If you own a pet, you can’t imagine your life without your beloved dog, cat, fish, or hamster. These companion animals are as much a part of our human families, providing us with comfort, playtime, and a unique emotional bond that transcends words. And while we care for our pets and give them a warm home to live safely, we don’t tend to think of our homes as a constraint on their well-being and freedom. Is it ethical to keep pets at all?
Renowned animal-behavior expert Marc Bekoff and leading bioethicist Jessica Pierce explore this question, as well as the real-world experiences of these animals and others, in The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. As we continue learn new and surprising facts about just how intelligent and emotional animals are, Bekoff and Pierce bring to our attention that our growing understanding hasn’t yet resulted in more respectful treatment of them. In the following excerpt from their book, they invite us to reconsider our relationship with our furry friends as they explain what it’s like for animals to go through the pet industry.
The number of animals kept captive as pets is mind-boggling. In US households alone, there are an estimated seventy-eight million dogs, eighty-six million cats, ninety-six million freshwater fishes, nine million reptiles, and twelve million small animals. These numbers have been steadily growing for the past four decades. Even in the economic downturn, the pet industry was one of the few that showed continued growth.
Unlike farming and laboratory research and especially zoos, where good welfare for animals lines up with productivity and quality, the same is not true within the pet industry. Profit is decoupled from welfare, which means that those in the business of selling animals have little economic motivation to care about what animals need. Animals are often sold cheaply, so it isn’t worth the extra cost for a supplier or seller to improve conditions and reduce suffering and death, nor do people have to think carefully about purchasing an animal.
USDA oversight of animal wholesalers is spotty at best, and rules regulating the care of animals at these facilities are like the rules for agricultural animals: they aim to prevent the most egregious welfare violations, but give little to no attention to positive well-being. Ironically, the class of animals that should, intuitively, be given the greatest protections based on our level of empathy and interest, are actually given relatively little.
And unlike the other venues we’ve discussed so far, where those handling the animals are generally quite knowledgeable about the species under their care, adoptive pet owners often are total beginners and know next to nothing about the natural history or about the environmental or behavioral needs of a given animal. This is perhaps why the majority of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals who are brought into the home live for only a year or two, if they are lucky.
Because pet owners don’t always know a lot about what a prospective pet may need, they may rely on the pet store for advice, and may assume that what the pet store sells will provide an acceptable habitat for an animal. But pet stores often provide little guidance about how to care for a particular kind of animal and sell products that are inappropriate or inadequate for the animal’s needs. For example, there are no standards for what size cage a given pet requires and some of the cages sold in stores are far too small. A hamster in a US biomedical research laboratory must be allocated a certain amount of space; at your local pet store, you can likely find several cages advertised for hamsters that would fail to meet these standards. To give another example, a recent trend in the pet industry is the nano-tank for pet fishes. These miniature tanks are meant to be so small and unobtrusive that you can put one on your desk (and some even come with a USB port so you can plug in your phone). You can purchase a tank that will provide a pet fish exactly four cups of water in which to live out his or her entire (short) life. This should be illegal.
All of our companion animals are captive, even those who are our closest companions. But some pets are more captive than others, and some are more companion than others. In rough terms, the more fully able and willing an animal (a species or an individual) is to engage in a companionable relationship with humans, the more freedom, and thus happiness, the animal can potentially experience as a pet. Or, to phrase this another way, if we have to keep animals locked in cages because they would run away or cause harm to themselves or others if we didn’t, they are more captive and will more likely experience the negative effects of confinement.
It is useful to distinguish between true companion species (for example, dogs and cats) and those animals (exotics, wild animals, reptiles) who are kept as pets but can’t or don’t often form companionable bonds with human species. We share with a number of other social mammals what is sometimes called the brain’s “social network,” the neurological, physiological, and behavioral systems that facilitate social bonding. This network includes hormones like oxytocin, which “reward” the brain for social bonding. Because these biological and behavioral systems are flexible, they can give rise to social bonding between species. Thus, a human interacting with her dog, and touching her dog’s fur, will show physiological changes such as the release of oxytocin. Likewise, a dog being gently stroked by her owner also has increased levels of oxytocin. We experience pleasure from each other’s company. Animals who can form a bond with humans likely make better companion animals and have greater potential for a good life in human company.
Might there be some species of animal whom we should not keep as pets if we care about providing them with a “good life”? Or to phrase this another way, if we ask which animals can live in companionable relationships with humans and have a life with optimal welfare and a high degree of freedom, the answer, in our view, is going to be pretty narrow. Jessica takes this up in detail in her book Run, Spot, Run, but we would suggest that exotics and wild animals should simply not be kept as pets; reptiles and amphibians and birds likely cannot be provided with what they need by most pet owners; and fishes have more complex needs than most people realize—even the common goldfish. (As an interesting aside, the high court of India is discussing whether birds have a fundamental right to fly. “It is the fundamental right of the bird,” wrote Justice M. R. Shah in a verdict on the caging of five hundred birds in a Gujarat market, “to live freely in the open sky.”)
Let’s focus on reptiles for a moment. The University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt, ethologist and world-renowned student of reptile behavior, argues that the best we can do for captive reptiles and amphibians is “controlled deprivation.” In other words, these animals cannot be kept in captivity and still have a good quality of life. Biologist and medical scientist Clifford Warwick, who has written about the morality of keeping reptiles as pets, describes “at least 30 captivity stress-related behaviors . . . regularly observable in most kept reptiles . . . such as hyperactivity and interaction with transparent boundaries, both of which involve persistent attempts to escape, and hypoactivity, which involves efforts to biologically ‘shut down’ from a poor environment.” Reading this reminded Jessica of Lizzy, her daughter’s pet gecko, and Lizzy’s constant clawing at the side of her glass tank, and made Jessica wonder whether she was wrong to subject Lizzy to such a sad existence.
Clifford Warwick, writing about exotic pets, suggests that biologists and species experts develop and make available to the public a list system for pets. This list would rank various species that one might consider acquiring as easy to extreme, in terms of being able to provide what the animal needs. The list would show which species of animal, “shown through clear and evidence-based assessment,” might be suitable as a pet. Health and welfare needs of the animal, says Warwick, would be defined by the Five Freedoms principles, but would also include public health considerations such as likelihood of transmitting a zoonotic disease.
This list should not be limited to exotic pets, because even some very common pets like goldfish and hermit crabs are difficult to care for properly and suffer to some degree in any captive setting. We need to look at each species and each individual and ask whether captivity imposes undue burdens. It is likely that the only animals who can live companionably with humans, and have a meaningful life, are those who can live “free,” without the confines of a cage.
About the Authors
Marc Bekoff has published thirty books, including The Emotional Lives of Animals. He is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a former Guggenheim fellow. He lives in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcBekoff and visit his website.
Jessica Pierce, author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, is faculty affiliate at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She lives in Lyons, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and a cat. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaPierce7 and visit her website.