The Case Against Pets

5 minute read
Jessica Pierce is a bioethicist and writer. She is the author of multiple books, including A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans, which Marc Bekoff co-authored.

By day, go to any park and you’ll see dogs walking their humans and playing fetch. At dusk, cats perching on window sills are increasingly catching our eye. And in the dead of night, children continue to be woken as pet hamsters rattle around in their cages. Our love affair with pets has never been more fully on display.

The numbers bear this out. More than 1 billion animals are now being kept as pets around the world, with half of all households having one. In the U.S.,where pet-related spending topped $100 billion in 2021 for the first time ever, that figure climbs to a staggering 70%.

Conventional wisdom is that more pets equals more happiness. The expansion of pet keeping is a sign, the pet industry says, of an expanding love of animals and an expanding circle of overall happiness. People are happy because they have animal companions. Animals are happy because ... well, we don’t ever really ask this question. If we did, we might not like the answer.

The truth is that pet keeping often causes significant harm to animals. And as an ethicist, I am deeply alarmed about the continued growth in pet keeping around the world.

The many harms of pet keeping

Some harms are what you might call attitudinal. In buying and selling animals, and in using them for our own gratification—whether to provide amusement or emotional fulfillment, or to make a profit—we are treating them as objects, not subjects; as commodities and not as living beings with inherent value. When an animal is a product, it becomes difficult for us to appreciate the experiential world of the animal from their own perspective. We think about how our pets make us feel, not how our keeping them as pets makes them feel.

Other harms are more direct. A robust scientific literature leaves no doubt about the anguish pets experience. Physical confinement, social isolation, and chronic exposure to stress—the hallmarks of captivity—can lead to measurable physiological damage, including loss of neural plasticity and a long-term activation of the fight-or-flight response, which can affect immune function, increase the risk of chronic disease, and shorten lifespans. The psychological anguish of captivity manifests in certain harmful behaviors called stereotypies, like a ferret pacing back and forth in her cage, a parrot plucking out all her feathers, or a dog “air-snapping” or obsessively chasing his tail.

Read More: How Smart Is a Dog Really? The Secrets of a Canine Mind

At a systemic level, the industry accepts significant animal suffering and mortality as part of its business model. One 2014 investigation of a major exotic pet wholesaler in Texas found that 80% of some 26,400 animals representing 171 species were “grossly sick, injured, or dead.” Ethically, consuming pets is not so different from consuming meat: you have taken the life of an individual animal, and you have chosen to participate in an industry that imposes suffering on living beings. A large commercial puppy or kitty mill or a warehouse full of snakes, geckos, and other small critters waiting to be shipped to pet stores isn’t so different from a gruesome factory farm. If you want to enjoy your pet/steak, best avert your eyes.

Even the billions spent on pet products every year mostly undermines animal welfare. Some pet spending goes toward welfare promoting goods, such as veterinary care. The lion’s share, however, is on products like junk food, shock collars, bark deterrents, and cages and tanks. The marketing of these products with catchy labels like “hamster hotel” or “hamster habitat” can make them seem benign. But imagine spending your whole life in a space not much larger than your body, with no meaningful work, no meaningful social interactions, no species-appropriate sensory stimulation, and no way to engage in behavioral patterns for which you have evolved over millennia? It would be torture. Humans and animals are not so different in how they respond to captivity.

Dogs are perhaps the least captive pets. They are well-adapted behaviorally to sharing domestic space with humans and can have experientially rich and satisfying lives in our homes, sometimes with a high degree of freedom. Yet pet keeping practices seem to still be taking a toll on them. Dogs experience social isolation, lack of behaviorally appropriate sensory stimuli, physical confinement to small spaces, forcible restraint, and other issues. Veterinary research has found that roughly three-quarters of all dogs are suffering from anxiety severe enough to compromise quality of life—sad evidence of the felt effects of captivity.

Finally, and no less crucially, there are the climate impacts of pet keeping. A 2017 study, for example, estimated that the meat-heavy diet of dogs and cats in the U.S. is roughly equivalent, in terms of carbon emissions, to nearly 14 millions cars on the road. Like industrialized animal agriculture, industrialized pet keeping occurs at a scale that is ecologically unsustainable.

A way forward

Is it possible to form companionable relationships with animals without causing them or the planet harm? Certainly. But it would look very different from our current practices. Human-animal ties would be mutual and freely chosen—friendships, not ownership. Captivity would no longer be the central mechanism holding animals within a human’s orbit. Reducing the number of pets around the world, mitigating the worst impacts on animals already living in captivity, and making their physical and emotional flourishing our top priority can get us closer to the goal.

People who love animals are, ironically, also the people who wind up with pets. (I am guilty as charged.) But we need to consider the possibility that loving animals points us away from pet-keeping and toward different kinds of friendships with animals. Ones that don’t treat animals as commodities, don’t involve captivity, and don’t cause suffering.

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