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Should We Really Be Keeping Cats And Dogs — And Geckos — As Pets?

Mattia D'Antonio/iStockphoto
A red striped New Caledonian bumpy gecko, Rhacodactylus auriculatus.
Mattia D'Antonio/iStockphoto

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce includes pets — or "animal companions" — among her family members: a cat, two dogs and fish.

So, it's startling to read this passage near the beginning of her new book released this week, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets:

"We love our pets, so why worry about them? Well, maybe love is not enough. Maybe the 470 million-odd animals we call pets also need some moral attention. Their plight may be just as serious — and perhaps in some ways even more troubled — than the billions of animals caught in the wheels of agribusiness or the biomedical research industry."

Disturbing cases of neglected pets are known to all of us, but how could it be, I wondered, that pets deserve Pierce's deep, widespread concern?

Run, Spot, Run

The Ethics of Keeping Pets

by Jessica Pierce

Hardcover, 264 pages |

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Now that I've read Run, Spot, Run, I know the answer to that question.

Let's start with a statistic we've probably all heard: 9 of 10 pet owners consider their animals to be part of the family.

This number, it turns out, is drawn from a Harris Interactive Poll of 2,634 people, only 1,585 of whom had pets. Those 1,585 folks were asked simple — "leading," Pierce says — questions about their animals. From that incredibly thin foundation, a cultural narrative was born, one used to support the $50 billion-a year industry that sells us pet food, toys, veterinary services, cages, tanks and much more for our animals.

Sure, some pets truly are woven into the lives of families, but Pierce is saying that when we hear the pets-as-family line over and over, we should recognize it for what it is: a hard corporate sell. As she puts it: "A gossamer pets-are-family thread has been woven over the ugliness."

What ugliness? According to Pierce: At least 30 percent of "family" dogs and cats never once visit a veterinarian; lonely animals are confined to tanks, cages or backyards; high rates of animal cancer occur owing to the poor quality of pet food; people have sex with animals, including at animal brothels, at shocking rates; the "euthanasia" deaths carried out at animal shelters often aren't good deaths at all.

Last month, I conducted a Q&A with Pierce by email about her book. Here's our conversation:

Could you summarize for us a couple of the major ways that keeping animals as pets gives you pause?

The pet industry encourages people to buy pets, and the way animals are advertised and sold gives the impression that pet keeping is easy and fun. You can buy an animal for less than you can buy a new pair of shoes. And this makes it easy to underestimate the seriousness of the decision to bring an animal into our homes, and feeds into an attitude that animals are disposable.

My aim in writing Run, Spot, Run is to reinforce the fact that pet keeping involves taking responsibility for the life and well-being of a sentient creature, and giving an animal what he or she really needs is challenging and shouldn't be taken lightly. I also, perhaps even more importantly, want to raise awareness about the broader implications of the pet industry, for animals.

For example, now that I know the "backstory" on the reptiles and amphibians sold in many pet stores (the dismal conditions in which animals are "manufactured" — bred, transported and housed — before they arrive on the shelves, and the extremely high mortality rates), I would never buy a gecko from a big box pet store. The cost to the animals is just too high.

As you've just noted, it's not just cats and dogs you're talking about in the book.

No, in fact, I'm much less concerned about dogs and cats than I am other species of animal people keep as pets. I worry about exotics and wild animals, because their physical and psychological needs are extremely difficult to meet in a home environment. And I worry about animals who must live their entire lives in a cage or tank.

When kept alone in a small cage, birds, small mammals like hamsters and gerbils, and even fish lack adequate physical, mental, and social stimulation. Solitary confinement of human prisoners is considered a violation of basic human rights, yet this is essentially what we do to some of our pet animals. It just seems unfair to impose this on them, for the sake of our curiosity or entertainment.

I was surprised at your statement in the book that "Cats and captivity present, in my view, one of the most vexing pet-keeping conundrums." Why is this? Our six indoor cats seem to us very content: They enjoy sun patches, toys and bird-watching out the window, but, even more, the dual-species social dynamics of the eight of us in the house keep them thinking hard, and well-occupied. And they're not outdoors killing birds and small mammals.

I think the indoor/outdoor cat issue is vexing because we can't just go by a single rule or principle — because all cats are different, and each cat's home environment is different. Furthermore, both indoor and outdoor options have important downsides. What I find problematic are the hard-and-fast declarations such as "all cats must be kept indoors" or "all cats need to be outdoors."

It sounds like your cats have a wonderful life, and being indoors seems to be working really well for them and for you. I know a lot of other cats who have really good indoor lives and who seem quite content. But I also know cats who need more space to roam, who have a wandering spirit. Lots of cats are going crazy inside, if you go by reports of high numbers of behavioral issues and health problems such as obesity.

Pierce told me that when she starts worrying about all this too much, she takes her dogs to the local dog park, and relaxes with the well-cared-for dogs there who are part of a human family and also encouraged to be dogs.

Pierce doesn't at all demonize pet-keeping. She just asks us to remember how vulnerable our animal companions can be and that we should act to protect them. Her excellent book is for animals as much as about them.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.