Mild Dermatographia



Should I get a Pet?

society

Pets are pretty darn common in Canada. Some of my friends have dogs. Some have cats. Some have more esoteric pets, like turtles or snakes or lizards. Heck, our family has gone through a few generations of rodents of various families. Despite absolute immersion in a pet-friendly society, I’ve been pretty against pet ownership for a few years, for various reasons outlined below. That said, I’ve never done the research to really back up (or refute) my position, so this is my shoddy attempt at developing a coherent stance on pets.

First I’ll present my take, then I’ll go over some common arguments for why people like pets/why pet ownership is a good thing. I’ll try to do some research to validate or invalidate both sides of the argument, and hopefully come to some kind of conclusion.


My Starting Point

Before performing any kind of research, I’d like to put down my current stance for posteriority; it’ll be interesting to see how my view changes (and probably how completely unfounded it was).

It’s Wrong

Before going into why animal ownership in the form of pets is wrong, I’d like to limit the discussion exclusively to pets, as oppose to animals we consume or beasts of burden/service. This isn’t to say that they don’t deserve a similar analysis. Rather, I want to restrict the scope of this post so I can avoid adding a bunch of conditional statements for different circumstances.

I understand full well that the idea of “wrong” or “right” is just a fabrication of society, and so placing a blanket statement like “this is wrong” is pretty meaningless by itself; the root for why it’s wrong must be explored. If we can agree on a set of fundamental moral principles, then we can come to an agreement. If not, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with your take or mine, we just disagree on ideas that are ultimately subjective, so no harm done. In either case, for me, animal ownership is wrong because of three connected moral principles:

  1. We should not treat anyone in a way we do not wish to be treated ourselves
  2. One person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin
  3. Animals are deserving of the same rights we give ourselves, if they are to exist in our society (in the form of pets, see above)

The first is fairly self-explanatory, and I’d imagine most people agree with it, if not necessarily practice it (ie. we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions). The second postulates that the rights of one person cannot infringe on the rights of another. No-one has the right to own slaves because it infringes on the right to self-determination/independence of the people who are slaves. This idea has some similarities to the first bullet point, in that I doubt anyone would ever want to be a slave, so why make other people your slave? I’m not sure how discrete these two ideas are; there is some nuance that I’m having trouble articulating, so I’ve left them as separate bullet points. The third bullet ties these two into animals and is probably where I could see the most contention; I believe that animals, if a part of our society and in the role of pets, deserve the same rights we give each other. We shouldn’t see ourselves as superior to them, as some kind of overlords given the divine right to determine how they will perform their life.

Some Fallacy

Lets pretend for a second that you agree with my (very poorly laid out) arguments. Well, congratulations, we’re on the same page! Since I don’t want to be owned by some larger being and you probably don’t either, and we agree that animals are deserving of the same rights and considerations that we are, then animal ownership is infringing on their rights. Boom, animal ownership is wrong. You can be the best owner in the world or the absolutely most abusive piece of shit; either way, you’ve committed a cardinal sin (although if there is a hell, there’s a special place in it for people who abuse each-other and animals). A very tidy conclusion, minus the billion or so logical fallacies and leaps I probably missed.

What if it’s not Wrong?

Moving away from the ethical side of things, lets get to the practical. Owning a pet, like having a child, is a massive responsibility. You have to clean them, feed them, take them to the vet (the pet, not the child), keep them entertained, keep them happy. There’s a lot of responsibility in there. There’s also the committement side of things; you can’t just disappear on a trip. You have to find a sitter. You have to take them on walks. You have to do literally everything above. And you can’t just skip days. That would be irresponsible.

The difference between a pet and a child, in my mind, is that the child is more annoying, but at least it will grow up. There’s probably some feeling of achievement and satisfaction. With a pet, you’ve got a one-year-old’s brain stuck in a mastiff’s body, dropping massive steaming loafs on the daily. That dog will still be chucking those toxic bricks fifteen years later. It won’t learn to talk, it won’t stop whining at the back door, it won’t stop barking in the night. It’s permanently stuck in a state of stupidity.

Okay, so you didn’t buy a pet for their intelligence. Why then? Because you’re lonely? Get better at interacting with people (I’d like to make a huuuuuuge exception here for anyone neuro-atypical. I don’t have your experiences and I would never dare to presume any understanding). Because you want to teach them sick tricks? Learn to do something yourself other than watch Netflix. Want a companion for exercise? Don’t use a living being as a crutch for lacking discipline. Get better, don’t bring something else into it.

Honestly, I can’t think of any valid argument for pet ownership other than Oh my god it’s so cute, can we get one?, and doing it because everyone else is/it’s part of western culture. Frankly, both are pathetic. The former are thinking with their baby-makers and the latter don’t have an independent thought outside the FB/Instagram hive-mind (or Reddit, or Gab, or whatever you’re on).

Pets are Abused

A loooot of people are really shitty and negligent animal owners. They don’t feed them enough, or too much, or the wrong kind of food. They don’t give them enough exercise, don’t entertain them enough, don’t take them to the vet enough, let them live with chronic pain. Even people who take care of their pets may be abusing them in ways they don’t really consider. Some dogs have their tails cut off. Their testicles removed. Their tubes tied. Pure-bred dogs are monstrosities with numerous life-threatening and painful life-long deformities. Bulldogs can develop serious breathing difficulties and die of heat stroke because they can’t pant. Most are delivered by cesarean section because their heads are too big. Pug’s eye sockets are too small and their eyes can literally pop out. Dachshunds develop paralyzing disc diseases. German Shepherds develop hip dysplasia. 63% of Golden Retrievers die of cancer. Half of Charles Spaniels suffer from heart murmers and Syringomyelia, the latter because their head is literally too small for their brain. Fuck your aesthetics and fuck your desire to have the perfect looking dog. If you get anything other than a mutt, you have either put zero research into the kind of shit purebreds put up with, or are an asshole. You’ve decided to place that animal’s looks above their well-being. If you’re allergic to dogs, don’t get a fucking dog. Its lifelong sacrifice isn’t worth it.

Cat people, you can stop grinning now. Your pure-bred is also a monster. Persian and Himalayan cats develop renal cysts and die of kidney failure. Rex have kneecaps which dislocate. Manx have spinal defects. Norwegian have hip dysplasia. Burmese have cranial deformities. The list goes on and on.

I got my list of dog deformities here and cats here.

But They’ll Die Without Us!

I’m not saying we should go door-to-door rounding up animals and lighting them on fire in the town square while chanting to Stan. That would be an infringement of their rights (it would make some sick metal album art though). What I do propose, is that we ban any kind of breeding which will result in pets. No more breeding dogs, no more breeding cats, no more anything. This will be the last generation of pets. Perhaps the only time eradicating an entire species will ever be considered ethical.

Closing Words

To conclude, animals deserve the same rights we attribute ourselves, and we don’t tolerate human ownership, so neither should be tolerate the ownership of animals. Most animal ownership is a crutch and a pretty blatant prioritization of our needs over those of the animal. If nothing I’ve said comes to pass, then I hope at the very least animal ownership becomes an arduous process, like child adoption. This will both inconvenience the laziest enought to stop them from even bothering, and make everyone else reconsider how much they really want that cute little pupper.

I think that in a hundred years, we’ll look back at animal ownership in the form of pets with a level of disgust not unlike that which we see human slavery. Ownership of a living thing is wrong. It was wrong when it was other humans and it’s wrong now with animals.


Pets Are Great!

I’ll put some arguments I’ve found which are in favor of animal ownership. I won’t add sources for most, as it’s all taken from random corners of the internet, and you probably already agree with it.

Animal Ownership Improves Your Quality of Life

If you look for “arguments in favor of pets”, you’ll find plenty pertaining to our quality of life. Pets can help you get exercise. Pets can help you sleep better by making you feel more secure. Some studies suggest that people with pets are happier on average than those without (although I suppose I’ll be finding out whether this is coincidence or causation). Studies also suggest that being with pets decreases cortisol levels and increases oxytocin and dopamine levels. They can help you become more social by acting as an ice-breaker. There are also social groups for pet owners. They are great for children; children who have pets and learning difficulties or separated parents had higher self-esteem and emotion intelligence than those who didn’t have a pet. They teach you how to be selfless, to think of something other than yourself. They teach you responsibility. Finally, they can give you purpose. They’re a living, breathing being you have to take care of. They force you to have a routine, have structure, be engaged.

These points become completely irrelevant if you agree with the moral argument I presented at the top, as all of them neglect the well-being of the animal and focus solely on the owner. That said, I know virtually nothing about the philosophy/science of ethics and morality. I’m under the impression that there are a bajillion and a half different schools of thought, from utilitarianism to stoicism, and nothing makes one objectively “more right” than the other. Maybe arguing ethics is a moot point.

Pets are Family

Virtually everyone I know who has a pet treats them as part of their family. I can imagine the indignation at hearing that your child or sibling is going to be taken away, or you won’t be allowed to have one ever again. That said, I would argue the Nihilistic Perfectly-Tuned Mass-Spring-Damper of Happiness would make everyone forget about their inability to buy pets pretty quickly.

Welp, here I go 180-ing again

Honestly, reading all the benefits associated with pet ownership (although I suspect most are with regards to dogs and cats) does make me reconsider the severity of my position quite a bit. I see a middle-ground where pure-breds are banned in all but the most specific of circumstances. For example, I’m allergic to dogs. If I could get a poodle which is somehow not at risk for stomach bloat pain/death, Addison’s Disease, Thyroid issues, hip dysplasia or epilespy, maybe I would. Heck, I’m sitting beside the family cat right now. She’s curled up in a ball and oh my goodness is she adorable. She can be an absolute nuisance, running around at night meowing, knocking things off tables, laying on our keyboards. But she can also be a sweetheart, snuggling up on our legs when watching a movie.

It’s not You, it’s Me

I think I’m scared of messing it up. I’m afraid I won’t have done enough research into properly taking care of an animal. I won’t give them enough exercise, I won’t give them the right diet. They can’t speak; I might miss the cues that they’re not happy. What does happiness even mean for an animal? Can I give them that?


Research

I’ve done some research into the ethics, logistics and statistics behind animal ownership (well, I will have, I wrote this sentence before performing said research). Here are my findings.

The Good

Harvard Health Publishing reviewed various studies which extoled the virtues of pet ownership. The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support, published online in the journal PLoS One, found that pet owners were more likely to get to know people in the neighborhood that they hadn’t known before. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review, published in PLoS One, found that people with solid social networks are 50% more likely to live longer than those with limited social networks.; if pets do indeed foster social connections, then they indirectly help you live longer.

The statistics presented in the Harvard summary seem flawed. First, Harvard Health Publishing claims:

Being a pet owner was the third most common way that survey respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods. (No. 1 was by being neighbors; no. 2 was by using local streets and parks.) Pet owners were 60% more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before.

I’m not quite sure how they drew 60%. The below figure (from the paper) demonstrates that pet owners are, at the most, 10% more likely to get to know people in the neighborhood whom they didn’t previously know. In the case of Portland, that difference drops to 3%. As for pet ownerships being the third most common way to meet people in the neighborhood; it’s a pretty weak third place position. Being neighbors sits around 75%, childrens schools around 10%, local streets and parks are 15%, community events are 10%, and pets are about 12-ish%. Over 100%, which leads me to believe people could select multiple answers. Still, it shows that barely anyone gets to know their neighbors through pets.

Image showing statistics for pet ownerships and meeting neighbors

On a side note, I’d like to refer the reader to the bottom left corner of the image, which says

56.0% of dog owners walk their dog

That number seems far too low. I’m sure some dogs are too old or too sick to walk, but 44%? That sounds like the passive negligence I mentioned above.

An article by the National Center for Health Research presents positive findings from some papers. Various studies suggest that having a pet has a positive impact on your health; less visits to the doctor, help the elderly perform certain physical activities better, and make people feel less stressed.

The Bad

Hal Herzog analyzed 30 papers to determine whether pets truly help alleviate depression; most studies (18/30) found that pets have no impact on depression, with 5 studies finding that pet owners are more depressed, 5 finding that pet owners are less depressed, and 2 with mixed results. Normally, I would point out that, if pet owners were more likely to be depressed or less likely to be depressed, how pet ownership is not necessarily causing that change, but rather a certain type of person is predisposed to own a pet. In this case, however, the meta-analysis demonstrates that pet ownership doesn’t appear to correlate with depression or lack thereof.

Graph by Hal Herzog showing how many studies found pets ownership has no impact on depression rates (18/30), how many found that pet owners were more depressed (5/30), how many found that pet owners were less depressed (5/30), and how many had mixed results (2/30)
Dr. Herzog did mention some groups for whom there may be exceptions to the rule; for homeless youth or those who had lost a spouse or had a divorce, pet ownership seemed to resut in lower levels of depression. That said, there were only one or two studies for each which, as demonstrated above, might be refuted with more studies. In any case, the article provides some interesting hypothesis for why pet owners may be more or less depressed, if you’re interested in further reading.

Hal Herzog wrote another article, in which he looks at not just depression, but overall physical and mental wellbeing, and whether pets have an influence. He refers mainly to A cross-sectional exploratory analysis between pet ownership, sleep, exercise, health and neighbourhood perceptions: the Whitehall II cohort study by Gill Mien and Robert Grant of Kingston University of London, published in BMC Geriatrics. The results demonstrate no meaningful difference between the physical and mental health of pet owners and non-owners. The sole difference was that dog owners are about 20% more likely to engage in mild exercise, although the study (as well as another quoted one) both found that the increase in mild exercise had no impact on health factors such as weight, blood pressure, or blood lipid levels. Finally, the study found that pet owners fell asleep a bit easier, but woke up more tired (in both cases, to a meaningless degree).

Dr. Herzog also presented a study (Exploring the differences between pet and non-pet owners: Implications for human-animal interaction research and policy) performed by the RAND Corporation which found that health benefits associated with pet ownership are actually due to socieconomic differences. Further, cognitive and mental health advantages seen in children are entirely due to factors such as family wealth, race and ethnicity. I highly recommend checking out the Psychology Today article if you’d like to read further.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found in 2016 that around 59% of cats and 54% of dogs on the US are classified as overweight or obese. These lead to arthritis, bladder/urinary tract disease, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease, among others.

An interesting (and very lazy) tidbit I found during my searching is how little information there is on happiness. Sure, websites preaching how animals raise our happiness levels are a dime a dozen, but studies or websites about animal happiness levels? Not even a footnote. This reinforces in my mind that pet ownership is not a two-way relationship; we provide pets with the bare necessities to live, but not much else, and don’t give it a second thought.

Caveat Lector

I didn’t put a ton of work into this research, as you can probably deduce. I mainly read through articles which were themselves giving one-liner summaries of scientific papers, condensed so as to be digestible to non-researchers. This, of course, loses any nuance that might be present in the results, as I demonstrated for the Harvard article. I’m also not knowledgeable enough to know if my critique of that article is valid. Finally, I’m sure you’ve noted how much more in-depth the ‘Bad’ section is than the ‘Good’, or how positive articles were basically hand-waved away for being a single study, but negative studies weren’t; clearly, the depth of research and analysis I performed is skewed in favor of the position I started with.


Conclusion

Some studies find minor health benefits associated with pet ownership. Others refute these, concluding that socioeconomic factors are the actual cause. Finally, a massive meta-study found that pet ownership has no impact on mental or physical health. It seems as though there is, at best, an extremely tenuous and non-reproducible correlation between pet ownership and the health of the owner.

Regardless of whether or not the connection exists, I still don’t think it supplants my fundamental belief that pets are morally wrong. At the risk of irritating (heh) some readers, this is not unlike the situation with abortion. The book Freakonomics shows how abortions were the driving factor behind a reduction in crime in some US cities; to summarize, less unwanted births resulted in less children who grew up in an unstable or unloving home, and thus less turned to crime. Despite the strong correlation between the accessibility of abortions and reduced crime, I cannot chastise Christians for still being pro-life/anti-abortion; their fundamental belief that all life is sacred and killing is wrong is held in higher regard than their desire to curb crime. In much the same way, if there is any benefit to pet ownership, it still does not override my fundamental belief that pet ownership is morally wrong. As I have mentioned above, however, I also believe that morality is entirely subjective/made-up, and so any appeal to morality is on pretty thin ice.

If you have any thoughts on this article or would like to contribute your own findings, please send me an email: milddermatographia at gmail dot com.