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Our Primary Obligation to Companion Animals

Whether the benefits are complex or not, whether planned for or not, when dogs and cats live with humans, in nearly every case they form deep bonds with them.

Contrary to the stereotype, this is as true of cats as of dogs if—and it is an important “if”—they are allowed to do so.6 There is something disturbing about the often-heard claim, “He’s not a pet. He’s a guide dog.” A distracted guide dog is indeed unsafe for the human, but the quote is misleading since just about every dog (and cat) living with a human is a companion animal (a “pet”)—at least, from the animal’s perspective—whether or not he serves some special purpose. It is part of the nature of most dogs and cats (yes, cats) to give love and loyalty to the human companion. As with anyone who loves, it makes them vulnerable—to the hurt of not being loved at all, to being manipulated, exploited, or traumatically abused or abandoned.

The nature of this relationship is central to the ethics of companion animals, or at least dogs and cats: the deep and abiding affection the animals give and seek, the profound emotional and physical vulnerability they face because of it, and the blunt fact that humans in general control the relationship and have the power either to treasure or betray their animal companions.7 Such a loving, loyal, and respectful relationship on the part of humans is compatible with careful guidance and supervision, given some of the risks the animals are exposed to. Love and respect are not laissez-faire attitudes; they are attitudes of engagement, but very different from that of seeing someone as useful or beneficial to have around.

So the position I point to as the alternative to the “seeking benefits while ensuring welfare” model is that the primary moral obligation we have with respect to companion animals is to develop, nurture, respect, and protect this relationship. Given space restrictions, I cannot develop it fully here, but I will indicate some basic points. If we treasure the animals and the relationship, we will of course care for their physical and psychological welfare. The model I am critiquing also requires this, but when we place the loving relationship center stage, there is a far more proactive engagement called for, and this is a major difference.

The goal takes us beyond welfare provision, beyond even standard “tender loving care,” to a relationship that deepens over the companion animal’s lifetime, long after a good relationship has been established. The question is not whether this relationship is good, but whether it is the best it can be. The proactive attention and involvement are at a different level from that needed to keep a good relationship stable, and this is as true for the relationship between a human and her animal companion as it is for the relationship between parent and child or between spouses.

With the “simple benefits” group of companion animals—dogs and cats living at home and serving no special purpose—we can find plenty of examples of the model’s functioning (and some were given earlier), but we can also find rejections of the model. One feature that many human companions of cats and dogs choke on is seeing “receiving and giving affection or love” as benefits to be aimed for in a self-interested fashion. I quoted earlier from a social science study: “Above all, a pet provides an outlet for nurturant and care-giving behaviour... . [I]t provides its owner with a powerful sense of being valued and needed.” This kind of writing strikes many who live with animals as bizarrely out of touch with the nature of the bond. The magic of a loving relationship is chillingly absent. It will be objected that it is a quote from a social science text, but perhaps part of the point is that some things are not aptly described in such language. The other part of the point is that authentic love does not see the loved one as a means to an end, or in this case, two ends: receiving love and providing a vehicle for expressing love. Love values the loved one for who she is in herself; the focus is on the one loved, not the love received, and it is a kind of cherishing that has commitment as its heart.

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