If you grew up with dogs (as I did), you know that something bizarre and sad often happens when a mother dog loses her puppies. With hormones and maternal instinct coursing through her, she will frequently adopt inanimate objects as “replacement-puppies.”

Usually, she chooses something like a boot, hat, or stuffed toy. Mother cats do the same thing, typically with socks. Whatever the object, the animal will carry it around, lick it, attempt to suckle it, protect it, and otherwise pour all of her energy and nurturing instincts into it—often for much longer than she would an actual litter of puppies or kittens.

Something in her brain is soothed by the non-living replacement, but ironically, this replacement-puppy can prevent the mother from trying again to bear actual young. Her instincts are permanently misdirected, wasted on an object that will never be her real offspring.

Even sadder is when humans do the same thing. I’m not talking about mothers who have lost their babies. I’m talking about men and women, especially from the millennial generation, who have chosen to indefinitely postpone having children, yet still feel the unshakeable urge to parent.

This urge is natural. It’s good. It was placed in us to let us know that our reproductive systems are in prime shape to marry, build a home, and raise children. As the father of three, I can also say what a joy it is to feel the tug of those parental instincts and fulfill them as God intended.

But for many in my generation who are also approaching 30, children (and the ideal prerequisite for children, marriage), are still out of the question because they’re too expensive, too time-consuming, and might cramp their style. Those nurturing instincts don’t go anywhere, though. A disturbing number of young adults are directing them toward substitutes—not boots or stuffed toys, but dogs and cats.

The Rise of ‘Fur Babies’

I’m convinced that psychology manuals 200 years from now will identify “replacement-baby syndrome” as a diagnosable epidemic in my generation. For an unbelievable number of millennials, pets’ original purpose—to be shaggy companions and useful partners in work and housekeeping—has been superseded by a role they were never intended to fill: replacement child.

It is now commonplace to hear young people my age unironically refer to their pooches and kitties (I’m horrified to even write this) as “children,” “fur-babies,” “kids,” “girls,” “boys,” or “sons and daughters.” Likewise, it’s not at all unusual to hear pet-owners refer to themselves as “pooch parents,” or “mommies and daddies.”

It’s Hard Work Pretending Animals Are Humans

Maybe not much, because they’re likely very busy. After all, being a “pet parent” is hard work. This strenuous delusion usually involves pretending animals are humans, as with a viral Pinterest post by a woman who huffs, “Don’t say I am not a Mom just because my kids have 4 legs and fur. They are my kids, and I am their mom.”

Millennials, it turns out, are twice as likely as baby boomers to buy clothing for their pets, an industry which, along with other forms of “pet-pampering,” amounted to $11 billion last year, and markets such essential items as pet strollers and pet slings.

Many in my generation naively think of their dogs and cats as “practice babies,” hoping to test the waters of parenthood on a child that won’t resent them for a lifetime or wind up in prison should they fail. Never mind that dogs would probably resent being treated like lab rats if they could understand human motives. Certainly, they don’t appreciate being carted off to the animal shelter when their “parents” tire of them. But how many couples misdirect their parental instincts toward a door-shredding, constantly shedding nightmare and then decide they can’t handle kids?

College Humor provides some much-needed ridicule of this idea, and shows why it’s a sign of a weak relationship more than it is of cautious parenting (if our marriage falls apart, at least only the dog will suffer!). But there’s a more serious and long-lasting consequence of millennials’ choice to substitute babies with animals, even temporarily: They aren’t getting around to actually having babies.

Full story at The Federalist.