AMERICA is experiencing a population boom — of pets. Driven by rising disposable income and urbanization and by evolving attitudes toward animals, the number of pets has grown more rapidly since the mid-1970s than the human population, to the point where there are now about as many pets as there are people.
We don’t just buy pets as never before, we also treat them differently. More animals are living in our houses and are given over to a life of leisure. Animals are spoken of as family members — and not just dogs and cats, but rabbits, rats, bearded dragons and snakes. We feed them scientifically formulated organic diets and take them to veterinary specialists of all stripes. Veterinarians and psychologists describe these changing practices as evidence of a deepening “human-animal bond.”
Let me confess up front that I have taken an active part in the pet-keeping bonanza. I grew up with a menagerie of pets and, as a mother, was determined to provide my daughter with the same joyful experiences. Indeed, I was so indulgent that by the time my daughter was in elementary school our house was known as “the neighborhood zoo.” Now that she is a teenager, we’ve vastly reduced the census of animals in our home, but we still live with two dogs. I can’t imagine life without them.
Regardless, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the very notion of “pet.” Scientists studying animal cognition and emotion are continually peeling back the mysteries of animal minds, revealing an incredible and often surprising richness in the thoughts and feelings of other creatures.
For instance, the more I’ve learned about goldfish — they are more intelligent than we think, feel pain and engage in socially complex behaviors — the guiltier I feel that I subjected several of these creatures to a life of endless tedium, swimming circles in a small bowl on my daughter’s dresser.
When I came upon the conclusion by the University of Tennessee ethologist Gordon Burghardt that the best we can do for captive reptiles and other animals is a life of “controlled deprivation,” I wished I had never bought Lizzy, our leopard gecko. I felt a pit in my stomach when I learned that Lizzy’s perpetual clawing at the glass wall of her tank was most likely a manifestation of captivity-induced stress. We had basically been torturing her, and it is perhaps not surprising that she died after only two years, despite our efforts to give proper care.
Like me, well-meaning pet owners may unwittingly cause harm by keeping animals in captive environments that might not meet their behavioral needs, such as a small bowl for a lone goldfish or a 10-gallon glass tank with fake vines for a leopard gecko. I assumed, during the days of my pet-buying frenzy, that pet stores would sell only tanks and cages that provided appropriate housing for the animals they sell. But I was wrong. Some of these “habitats” hardly deserve the name. A current trend in aquariums, for example, is the so-called nano-tank, a fish habitat designed to fit nicely on the corner of a desk (complete with USB plug-in, for your convenience). The tanks are sleek, but woe to the fish expected to live its entire life in six cups of water.
The way the pet industry advertises and sells animals gives the impression that having a pet is easy and fun, and that pets themselves are cheap and disposable toys. You can, for instance, stop at the pet store at the mall and, for $20, buy a brightly painted hermit crab, complete with a cage that would fit on a 5-by-7-inch index card. Yet did you know that the recommended size tank for adequate hermit crab welfare is at least 10 gallons? Or that hermit crabs, despite their name, are actually social creatures that live in large colonies? Or that the hermit crabs sold at the mall have most likely been plucked from their wild home, since they don’t breed well in captivity? That hermit crabs can live 30 years or longer? That they probably feel pain?
The ethical problems with the various small creatures we stuff into cages and tanks are relatively clear-cut. The more challenging moral questions, in my view, arise in relation to our closest furry friends: dogs and cats. Unlike animals that must spend their entire life in a cage or that must struggle to adapt to a human environment, most cats and dogs have it pretty good. Many have the run of our homes, share in many of the activities of their human families, and may even have opportunities to form social relationships with others of their kind. They have lived in close contact with humans for thousands of years and are well adapted to living as our companions. They can form close bonds with us and, despite species barriers, can communicate their needs and preferences to us, and we to them.
Yet the well-being of our cats and dogs is perhaps more compromised than most of us would like to admit. There are, of course, the obvious systemic problems like cruelty, neglect, abandonment, the millions wasting away in shelters waiting for a “forever home” that will never materialize or whose lives are snuffed out because they don’t or can’t behave the way a “good” pet should. But even the most well-meaning owner doesn’t always provide what an animal needs, and it is likely that our dogs and cats may be suffering in ways we don’t readily see or acknowledge. We can too easily forget that although we have an entire world outside our home, we are everything to our animals.
How many dogs, for instance, are given lots of attention inside a home, but rarely get outside? How many spend their weekdays inside and alone, while their owners are at work, save for the one or two times a dog walker or neighbor drops by for a few minutes to feed them and take them out briefly? Is it going too far to suggest that these dogs are suffering?
In addition to love, a dog or cat owner also has to have time, space, energy, patience, money and a strong sense of commitment to being there for and with their animal. The choice of being a pet owner is rarely thrust upon us unexpectedly. Saying no is often the most responsible option.
If we buy fewer dogs and cats from breeders and pet stores, the pet population boom might gradually taper off, and the numbers of abandoned animals in shelters should start to decline as well.
It may be hard to recognize the harmful aspects of pet keeping when all we hear is how beloved pets are, how happy they are to be in our company, and how beautiful and enduring the human-animal bond is. Advertisements showing golden-haired children frolicking with golden-haired puppies and YouTube videos of cats doing hilarious things make pet keeping look ever so precious.
Yet if we really care about animals, we ought to look beyond the sentimental and carefully scrutinize our practices. Animals are not toys — they are living, breathing, feeling creatures. Perhaps we can try to step into their paws or claws and see what being a pet means from their perspective. We might not always like what we see.
Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist, is the author of “Run, Spot, Run.”