Pet Dress Up: Cute Or Cruel?

17/08/2011 11:57 | Updated 22 May 2015

It seems our obsession with cuteness has reached new heights. Particularly the kind of icky cuteness (is it just cute? Or is something slightly pathological going on here?) that comes from dressing our pets in ridiculous ensembles. And then broadcasting the results on YouTube.

I say pathological, because looking at these videos often leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I appreciate the adorable animal and then think, "Wait a minute, is this monkey/bird/cat/dog enjoying this or feeling completely miserable right now?" I think about how I would feel in some of those ensembles and considering I'm a human being who's used to getting dressed on a daily basis and I still feel I wouldn't like them, I can't help but wonder if our obsession with the cute (and generating a massive fan base on the internet) is just plain cruel.

Here's an example: VICE's latest book release, Fashion Cats by Takako Iwasa, features adorable kitties bedecked in Victoriana bonnets, tulle wedding veils and Anne of Green Gables wigs. It's already garnered close to 100,000 hits on YouTube, with the comments below the video clearly delineating the two sides of the issue. One camp maintains that this is the apex of the adorable, while the second uses terms like "animal cruelty" to describe the imagery, writing that the cats look like they want to kill themselves.

So which is it? Gussied-up animals are everywhere you look online and in your local bookshops these days (if you're a dog person, you may enjoy Hipster Puppies), and people are clearly intrigued. While lots of these animals are undeniably adorable beyond words, there is something rather preposterous (humiliating even) about seeing them wearing what is so clearly unnatural. (Yes, we can blame Hollywood for the whole pets as accessories phenomenon, too). It's almost akin to us being broadcast in our knickers. Would we be happy about that?

And it's not limited to pets. Other creatures unable to offer a firm objection to what they're wearing - babies - also get dressed up and shoved on YouTube aplenty (or even turned into collector's prints and calendars - just look at Anne Geddes' work). While I'm pretty sure that donning a flower suit aged three-weeks won't scar you for life, once baby is able to object, maybe 10 or 20 years down the line, perhaps he or she will. I don't think documenting your child in ridiculous ensembles is cruel, but I'm also not sure that using "But you were just so cute" makes up for having one's bottom displayed across the internet, and by default, the globe.

And what about those who will never be able to vocalise their objections? While I personally find the whole idea of animals in fancy dress ridiculous and often perverse, I too, find myself oohing and aahing at the Fashion Cats video. They're so cute! And they don't seem unhappy. So maybe putting period costume on a kittie isn't all that bad...

The RSPCA disagrees. A couple of years ago, the organisation started threatening legal action against those who over-dress their dogs (a well-fitted coat for cold or wet days is allowed), saying it could interfere with their normal functioning. If your animal tries to free itself from its taffeta outfit and views it as a stress-inducing, oppressive, device, there is no question that the cruel factor outweighs the cute one.

The ASPCA also issued guidelines on how to dress your pet for Halloween - as it turns out, there's a lot to consider to get that utterly adorable photo and not harm your pet in the process. Cossies can be dangerous if there are any small, dangling bits (choking hazard) or large dangling parts (the animal could trip); it's also a problem if they're too constrictive (interferes with movement), cover the face or ears (interferes with hearing, breathing, barking or meowing) and if they cause overheating.

A responsible owner will be aware of all of these issues and ensure that their pet's comfort outweighs their need for a photograph. However, when an owner is willing to invest the time and effort that it takes to dress their pets up, I think that belies the right intentions (kind of like a funny way of showing someone you love them?)

As photographer William Wegman, who's elevated the idea of dressing up pets to a high art form using his Weimaraners in various states of dress as models, has said: "The cruel thing is to neglect the dog, to not work with them. Anyone who's watched us work sees that the dogs perform willingly. Sometimes they're blasé about it, and sometimes they're excited or enthusiastic, but they're not afraid."

Animals (and small babies) aren't dolls, and shouldn't be treated as such, but it is important to remember that what they live for is attention from their owners, lovely treats, family time and yes, maybe being fawned over just a little. That's not a crime. So in my view, it's far better to stick a hat on your pet and spend time with them than to leave them unclothed and alone. Of course, you don't want to cause undue stress, so don't do it if your pet doesn't love it.

Confession: I am not a pet dresser-upper, but I did buy a Gucci monogrammed cap for my bulldog. Before I bought the actual dog. He's never worn it and now he's too big for it, so he never will. But you won't be seeing him on YouTube in a pirate's outfit anytime soon - I can tell he's not a fan of fancy dress.


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