Creature Comforts: The Ethics of Keeping Pets

Responsible & loving pet ownership

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Recently I’ve become slightly obsessed with a pet rescue charity in Harbin, China. Through social media, I watch them save abandoned dogs from starvation on the streets or from meat trucks, and I squeeze my own dog, JD, just a little bit tighter. Last summer, twelve pet dogs died in Harbin when somebody sprinkled rat-poisoned sausages outside a gated community. These awful stories inevitably get me thinking about how differently our pets live over here.

In the UK, about one in two households own a pet, at a cost of as much as £25,849 across the lifetime of some of our most popular dog breeds. We’re a nation that invests in our pets financially and emotionally: we have extensive veterinary services, pet-friendly holidays, hotels and restaurants, animal hospice care for our elderly cats and dogs, and an array of dietary and other products that cater to our animals’ needs. I was even reading about recent proposals to make certain LA dog shelters vegan: if an organic plant-based diet is good enough for humans, why not our pets?

So I tell my little King Charles Cavalier how lucky he is to live here in suburban Woodford, with his artisan dog food, three dog beds and daily romps around Epping Forest. Pete and I are JD’s third owners and he was understandably a pretty scared dog when he came to us five years ago. Since then he’s completely changed, and enhanced, our lives, bringing an unimaginable measure of joy, laughter and comfort – and I hope that we’ve enhanced his life too. If I sound like I’m talking about a child, it’s because for Pete and I, JD is our world; he was the ringbearer at our wedding and walked down the aisle with my bridesmaids. I freak out if I think there might be anything wrong with him… I once rushed him to the vets thinking the strand of hair he’d got in his eye was a papercut. Yes, I’m that owner.

– JD –

I’m also a vegan and a passionate animal rights advocate. The idea that vegan owners should extend their values to their dogs’ diets is actually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ethical dilemmas of pet keeping for an animal activist. The very notion of owning a dog or cat poses difficult questions for many vegans who protest our right to ‘own’ and thus exploit animals in industry.  In fact, the disconnection between the way people ignore the welfare of farm animals while treating dogs and cats like members of their own family is a longstanding bone of contention for animal advocates. Yet these inconsistencies are arguably just as present in the vegan call for the freedom of domestic farmed animals, but not our own pets.

Do I personally feel ethically conflicted about this?

Not really.

– JD and I on the beach –

In my view, keeping an animal as a companion isn’t unethical in the same way as rearing one for food, so long as that animal’s welfare isn’t compromised. When dogs and cats are well-treated, their welfare is conceivably higher than that of their undomesticated relatives (say, a wolf or coyote).

Obviously pet ownership denies animals the right to make their own choices to a significant extent, but freedom in the sense of ‘going back to the wild’ has zero meaning for our modern-day pets. Interestingly, there have been recent discoveries of ancient carvings showing a man with ‘leashed’ dogs, suggesting that we actually domesticated dogs over 8000 years ago. It therefore seems crazy to equate the needs of domestic dogs with those of wild animals; they’ve been quite separate beasts for thousands of years.

Instead, why not acknowledge that our animals are dependents but find ways to allow them as much physical and behavioural freedom as possible within that relationship? Cats able to come and go as they please – and dogs allowed long runs, sniffing all the interesting scents they come across – enjoy lots of freedom yet also benefit from shelter, guaranteed food, veterinary treatment and all the paraphernalia of modern pet care. I doubt many animals would thank their owners for turning them out into the night to fend for themselves. And crucially, unlike farm animals, we are not raising our pets to be killed for meat: rather, we hope they will live long, happy lives.

– JD and I –

As any dog owner knows, when we put the best interests of the animal first, pets become less ‘property’ and more ‘family’. Recently a woman on the A Life Loved Facebook group shared stories about the emotional roles their own pets play in their lives. The outpouring of love and affection showed beyond doubt that most people value and cherish their companion animals, and would go beyond the necessary to ensure they live the happiest, most comfortable lives possible.

I see videos of Annabel’s beautiful dogs romping across the Yorkshire dales and I can’t imagine more joyful animals.

– JD taking a swim –

There are so many mutual benefits experienced by both owner and pet in a responsible companionship situation. A recent 12-year Swedish study looked at 3.4 million people over 40 years old and found that having a dog was associated with a 20% lower risk of death. The study found the biggest positive impact of having a dog was on people living alone: dogs encourage you to exercise and leave the house, to interact more with other people. They provide social support and they make life more meaningful.

For an elderly person who has lost their life partner, a dog or cat can be an emotional lifeline. Similarly, previously socially-isolated autistic children have been shown to benefit enormously from the affection of companion animals. The charity dogsforthedisabled.org gives normally dependant people freedom and motivation through dogs (you can read first-person accounts on human lives on their website). For a physically disabled person, a service animal can be the gateway to a full and meaningful life, and consequently the guide dog is one of our most valued members of society.

One only has to speak with a guide dog owner to understand the incredible bond they share with their animal, and the profound respect that forms the core of this attachment.

– Cat high five –

In return for all that they give to us, our animals benefit from our companionship in ways that go beyond food and shelter. There is scientific evidence that dogs exhibit a pleasurable oxytocin release when being stroked by a human. People sometimes say to me ‘Your dog doesn’t really love you; he just knows you’re the one who feeds him’. I don’t think I’m deluded in disagreeing – my dog shows me huge affection even when he’s just eaten and there’s no meal on the cards. There are also far reaching benefits for animal welfare – children who grow up with well cared for pets are more likely to feel responsibility towards the creatures with whom we share our homes and ultimately our planet.

A member of the A Life Loved community recently admitted that she feels terrible distress thinking of animals suffering because she grew up with them, declaring “they’re a huge part of my life and I feel like I have a personal responsibility to them”. Clearly owning a pet is an essential aspect of developing empathy with four-legged creatures. It also shows us without a doubt that they have the same feelings of pleasure and pain that we do.

There are some kinds of pet keeping, however, that cannot be ethically justified. The arguments above apply to animals suited to living in human company, whose needs we understand and are mostly able to meet.  In relation to exotic animals, too often we don’t even have ‘rough guidelines’ for their care. Keeping a lizard alone in a glass tank for its whole life can’t possibly benefit the animal, nor keeping a goldfish alone in an empty bowl or a parrot in cage. These creatures have complex requirements that we can’t understand or cater for in our homes, no matter how much love we show them.

– A caged dog –

We must know that we’re able to look after an animal before we commit to its care, and too often people jump into the decision without thinking it through. According to the Dog’s Trust, every year more than 45,000 dogs are abandoned by their owners in the UK, many of which have to be put down. On top of this, over 100,000 strays are picked up by UK councils each year.

That’s a staggering number of unwanted dogs. We also need to think carefully about where we get our pets from; when you buy a puppy from a breeder or a pet shop like Harrods, you encourage the creation of more dogs when there are so many already desperately needing homes. You might even be inadvertently supporting a puppy mill, horrendous places where dogs are essentially factory farmed. Whether from a reputable source or not, I don’t personally believe there is ever a good reason to buy a ‘new’ dog when there are so many already desperate for homes. Many animal advocates call for breeding to be illegal until all the dog shelters are empty, even if this means losing certain breeds.

Whether or not you agree with this, it seems indisputable that there should be far more restrictive regulations on breeding, stricter licenses and much higher sentences for unregistered breeders.

– Pugs –

This relates to another hugely problematic issue with modern pet keeping – the popularity of flat-faced (“brachycephalic”) dog breeds, engineered by breeders to look ‘cute’ with severe health consequences. Most pugs and other short-nosed breeds suffer from respiratory problems, eye prolapse and obesity, and their heads are too big for them to be born naturally. It is arguable that these poor dogs have their welfare compromised by human owners from birth.  King Charles Cavaliers also suffer from heart and eye problems inherited over years of breeding; I’ve lost count of the number of strangers who’ve seen JD and immediately shared a heart-breaking tale of their own Cav’s premature death (thanks for that). Why do we do this to our ‘best friends’?

It’s hard to find pugs and French Bulldogs adorable or amusing when their squashed faces and heavy panting tell a deeply sad tale of human selfishness.

– Sad pug –

There can also be issues when we love our pets so much that we can’t make rational decisions about what is actually best for their welfare. The rising obesity statistics among overfed dogs and cats testify to the adage ‘killing with kindness’. There is also the painful decision that an owner has to make when their pet gets too old or sick to live a comfortable life. Unlike humans, animals can’t endure immediate pain by imagining a better future, making it cruel to put them through painful operations to prolong their lives.

Often owners do so simply because they don’t want to let their pet go. Jessica Pierce writes candidly about her own experience in this situation in her harrowing book The Last Walk, a lesson in crossing the line between humane and selfish end of life care.

– Happy cat –

All this shows that keeping a pet is not a decision to be taken lightly. We need to be sure that we can cater to the physical and emotional needs of our animals, that we are adopting responsibly and not supporting breeders who care more about money than their dogs. We need to make sure that we put our pet’s needs before our own when it comes to making difficult decisions about their welfare. And perhaps we should all read this article about how to make life better for our pets…

– JD and I taking a snooze –

Nonetheless, in the case of healthy dogs and cats able to express their natural behaviours and benefit from the dedicated care and affection of their owners, it’s hard to see anything but mutual love and benefit. Yes, our pets depend on us for so many things. But we also depend on them for comfort and companionship. So rather than worrying about the ethics of keeping our pets, let’s acknowledge how lucky we are to have them in our lives and do everything we can to deserve them.

Whether or not we feel comfortable with it, we hold tremendous power over our animals’ lives. They are counting on us to use that power responsibly, to be people that they can depend upon.

Let’s not let them down.

– My husband and JD –

Main image by Richard Skins Photography

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24 Comments

  • What a brilliant piece Alice. I’d like to add to your exotics point – as well as lizards and fish being terribly abused out of ignorance/lack of research, guinea pigs suffer a similar fate. The amount of people who buy them (when there’s overflowing rescue centres too) thinking they’re an easy children’s pet that doesn’t need much time or space… it’s awful. They’re one of the most demanding animals and need a huge amount of space and care.

    I don’t have any home-based pets these days as I don’t have the time but one day I would love a whole menagerie! I do have a horse though, who is utterly spoilt 🙂

  • Thanks Caroline, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Such a good point about guinea pigs – I think this applies to quite a few small animals that people traditionally keep as pets, especially when they don’t read up on their proper care. For instance, buying pairs of animals when they need to be kept separate, or conversely buying only one when they’re incredibly social creatures. When I was home over Christmas I was talking with my parents about a rabbit I owned growing up, who died after a really short time. My mum told me that the vet had said he’d actually just died of stress from being kept in a cage, and this is fairly common for rabbits. How devastating is that!

  • I absolutely agree with all of this, Alice. As a Cat Mom, I’m constantly worried about our cat being happy–domestic cats are far more closely related to their wild counterparts than dogs (because as you said, dogs have been domesticated for so much longer). I am so so passionate about feeding our girl a raw food diet–cats are obligate carnivores and cannot digest things like grains. You’d never see a lion eating cereal! However, she’s an indoor cat (we allow supervised garden wanders), which I know a lot of people disagree with, but to be frank, I find it irresponsible to allow cats to basically roam free. The life span of a mostly-outdoor cat is something like less than half that of an indoor cat. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if she got out of our garden and was hit by a car, or ate something poisonous. I think for cat owners especially, it’s really important (and a bit difficult!) to find that balance between allowing them the freedoms that they insinctually want, and keeping their health and well-being a top priority.

    • Thanks Haley! Re cats roaming free, there’s also the issue of them killing wildlife which is a surprisingly big problem. It’s a toughie – there’s a chapter in a book I read recently called ‘Animal’s Agenda’ which weighs up the pros and cons. Some people say it’s better to let their cat live a shorter but happier/more free life (I guess this also applies to dogs being allowed off leads) but that’s easy to say and harder to do when you really love your pet! Pete and I are really really paranoid about where we let JD off, and he probably has a less fun life because of it. However, he’s not well trained enough to come back when we call him every time and doesn’t understand traffic. Which again is our fault! What we should do is train him better which would then allow us to give him more freedom. Of course, you can’t really train a cat in the same way!

  • This is such an important article thanks so much and thank you also for causing me to stop and consider such that now we will do everything we can to give a dog an amazing life rather than be served on a plate or used as experimental apparatus.

  • Gorgeous dog and a beautifully written article. For me, simply giving a dog/cat/whatever a loving home in a world where there’s so much cruelty to animals, is an amazing thing to do. Having said that, being a responsible owner (above and beyond just a good owner) is really important. My husband and I have both grown up around dogs and desperately would like one of our own, but with our present work situations we couldn’t give it the time and attention it deserves. Equally, my husband is adamant that he wants a Lab when we eventually have a family, but whilst they are the perfect family dog, we’ve both had Labs that have died far too young, as they are a breed which seem to come with lots of problems. Owning a pet is a huge commitment and not something to do on a whim, ie at Christmas! X

    • So so true. I had a rescue golden retriever growing up and he was incredible. You can definitely find specific breeds in rescues if you search and hold out long enough! Also, you could adopt a dog from abroad where breeds like labs aren’t as valued as they are here. A few people have mentioned getting rescues from China and other places recently, and then you’re really giving a broken dog a new chance at life!

  • Fantastic article Alice. I’d be totally on board with no more breeding unhealthy animals and getting people to rescue a dog as a priority. Like others, our current situation makes dog ownership impossible but I hope that once we leave London we can get a cat and then when we are at home a lot more a dog. I’ve grown up with pets and simply can’t imagine a family feeling complete without one.

    • Aw, I hope you manage to find an amazing home and a kitty to go with it soon! I work from home so having a dog in London is feasible, although JD actually never sits with me anymore – he goes off to another room and sleeps by himself! Unsociable mutt.

  • Great article (and the pictures!), and I’m glad I’m not alone in my animals being the centre of my universe!
    I think the ’emotional’ care of animals really is something that people can struggle to grasp; not all animals are created equal, with the same needs.
    I’ve seen too many first time dog owners assume that the terribly pretty fluffy cockapoo they’ve bought just wants snuggles and a walk around the roads in a natty sweater….you have bought the combination of two highly intelligent and active breeds, it needs its brain stimulating! And then they complain and hand it in to a rescue centre when it chews the sofa because it’s bored out of its mind (sweeping generalisation but sadly I’ve known this exact scenario).

    • Ugh, I know! There’s a fitness YouTuber who has a chihuahua that she dresses up. She’s always picking it up and plopping it about, and physically forcing it to sit next to her exercise mat in the videos. The way she handles this dog is literally like it’s a handbag or soft toy. It makes me really annoyed (although admittedly I still do her videos because she’s transformed my abs! )

  • The question of the balance of a ‘natural’ life Vs a pet/ domesticated life is so interesting. For farm animals, provision of food and shelter, safety from predators, prevention or treatment of disease, and freedom from the risk of starvation in hard times Vs the loss of freedom to roam etc. For pets similarly they are behaving less ‘naturally’ but in return have provided food, shelter, medical care, and love. Haley makes a good example about cats – kept indoors they are safe from cars, fights, some poisoning risks, and often more long lived, but need more from us to enrich their environment and keep them happy

    • You’re right, it’s such a tricky balance and impossible to reduce to simple black and white arguments. I don’t eat animal products, even high welfare ones, because I don’t like the byproducts of the farming industry as a whole (slaughtered male chicks, killing of ‘useless’ male calves, loss of wild animals due to destruction of habitats for farming and feed crops). But shouldn’t I then apply that attitude to the pet industry and see stray dogs as a byproduct that should stop me supporting it, no matter the high welfare of some pets? I understand see why abolitionist vegans boycott all human use of animals, from pets to bees, when you look at it that way. But I don’t think it’s really that simple when there are significant ways that animals benefit from our care. Our relationships with animals aren’t ALWAYS exploitative, in my view.

      • I think in the UK we are lucky in some ways, as we have so few stray dogs and cats on the streets here. However, this often means people are unaware of the number of homeless pets there are – at least they are safe in a rescue kennel but they would probably be better in a home! I wonder if that’s behind the rise in people rescuing from overseas rather than the UK – because we think that there aren’t dogs needing homes in the UK?

  • Gorgeously written and thought-provoking. I’ll tell Lawrence it’s your fault when I come home with a puppy, because how could I not now?! X x x

  • I can’t put into words the joy that rescuing our dog has brought in the past year. We know little about her past but what we do know isn’t happy. 12 months in and she is a different dog to the one we first met; her eyes are bright, her coat is soft, her ribs are no longer prominent. When she lies on her back and leaves herself vulnerable (and also open for tickles!), it makes my heart swell.

    I feel so lucky that we are able to offer her a second chance at happiness.

    • This is so lovely – a dog’s trust is such a special thing and it’s devastating when they lose faith in humans. It’s fantastic that now you have her trusting people again!

  • Alice, what a fantastic read! I couldn’t agree more, particularly about people rushing into buying/adopting a dog.
    My partner and I thought long and hard before getting our dogs, I made sure it was right for us and more importantly – them.
    I researched every aspect of canine diet and I now feed raw. Whilst I know it’s not for all I feel I am making the best choice possible for my two dogs. I, like you, am also really cautious of were I let mine off leash. In some respects I agree they could be “more free” however by them being off leash in areas I know I have less control I am putting them at greater risk of being hurt or worse.
    I like to feel that I am providing the best possible life for my pets and whilst I know not everyone is a “pet person” I hate how judged I am just because I make my dogs life a priority. Many times I get “you’re so young, do you not feel tied down?” Or “you should be going on exotic holiday not ones with your dogs”. Why not?! They enrich my life everyday and I hope in treating them the way I do means that they themselves feel enriched and are happy within themselves and within my family.
    Such a lovely piece which resonated with me so much – thankyou!

  • Nice article. Really enjoyed to read it and also good authors recommendations (Jessica Pierce, Marc Bekoff). I am myself just started “animals amongst us – John Bradshaw” and it might be also a great book concerning the topic human animal bond.

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