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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.

Cannot consent

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, Lecturer of Sociology, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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8 Comments Share Your Views

8 COMMENTS

  1. Wasn’t going to comment but after reading all your comments I must say I own two dogs as well but I do agree with the though process going on with this Article.

    Also dogs and cats would feed themselves as they have the tools available to hunt.

    The strong would survive and they would adapt and evolve and breed stronger offspring.

    Your pugs and chiwawas wouldn’t last long in the wild as there defects aren’t helpful to them in any way, but dogs and cats who have the genetic make up to do well in the wild wouldn’t go extinct… They’d actually get stronger as a species.

  2. Dear ThePrint,
    Being a dog mom for nearly a decade now, its sad to see such an article printed by your team. Why is it that certain people always adhere to the extreme because they are unable to derive solutions or are wanting to work towards solutions?

    There are plenty of people who love their pets as family members and go out of their way to accomodate them, placing the needs, likes and dislikes of the pets before their own. I can understand that its hard to come by people but isn’t it the simple rule of the thumb that the benefit of the doubt should always be provided.

    So tell me, we as a planet are facing Global Warming at such an epic scale.Every year we hear about how the adverse effects of Global Warming is changing climatic and tectonic shifts to land and water bodies. In this situation if I go by whatever you have said and apply it here, the logical conclusion will be to not work towards the eradication of it but rather stem off the cause which is humans. Maybe if human population reduces by half the planet will be saved. Do you realize how this sounds??? I have to say this, I think you guys are still stuck in the deja vu effects of Avengers Endgame. Please get out of it by snapping your fingers.

    Rather than suggesting the extreme try to raise awareness about the issues identified in the article. Try to reach out to the masses and educate them about specific breeding and the ill effects of it. Try to work out with animal welfare groups in imposing harder laws for illegal breeding or negligence of pet care. There’s so much to do. Please pick up your pen and do some good. Always remember, just like people do wrong to their pets, your article just might trigger some people to abandon their pets. Give some thought to the consequences of your action.

  3. Wow, this must be the most shortsighted, badly researched and ignorant article I’ve read on this subject in a long time. You literally have no idea what you are talking about. Stupid.

  4. Plants don’t consent to being eaten. Plants don’t consent to being used for shelter. Rocks and other things in nature don’t consent to being used for tools. The air these people breathe is full of things that live which didn’t consent to being inhaled. I humans should die too since none of us get to consent to being created.

  5. Are you out of your mind? Who do you think will feed these cats and dogs and rabbits if they are not kept as companions at home? I have three cats and two dogs and a couple of birds who are kept out of their cages! Right now I feed 7 non-humans. If like you said it’s not ethical to have pets, these seven could be starving or without a shelter to protect them from perils! Just cos a few people get their pets euthanized or abandon them doesn’t mean everyone would do the same. You know what? Have a pet first! Feed an animal at home and give all your love to him/her! Then you can write such articles! Stop writing stupid articles like this just cause you’re bored!

  6. You have to be kidding me! You people need to be euthanized! If we all let our pets go free what would happen? How long before cats and dogs were extinct? Go find money elsewhere you idiots!

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