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“Companion Animals”

The third term in the title that warrants special discussion is “companion animals." It is widely used because it seems to be a respectful alternative to “pets" and does not carry the hierarchical connotations of that word. In his chapter, Gary Varner stipulates that a companion animal is a pet who has “significant social interaction with its owner and would voluntarily choose to stay with the owner, in part for the sake of the companionship" a definition that incorporates a recognition of the agency of companion animals. Still, one might have doubts about the appropriateness of the term “companion animal." In human interactions, a companion is usually someone who has chosen to be with us, but dogs and cats in fact have little real choice about the human beings whose lives they share. Perhaps “companion animal" misleadingly implies a kind of equality between human being and animal that does not exist.

Katherine Wayne suggests a different criticism of the term “companion animal." Her main concern is that it is “at best, misleading and painfully naive to call animals of those kinds who are abandoned, neglected, or otherwise mistreated ‘companion animals,’ given that they have been denied companionship" (personal communication, January 22, 2016). Her point is that while animals such as dogs and cats are seen as archetypal companion animals, thousands of dogs and cats never acquire that status in any literal sense: they live as feral animals, or they die, unwanted, in shelters or on the street. To call all dogs and cats “companion animals,” then, is to discount the reality of what many cats and dogs experience.

I believe Katherine Wayne is correct. “Companion animals” should not be applied to all cats and dogs, but only to those fortunate enough to live their lives as part of a human household. The reality of the lives of feral cats and dogs, and of those who are not adopted or are abandoned, must be recognized for what it is: these animals are not companions, not through any fault of their own but because human beings have failed to act on their own moral responsibilities. Hence the importance of companion animal adoption, as Tina Rulli argues, and of acknowledging responsibilities to dogs and cats even if we do not live with them, as Kathryn Norlock maintains.

In this book, the term “companion animals” is employed because it reflects the nature of the relationships between human and animal beings that many people—including the contributors to this volume—value and are seeking to promote. The idea that a dog or cat is a companion suggests the depth, value, and emotionality of the relationship. Indeed, as Cynthia Townley argues in her chapter, “Friendship with Companion Animals,” the relationship can be legitimately interpreted as friendship.6

Yet as companions or friends, our relationship with a dog or a cat is unique. Dogs and cats live with us in our households. They are not companions whom we see only intermittently, friends from whom we part at the end of the day. Instead they are companions who go home with us, or who greet us when we come home. For that reason, many people think of their dogs and cats as not just companions but members of their family. Since they are not biologically related to us, these animals are like the relatives we acquire through marriage or marriage-like relationships (parents-in-law, siblings-in-law, stepchildren), or through the process of adoption. Indeed, we use the term “adoption” to describe the process by which many dogs and cats enter our lives.

Of course, not all human companions acquire their animal companions through adoption; sometimes a stray cat simply shows up in the backyard, is left on our doorstep, or is spotted by the roadside. But often we go through a formal process of picking out the animal, choosing it over other cats and dogs who are available. Some shelters and breeders also evaluate the potential human adopter for suitability.

In these respects, the creation of a relationship between human and animal companions is similar to the creation of a relationship between an adult and an adopted child. And indeed, some people analogize their dogs and cats to human children. This analogy is, perhaps, a good thing in that it may involve recognizing the individuality, needs, and interests of cats and dogs. But the child metaphor is also problematic, for three reasons. First, most human children eventually become the equals of their parents; they develop into fully functional adults and establish independent lives of their own. But our animal companions almost always live with us and depend on us in crucial ways for all their lives. Second, although human beings do feed and discipline their children, many of the choices we make for our companion animals—related to their reproduction, their work, and their death—are not usually choices we make or legitimately should make for our human children.

Third, as Tony Milligan points out in his chapter on training, the child metaphor fails to capture the fact that our companion cats and dogs do grow up to be adults of their species; they do not remain babies or children. So the parental metaphor is inapt given that dogs and cats outgrow puppy- and kitten-hood. Infantilizing an adult of any species fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of the adult and its capacity for self-determination. Regarding one’s feline or canine companion as one’s child may be a manifestation of a kind of paternalism that is inconsistent with respect for the reality of the animal’s existence. For these reasons, it seems preferable to regard the cats and dogs who share our lives as companions, rather than as children.

As I hope this discussion has shown, living with cats and dogs raises many complex and difficult moral issues. The contributors to Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals offer insightful perspectives on responsible decision-making for our companion animals. By encouraging careful thought about pets, these perspectives will help to make our relationships with dogs and cats both more just and more fulfilling for all concerned.

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