Pope Francis has criticized “selfish” pet owners who prefer to have cats and dogs over children.

In a speech during his general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, the Pope said those having pets rather than children were denying themselves the “richness” of parenthood and contributing to decreasing birth rates.

He said: “Many couples do not have children because they don’t want them, or have just one because they don’t want any more, but have two dogs, two cats.

“Oh, yes, dogs and cats take the place of children.”

He said the trend was evidence of a “certain selfishness” adding: “It makes us laugh but it’s true. Renouncing parenthood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.”

Pope Francis has spoken out before against pet owners not having children, saying in 2014 it was a sign of “cultural degradation”.

While the 85-year-old has been pictured with animals, he is not thought to have his own pet. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, is said to be fond of cats.

Talking of a “demographic winter”, the Pope called for couples who can’t have children to be open to adoption.

“This kind of choice is among the highest forms of love, and of fatherhood and motherhood,” he said. “How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them?”

He also argued for the simplification of adoption procedures “so that the dream of so many children who need a family, and of so many spouses who wish to give themselves in love, can come true.”

His comments were criticized by the Italian-based International Organization for Animal Protection, which said: “strange to think that the pope considers the love in our lives limited quantitatively.”

Its president, Massimo Comparotto, said: “It is evident that for Francis, animal life is less important than human life. But those who feel that life is sacred, love life beyond species”.

The Argentine Pontiff has long spoken with concern about birth rates in the developed world. Italy’s birth rate has fallen to the lowest since the country was unified in the 1860s, according to national figures.

In 2008, more than 576,000 babies were born compared with 405,000 last year, according to Italy’s national statistics agency.