Credit: Krista Mangulsone via Unsplash

Is it really okay to own pets?

By Iona Macwhirter-Harley

Kidnapping, codependency and forced isolation: is this really the way we should be treating animals?

When I’m at my most unbearable – after suggesting that the government solves national debt by simply printing more money without telling anyone – I like to ask people if they think that pets suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon which involves a person in captivity developing a positive attachment towards their captor. This is attributed to their fear and decreased ability to care for themselves over time. 

I’m anthropomorphising here, and it’s a completely ridiculous idea, but when I first considered the question it did make me view owning animals in a different light. We take animals from their mothers and siblings, keep them securely in our houses and prevent them from running away. By not allowing them to be trained how to survive by their own kind, we make them entirely dependent on us. 

“Anthrozoologist” John Bradshaw studies the relationship between humans and animals. He finds this dependency to provide explanation for the perceived “heroic” actions of pets, like a dog protecting its owner from attack. The dog is only doing what it has been conditioned to: to please its owner. I’d say there’s an issue not with owning pets in general, but instead with the human ability to cause immense harm to animals by participating in a harmful breeding industry and putting human enjoyment before the needs of the pet. 

Keeping animals as “pets” – that is, purely for human enjoyment and companionship – is a recent phenomenon. Humans have domesticated animals for tens of thousands of years, and as a result dogs have developed to socially interact with humans, but they were generally put to work. The first evidence of pet ownership comes from European royalty a few hundred years ago when humans started to commission pet portraits, make clothing with special little pockets for small dogs to sit in (seriously), and – critically – breed them for specific aesthetic characteristics

Selective breeding is amongst the most abhorrent aspects of pet ownership. It is the most obvious treatment of the animals we claim to love and care for as objects rather than living beings with rights. We are manipulating their bodies for our pleasure. The squashed faces of pugs can cause them breathing issues, and the gene which creates the Dalmatian spots we all know and love is known to also cause deafness in around 30% of the breed. Yet, people continue to buy them from breeders because they are “cute”.

“Selective breeding is amongst the most abhorrent aspects of pet ownership.”

A primary issue is that we are selective in how we anthropomorphise our furry companions. We believe that given the choice our pets would choose to live with us, that they are members of our families and that they are capable of “loving” us. Simultaneously, we negate the fact that dogs are highly sociable pack animals, separate them from their own kind and leave them in the house while we are at work which is akin to solitary confinement

Pets have longer and healthier lives under human care than they would have in the wild but we are also prone to subjecting them to painful and artificial elongation of life. Why? Because we cannot bear to let them go. Aged eight, when my pet rat was on death’s door, the vet asked me if I thought it should be put into an oxygen tent to extend its life by a matter of days (of course, to a high cost for my mother). Sometimes, unfortunately, vets want money, kids want companions, and parents want happy kids. In cases like this, the pets are the ones who suffer. 

Pets give extraordinary richness to human life. Owning them can teach children about life, death and caring for others. Their companionship can be incredibly important for those who live alone. On the other hand, though, we need to recognise that these benefits are for humans, not for the animals themselves. In fact, Bradshaw also notes that a popular belief that pets are beneficial to human health and happiness – which research has found to be questionable – encourages people to buy animals without proper research or concern for the animal’s wellbeing. Again, viewing an animal as a commodity rather than a life in themself perpetuates harmful breeding practices.

Pet ownership must therefore begin with the animal’s wellbeing front-and-centre. Rescuing is ideal – give care to an animal who really needs it. At the very least, we should ensure that the pets we buy are not in pain, discomfort, or suffering as a result of our ownership. That is the bare minimum. 

Humans aren’t going to give up our pets anytime soon, but we need to do right by them. Animals do not exist to please us. 


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