According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. Many of these owners view the 11.1m cats, 8.9m dogs, and 1m rabbits sharing their homes as family members. But although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some animal rights activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.
The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of animals’ bodies, behaviours and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal’s bodies (particularly dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies. And this often causes these animals considerable physical harm.
Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects. Highly prized physical features – such as small and large stature or pushed-in noses – can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing and other normal functions.
Even those animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede their comfort and safety. This can include confining clothing, painful leashes that pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing, which involves the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats. Pets are also often constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, and regularly kept indoors – always at the whim of their human owners.
Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged and powerful groups. And this has implications for vulnerable human groups. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets – “kitten”, “bunny” – and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch.
Social workers further recognise the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The idea that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.
Through this forced dependency and domestication, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons – including behavioural “problems”, for belonging to a stereotyped breed, or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid 20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a “total institution”. This sees inhabitants cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space. Natural barriers between social spheres are artificially eliminated and an intense socialisation process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.
Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums and other physical spaces as examples. But I believe pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed “total institution”. This is because nonhuman animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and re-socialised. True consent is not possible under such conditions. Animals are groomed to participate and those who are unable to follow the rules of human social life are likely to be punished – sometimes fatally.
This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats and other species cannot express love and happiness as “pets”. But it is important to recognise that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour “corrections” and the manipulative process of domestication itself.
A world without pets?
Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of nonhuman animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.
Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of some animal rights organisations, which frequently support “euthanasia” policies to curb pet populations. But if a no kill society were to be achieved, many of the ethical violations – bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse – would remain. Even if, as Winograd supposes, an increase in legal protections could be obtained to improve domestic animal’s standards of living.
Ultimately, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance – whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits and other domesticated “pet” animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.
And while it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of nonhuman animals for comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect and care for them. Recognising the inherent inequality in human and nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
Corey Lee Wrenn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.