Americans own more than 200 million pets. This includes at least 70 million dogs and 74 million cats but also fish, birds, rabbits, ferrets, rodents, and reptiles. Between aquarium filters and hamster wheels, kibble and doggie day care, we are expected to spend more than $60 billion on them this year alone — and that’s not counting the hours spent training them, playing with them, and posting their pictures on Instagram.
It’s easy to make fun of America’s pet obsession, but for bioethicist Jessica Pierce, our pet-keeping culture raises bigger issues. Is it ethical, she asks, to own animals at all? And are we doing right by the creatures that share our homes? In her new book, “Run, Spot, Run,” Pierce explores the philosophical implications of keeping animals for our own pleasure, subject to our control — and, more dangerously, to our whims.
Pierce spoke to Ideas by phone from her home in Colorado, where her family includes two mixed-breed dogs, Maya and Bella. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: Why should we worry about pets? After all, some animals are raised for meat or medical research. Aren’t pets lucky in comparison?
PIERCE: We tend to think of pets as this protected, happy, well-cared-for group of animals, and some are — but a lot of them are not. In certain ways, the plight of animals that are kept in homes is actually worse than animals kept in labs or in the food setting because at least for those animals there are some minimal [legal and regulatory] protections. You can pretty much do whatever you want in your home with an animal.
Not everybody takes the responsibility seriously, and some people actually exploit pet animals. The level of cruelty and abuse is beyond what most people realize. People do unspeakable things. One of the things that was most disturbing to me in researching this book was the sexual abuse of animals. Then there are the less obvious things, like the number of dogs that are chained in a backyard and never get off the chain, ever. The number of dogs and cats and sundry other creatures whose sole purpose in life is just to be breeding machines. The number of animals that are being killed in shelters.
IDEAS: Most people who have pets, especially those who consider themselves “pet parents” rather than owners, would agree that what you just described is horrible. But you don’t let responsible, devoted pet owners off the ethical hook either.
PIERCE: A lot of people I’ve talked to about this book have a nagging concern that pet-keeping is all about us. It’s a selfish act to take this animal and make it ours. Their entire life is in our hands. That’s a pretty onerous responsibility if you take it seriously.
IDEAS: You’re critical of some practices that most of us take for granted as part of being a responsible pet owner — for instance, training your dog. But isn’t it in everyone’s best interest for a dog to be well behaved?
PIERCE: If you looked at my dogs, you’d say, “Oh, my God. Those are the most ill-mannered dogs I’ve ever seen.” I let them pull [on the leash], I let them sniff, I let them stop and pee on what they want to pee on. I do it consciously because I think they need to have some independence and some choices. On the other hand, dogs have to live in a human environment, so they have to be trained to some extent. It’s just a delicate balance between giving them enough freedom and control over their own choices and keeping them good members of the community. We have a fence, for example, and it’d be nice if [our dogs] had a life without a fence, but they have to stay in the fence.
IDEAS: What about cats? Once they’re outdoors, you can’t keep them contained as easily. Isn’t it better for them — let alone for the wildlife they kill — to stay indoors?
PIERCE: Yeah, that’s really tough. I don’t think outdoor cats is the way to go, necessarily. But claiming that all cats can be perfectly happy indoors is not true. I know my cat, Thor, was not happy inside.
IDEAS: Did you let him out?
PIERCE: We did. He lived inside for three years, and he was never happy. He spent his entire day sitting at the glass door or at the window, wanting to go out. Finally, after many months of family discussion, we said, “OK, we’re going to open the door, and he may or may not survive.” It was a really, really hard choice, but he loved it. He was so happy — and he also only survived a year. One night he didn’t come back. I still question whether we made the right choice. I’m very sad about Thor, but ultimately, I think, for him, it was the right thing to do.
IDEAS: Another accepted tenet of responsible pet-ownership is spaying and neutering. But you’re critical of that practice as well. Can you explain?
PIERCE: It’s a little bit sad for our animals never to have the experience of having sex or having babies. For us, that’s a really important, meaningful part of our experience as mammals. It’s a pretty basic drive, and it’s not nothing that we take that away from them.
Given the way people keep pets right now in the United States, spay/neuter is the best solution, but if you look at some other countries, they have very little trouble with unplanned pregnancies because people are more responsible about keeping their dogs fenced and under control, and there are fewer dogs. It’s also another argument for keeping cats inside.
IDEAS: Isn’t it worse, though, for them to have the drive but to have it frustrated?
PIERCE: Yeah, that’s a really good point and that’s part of the calculus. Pet-keeping means that we have to control that aspect of their lives entirely, so it’s one potential argument against pet-keeping itself.
IDEAS: Another practice we take for granted is euthanasia — you’re not supposed to let your pet suffer at the end of its life.
PIERCE: People are given this really black or white scenario: Your animal is suffering, therefore you need to euthanize. There are so many ways that good veterinary care can alleviate suffering, but we tend to jump to euthanasia a little too quickly. If your grandma gets sick, or is given a diagnosis of cancer, you don’t have her euthanized. You get treatment. You do what you can. You take care of her until her last breath.
IDEAS: We’ve been talking mostly about cats and dogs, but you also write about so-called pocket pets, like hamsters, guinea pigs, and hermit crabs. These animals seem to be simpler and require less from us, but you say we probably shouldn’t own them at all.
PIERCE: The biggest problem is that they have to live their entire life in a cage. It’s really hard to provide an animal with an environment in which they can really thrive within the home, particularly if these animals are kept as curiosities or entertainment for a child. Animals get bored. And they often don’t do very well. The lifespan of, say, a goldfish, would be quite long — 25 years — but if they’re lucky they usually live a couple of months in a bowl, and then they float to the top and get flushed down the toilet, and you go get another.
IDEAS: You’re concerned about the sheer number of pets in America. What would be the right size pet population?
PIERCE: I haven’t thought about putting an actual number on it, but maybe cutting it by eight-tenths? We really need to put the brakes on the speed with which we’re acquiring pets. I’d like to see the sale of live animals in pet stores come to a stop. And ideally we would phase out the keeping of nearly all animals short of cats and dogs.
IDEAS: But you’re not actually against pet-keeping. What are some of the positives that tip the scale for you?
PIERCE: I can’t imagine my life without dogs. It’s a kind of friendship that’s very rare, and it’s different from the friendship that you form with a human. There is something very special about being part of an interspecies pack, a multispecies family. They add something, some element that is different than the human.
Good pet-keeping is a reciprocal bond, where people know their animals as individuals, where the majority of their life they’re really happy, and where they are truly part of the family — not just when it’s convenient for their owner.
Amy Crawford has written for Boston Magazine, Smithsonian, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.