Is owning pets ethical? Here’s the truth about pet happiness.

Is owning pets ethical? Here’s the truth about pet happiness.

Some days, when the doomscrolling becomes too much, I switch up my social media consumption to something I call petscrolling. It’s the act of swiping through an endless feed of Instagram reels featuring resilient three-legged rescue dogs hiking in the woods, feisty yet charming shop cats, and the occasional potbellied pet pig splashing around in a kiddie pool.

The internet is awash in this feel-good content starring some of the 250 million animals — nearly one for every person — who populate American households. It all reinforces the inherent goodness of the ancient human-animal bond, and lets us believe that where there are pets — whom most owners consider to be family members — there is joy, love, play, and hope.

There’s plenty of all that in my household, thanks to my sweet and spunky rescued pit bull mix, Evvie, one of many animals I’ve lived with during my lifetime. In the middle of 2020, she was picked up as a stray puppy in Greenville, North Carolina, before being passed through several foster homes. My partner and I took her home the day we met her, but only after hours of deliberation over whether I felt I had the time and energy to give her the life she deserved. (Evvie was young and full of energy, and I had just started at Vox.)

Two photos of the authors dog. In one, she’s sitting next to a plant, in the other she’s on the beach.

Nine-month-old Evvie being cute at home and at the beach.
Kenny Torrella/Vox; Amruza Birdie

Evvie instantly added so much to our lives, and for a while, I assumed our relationship was reciprocal and that she gets just as much from our bond as I do. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if she’s a lot more bored and frustrated than I previously thought. That led me to read the stirring 2016 book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets by author and bioethicist Jessica Pierce.

Pierce wants to show people like me the shadows beneath the sunny narrative of pet ownership, things like physical abuse, animal hoarding, puppy mills, dog fighting, and bestiality.

But beyond such extremes, Pierce’s work aims to direct our gaze to where more subtle, but far more common, forms of everyday neglect and cruelty lie. To Pierce, even well-meaning pet owners may have a lot to answer for: punitive training, prolonged captivity and extreme confinement, mutilations (declawing, ear and tail docking), outdoor tethering, lack of autonomy, verbal abuse, monotonous and unhealthy diets, lack of grooming, and inadequate veterinary care. (In 2016, about one-fifth of dog owners and half of cat owners didn’t bring their animal in for routine or preventive care, which is highly recommended.)

Add to the bill lack of exercise and socialization, boredom, and even abandonment. (Almost one-fifth of pet owners surveyed late last year said they were considering giving up their pets due to cost amid high inflation, which is generally not an option for other “family members.”)

All this is possible because, unlike children, pets aren’t really family members — they’re property without legal rights and few laws to protect them. And because abuse and neglect primarily occur in the privacy of the home, there’s little accountability for it. Even the most responsible pet owners, which I’d count myself among, are bound to fail to meet the needs of their animals due to other responsibilities and the inherent challenges of keeping a dog or cat in a world made for humans.

We may see ourselves as the best of animal lovers, but we very well could be inflicting suffering on our pets every day.

Pet-keeping “is like a sacred cow in a way,” Pierce told me. “Everybody assumes that pets are well off, and in fact, pampered … All they have to do is lay around in a bed and get fed treats every now and then and catch a Frisbee if they feel like it — like, who wouldn’t want that life?

“Underneath that is the reality that doing nothing but laying on a bed and having treats fed to you is profoundly frustrating and boring and is not a meaningful life for an animal.”

Animals in a human world

Since humans domesticated dogs (over 20,000 years ago) and cats (over 10,000 years ago), who some say are merely “semi-domesticated,” their roles have evolved largely from one type of work — hunting and guarding — to another: companionship. And counterintuitively, says Pierce, being a constant companion is a tougher job.

“Dogs are still working dogs; they’re just doing a different kind of work,” she said. “I think it’s actually much more dangerous and difficult work than any other kind of work we’ve ever asked them to do.”

We demand companionship with as little friction as possible, expecting our pets (especially dogs) to be docile and agreeable, and to adapt quickly to the human world, with its countless rules and norms that mean nothing to them. And then when they inevitably fail to do so at first, we deem their natural habits misbehavior in need of correction, or abandonment.

It’s telling that the world’s most popular dog trainer, Cesar Millan, partly relies on dominance and control to bring his subjects to heel. (Millan popularized the “dominance theory” approach to dog training, which has been debunked by scientists and criticized by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. A meta-analysis found that punitive training can increase dogs’ fear, anxiety, and stress.)

To serve the guard-to-companion evolution, a $136 billion pet industry has sprung up in recent decades to breed, transport, and sell tens of millions of animals a year — often in terrible conditions — and provide all the accoutrements of the modern pet, from food to toys to veterinary care to perfume for dogs. And just as Millan and his legion of followers bend some dogs’ behavior to their will, breeders have done the same for dogs’ genetics to make some breeds particularly agile, small, or cute — in other words, more attractive to humans. America’s current most popular breed, the French bulldog — and other flat-faced dogs, like pugs, boxers, and Shih Tzus — suffer from a variety of health issues because of how they were bred, leading journalist and Vox contributor Tove Danovich to call the Frenchie “a breed that’s been broken to accommodate us.”

And while approximately 30 to 40 percent of cats and dogs are acquired from shelters, not all of those adoptions work out — 7 to 20 percent are eventually returned, often due to complaints over the animals’ behavior. (Incompatibility with other pets, allergies, and cost are other top reasons).

Then there’s the estimated 97 million rabbits, birds, hamsters, gerbils, mice, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and other small animals kept as pets — mostly wild, social animals who spend their lives largely confined and isolated in cages and tanks. Their owners may love them, but their cramped and unnatural living arrangements are not so different from the pigs and chickens we raise for food.

A number of animal welfare scholars, like Pierce, are challenging the rosy picture that the pet industry — and pet owners, myself included — have painted around the domestic human-animal bond, and sometimes pose a radical question: should we end pet ownership? I’m increasingly inclined to think the answer could be yes — or that at the very least, there should be far fewer pets, and those owners should be prepared to put in the time and effort to provide them with far better lives.

The secret, boring life of pets

Before the cat dads and dog moms come for me, know this: I am one of you.

I’m an “animal person,” having spent half my life advocating for, and now reporting on, their welfare. I’ll always share a house with a rescued dog or cat. But Evvie’s needs, and my constant inability to meet them, have led me to question the whole endeavor of pet keeping.

As much as my partner and I lavish her with treats, walks, tug-of-war, playtime with other dogs, enrichment games, and less than legal off-leash romps in the woods outside our home in Silver Spring, Maryland, she spends much of her days with nothing to do but look out the window. We both work from home, which means there’s a fair amount of commotion and engagement to keep her stimulated. But despite that, Evvie is inevitably left to herself for much of the day — and she seems quite bored, with her extended periods of sleep followed by barking at me for attention (which she stops as soon as we play or go on a walk). And Evvie is comparatively lucky: in 2011, the average pet owner spent just about 40 minutes a day with their supposed family member.

Scientists have set up cameras to see what dogs do when home alone all day, and it turns out there’s a lot of yawning, barking, howling, whining, and sleeping — signs of anxiety and frustration. Charlotte Burn, a biologist and associate professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London, thinks our pets could also become bored when left alone for hours at a time.

“For most of us, [boredom is] a transient thing, and we can do something about it,” Burn told me. “But when you cannot do anything about it, it’s incredibly distressing. … Sometimes it’s thought of as a kind of luxury problem for animals, but actually, it may not be so luxurious if [an animal] can’t do anything about it, and it might be actually a massive welfare issue.”

Burn says there are two main animal responses to boredom. The first is drowsiness, brought on by an animal not having enough to do to stay awake, which looks to humans like staring into space, yawning, or sighing, even if the animal isn’t tired. The second is restlessness, even engaging in behaviors to help them stay awake. “They’ll try and escape their situation,” she says. “They’ll take risks, they’ll explore things even if they don’t like them, just basically to try and almost wake themselves up and make something happen.”

A small white shih tzu dog with brown ears sits pressed between a set of blinds and an outer window, staring outside from a bay window on a blue house.

A Shih Tzu dog looking out a window in London, Ontario, Canada. Some animal welfare researchers worry dogs and other pets could experience a lot of boredom.
Gabriel Mello/Getty Images

When we think about our pets, we naturally think about the brief time we spend with them — not their quiet, dull hours while we’re occupied with work, child care, friends, or errands while they’re cooped up. They might be excited when we come home not necessarily because they’re so delighted to see us, but because there’s finally an end to the silence that fills so much of their day.

“I think dogs are very adaptable, and become accustomed, often, to their lack of choices and autonomy,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a leading expert on dog behavior and head of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, over email. “But I think that it’s not a good situation for them.”

Just how uneven the relationship is between pets and their human owners was demonstrated during the pandemic when, lonely and stuck at home, one in five households adopted a new pet. As new pet owners returned to work, however, their newly lonely pets struggled with the sudden change, showing high rates of chewing, digging, barking, escaping, pacing, hiding, and indoor urination and defecation.

A green bar chart shows the frequency of different behaviors displayed by pets when their owners spend more time away from home, from a 2022 survey. The top two, both at 47 percent, are barking and howling, and chewing, digging and destruction.

Our pets might not be so bored if they just had some autonomy, but having a pet means regularly denying it. If Evvie’s hungry, she can’t grab a snack from the fridge. If she wants to play with another dog, I have to schedule it, or take her to the dog park (which for some dogs can be a blast and for others, overwhelming or dangerous, with some dogs dominating others, leading to stress and injuries). If she wants to explore the great outdoors, she has to wait until I have the time to take her for a walk — and even then, she’s tethered to a pesky leash, which I gently pull whenever she does something so harmless as stray too far into a neighbor’s yard to smell something that interests her or race ahead to greet a nearby dog or human.

As good as Evvie has it compared to most pets, she’s still a dog living in a world built for humans, and that means a life of constantly thwarted desires. The ability to meet her basic needs is entirely dependent upon someone else. Pets as we own them live in our worlds, not theirs.

What about cats? Cat behaviorists say they too can get bored. Few issues in the pet community spark as much debate as to whether cats should stay indoors or be given the freedom to come and go as they please in order to meet their needs for exercise, mental stimulation, and hunting, especially when that hunting results in the mass death of wildlife. (A 2013 paper estimates that cats in the US kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion small mammals annually, while wind turbines are estimated to kill a few hundred thousand birds to north of a million, each year).

The estimate has been contested, but even if it’s grossly off-base, it’s still a whole lot of death that’s a direct result of humanity’s semi-domestication and breeding of a once-wild animal. It’s also another example of a complicated ethical issue in which the welfare of pets is in conflict with the welfare of other animals (like killing animals for meat to feed pets).

So if we’re keeping more pets than ever, but many of the dogs are unhealthy and bored, the cats are either bored or cute little wildlife hunters, and the pet fish and birds are cruelly confined, what do we do about it? Some leading animal welfare experts say we ought to shrink the pet population and shift pet ownership from a casual hobby to a serious responsibility.

A world without pets — or one with happier pets?

Starting in 1979, Bob Barker of The Price is Right signed off each episode with a public service announcement: “This is Bob Barker reminding you to help control the pet population — have your pets spayed or neutered.”

1979 was a different time for cats and dogs in America; by one estimate, 7.6 to 10 million of them were euthanized annually around that time. While the national pet population has grown considerably in the years since, the number of shelter cats and dogs euthanized — while still depressingly high — has fallen to an estimated 920,000 per year. There are a lot fewer strays, too. For example, in the mid-1980s New Jersey had 160,000 cats and dogs roaming the streets, which fell to 80,000 in 2014.

The dramatic reduction came about as a result of increased pet sterilization at veterinary clinics, a rise in shelters and animal welfare organizations, and PSA campaigns like Barker’s and others from animal welfare groups — such as “Adopt, don’t shop” — all contributing to a cultural shift in how we get, and treat, our pets. But while 30 to 40 percent of cats and dogs are acquired from animal shelters, many of them — especially dogs — are still the product of breeding: whether at large-scale puppy mills, in which dogs are raised and sold more like livestock than family members, or from more informal, small-scale home operations.

But what if every prospective dog and cat owner were to actually follow the “adopt, don’t shop” motto and Barker’s plea to spay or neuter their pet? It would be a Children of Men situation for domesticated pets. The pet population would rapidly shrink before virtually disappearing altogether, ushering in a world unimaginable — perhaps not even worth inhabiting — for the most diehard cat and dog lovers.

A line chart follows the ups and downs of what percent of US households have a pet, from 2011 to 2020. It starts around 62 percent and ends at 70 percent.

Would that be so bad? For pet-loving humans, definitely. My relationship with Evvie is deeply enriching (for me, at least). I’m excited to see her each morning, to watch her run full-speed through the forest, roughhouse with other dogs, and wag uncontrollably each time I walk through the front door. Life without dogs would be far duller.

But keeping pets shouldn’t only be about me or you — it’s a relationship, and one in which humans arguably take much more than they give. And by continuing pet keeping as it’s done now — by breeding millions of new puppies, kittens, fish, and other animals each year — we’re making the decision that all the overt abuse and lower-grade cruelty and neglect is more than made up for by the joy wrought by the human-animal bond. I’m no longer so sure it is.

Gary Francione and Anna Charlton, a firebrand animal rights couple who teach law at Rutgers University, don’t think it is and have advocated for the abolition of pet ownership.

“Domesticated animals are completely dependent on humans, who control every aspect of their lives,” they wrote in a provocative essay for Aeon in 2016. “Unlike human children, who will one day become autonomous, non-humans never will. That is the entire point of domestication — we want domesticated animals to depend on us. They remain perpetually in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them.”

Because pets are property under the law, they argue, welfare standards will always be too low. We need to care for the ones in existence, but stop breeding new ones.

“I love living with dogs, but even I think that owning dogs can easily be considered morally questionable and may change in the future,” said Horowitz, the dog cognition expert.

I relate to Horowitz’s doubts, and find Francione’s and Charlton’s arguments persuasive, though given the popularity of pets — and the ancient human-animal bond — abolishing pet ownership is a political and cultural nonstarter. What might be more realistic is to radically rethink how we acquire and treat them, and just what we owe them.

When I asked Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who’s co-authored books with Pierce (and Jane Goodall), about whether we should phase out pet ownership, he said it’s perhaps a few thousand years too late to ask that question.

“In the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t have evolved to where we are now with dogs, because so many of the problems with dogs come down to selective breeding by humans deciding which traits they find cute or appealing,” he said, pointing to flat-faced dogs like the French bulldog.

He’d like to see puppy and kitten mills phased out amid a major cultural shift wherein people would only get a dog or cat if they have the time, money, patience, and energy to give them a good life. The motto would be: fewer pets with better lives. “You’re dealing with a sentient being who has very specific and enduring needs, and if you can’t fulfill them,” you should think twice, he said.

Seven dogs sit, stand and jump in a row of five metal cages at an animal shelter.

Dogs are kept in cages at an animal shelter on July 18, 2022, in Houston, Texas. The shelter had reported being over capacity and understaffed as a steady increase of animal returns and rescues overwhelmed the facility.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Pierce, a parent herself, has written about the importance of families with children thinking twice about getting a pet. Kids can be excited about a new pet one month and move on to another interest the next month — or just fail to take good care of the animal in the unique ways the pet needs (because they’re a child!). Families with children can also be more prone to neglecting their pets because child care, understandably, comes first.

While a lot of people call their pets “fur babies,” we’d be wise to think of them more as actual dependents, because they are. For most of human history, childhood wasn’t really a thing — children existed, at least in part, in service of their parents as additional labor. That has, of course, changed drastically over the last few hundred years, and with it, attitudes and habits around how we treat children. As part of that shift, though, the expectations for parenting rose as well, so much so that those expectations have become a major reason why people are having fewer or no children. Perhaps the same should happen for pets in the future. While the average pet probably has a much better life today than they did just 50 years ago, there’s still much room for improvement, but the demands would be such that fewer people would be in a position to become pet owners.

What pet owners should know

If you do decide to get a cat or dog, it’s imperative to adopt so as to prevent one more euthanasia among the millions of animals languishing in shelters, living lives that are likely worse than what they might experience even with a generally neglectful owner. And experts say it’s critical to understand that a good life is subjective — every individual animal is different — but it goes far beyond the basic requirements of sufficient food and water, protection from injury, and a walk here and there.

When surveyed, people are motivated to acquire a pet to fulfill their own emotional or practical needs: companionship, love, and affection, someone to greet them, property protection, or help while hunting. But taking a more animal-centered approach to keeping pets — focusing as well on what the human can give in the relationship — would go a long way to improving their quality of life.

For example, it doesn’t just mean taking the dog on a walk but letting them direct the route and giving them as much time as they’d like to smell, which is how they make sense of the world around them. For Bekoff, it also means ensuring they’re not left alone all day while their human is at work.

“Some people I know just leave their house at seven in the morning, they go to work, they go work out, or they go out for dinner, so the average dog is just going to be alone all day,” he said. “And then they get home and they’re tired, and they don’t walk them and they give them crappy food. Those people should not have a dog.”

While most veterinarians oppose letting cats free to roam outdoors, largely to prevent more cats from becoming roadkill, only six out of 10 are kept entirely indoors. Whichever side of the indoor-outdoor debate you choose, there are ways to give cats more of what they need. If your cat does have outdoor access, try giving them a colorful collar, which catches birds’ attention, gives them time to fly away, and can drastically reduce the avian body count. You can also try taking your cat for a walk on a leash (even if your neighbors might give you a double take).

“If you decide to keep a cat indoors, then you really have to work hard to compensate for what you’ve taken from them,” Pierce said. “[Your house] should look like a house where a cat lives, with perches and highways that they can walk across high up above the floor.” She recommends the book — this is the real title and author name — Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat by Jackson Galaxy, whose YouTube channel includes videos on how to cat-ify one’s home.

Two cats sit on perches in an elaborate outdoor “catio,” with netting draped in a large area, and carpets, ramps, and toys throughout it.

Cats in an elaborate “catio” at a home in Labrador City, Canada. Cat experts recommend cats be given plenty of perches and walkways — even elaborate catios as seen in this photo — for enrichment.
David Russell/EyeEm/Getty Images

Pets could benefit from more diverse diets, and there are also plenty of “enrichment” toys for cats and dogs. More importantly, enrichment games can be played with dogs to put their innate scavenging and sniffing skills to work. Good starting points for more animal-centered pet keeping include applying concepts like positive reinforcement training and cooperative care, and studying material from experts like Pierce, Horowitz, Galaxy, Bekoff, and anthrozoologist and cat expert John Bradshaw.

It’s harder for me to conceive of how one could ethically keep smaller animals, like birds, reptiles, rodents, fish, and amphibians. Unlike cats and dogs, these are naturally wild, undomesticated animals who are social and meant to fly, swim, or move great distances in a single day. As pets, they suffer in isolation and intensive confinement. It might be time we stop breeding them (or taking them from the wild, as some are actually trafficked wildlife). We should give as good a life as possible to the ones who remain, through larger and more enriching enclosures, and eventually phase out of keeping them as pets.

A colorful bird, with a green and yellow body, orange head, and red beak, looks at the camera from a small black eye, its head tilted. It sits on a white plastic perch inside a black birdcage.

A Fischer’s lovebird, a species of parrot, in a cage. Research has found that captive parrots age faster.
Rizky Panuntun/Getty Images

A pet bearded dragon in a tank, with a sandy floor,  natural rocks, and a living plant nearby.

Bearded dragons are among the most popular reptiles kept as pets.
iStockphoto/Freer Law/Getty Images

For the animals we do have in our homes, we need to bring an attitude of give and take to the relationship, and we’re going to have to give a lot more than we’re currently taking.

“You’re really still asking these dogs or cats or other animals to live in a human-dominated world,” Bekoff said. “Cutting them some slack and giving them more choice and control or agency over their lives is a win-win for everyone.”

When my partner and I adopted Evvie six months into the pandemic, like so many others, I figured that a brisk walk or two a day, occasional playtime with other dogs, and brief games of tug-of-war between work meetings was enough to give her a good life. I’ve come to realize that’s the bare minimum.

I think a world with far fewer pets is a better one, though I know Evvie won’t be my last, so long as there are animals in need of adoption from shelters. But rescuing a dog or cat is just the start. Those who are mildly interested in acquiring a pet need to think long and hard about the steep responsibility that lies ahead, and us self-described animal lovers ought to do much more to live up to our stated values.