The Guardian Study: 
An Examination of the Attitudes, Perceptions and Behaviors
of Companion Animal Guardians and Pet Owners

Overview

FIREPAW, Inc. designed and conducted a national study examining the social and personal factors surrounding the movement to change the language from pet "owner" to that of "guardian.” The project surveyed members of the pet-owning public on their attitudes, perceptions and behaviors regarding their companion animals, their positions on the guardian-owner issue, and their beliefs, both for and against changing the language from pet “owner” to “guardian.”

Also examined were what, if any, benefits participants perceived would result from changing the language from companion animal “owner” to “guardian.” The focus of the study was to examine the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of those animal caregivers who consider themselves "guardians" and those who consider themselves their pets’ "owners". The study sought to determine whether there were statistically significant differences between these two groups and what, if any, those differences were. The results of this research study statistically demonstrated distinct differences between these two groups in terms of the way they thought about and behaved toward their companion animals. Additionally, there emerged statistically significant differences between these two groups in their responses to the perceived benefits and shortcomings of changing terminology from companion animal “owner” to “guardian.” Additional insights were uncovered for those animal caretakers “on the fence”, reporting that they considered themselves to be both “owners” and “guardians.”

Research Results

Beliefs about the Benefits of Changing Terminology to “Guardian”

How do owners, guardians and hybrids compare when it comes to their beliefs about the benefits of changing the language from pet “owner” to “guardian”?

The survey asked participants to respond to four possible benefits of changing terminology to “guardian” and to choose all the statements they believed to be accurate. Participants were also given the opportunity to choose the option that they see no convincing reason to change to the term “guardian.”

The most convincing reason(s) for changing to the term “guardian” is…

It will increase respect for animals, thereby reducing animal cruelty.
Of the participants identifying themselves as owners 13% responded they believed this was a convincing reason for changing terminology to that of “guardian.” Of the participants identifying themselves as guardians 81% thought this was a compelling reason for changing the language to “guardian” and 64% of respondents identifying themselves as both owners and guardians (hybrids) believed this a convincing reason for changing the language to “guardian.” The difference between these groups in terms of their belief that using the term guardian will increase respect and reduce cruelty toward animals was highly statistically significant (X˛= 98.87; df = 2; p < .0001). Overall 63% of the study group and 46% of the comparison group said they thought this was a convincing reason for changing to the term guardian.

It will create an increased sense of responsibility, thereby reducing the number of abandoned, unwanted animals.
Again, a sizeable number of owners (18%) said they believed this was a convincing reason to change the terminology to “guardian.” As expected, there were many more guardians (86%) who thought so. There were 61% of hybrids who thought this was a convincing reason to switch to the term guardian. The difference between these groups in terms of their belief that changing to the term guardian will increase responsibility and decrease abandoned pets was highly statistically significant (X˛= 107.44; df = 2; p < .0001). Overall, 67% of the study group and 52% of the comparison group said they thought this was a convincing reason for changing to the term guardian.

It will teach children and adults that animals are sentient beings with feelings and preferences, thereby increasing better treatment of companion animals. 
A surprising 22% of owners responded that they believed this a convincing reason for changing to the term guardian. Of the guardians 85% thought this a convincing reason, as did 66% of the hybrids. The difference between these groups in terms of believing that changing to the term guardian will increase appreciation that animals are sentient beings, leading to better treatment was highly statistically significant (X˛= 93.97; df = 2; p < .0001). Overall, 69% of the study group and 53% of the comparison group said they thought this was a convincing reason for changing to the term guardian.

It teaches people that animals are not objects or property and that they are dependent on us to care for them. 
Again, a surprising 18% of owners believed this was a convincing reason for changing the language to “guardian.” A much larger 90% of guardians and 66% of hybrids believe this is a compelling reason to change to the term guardian. The difference between these groups in terms of believing that changing the language to “guardian” will teach people animals are not property and are dependent on humans was highly statistically significant (X˛= 127.61; df = 2; p < .0001). Overall, 70% of the study group and 59% of the comparison group said they thought this was a convincing reason for changing to the term guardian.

I see no convincing reason to change to the term “guardian.”
Not surprisingly, the majority of owners (76%) agreed with this statement. Only 4% of guardians agreed with this statement. For hybrids, 30% responded they believed there was no convincing reason to change the terminology from “owner” to “guardian.” The difference between these groups in terms of believing there are no compelling reasons to change to the term “guardian” was again highly statistically significant (X˛= 148.96; df = 2; p < .0001). Overall, 24% of the study group and 35% of the comparison group said they thought there was no convincing reason for changing to the term guardian. 

Discussion

The present study offered scientific validity to issues that previously have been limited to only anecdotal observations. The most meaningful finding was that there appears to be clear differences between those who consider themselves to be owners of their pets and those who consider themselves to be animal guardians with regard to their attitudes about their own pets, their beliefs about companion animals in general, and their treatment of their companion animals. Also of interest was the emergence of a third group—those people who consider themselves to be both owners and guardians. Those people who consider themselves both owners and guardians (or hybrids, as they were referred to in the present study) were by and large far more similar to guardians in their attitudes, beliefs and treatment of companion animals than they were to owners. 

How do the owners, guardians and hybrids stack up with how they obtain their pets? The results indicate that owners are far more likely to purchase their animals than either guardians or hybrids as well as to be more likely to have offspring from their animals. Guardians and hybrids are more likely, according to the results, to adopt their animals or to take in stray animals than people who consider themselves to be owners. 

When it comes to treatment of their companion animals guardians and hybrids were far more likely to spay-neuter their pets and far more likely to register their pets than owners. Guardians and hybrids in the present study were more likely to have identification on their pets and less likely to have lost their pets than people who consider themselves to be owners. Guardians were also less likely to have relinquished a pet for personal or family reasons than owners.

Guardians and hybrids were far more likely than owners to permit their pets to live indoors with the rest of the family. Additionally, guardians and hybrids were more likely than owners to treat their pets as actual family members through such actions as celebrating pets’ birthdays, giving gifts to their pets, and signing pets’ names along with other family members on greeting cards. For those who had an album, guardians and hybrids were more likely than owners to have pictures of their pets in the family photo album, and were more likely than owners to take their pets along on family walks, picnics, outings and vacations. Guardians and hybrids were also more likely to express affection toward their companion animals than were their owner counterparts.

When it comes to attitudes about the family pet the distinctions continue. The results appear to indicate that guardians and hybrids are more satisfied with their companion animals than are owners. Additionally, the results indicate that both guardians and hybrids are more likely than owners to believe that their pets are full-fledged members of the family and far less likely than owners to view their pets as property. And finally, guardians and hybrids were far more likely than owners to be attached to their pets and to identify with their companion animals.

How did the groups stack up with regard to what they think about companion animals in general? The results of the present study indicate that relative to their owner counterparts, guardians and hybrids are more likely to disapprove of long-term chaining of dogs and keeping animals living in cages, more likely than owners to insist on spay-neutering of pets to reduce overpopulation, and more likely than owners to believe that viewing pets as possessions is wrong. Guardians and hybrids were also more likely than owners to believe that de-clawing cats for the convenience of people is wrong and less likely than owners to believe people should not be so concerned with protecting companion animals. And finally, guardians and hybrids were more likely than owners to believe people must help animals because they are helpless and depend on us and more likely than owners to believe that animals are sentient beings with needs and interests of their own.

When it comes to the movement to change current terminology from animal “owner” to “guardian”, again the distinction between owners and guardians was striking. In the present study guardians and hybrids were more likely than owners to believe that the term guardian makes a statement about responsibility, respect and compassion toward companion animals, and that the term guardian reminds people animals are dependent upon them which will ultimately foster better care for pets. Guardians and hybrids were more likely than owners to believe that when people think they own animals it can increase the incidence of abuse, neglect and exploitation of companion animals and that the term “owner” makes it difficult to hold people accountable for neglecting animals. Guardians and hybrids were also more likely than owners to believe that teaching children to be guardians rather than owners of pets will inspire compassion and reduce mistreatment of animals and that people who consider themselves guardians are less likely to abandon or relinquish their pets. All of these differences were found to be statistically significant.

Not surprisingly, the groups differed in their beliefs about the benefits of changing the terminology from pet “owner” to “guardian.” When it came to the most convincing reasons for changing to the term “guardian”, guardians and hybrids believed far more often than owners that changing to “guardian” will increase respect for animals, reduce animal cruelty, increase a sense of responsibility, reduce abandoned and unwanted pets, teach people that animals are sentient beings and not objects and will increase better treatment of animals overall. Likewise, the majority of owners said they believed there were no convincing reasons for changing the terminology to “guardian”, differing significantly from their guardian and hybrid counterparts.

The groups also differed in their beliefs about the shortcomings of changing the language from pet “owner” to “guardian.” Owners were far more likely to believe that the campaign to change the terminology to “guardian” is just more social engineering for political correctness than either guardians or hybrids. It should be noted that while the differences between these groups was highly statistically significant, nonetheless nearly a quarter of guardians and over half of the hybrids said they believed the guardian movement was just political correctness and will not actually help animals, acknowledging that this was an issue that concerned them.

Owners also tended to more frequently believe that changing to “guardian” was an unimportant and trivial issue. Again, while significantly more owners believed this to be true than guardians or hybrids, there were still one-fifth of hybrids who said this was a concern for changing to the term “guardian. Additionally, far more owners than either guardians or hybrids tended to believe that a change to the term “guardian” would cause confusion about who is responsible for pets’ care, may lead to limitations about the ability to buy and sell animals, and may cause pets to be seized by the government.

A surprising 15% of owners said they have no concerns about changing the language to animal “guardian.” While significantly more guardians and hybrids said they have no concerns it is noteworthy that so many self-described “owners” appear open to the change. Equally noteworthy, one-quarter of guardians and one-half of hybrids said they do have concerns about changing to the term “guardian.”

The most frequently occurring objection to using the term guardian was that the term is simply more political correctness and will not help animals. This issue clearly appears to be the greatest stumbling block that needs to be overcome for “owners”, with over two-thirds of owners indicating that this was an issue for them. In fact, it was the only objection that was marked by a majority of owners. It was also clearly the most prevalent objection to the guardian campaign among people who considered themselves “guardians”. Nearly a quarter of the guardians indicated they had this concern—more than triple the amount that marked the next most common objection. The second most common concern among both “owners” and “guardians” was that it was an unimportant and trivial issue. On the other hand, very few people were concerned about the government seizing pets or limitations on purchasing animals occurring as a result of the guardian campaign. Interestingly, the various perceived benefits to the change in terminology showed much less differentiation than the concerns, with respondents selecting benefits with roughly the same frequency. Among “owners”, the most commonly acknowledged benefit was that it would teach people that animals are sentient beings.

Read the Guardian Campaign Mission Statement & Goals