Saturday, October 31, 2015

Is our love for animals blind?

A French bulldog with stenotic nares, one of the components of brachycephalic airway syndrome.

Is our love for animals blind?

In Love Hurts – the Dark Side of Attachment to Companion Animals, bioethicist Peter Sandoe argues that our attachment isn’t always good for the animals we are attached to. The presentation, based on the work Professor Sandoe, Sandra Corr and Clare Palmer, questions the assumption that because we love our pets, they must enjoy good welfare. One, they argue, does not follow from the other.

They cite two examples:

Pet obesity and brachycephalia in dogs. Both conditions impact on an animal’s longevity and quality of life, and both problems are created by humans.

When it comes to obesity, studies have shown that the more an owner humanises a pet (allows it to sleep on their bed, talks to the animal) the more likely the animal is to be overweight. Love can be blind, they argue, and studies have shown that owners are often unable to accurately assess the weight of their pet.

He did make the point that we don’t know how common obesity is in animals, although body condition scoring which is considered the most useful approximation is routinely done in clinics where I have worked.

Either way, he argues persuasively that attachment is part of the equation when discussing the companion animal obesity epidemic.

When it comes to brachycephalia, scientists have argued that the flatter-faced breeds such as English bulldogs are appealing because of their infant like facial features, e.g. round heads and large eyes. Some of their pathology, including loud breathing and snoring, is interpreted as charming. Studies have shown that owners of these dogs tend to underestimate or fail to recognise clinical signs.
Professor Sandoe argues that the problems are in part generated because we are so attached to these animals.

This is a really interesting argument and a fascinating talk. I do agree that some overindulged pets suffer welfare problems, though would also add (and Prof Sandoe might agree) that some neglected (i.e. underindulged) pets suffer similar welfare problems. In the case of overweight animals, it may be the case that owners don’t adjust the caloric intake of their pet when their lifestyle changes, e.g. the owner gets very busy at work and stops walking the dog. In terms of brachycephalic animals, I would think there may be an element of not doing enough research before purchasing animals, and perhaps lack of education about spotting early signs of brachycephalic airway syndrome.

Professor Sandoe also touched on some other topics of ethical debate: should companion animals be routinely neutered (he believes the arguments are strong for neutering cats routinely, but not the same when it comes to dogs) and whether cats should be kept indoors (he does not believe this is ethically justifiable, as a rule).

He argues that ultimately we need to educate everyone (companion animal owners, vets, breeders etc but particularly owners) about the welfare implications of the specific health issues discussed, and their impact on an animal’s quality of life.

You can watch the seminar, via the Animal Welfare Science Centre, online here.