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Is your pet lonely and bored?
 


Jessica Pierce

NYT Syndicate

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 neighbourhood 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 behaviours ” 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.

Like me, well-meaning pet owners may unwittingly cause harm by keeping animals in captive environments that might not meet their behavioural needs, such as a small bowl for a lone goldfish or a 10-gallon glass tank with fake vines for a leopard gecko.

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 materialise 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 neighbour 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?

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 recognise 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.

Yet if we really care about animals, we ought to look beyond the sentimental and carefully scrutinise 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.


 
 

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