Pet ethics

Many people regard their pets as part of the family. But some question the ethics of having pets at all.

Pet animals pose a growing moral dilemma to humans, reports The Guardian. Is it right to thwart the nature of animals and their self-determination in order to bring them into our homes, where we dictate what they eat, how they sleep, what they look like and if they will be sterile?

The dilemma goes deeper: many adore their cats, yet cats are killers that account for the death of billions of small, furry and feathered animals every year. Ethicists ask: should we allow our pets free rein to their natural impulses, or should we stop having them altogether?

And deeper still: an increasing number of people think of pets as people, and consider them part of their family, their best friend. They wouldn’t sell them for a million dollars. A recent British study found that 12% of pet owners love their pet more than their partner, and 24% love them more than their best friend. Yet, each year in the US, 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized.

Laws reflect our changing views. In 2015, for example, New Zealand and Quebec recognized animals as sentient beings and declared that they are no longer property. In the US, pets are still considered property, but 32 states protect them from domestic violence. At the same time, studies increasingly show us that the emotional lives of animals are richer and more complex than we imagined.

“The logical consequence is that the more we attribute … these characteristics [to them], the less right we have to control every single aspect of their lives,” says psychology professor Hal Herzog.

But perhaps the view of Tim Wass, chair of the Pet Charity, is more to the point: “It has already been decided by market forces and human nature … the reality is people have pets in the millions. The question is: how can we help them care for them correctly and appropriately?”