According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. In the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports the same. Many of these owners view the millions of birds, cats, dogs, rabbits and other Nonhuman Animals sharing their homes as family members. Although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.
Pet-keeping as a Social Injustice
The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of Nonhuman Animals’ bodies, behaviours, and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal bodies (particularly that of dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies, often causing these animals considerable physical harm. Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects, while highly prized physical features (such as small stature or pushed-in noses) can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing, and other normal functions.
Even those Nonhuman Animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede on their comfort and safety, such as confining clothing, painful leashes which pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing (which entails the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats). Nonhuman Animals confined as pets are also constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, oftentimes restricted indoors, and always at the whims of human desires.
Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged powerful groups. This has implications for vulnerable human groups as well. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets (‘kitten’, ‘bunny’) and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch. Social workers also recognize the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The notion that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups, in other words, is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.
Companion Animals Cannot Consent
Through the forced dependency of domestication and pet-keeping, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons including behavioural ‘problems’, simply belonging to a stereotyped breed or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid-20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a total institution as one in which inhabitants are cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space in which natural barriers between social spheres artificially eliminated and an intense socialization process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.
Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums, and other physical spaces as examples, but I argue that pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed total institution whereby Nonhuman Animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and resocialized. True consent is not possible under such conditions; Nonhuman Animals are groomed to participate and those who are likely to be punished (sometimes fatally).
This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats, and other species cannot express love and happiness as ‘pets’, but it is important to recognize that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour ‘corrections’ and through the manipulative process of domestication itself.
A World without Pets?
Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of Nonhuman Animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.
To his credit, Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations such as PETA which frequently support ‘euthanasia’ policies to curb pet populations. If a no kill society is reached, however, many of the ethical violations previously discussed (bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse) would remain even if, as Winograd supposes, increasing legal protections could be obtained to improve their standard of living.
In short, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated ‘pet’ animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.
Although I suggest that it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of Nonhuman Animals for human comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect, and care for them. Recognizing the inherent inequality in human/nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
This essay originally appeared in The Conversation on April 25, 2019.
Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.