In a rundown park in the shadow of Rome’s Colosseum, Eleonora Venturelli takes her dog Maya for a walk after finishing a day at nursing school.
She says if Maya needed more – an emergency visit to the vet, for example – she wouldn’t hesitate to drop everything, as she would if a member of her family needed her. “Maya, for me she is as important as my mother, as my father,” says Ms. Venturelli.
“I’m an only child. She is like my sister, though she is better than a sister,” she says with a wry smile. “She is a sister who doesn’t speak.”
The place of pets in the family hierarchy is on Italian minds – after a university employee was granted a paid sick day by her employer to care for her English Setter earlier this fall. The situation became the talk of water coolers in a nation still reeling from high unemployment and years of austerity, where nevertheless dog ownership is growing and demographics are expected to keep that trend robust. Ultimately the decision reflects a shift in mentalities about the rights of animals versus the responsibilities humans bear in caring for them.
“In most countries animals are considered chattels, they are simply possessions,” says Daniel Mills, a professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln in Britain. But that is starting to shift in many countries, he says, as animals are starting to be seen as members of society who are not fully autonomous, like young children or the very elderly. Increasingly, he says, “animals fit like that, that we actually have a responsibility towards them as society.”
That is what the Anti Vivisection League (LAV), an animal rights group in Italy, argued in the situation of the employee at Sapienza University of Rome, named in the Italian press only as Anna. The group pointed out that Anna would be held liable if she failed to care for her sick pet, since under Italy’s penal code those who abandon an animal to “grave suffering” face jail time and hefty fines.
“It is a significant step forward,” said LAV President Gianluca Felicetti in a statement, which noted that the university's decision to grant paid leave recognizes pets as “members of the family.” Anna's situation did not go through the courts, but the group nevertheless called it an important “precedent.”
Pet ownership continues to grow in most emerging and developed markets, according to Euromonitor. So does pet “humanization,” the market research provider notes in a 2016 report, “as the companionship provided by pets, particularly cats and dogs, appears to address a fundamental psychological need in many people as society becomes more urbanized and atomized.” The level of dog ownership in the US increased from 36 percent to 37 percent between 2011 and 2016. In Italy, 23 percent of households had dogs in 2016, according to figures from Statista.
And companies are taking note. One of the best examples is the Scottish company BrewDog. On its staff benefits page, alongside offerings of private healthcare or parental leave, is listed “pawternity,” a week off for owners who take on a puppy or rescue dog.
Camilla Pagani, a social psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome who has studied relationships between youths and animals, says she sees societal attitudes towards animals softening as part of a civil rights movement. But the case at Sapienza has been controversial because of the hard economic times. “People are quite worried about themselves,” she says, “and they don’t feel like taking care of animals.”
Dr. Mills has done cost-benefit analyses with his team at the University of Lincoln, and he says that while pet ownership is often discussed in policy terms as a drain on public resources – when there is a rabies outbreak, for example – he says that studies show pets providing potential health benefits that represent savings. “In this period of austerity rather than seeing companion animals as a luxury and a burden on society, there is probably a real opportunity to rethink the way we do things.”
That might include new housing with space for residents to walk dogs, which fosters community relations, he says. Dr. Pagani says that demographic forces in Italy – low birth rates with smaller families like Venturelli’s, coupled with an aging society – could give pets a more prominent role.
That's true for Mauro Giansanti, on a recent fall day at the Colosseum park where he takes a walk every day with his dog, Yuma, a boxer.
Mr. Giansanti wasn’t always a dog owner. He decided to take the plunge only at retirement, even though his wife worried the dog would be too aggressive. Now Yuma has found her place in their family. “Yuma is like my daughter,” says the father of three grown sons. Still, not all is quiet on the home front. “Now my wife is jealous of her.”