One set of arguments does not apply exclusively to companion animals, but more generally to all sentient animals, including humans. These are the so-called “anti-natalist” arguments, according to which coming into existence is either so risky or so harmful that we should desist from bringing sentient beings into existence. One implication of these arguments is that breeding animals is wrong.
There are a number of anti-natalist arguments. They cannot be presented in full here, but we shall outline some of them.3 The “asymmetry argument” claims that there is an important axiological asymmetry between benefits and harms, such that coming into existence is always a harm. According to this argument, (1) the presence of harm is bad and (2) the presence of benefit is good, but while (3) the absence of harm is good even if that good is not enjoyed by any being, (4) the absence of benefit is not bad unless there is a being for whom this absence is a deprivation.
If there is this asymmetry, which we may call the “basic asymmetry," then it follows that coming into existence has disadvantages but no advantages relative to never existing. The disadvantages are all the bad things that befall the animal who comes into existence. These include, but are not limited to, pain, suffering, frustration, dissatisfaction, and, on some views, death. Companion animals, or at least the luckier ones, also have good things happen to them. Lucky dogs, for example, are fed, tickled, loved, and played with. However, while all this makes a dog’s life better, these goods are not an advantage over never existing. If there is no feeding, tickling, loving, and playing because there is no dog, then there is no deprivation and it is not bad. It follows that bringing an animal into existence harms that animal.
The usual response to this conclusion is to deny the basic asymmetry that leads to it. There are various ways of doing this. One could claim that absent benefits are bad even when no being is deprived of those benefits. Alternatively, one could claim that absent harms and benefits are neither good nor bad, precisely because there is no being for whom these are bad or good.
However, these claims come at considerable cost. This is because the basic asymmetry is the best explanation for a number of other widely endorsed asymmetries. For example, it is widely agreed that while we have a reason—even a duty—to desist from bringing into existence a being who would have a life of suffering, we have no reason—much less a duty—to bring into existence beings who would, by the usual standards, have a good life. This asymmetry is best explained by the basic asymmetry. If one thinks that absent benefits are bad, then one does have a reason to create a being who will enjoy those benefits. And if one thinks that absent harms and benefits are neither good nor bad, then one cannot say that it is good to avoid bringing into existence a being who would suffer.
The asymmetry argument implies that animals, like humans, are harmed by being brought into existence. This is not sufficient to show that it is wrong to breed animals or to allow them to breed. If the harm of being brought into existence were a minor one, it might still be possible to defend the practice of breeding animals or not sterilizing them. One might defend the practice by appealing, for example, to the benefits to humans of companion animals.
However, the harms of existence are considerable. This is true for all sentient beings, but our focus here is only on a subset of those beings—companion animals. To be sure, many such animals suffer less harm than do the vast majority of animals who are reared for human consumption. The harms are nonetheless more substantial than people typically recognize.
Consider the restrictions on companion animals’ freedom. These are very severe in the case of many companion birds and rodents as well as other mammals who are caged. These animals effectively have a lifetime of incarceration, perhaps with occasional furloughs. This must be enormously frustrating. Other companion animals, such as dogs, are often not caged. However, their movement is restricted by closed doors, house walls, garden fences, and leashes. This frustrates their ability to pursue, among other things, the scents and sex they seek. It also leads to separation anxiety when their companion humans leave them. If they are left for long periods, boredom can result. Humans also restrict animals’ freedom with regard to what and how much they eat. Dogs, for example, regularly beg for food that is withheld from them.
The claim is not that restrictions on the freedom of companion animals are all unwarranted. They are often justified by the welfare of the animals. Many companion animals would stand a high chance of being harmed if they had unrestricted movement. They would be killed by predators or motor vehicles, for example. Thus, given the existence of these animals and the dangers of the surrounding environment (even if that environment is humanly constructed), it is often indeed best, all things considered, to restrict companion animals’ freedom in some ways, but not in others.4 However, animals typically do not understand this, and we need to recognize that their lives include significant frustration as a result. This is very relevant when we are considering whether these animals should be brought into existence at all.
It is easy to underestimate just how often companion animals feel the frustrations, anxiety, and boredom just described. These are daily experiences and, at least in some cases, may last for large portions of the day.
Consider too the other hardships in companion animal lives. For example, cats are often declawed to prevent them from doing damage to the home interiors to which they are confined. Although it is a minority of cats who are subjected to this treatment, it is not a small minority. Approximately 25 percent of cats in the United States are declawed.5 Besides the obvious pain associated with the surgery, the thwarting of natural feline behavior must be frustrating.
Many dog breeds are subjected to tail “docking.” This is sometimes performed by means of a tight rubber band, which prevents blood supply to the remainder of the tail, causing it to necrose and slough off. More commonly, however, the tail is removed surgically by means of a blade or scissors. This is typically done without anesthesia or analgesia. The best available evidence suggests that this is painful to the puppies on whom it is performed, despite their early stage of development.6
Some animals are subjected to ear cropping and to “de-vocalizing,” the latter designed to prevent them from barking or meowing.
There is more. Companion animals, such as dogs and cats, are typically wrenched from their mothers and littermates while they are young. They are then inserted into a new and initially bewildering environment. This is not a lifelong problem, but it is nonetheless an unpleasantness that must be considered when thinking about how much bad there is in the lives of these animals.
Arguably worse, and usually longer-lasting, are the ravages of ageing and disease. Just like humans, they go blind and deaf. They develop skin diseases, arthritis, dysplasia, or any of a number of cardiac, endocrine, gastrointestinal, urological, or dental diseases. They become paralyzed or epileptic, contract infections and become infested, and suffer malignancies. It should go without saying that this is merely a partial list.
The lifespans of companion animals are generally much shorter than those of humans. The periods of decrepitude are therefore shorter, although not proportionally to the lifespan. Many companion animals are spared the worst by euthanasia, but they endure significant decline before euthanasia becomes clearly the right option.
Even the luckiest companion animals will experience at least some of the above. Matters are still worse for the unlucky ones. Millions of dogs, cats, and other animals who should be companions to humans are in fact neglected or abused by members of our species. The full spectrum of this abuse is appalling. Animals are left chained and alone in disagreeable conditions. They are starved, beaten, mutilated, burnt, and killed.
There is a tendency for people to think that their companion animals’ offspring will have good lives. Those who think this should be aware of the pervasive optimism bias that characterizes our species. Humans tend to think that things are better than they really are. There is ample evidence of this7 and it cannot be ignored.
However, even if one thought that some companion animals lead good lives, it would still be the case that any animal brought into existence would stand a high chance of suffering significant harm at some stage in its life. One problem with breeding is that those who accept the risks of breeding are not those who will be the primary victims of whatever harm results. Instead, the breeder assumes the risk for the beings who will be brought into existence.
Nor are the risks minor. Any animal brought into being stands a very high chance of succumbing to serious harm at some point. Either it will be cut down in its youth, perhaps by an accident, or, if it lives long enough, it is likely to suffer from the decline and decrepitude that characteristically precedes death in old age.
The harm that will befall those animals brought into existence provides us with strong reason to desist from bringing them into existence by breeding existing animals. Does it also provide us with similarly strong reason to prevent existing animals from breeding? In the absence of long-term animal contraception, the means we have for preventing animals from breeding are either restricting their access to mates or sterilizing them. Preventing animals from mating adds to their frustration and makes the quality of these animals’ lives worse. Sterilization avoids that problem, but surgery comes with some risks as well as postoperative discomfort that also diminishes the quality of that animal’s life, albeit for a limited period.
Although sterilization does carry some costs for the animal sterilized, our choices are stark. Either we inflict this limited harm on existing animals or we allow many more suffering animals to be created. We cannot leave the choice to the reproducing animals. Because they are not able to make the decision themselves, we, as their custodians, need to decide.