Vet Ethics: Curly questions around wagging tails

A new book by an American author poses some troubling questions for veterinarians and our profession. The book is called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (University of Chicago Press). Its author is Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and writer on animal topics. For example, in Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, co-written with the famous scientist Mark Bekoff, Pierce challenged us to recognize the existence of genuine moral or ethical behavior in the nonhuman animal kingdom. This is a startling claim, because most of us assume that only human beings are capable of moral behavior. Pierce and Bekoff argued that this assumption is contradicted by scientific evidence about animal capabilities.

The challenges in Run, Spot, Run are of a different sort. Pierce aims to unsettle us – including the veterinary profession – with some difficult assertions and truths about pets and our relations with them. Indeed, she thinks there are some very thorny and deep problems inherent in the contemporary practice of pet keeping. Given that most veterinarians deal with companion animals, these claims are worth being aware of. After all, forming close relations with companion animals is really a very modern, historically late phenomenon. We are just starting to reflect on its meaning and implications.

I won’t survey all the problems Pierce raises in her book. But let’s briefly look at a few of them. One claim she makes is that most animals do not in fact make good pets, and that it is unethical to force them into that position. Animal species she thinks are not suitable for pet keeping include birds, rats, mice, guinea pigs, reptiles, crabs, insects, and many other exotics. Why? Because they tend to do relatively poorly in captivity; in general they have not adapted to the conditions of living amongst and with human beings. So they are more likely to suffer both poor health and mediocre welfare when kept as pets.

Pierce believes that it can be ethical to keep dogs and cats as companions, although she has some doubts about cats. That is because she worries that cats will not have the same freedoms and opportunities as dogs if they are restricted to being only indoors. And if they are allowed outside, there are problems with predation and misadventure. Still, Pierce does think that over millennia cats have adapted well to human – and canine – company, in contrast to many other species.

Even so, dogs and cats suffer on a rather large scale at human hands. One major issue is boredom. Another is anxiety. Many anxiety issues in animals are simply not diagnosed or treated, with suffering the result. Large numbers of animals are neglected, and countless pets end up languishing, until they are disposed of, in animal shelters. In addition, surprising numbers of pets are abused and maltreated.

Another of Pierce’s arguments concerns what she calls the “pet industry”. This industry – comprising pet food and pet product manufacturers, and pet lobby groups – have, she says, engineered the dangerous ideas that families are not complete without a pet, and that pets are always good for our wellbeing and health.

To convince us of the benefits of sharing our lives with pets, the industry spins a narrative of pets as a happy and necessary part of every healthy family. Not only that, but the industry convinces us that we can all engage in “responsible pet ownership”.

According to Pierce, the pet industry “preys on our love for animals and exploits it”. It creates the fiction that pets are a “right”, rather than a privilege that should be subject to careful and thoughtful consideration.

Although pets may bring advantages, Pierce argues, many families and individuals are simply not suited to having pets live with them. The public has, in a way, been conned by very clever promotional campaigns. Welfare issues and abandonment can be the result. And the demand for pets is partly met by production line puppy factory farms, which create much suffering, as well as genetic defects.

Indeed, Pierce would like to see the number of pets, and families who have pets, sharply fall off. She writes that her “hope is that it will decline in popularity, become far less profitable, and evolve into a more compassionate and animal-friendly affair”. This may not be something that all veterinarians would be pleased about!

I have mentioned just some of the strong reservations present in Run, Spot, Run about the popular practice of pet keeping. How does Pierce think we should we respond to this rather bleak news about pet suffering and exploitation?

The most obvious solution, which I mention time and time again, is to opt out of the system altogether and not have pets or support any facet of the pet industry. But this is not a solution that the animal lovers among us will want to hear.

Pierce finally argues that we might try to reform pet keeping rather than opt out of it completely. Nonetheless, she effectively suggests that it would be a respectable, even a laudable, response to refuse on moral principle to have companion animals, because having them supports the more dubious parts of the pet industry.


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