this is coming soon), but for people who are responsible for keeping a fluffy animal alive, their pets can take a significant part of their focus and time, and often bring them joy and heartache.
So, just like someone who is brimming with love and just must share a picture or story about their child, some adult humans will feel love about their pets and want to share that with their friends. You seem to understand this, as your question wasn’t “how do I get them to shut up.” As someone responsible for keeping two cats alive, I appreciate that.
I think those of us without kids – or those who find all kids except their own annoying – have faced the same thing you’re dealing with, only with the circumstances reversed. I’ve listened to many stories about cute things children have done that I don’t find cute, and been similarly flummoxed by how to respond in both an honest and not insulting way.
First (and I think this is the hardest part for me), try to get past any eye-rolling or physical demonstrations of annoyance that you find manifesting when people in on a story about their pet. You can always complain about this later to someone else who gets it (leaving out specifics, because you’re trying not to be a jerk).
If a friend chooses to show you a picture of their pet, try making a generic but true comment. When Suzy whips out her phone and says “Look at this amazing costume I got for Molly,” revealing a black lab dressed as Wonder Woman, you can respond with “You seem to really dote on her.” Also, a well-placed “oh buddy!” can work wonders. You don’t even have to say “what a cute dog” or any other statement that doesn’t feel true to you.
In my experience, pet owners aren’t usually expecting to engage in extremely long stories about their pets with people who don’t also have pets. They might have one good anecdote, or a recent pet health scare they want to share with a friend, but they generally tend to stop after one tale.
Just treat it like any other story a friend might tell you that you can’t relate to – smile (or frown, as the circumstances dictate), and offer up a couple of kind words such as “that sounds rough” or “I’m really happy for you!” Because you should be happy for them, if they’re happy. We don’t have the share in the interest to express joy for a friend who has found something she loves (unless what she loves is fascism).
I don’t think you should worry about having to come up with sufficient responses or equivalent anecdotes – just listen because you know it is important to your friend that someone hear it. It’s enough to acknowledge the furball; ideally the furball’s caretaker will find that sufficient and move the conversation along.
If you get pushback, you can decide how much you want to dig in on this. Your friends should read the room – are they really interested in getting into a long discussion with a friend about pets vs. tiny humans? Maybe if they are your closest friend – those relationships are meant to be places where we can have disagreements and push back on opinions to get to deeper understandings.
But regardless, you’re allowed to say “cats and dogs have never really been my thing” and expect that to be enough. You aren’t being a jerk by offering that up when pressed. Again, we don’t all have to like the same things. Even though we’ve been socialized to think that people who don’t fawn over babies OR puppies should not be trusted, everyone – pet owners and parents alike – need to accept that this is not the case. If your friends can’t do that, that’s on them.
So, briefly: smiling, making a generic comment, and letting them share an anecdote before steering the conversation to another topic should be fine if your friends aren’t assholes.
[Of course, if they show you a picture of a pet parrot, you’re allowed to smack their phone away, because fuck birds. Seriously, they’re the worst. Don’t email me.]