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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals


“Pet” is probably the term employed by most people to refer to the animals who share their homes. I use that word in the book’s title because it is both familiar and obvious. But although in common parlance we often refer to “people and their pets,” I have chosen to place “pets” before “people” to indicate both the book’s philosophical focus and the importance of the animals whom we call our pets.

What exactly is a pet? “Pet” can be a term of endearment, and in most cases its use reflects genuine love and attachment. Nonetheless, the word is not unproblematic, and some of the contributors to this anthology choose not to use it at all.

To start, we could define a pet, perhaps perversely, as an animal whom meateating human beings would, for moral reasons (and other things being equal, that is, absent extreme conditions of famine), regard as unthinkable to eat.1 Indeed, there is often an outcry in North America when dogs, for example, are used as food in some Asian countries, yet from the vast majority of North Americans there is no similar outcry when pigs, cows, or chickens are eaten—even though some pigs, cows, and chickens are occasionally treated as pets. This difference in reactions raises questions about the nature of the distinction between pets and non-pets, and why many people eat other animals who happen not to be classified as pets.

Pets are, uniquely and virtually by definition, not consumable items because we do not eat family members,2 the beings who share our homes and lives. Significantly, the many meanings of “pet” include “[a]n indulged, spoiled, or favourite, child”; “[a] person who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favourite, esp. in a way that others regard with disapproval,” and “[a]n animal (typically one which is domestic or tame) kept for pleasure or companionship.” A pet is also “[a] sweet, obedient, or obliging person.”3 Thus to call an animal a “pet” simultaneously expresses both fondness and condescension. It suggests a hierarchical relationship of a particularly insidious kind, in which the animal so labelled is both singled out for special favor and also expected to be submissive and obsequious.

Indeed, the label “pet” implies dependency; the pet is “kept,” which means that she is maintained and supported at the whim of the person by whom she is kept. Consider one of the standard questions between individuals getting to know each other: “Do you keep any pets?” Pets are certainly loved—the adjectival version of “pet” is defined as “[s]pecially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness; favourite; (also) particular”4—but the concept suggests they are maintained (and retained) at the favor of the persons to whom the “pets” belong. (Here the analogy that comes to mind is a “kept woman,” whose food and shelter are supplied by someone who expects sexual services in return.)

To be kept implies being used by or being in the service of those who do the keeping. But under what circumstances, if any, is it justifiable to use companion animals for entertainment, work, therapy, comfort, commercial benefit, or even sex? In her chapter, “Companion and Assistance Animals: Benefits, Welfare Safeguards, and Relationships,” Jean Harvey opens the book with a critique of the still-prevalent view that animals may be put to a variety of human uses, provided only that their welfare is protected.

Numerous kinds of animals are compelled to play the role of pets, including gerbils, hamsters, fish, birds, rabbits, lizards, turtles, skunks, pigs, and many others. Whether it is justified to “pet-ify” (to coin a term) all of these animals is questionable, since many of them are by nature not constituted to be the in-house companions of human beings, and so to force them to be pets is to mistreat them and likely cause them suffering, all in the interests of the personal gratification of human beings.

By contrast, contemporary dogs and cats have been created and modified through millennia of breeding practices to facilitate their lives with human beings. And indeed, except for those who are feral, most dogs and cats seem to want to live with us. They are also the two main types of nonhuman animals with whom human beings in the West choose to share their homes. For example, the Canadian Animal Health Institute reports that in 2014, Canadians were living with at least 7 million cats and 6.4 million dogs (Canadian Animal Health Institute 2015). The Humane Society of the United States (2015) quotes statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association indicating that in 2015, 79.7 million American households had a pet of some kind; these included 163.6 million dogs and cats.

For all these reasons, the particular emphasis of this book is on dogs and cats. Nonetheless, even for these animals, there are legitimate questions about the practice of “keeping” pets. One question is whether it is morally justifiable for human beings to continue breeding them, and/or to allow or facilitate their reproduction; perhaps cats and dogs should be encouraged to gradually die out by preventing them from procreating. For example, legal scholar Gary Francione famously claims, “[W]e should not continue to bring more animals into existence so that we may own them as pets” (Francione n.d.).

Questions about feline and canine procreation are dealt with in several chapters of this book. In “Our Whimsy, Their Welfare: On the Ethics of PedigreeBreeding,” John Rossi presents and supports the case specifically against pure-breeding companion animals. In “Does Preventing Reproduction Make for Bad Care?,” Katherine Wayne argues that a commitment to our cats’ and dogs’ flourishing is consistent, under certain conditions, with taking steps to prevent them from reproducing. From a feminist care perspective, Jennifer Parks contends that commissioning a clone of one’s beloved dog or cat, after his death, is not justified (“ ‘Lassie, Come Home!’: Ethical Concerns about Companion Animal Cloning”). But Jessica du Toit and David Benatar go further: in “Reproducing Companion Animals,” they argue that there are three strong reasons not to create any more companion animals at all. And in her chapter, “For Dog’s Sake, Adopt!,” Tina Rulli defends the existence of a duty to adopt companion animals instead of creating them.

Whatever one’s perspective on pet reproduction, one might also wonder whether the very practice of having pets can be morally justified. After all, keeping pets requires that the animals’ behavior be restricted in certain ways, that some of their inherent inclinations be modified in order for them to fit in with human customs, and that their interests sometimes be subordinated to those of the people with whom they live.5 Our relationships with cats and dogs thus also raise important questions about when and under what circumstances we are justified in setting limits to their independence. In this volume, several chapters respond to these questions. In “A Two-Level Utilitarian Analysis of Relationships with Pets,” Gary Varner makes a general case on consequentialist grounds for keeping pets. In “The Animal Lovers’ Paradox? On the Ethics of ‘Pet Food,’ ” Josh Milburn explains and offers a resolution to the moral paradox of feeding animal companions with the flesh of non-companions. Ideas about animal discipline are explored in “The Ethics of Animal Training" by Tony Milligan, who provides a genealogy of theories about the scope and justification of molding animals to meet human needs and desires. Two additional chapters also investigate the harms that particular forms of training can potentially generate. Zipporah Weisberg’s chapter, “Animal Assisted Intervention and Citizenship Theory," discusses the recruitment of animals into therapeutic work with human beings, describing both the potential harms of such practices and how they can be avoided. Chloe Taylor’s chapter, “ ‘ Sex without All the Politics’? Sexual Ethics and Human-Canine Relations," offers a feminist critique of the use of domesticated animals, especially dogs, for human sexual pleasure.

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