Many of us, even the staunchest animal activists, usually take it for granted that keeping a pet is morally acceptable.
Do we really have the right to own our fellow creatures? Are there some animals that should never be kept as pets? Is it okay to declaw a cat, clip a bird’s wings, or dock a dog's tail? These are some of the questions we're asking on this week's show.
Ideally, keeping a companion animal is a good thing that enriches both of your lives. I can’t find fault with someone who adopts an animal from a shelter, and provides care throughout the animal’s life. But many people who keep pets fall short of this ideal.
In worst-case scenarios, people neglect or abuse nonhuman animals in a variety of ways: hoarding, dogfighting and cockfighting rings, domestic violence that targets animals as well as humans. This cruelty toward animals is obviously wrong. But there are a range of less extreme cases that also raise ethical problems.
For example: is it really ethical to keep wild animals as pets? Cats and dogs have co-evolved with humans, but hermit crabs, hedgehogs, snakes, and sugar gliders are adapted to life in the wild, not life in captivity. Someone who adopts a wild animal might have difficulty caring for its psychological needs, not just its physical ones. And the exotic pet trade both removes wild animals from their natural environment, and introduces them to new ecosystems, where they may be highly disruptive (although not all the changes are bad; I believe that San Francisco’s feral parrots make the city a beautiful and interesting place).
What about the ethics of adopting a puppy from a breeder? This seems like a fraught choice, when there are so many shelter dogs in need of families. It’s important to avoid breeders who mistreat their animals. Even if a breeder treats individual dogs well, there are collective problems with overbreeding: Pugs and Bulldogs inherit pushed-in faces that interfere with their ability to breathe; German Shepherds may suffer from hip problems due to the characteristic shape of their hind legs; and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to a condition called canine syringomyelia, which causes severe neck and shoulder pain, as well as nerve damage.
Even if you adopt a domestic animal from a shelter, there are ethical issues to consider. Providing survival, even with a baseline level of predictability and physical health, doesn’t seem like enough. Someone who gives their cat adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care isn’t being abusive, but if the cat is left alone most of time without human or animal companionship, is that really a good enough life?
When is it okay to modify your pet’s body, given that they can’t consent? Hair clipping seems justified (it’s not particularly painful or harmful), and so does spaying/neutering (we wouldn’t tolerate such treatment of a non-consenting human, but failure to spay/neuter pets results in significant animal suffering). On the other hand, I don’t think it’s right to put a cat through a painful and risky declawing operation, even if that would simplify the life of their human companion. (The American Association of Feline Practitioners agrees with me.) Docking a dog’s ears or tail for aesthetic reasons is even less justified; the human interest is trivial compared to the pain suffered by the animal.
Beyond these questions of individual responsibility, I have larger ethical questions about our treatment of pets in society. When I talk about my dog, I sometimes feel tempted to speak of myself as her owner (especially if someone else speaks of me that way, and I’m following their lead). It’s also common to speak of pets, particularly those of unknown sex or gender, as “it.” But this framing feels disrespectful; shouldn’t we think of ourselves as our pets’ caretakers or stewards, rather than their owners, and isn’t it better to speak of a companion as “they,” rather than “it?” I wouldn’t want to slip into thinking that my dog exists to serve my needs, when she’s a living being with needs of her own.
It’s also strange to me that we lavish a relatively large amount of attention and care on domestic pets, while also tolerating factory farming. What makes a pig or a cow less morally valuable than a dog or a cat?
I believe that responsible pet stewardship is possible and valuable, but the bar for responsibility should be set high. I’m excited that Josh and I will get to talk more about these questions with Gary Varner on this week’s episode. I hope you’ll tune in!