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


My focus has been on defending a duty to adopt animals rather than create them. The comparison with arguments for a duty to adopt rather than create human children, based on general obligations of beneficence, has been instructive. Just like human children, animal companions have interests and needs that can be the source of our duties to aid them by giving them the very thing they lack—a loving, stable family and long-term companionship. I have not explored the special obligations that arise post-adoption, though comparison to the ethics of human parenthood and adoption would be a fruitful expansion of the project.


  • 1. “Pet Statistics" The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Last accessed August 3, 2016.
  • 2. Whether existence can be a benefit is a large and contentious debate in philosophy, but we need not delve into it here.
  • 3. For a duty to adopt, see Rulli, “Preferring a Genetically-Related Child"; Friedrich, “A Duty to Adopt?” For the duty to rescue, see Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality."
  • 4. For a more detailed discussion and citations, see Rulli, “Preferring," 7.
  • 5. Friedrich, “Duty to Adopt," 32.
  • 6. Rulli, “Preferring," 6, n. 6.
  • 7. Rulli, “Preferring."
  • 8. The first statistic is from the ASPCA website, us/faq/pet-statistics; the second statistic is from 2008, from the American Humane Association post, “Animal Shelter Euthanasia," http://www.american- html?referrer=
  • 9. “Pet Statistics," ASPCA.
  • 10. For instance, I think ofCarl Cohen, “The Case for the Use ofAnimals in Biomedical Research."
  • 11. Likewise, they do not need rights for us to be able to explain why it is wrong to harm them.
  • 12. This response is inspired by Feinberg’s discussion of imperfect duties, though our views about rights diverge; see Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, 143-46.
  • 13. Rollin, Animal Rights and Human Morality, 220.
  • 14. Burgess-Jackson mentions and then sets aside the issue of collective responsibility in “Doing Right by Our Animal Companions,” 163-64; see also Palmer, “Killing Animals in Animal Shelters,” 181-82.
  • 15. See Rulli, “Preferring,” 10.
  • 16. “Americans Spent a Record $56 Billion on Pets Last Year,”, March 13, 2014, on-pets-last-year/.
  • 17. I recall a criticism along these lines when animal rights organizations tried to help rescue and relocate homeless dogs and cats during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
  • 18. A similar argument could be raised against the choice to become a parent— procreative or adoptive. A consequentialist might argue that we should spend the A million dollars it takes to raise a middle-class American child and donate it to lifesaving organizations instead. See Rachels, “The Immorality of Having Children.” He targets procreative parents and does not discuss adoption.
  • 19. Sarah Halzack, “Shoppers to Spend $350 Million on Halloween Costumes This Year—For Their Pets,” Washington Post, October 29, 2014, https ://www.washing- on-halloween-costumes-this-year-for-their-pets/.
  • 20. Burgess-Jackson makes this distinction, “Doing Right,” 182, n. 69.
  • 21. See Rulli, “Preferring,” 25-28.
  • 22. For the most famous anti-natalist argument, see Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. See also Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm.” For the harms of procreation to third-parties, see Young, “Overconsumption and Procreation: Are They Morally Equivalent?”
  • 23. “USDA Urged to Improve Care Standards for Puppy Mill Dogs,” Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, September 21, 2015, http://www.humaneso- html ?credit=web_id8 0597225.
  • 24. Occasionally a video of an adult breeding dog from a puppy mill walking on grass for the first time goes viral on the internet. You need only do a quick internet search to see such videos.
  • 25. “What is a Puppy Mill?,” ASPCA, puppy-mills.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. See Asher et al., “Inherited Defects in Pedigree Dogs. Part 1: Disorders Related to Breed Standards.” For more on the ethics ofpure-breeding, see John Rossi’s chapter in this anthology.
  • 28. Palmer, “Does Breeding a Bulldog Harm It? Breeding, Ethics and Harm to Animals" 159.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. See the chapter by Josh Milburn in this anthology for more on the ethics of feeding companion animals.
  • 31. In speaking of “our" attitudes, I will focus my observations on the average North American. Different animals have differing status depending on the culture or country. But with proper modification for these differences, my point applies widely. Most people worldwide eat and wear animals, though they may revere a particular species as an exception.
  • 32. This figure is from the post, “Food" by the animal rights organization, Animal Equality, It does not include fish or sea creatures. It is difficult to find any other type of organization that collects and reports this statistic.
  • 33. Rollin catalogs the reasons for which people let their animals be “put to sleep.” See Animal Rights, 221.
  • 34. Palmer, “Killing Animals,” 171.
  • 35. Motivations to procreate human children are also usually self-, not other-, regarding. But children are less widely treated as consumer objects.
  • 36. See Rulli, “Preferring,” 15-24.
  • 37. The idea of “mixed breed” is problematic. It treats purebreds as the original organism in a species, when in fact breeds are bred out of a species. Not all mutt dogs, for instance, are a mix of several purebreds. This is not merely a pedantic concern. People infer personality traits from a mutt based on what they (usually, wrongly) think her lineage is. “She has floppy ears and a tawny coat. So she must be part Labrador and therefore good with kids.” This inference is obviously problematic for practical, not merely scientific, reasons. Perhaps we should replace “mixed breed” with “non-purebred.”
  • 38. “11 Facts about Animal Homelessness,”, https ://www.dosome-
  • 39. Salman et al., “Human and Animal Factors Related to the Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats in 12 Selected Animal Shelters in the United States,” 212-14.
  • 40. Patronek et al., “Risk Factors for Relinquishment of Dogs to an Animal Shelter.”
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