I have been thinking about the ethics of keeping sentient animals as pets. As someone who has lived with dogs, cats, rats, mice, gerbils, rabbits, lizards, guinea pigs, and chickens, I have experienced first-hand the joy and companionship that such creatures can bring to our lives and the love that we can have for them. Yet, as a philosopher interested in animal ethics, I am aware of the many moral problems associated with our practice of keeping animals as pets. These problems have led me to reconsider human-animal companionship, and I have come to think that no matter how much we might love the animals we bring into our homes, we cannot justify doing so.
Not All Pets Are Loved
I do not want to romanticise existing human-pet relationships. Not all pets are loved. Many are abused, neglected, and abandoned. (I have written here before about what we owe to abandoned pets.) This is not a marginal problem. In the UK, where I am based, there are an estimated 1.1 million homeless companion cats and dogs – 970k street/stray cats; 67k street/stray dogs; 42k cats and dogs in shelters (Mars Petcare, 2020). And in 2021, the RSPCA received 1,081,018 calls to their cruelty line, which is equivalent to more than one call every 30 seconds. They also report collecting an abandoned animal every hour in the summer months.
Even when animals are not abused or abandoned, owners frequently fail to meet their animal’s most basic needs. For example, of the estimated 1 million pet rabbits in the UK, 190,000 live in inadequate housing conditions, 46% are kept alone with no other rabbits for companionship, and 21% of rabbit owners report not interacting with their pets for an average of 24 hours at a time (PDSA, Paw Report 2022). Since rabbits are highly active, social creatures, solitary confinement in a cramped hutch falls far short of the conditions needed for rabbits to flourish.
One might think that the scale of harm already experienced by companion animals is sufficient to cast doubt on the morality of keeping pets. But the fact that some people don’t love or adequately care for their pets is not necessarily a barrier to ethical pet keeping. There are lots of measures that might be implemented to mitigate the problems just discussed. We could, for instance, reform our current laws, policies, and systems of social support to place tighter restrictions on breeding practices, better protect vulnerable animals, and ensure human guardians have the time, skills, and resources to care for their animal companions. If pets were treated better than they are currently, would that make pet keeping morally permissible? Can we keep pets if we love them and treat them well?
“But My Pet is a Member of the Family!”
The popular answer to this question is “yes”. Lots of people regard their pets as members of the family. They love and care for their pets as they do human family members, and that love is typically reciprocated by their animal companions. These bonds of interspecies love, care, and empathy are cherished and declared valuable to all involved. Consequently, it is widely believed that pet keeping benefits nonhuman animals as well as human animals: it is good for our nonhuman companions to be kept safe by us, to have their basic needs met by us, to love and be loved by us, and to interact with us.
I have come to doubt this. No matter how much we love our pets, and no matter how much we might desire to have them, there is something fundamentally problematic about keeping animals as human companions. To be someone’s pet is to be extremely (and permanently) vulnerable to harm and exploitation and this is a social position that we have a moral duty to avoid creating or imposing upon individuals.
Pets, Power, and Vulnerability
The relationship that exists between humans and their pets is inherently asymmetrical in terms of power, dependency, and vulnerability. This asymmetry is manifest in three crucial ways. First, pets are always vulnerable to the whims and vices of their human guardians (the human guardian is not similarly vulnerable to the domesticated animal). This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that our pets are unable to leave, seek help, or hold abusive or neglectful owners to account. Second, pets are always dependent on human guardians for the fulfilment of their basic needs. Though humans may rely on their pets for emotional support and companionship (see Zsuzsanna Chappell’s insightful analysis of pet ownership as a means to improve human mental health), no human depends so entirely on their pet as their pet does on them. Third, humans always have ultimate control over what their pets do, how their pets are treated, who their pets interact with, and whether their pets have access to basic goods. This means that pets have very limited opportunities for self-determination and that they lack control over almost all aspects of their daily lives, for the whole of their lives.
Since humans have more power and ultimate control over the lives of their pets, pets are extremely vulnerable. Though all may go well for pets if their guardians love them, it can go terribly wrong when love is absent. To my mind, the extreme vulnerability of pets is morally unacceptable. It is not acceptable that an individual is rendered so dependent on others or so vulnerable to being harmed by those tasked with caring for them.
Importantly, the vulnerability of pets in human-animal relationships is not accidental nor natural but a result of our desire to have animals live in our homes as our companions. This means that the vulnerabilities that pets are exposed to are created by us to satisfy our wants and ends. Insofar as it is wrong to intentionally expose individuals to extreme vulnerability and significant risks of serious harm, we have a duty not to bring more pets into existence. For these reasons, loving our pets is not enough to make pet keeping a morally acceptable practice.
What Should We Do?
All existing domesticated animals are entitled to good lives. So, we are each under a duty to ensure that all those who are here already have what they need to flourish as the kinds of creatures that they are. This duty may be satisfied by, for instance, rehoming a shelter animal, improving the life of someone else’s animal companion (e.g., walking the dog of an elderly neighbour or relative), volunteering at an animal shelter, or donating to an animal shelter.
Yet we are also under a duty to end the practice of pet keeping. This means that we must refrain from breeding animals, selling animals, and purchasing animals. For those of us with pets, we have a responsibility to prevent those animals from reproducing if their young must live with humans to survive. For sure, this means interfering with the reproductive freedoms of existing pets, but such interference is justified to end the practice of deliberately creating extremely (and permanently) vulnerable and dependent beings.