From an animal rights perspective, the domestication of any animal can be considered immoral since it involves using them as a means to an end and disregarding their intrinsic value. Gary Francione has underscored the inherent problems of domestication. In his view, the institution of pet ownership is incompatible with any theory of animal rights.
By domesticating an animal so that they become fit and dependent on living in a home they turn into property. Domesticated animals depend on humans for everything that is essential for their existence: when and whether they eat or drink, when and where they sleep, when they can relieve themselves, whether they get affection, when and whether they get any exercise, so forth and so on. But don’t the same rules apply to children? Yet we don’t consider the institution of child ownership to be a moral issue. Well, the important difference is that children will grow up to be self-sufficient independent people; animals will not.
Breeding an animal to be dependent on us is where the harm lies. Pets live in a constant state of vulnerability – they depend on us for survival and the wild becomes a completely alien landscape for them. Of course, pets retain many of their natural instincts, but because they have been bred to be servile, they simply would not be able to have any sort of natural existence in the wild. As Francione puts it, we have bred them into a world in which they do not truly belong.
The human demand for pets has created all sorts of problems. When pets are bred as accessories, used for fighting or just because they look pleasing or unique to us, then we forget that they have their own needs, desires and preferences. Constantly yelling at a dog when they ‘disobey’ you will only make them fear you and be frightened by you – hardly a pleasant life for them. Constantly ordering them to do what you want them to do fails to recognise that these animals have their own desires. Locking them up in a house all day, without giving them exercise or time to socialise with other dogs leads to frustration, stress and restlessness.
Puppies which are removed from their mothers and which are not properly socialised with other dogs are likely to become unfriendly and aggressive. This aggressive behaviour, which is totally the owner’s fault, may lead to the animal being put down. Dog and cat overpopulation is a very serious issue and it has devastating consequences for the lives of many animals. Many dogs and cats are abused, neglected and abandoned because their owners grow tired of looking after them. Pets which grow old or develop health problems are abandoned by the owner who cannot afford to look after them or simply cannot be bothered.
Furthermore, because of the overpopulation issue, many animals will never have an owner but will live our their entire lives in a cage. Animal shelters are ill-equipped to handle the number of animals they receive, so many will have to be euthanized. A lack of spaying and neutering is also to blame for this problem. Pet shops will sell cats and dogs who haven’t been spayed or neutered and will go on to reproduce, creating litter for which there are no homes. Stray cats and dogs will live even more miserable lives than their caged counterparts. Furthermore, stray cats and dogs may not be spayed or neutered, leading to more unwanted litter.
The demand for ‘designer pets’, who are treated as commodities to be traded and owned as accessories to be flaunted, has negative consequences for the animal in question. Persian cats and pug dogs, who are bred to have ‘cute’ squashed faces, can develop sinus and breathing problems, and weeping eyes. Bulldogs, bred to look butch and stocky and to have a short-nosed shape skull, often suffer respiratory problems. Many dogs and cats are bred to have short legs – unfortunately for these animals, it makes it very difficult for them to walk or run properly. Breeders treat their animals like breeding machines, forcing them to produce their valuable litter, then when they grow too old they will be considered useless and therefore killed.
80% of Bulldogs are born by a caesarian section because they are bred to have large heads, making a natural birth extremely difficult, painful and even life-threatening (both for the mother and the puppy). Breeding pets or buying them from breeders should be avoided at all costs. The demand for cute puppies is also a major issue in the UK. It has resulted in ‘puppy farms’, where puppies are bred for profit. Living conditions are poor and the puppies are often not properly socialised.
The animal rights position is therefore unequivocally opposed to the institution of pet ownership. In fact, the very term ‘pet’ assumes that these animals are bred purely for human purposes. But does this mean that an animal rights advocate is opposed to having domestic ‘pets’ in their house? Not necessarily. By taking an unwanted animal into your home you are giving them a much better life than they would otherwise have. Adopting or fostering as many animals as possible should be encouraged. It would be better to refer to these animals as ‘companions’ and as family members, as opposed to ‘pets’ since this doesn’t assume a master-slave relationship.
Of course, while it is ethical to adopt an animal from a shelter, the inherent problems of breeding cannot be ignored. As Francione puts it:
…if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end.