Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Are pets prisoners?

Dog stairs
Bosca isn't a prisoner, but he does like to sleep behind the stair railing.

There seems to be a goundswell of people questioning whether our animal companions love us, and if they do, which species loves usmore? 

But what if they don’t love us at all? Last week I had a number of emails from people concerned about an article entitled “Your Pet Doesn’t Love You – Its Just Trapped By You”  

This piece was written by a person who loves animals, but isn’t sure the feelings of her conspecifics who gush over their pets are requited.

“My problem is always with their owners, and with the word own,” writes Laura Marcus. “For many it seems to be about control. You can’t possibly control another human being the way you can an animal, though of course many try. Call a dog and it comes to you. Lovely. The slobbery greeting you get from a dog when you get back home gives a huge buzz. Someone loves you! No they don’t. A pet is relieved not to be alone, and probably wants its dinner.”

It’s a light-hearted article, but the pets-as-prisoners or pets-as-slaves analogy is not new and not always so light-hearted

Organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment ofAnimals have argued that many animals would have been better off (or at least more suffering avoided) “had the institution of pet keeping – i.e. breeding animals to be kept and regarded as “pets” – never existed.”

Well, they do. And humans and animals evolved together. But lets consider this position: contrary to popular opinion, this is not a call to turn companion animals onto the streets and bust open shelters. Rather, these kinds of views highlight some of the animal welfare problems associated with companion animal ownership.

So how come everyone is picking on companion animals? Since the rise of animal welfare science we’ve been forced, as a society, to review our use of and relationships to many species – laboratory animals, farm animals and wildlife, for example. Relatively speaking, pets have flown under the radar in terms of legislation, codes of practice and guidelines for ensuring their welfare. They’re our companions. We love them. Perhaps they love us. Their welfare is taken care of. So the thinking goes.

Work with companion animals, however, and we start to see welfare issues arising from the way they are cared for – or not cared for. Overpopulation, neglect, cruelty, animal hoarding, irresponsible breeding, puppy factories, and extremes in conformation are just some examples of human-animal relations which cause a huge amount of suffering to animals. The cruel irony is that at least some of these are inflicted by people who profess to love animals. Yet we’re more aware of welfare problems associated with invasive animal experiments and factory farming than we are with those of companion animals.

Wolfensohn and Honess pointed this out in a (less confronting)paper in Animal Welfare in 2007. Entitled “Laboratory animal, pet animal, farm animal, wild animal: which gets the best deal?”, the authors questioned our different regard to the welfare of animals “depending on the category into which the particular animal fits at a particular time – even though its ability to suffer is the same whatever the circumstance.”

The authors point out that we consider the welfare costs of our use of laboratory and farm animals – legislation, guidelines, ethics committees, labelling schemes and consumer demand, for example, all restrict what can be done to these species. Of course, many argue that such restrictions don’t go far enough. When it comes to wildlife the authors question our simultaneous concern for preserving life of valuable or charismatic species while we are happy to use many less-than-humane methods for control of wild animals that fall under the category of pests or vermin. In contrast, “Keeping animals as pets is generally perceived as not involving a welfare cost”.

And yet it does. Take the authors’ example, a puppy that suffers a simple limb fracture and superficial wounds in a road traffic accident. Perhaps this is an active puppy, the first surgery fails leading to mal-union of the bone fragments, requiring a second surgery. Later in life the dog develops early-onset arthritis and subsequently obesity due to reduced activity (and presumably no associated adjustment in caloric intake). The dog then develops chronic heart failure and respiratory distress. The welfare of this individual is compromised. Of course there are ways to address this compromise – pain relief, comfortable bedding, physiotherapy, environmental enrichment, mental stimulation, companionship, veterinary care… but without some or all of these, this dog may be worse off than animals in other contexts.

The authors argue that there are examples where laboratory animals and farm animals, for example, might enjoy better lifelong welfare, even though none of the harms suffered in the dog's case were intended. As Wolfensohn and Honess write,

“An animal’s quality of life and perception of its welfare is not affected by the reason for its life or the cause of its suffering, whereas human perception of welfare is affected by the animal’s use and any human intention to cause harm.
For the animal it is actually quality of life that matters – it is not what we think, or what we monitor, or how we score it, but what actions are taken that directly affect it.”

The author’s aren’t criticising companion animal keeping – they’re identifying some powerful limitations in our assessment of animal welfare.  Like the fact that “good welfare” is often equated with compliance with codes, provision of good management and resources, rather than outcome based measures. In addition, most animal welfare assessments are based on a “snapshot” of animal welfare at the time, rarely reflecting cumulative experience or lifetime suffering. Yet an animal’s perception of its welfare depends on past and current experience.

They developed a system that takes into account cumulative suffering and steps to mitigate this, which you can read about in their paper. It’s not perfect – no quality of life scoring system can be – but it is an interesting foundation for comparing the welfare of animals in different contexts.

So what about these arguments challenging companion animal ownership? I don’t think we should be afraid to admit that they are asking valid questions. They are pointing out that everyone who engages with animals (including companion animals) “needs to understand and accept their responsibility in delivering animal welfare”.

At its best, the human-non-human-animal bond is a form of mutualism where both species benefit. The point is that, like all relationships, this isn’t a given. It takes a bit of work and constant re-evaluation. That doesn’t mean the end of our relationships with companion animals. It just means being prepared to consider their welfare, as far as possible, from their perspective. The question really shouldn’t be “do pets love us?” and “how much?” but “what do the lives we give them look like from their perspective”, and “how do we close the gap (if there is one) between our professed love for them and what we do?”