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


I wish to thank Christine Overall for inviting my contribution to this anthology, for her detailed and insightful comments on previous drafts, and for her excellent management of this project. I am grateful to the late Jean Harvey for beginning this important collection, and for the avenues she helped cultivate toward understanding the promises and challenges for loving relationships between humans and animals. I am honored to contribute to this discussion. The community of scholars and affiliates of the Department of Philosophy at Queen’s University, particularly the APPLE group, has provided much helpful conversation about the ideas herein. And I wish to thank Guy Scotton for his perceptive and rigorous editing assistance. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).


  • 1. Bob Barker, self-described animal activist and former host of the popular game show The Price is Right, always finished episodes with a friendly reminder to “help control the pet population by spaying or neutering your pet.” Some campaign posters’ attention-grabbing calls for pet sterilization play on human sexual norms, such as one that prominently captions a cat photo with the word “nympho,” and in the smaller print encourages owners to spay, given cats’ uncontrollable urges.
  • 2. Overflowing shelters are, however, the result of several factors, including absent or poor regulation and enforcement of companion-animal owner responsibilities. A recent CBC documentary that targets cat overpopulation, Cat Crazed, features Calgary’s (now less rare) legislation of mandatory licensing of companion cats and discusses how it has drastically reduced stray populations and overcrowding at shelters.
  • 3. In their review of these effects, Palmer, Corr, and Sandoe (2012) conclude that while some significant health benefits are associated with surgical sterilization procedures (particularly in female dogs), so are significant risks (particularly in male dogs). They conclude that routine neutering is not morally justifiable. Another review of these effects similarly concludes that the mix of welfare risks and benefits of surgical contraception demands individualized case-by-case consideration (Reichler 2009).
  • 4. This is (at least) true of campaigns that target animals being adopted or assessed for adoptability, which are my focus in this article (as opposed to campaigns that target feral and semi-feral populations, which present a set of issues I am not able to explore here).
  • 5. I limit my argument’s application to cats and dogs in order to constrain the scope of this chapter and because it is these companion animals over whose reproduction human caregivers tend to deliberately exert the most influence.
  • 6. E.g., dogs with very high energy levels should be offered multiple daily opportunities to run, whereas mellow or frail dogs may find even extended walks exhausting.
  • 7. Variations of this label include new welfarists, reformists, and protectionists.
  • 8. For a comprehensive outline ofand representative debate between abolitionism and welfarism/protectionism, see Garner and Francione (2010).
  • 9. Jean Harvey presents the “welfare with safeguards” model (and its purportedly “gentler” formulation as “seeking benefits while ensuring welfare”) as a more demanding version of mainstream welfarism. Her critique of this model suggests that even demanding forms of welfarism, which permit animal use for human benefit only when the animal’s full welfare is sustained, fail to reliably devote attention and respect to companion animals’ interests (2008, 162-64).
  • 10. See Evelyn Pluhar (1995) for a detailed account and defense of two versions of the AMC.
  • 11. It may be argued that the apparent tension is not so great, because while abolitionists obviously view the lives of domesticated animals as tragically compromised, they nonetheless generally endorse the interest in continued existence of those already living. I do not have the space to explore this issue in detail, so I will simply note that I, like many others, am not convinced that this distinction dissolves the incoherence ofadvancing a non-speciesist rights paradigm that calls for the elimination of new rights-bearers.
  • 12. Francione is the most visible and vehement defender of this view (e.g., 2007, 2010).
  • 13. For instance, a great deal of concern has been voiced recently about the impact of cats’ hunting of local bird populations. A corresponding image of cats as voracious killing machines has emerged that contrasts sharply with the general tenor of cats’ ubiquitous online depiction as adorable and goofy, if occasionally (and amusingly) cold, objects ofentertainment. The aforementioned documentary Cat Crazed effectively outlines the surprisingly fraught relationships among cats, the individuals and institutions responsible for them, conservationists, and popular media.
  • 14. E.g., see David Boonin (2003). Palmer (2014) resists Boonin’s suggestion that sterilization constitutes only a minor harm and therefore renders it justifiably imposed only in cases where doing so will result in great overall benefit (or harm aversion) for the community at large.
  • 15. Both the American Veterinary Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association characterize spay/neuter surgery as an important part of “responsible pet ownership” in their position statements.
  • 16. This is a characterization that clearly does not apply to domestic animals in general; farmed animals most commonly reproduce through forced insemination by humans or machines.
  • 17. I reserve the possibility of cloning for future discussion.
  • 18. Note that this criticism is not exactly saying that foregoing reproduction to pursue nurturing relationships with existing others is more truly other-regarding. As Christine Overall explains, while choosing to reproduce is inherently self-oriented, it is not thereby inherently selfish (2012, 217). Rather, the criticism points out that the individual interest in pursuing other-regarding relationships might be not only adequately but better fulfilled by choosing against reproduction.
  • 19. There are legitimate worries about this way of justifying entitlement to reproduction; I am unable to address them here and hope to do so in a future paper on the ethics of human reproduction. Thanks to the colloquium audience members at Queen’s who pointed out the complications of using this value as a way of justifying reproduction, as opposed to cloning, and who pushed me on the inherent difficulties ofjustifying procreation through the value of self-re-creation.
  • 20. But neither is committed to claiming that reproduction is always morally desirable or even permissible.
  • 21. Most broadly, facilitating reproduction involves creating or fostering conditions under which reproduction is more likely to take place, or is easier for the individual to pursue herself, in a way that aims to protect the individual’s other relevant interests (e.g., safety). In the companion animal case, reproduction will typically require facilitation (e.g., through supplying safe opportunities for her to engage in mating behavior during fertile periods). Thus if there is an entitlement to reproduce for companion animals, facilitating reproduction will likely be included in the duty of care.
  • 22. Perhaps the underlying concern is that attributing such features to animals would be anthropomorphizing. As Kristin Andrews has pointed out, however, anthropomorphism charges typically work from pre-empirical assumptions about what features animals can have, and tacitly construe the features in question as uniquely human (2011,470-73).
  • 23. Ethological findings again cast doubt on the common reading of such expressions as merely adaptive/reducible to instinctive, evolutionary mechanisms (e.g., Balcombe 2009).
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