Is it ethical to keep pets? Pete the Vet on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

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Is pet keeping a modern version of slavery?

Pet keeping seems “normal” to our culture, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, only becoming popular in the past century. So will it continue, or will we review our current attitude to sharing our lives with animals?
Some ethical philosophers have begun to question our right to treat animals as our propert. This new trend against pet keeping starts from the way that we increasingly humanise pets. Even science has begun to recognise the distinct emotional and conscious thinking life of animals.
The problem is that the more we see pets from that perspective, the less right we have to control every single aspect of their lives. We are forced to see pets less as property, and more as “non human persons”. In the US, pet owners are now called “guardians” or “pet parents” and even in Ireland, people talk about themselves as “mummy” or “daddy”, and pets as “boys” or “girls”.
So could a move against pet keeping be one of the next logical steps?

Here is the strapline for a book titled “Slaves of our Affection”
“Pet food manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians, shelters, humane societies, animal activists, factory farms, and many more are at the core of a subtle exploitation that operates under the guise of love and compassion”. Another quote: “the pet industry is a major component of our species’ oppression, exploitation, and abuse of nonhuman animals.”

And from another book, Run Spot, Run:
“From the animals that become dog and cat food and the puppy farms churning out increasingly unhealthy purebred canines, to the goldfish sold by the bag and the crickets by the box, pet ownership is problematic because it denies animals the right of self-determination. Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs.”

And in Hal Herzog’s 2010 book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, there was an analysis of the motivations of animal rights activists and whether it was emotion or intellect that pushed them towards activism. One of the subjects, Herzog says, was “very, very logical”. After he had become a vegan, eschewed leather shoes and convinced his girlfriend to go vegan, he considered his pet cockatiel. “I remember; he looked up wistfully. He said he got the bird, took it outside, let it loose and it flew up,” Herzog recalls. “He said: ‘I knew she wouldn’t survive, that she probably starved. I guess I was doing it more for myself than for her.’”

Herzog goes on to say: “You see these rises and falls in our relationships with pets. In the long haul, I think petkeeping might fall out of fashion; I think it is possible that robots will take their place, or maybe pet owning will be for small numbers of people. Cultural trends come and go. The more we think of pets as people, the less ethical it is to keep them.”

My own view on this that while there is a logical argument that we should respect the individuality of animals, and therefore in theory allow them to do their own thing, the world isn’t a logical place. We aren’t Mr Spocks. Animals add so much to our lives and seem for the most part to be happy being with us. Why change that for a theoretical argument?

Questions from listeners about pets

  • Our German shepherd {m} 5yrs..has inflammatory bowel..but has cracked lips..applying emollient moisturiser. Honora.
  • What are the rules re walking dogs in public? Should dogs not be on a leash when they are walked close to people?
  • Re current dog regulations Could Pete give an update on the law’s regulating dogs being kept on a lead in public, also the breeds that must be muzzled.  James Co Dublin
  • I have a 4 yr old female rescue Yorkshire terrier over a year now and she still barks at other members of the family when they walk into the room. She also barks at anything and I mean anything she sees out the window. The barking is driving us mad. How can we stop her? It’s either the dog or my marriage!
  • I have a goldfish but everytime I walk by his bowl he literally jumps up out of water it’s like I am giving him a fright, is this normal or should I move the bowl in another area. Lucy
  • We have a female pug, she’s 10 yrs old, and unfortunately developed tumors in her teats. It’s too much to op on, so what’s the likely time left with her? Sarah

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1 Comment

  • Mat Coulton says:

    Comparing pets to enslaved people is problematic for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is really insensitive to the experiences of actual enslaved people, which is by the way, still a thing. To compare pampered pets to that is simply ridiculous. I think the philosophers that are worrying over this are largely getting wound on absolutes, playing semantic games because that is mostly what philosophers do.

    If we want to pick nits….no one is free. Not one of us – people, dog, cat, butterfly. The constraints of survival operate as pressure on all of us whether we are aware of those pressures operating or not. The pressure to earn money to pay bills is not complete and utter freedom, even though lots of people like to pretend it is. I think a better question, a more reasonable question that has practical value is to consider the conditions under which we live and how we can improve them.

    Some people (and dogs) live in good conditions with ample food, love, shelter, exercise, stimulation. Others, people (and dogs) are less fortunate. Those conditions are worth talking about, worth developing politics around, worth engaging. Getting lost in trying to figure out if a pampered pet is equivalent to a slave is a waste of time and a distraction from actual issues that need addressing.

    Despite getting on my high horse, I appreciate this thought provoking post and cast. Definitely got some conversation going around the breakfast table this morning!

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