Companion Animals and the Future
- 16.1 Introduction
- 16.2 Changing Ethical and Political Frameworks
- 16.3 Changing Legal and Public Policy Frameworks
- 16.4 Changing Markets and Pressures on the Veterinary Profession
- 16.5 In Conclusion: What Might an Ethical Future Life with Companion Animals Look Like?
The companion animal sector has changed dramatically since World War II, as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. The total number of cats and dogs kept as companions in North America, Europe and Australasia has grown dramatically, a growth that, more recently, has extended to some Asian countries, including South Korea (Podberscek, 2009) and China, where about 10% of urban households are estimated to have dogs (Heady, Na & Zheng, 2008). This growth in the number of animal companions may have been caused by a change in attitudes towards dogs and cats over time, where they became increasingly seen as companions and family members rather than, for instance, primarily as guards or mousers.
The ways in which people care for and manage companion animals have also changed substantially since the 1940s; for instance, commercial food is used almost universally in the wealthier parts of the world; in many countries, neutering is routine, as are vaccination and regular veterinary care; and dog training is common, as is the indoor confinement of cats. These changes have, in some respects, led to better welfare for cats and dogs, although some of these changes, as well as highly selective breeding in dogs, may also increase risks of certain diseases, and of obesity (see Chapters 7 and 8).
Beyond these changes in the demand for companion animals and the ways they live with their owners, other concerns and interests are currently impacting, or are likely to impact, the lives of companion animals, and the people who keep them. Besides growing concerns about animal welfare and respect for animals (Chapters 1, 4 and 5), these include concerns about zoonotic diseases, sustainability and environmental protection (Chapter 14), ‘dangerous dogs’ (Chapter 9) and the expansion of the market for companion animal-oriented goods and services.
These changing interests, concerns, attitudes and practices pull the companion animal sector in different – and sometimes opposing – directions. In particular, they stimulate initiatives at all levels, from the local to the global, to develop new ethical, legal and policy proposals with respect to companion animals. In this concluding chapter, we explore some ideas about the possible future for companion animals, and their role and place in modern human life, focusing on ethical, legal and policy proposals that we think will be of significance, and considering these in the context of the markets related to companion animals.
We will begin by looking at several recent approaches in ethical and political theory that we think will be developed in the future, and then consider some important legal and policy initiatives that may lead to future changes in the governance of companion animals. In the light of these proposals, we will discuss some plausible changes in the markets related to companion animals, and finally outline some thoughts on what a future ethical life with companion animals might look like. Inevitably, much of this chapter will be somewhat speculative, although we will draw on the most state-of-the-art, up-to-date research from previous chapters to inform our thinking about these future possibilities.
As we saw in earlier chapters, there are currently very diverse views about the ethics of keeping animals as companions, the role of animal companions in human societies, and how we should live with them. There seems little likelihood of a general convergence between these views, but we do think that political and ethical theorists will in future work these positions out more carefully, and explore their practical implications.
One view that seems likely to persist, and to be developed, is the view that keeping companion animals is unethical in principle. In Chapter 5, we briefly outlined the animal rights philosopher Gary Francione’s (2012) argument that the existence of companion animals is intrinsically ethically problematic, because it involves creating animals that are fundamentally dependent on people. The worry here is not about animal welfare – how life feels to the companion animals, the frustration or satisfaction of animals’ desires, nor whether they can perform natural behaviours. It is about creating beings to be dependent by nature, and applies ‘however well we treat our nonhuman companions’ (Francione & Garner, 2010: p. 79). On this view, we should not create beings that cannot survive, or at least cannot flourish, without constant human support; either because dependence means vulnerability to exploitation, or more basically based on the belief that being autonomous and self-supporting, as wild animals are here thought to be, is in principle the only morally acceptable state. While many new ethical and political frameworks for thinking about animals reject this view, we do expect that in-principle objections like this one to keeping companion animals (and perhaps domesticated animals more generally) will play a significant role in future ethical discussions.
Alongside in principle objections, there has also been a growth of in practice objections to keeping so many cats and dogs in industrialised Western nations, on the grounds of sustainability and environmental impact (see Chapter 14). We expect these more practical ethical arguments to become increasingly widely expressed, as the human population grows, and concerns about carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity, the reliability of global food supply (and so on) intensify. It is possible that these kinds of objections to keeping companion animals may become part of the resurgence of a more human-centred, contractarian ethics, in which human interests in acquiring resources are seen as having much higher priority than the provision of resources for companion animals.
While these two views are very different – one based on the view that breeding and keeping animals as companions is in some way demeaning to the animals, the other on the view that keeping companion animals is essentially frivolous – together they could constitute a future ethical backlash against the growth in numbers of, and expenditure on, companion animals.
In contrast, other very different proposals maintain that the high significance of companion animals in society should be publicly recognised, and that they should be much more systematically integrated into our social, political and even architectural decision making. One reason for proposing this is essentially human-centred, based on the view that, as companion animals are so ubiquitous, and they matter so much to so many people, we should formally, rather than just implicitly, recognise their importance. But most of those developing such proposals also take the interests of companion animals themselves very seriously, and argue that these interests should be better represented in political debate. The focus here, as Kimberly K. Smith makes clear in her book Governing Animals (2012: p.xiii), is not so much ‘the moral duty we have as private individuals’ towards animals, but rather ‘whether and how the state … can defend animal welfare’ and what we should take to be our political responsibilities as citizens towards animals, including companion animals.
Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have made an important contribution to this discussion in their book Zoopolis (2012). They propose that we should integrate companion animals into the political frameworks we use for human citizenship, arguing that, as companion animals, and domesticated animals more generally, are sentient (and therefore in their view, of ethical importance), have been brought into our society, and do not have other possible forms of existence, we should include them in our social and political arrangements ‘on fair terms’ (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2012: p. 101). Citizenship, they argue, is the appropriate social and political framework for companion animals: they should be granted residency as citizens, and they should be given certain rights as citizens, including appropriate mobility rights and a presumption against confinement (p. 132); certain kinds of protections (e.g. from fires and floods); and provision of some basic health care (p. 142). Interestingly, Donaldson & Kymlicka (2012: p. 83) explicitly reject the worry about creating animals to be dependent. After all, humans are ‘highly dependent and vulnerable beings’ too; some people with disabilities are highly dependent on others all of the time. But this does not mean, they argue, that people dependent in these ways cannot be citizens; rather they need assistance in being able to communicate their interests and preferences so that these can be fully taken account of in policymaking. Animals, too, they maintain, should be granted such assistance.
One of the difficulties a citizenship model presents, as Donaldson and Kymlicka accept, is that assigning citizenship freedoms and entitlements to companion animals may be in tension with certain interpretations of what is in their own welfare, and with the welfare of other humans and non-humans. We have seen examples of this kind of tension throughout this book. For instance, arguing that a cat should have liberty rights to roam may impact negatively on the cat’s own welfare (in terms of exposure to disease or traffic accidents, for instance), as well as on the welfare of small wild mammals, birds and reptiles on which a roaming cat might prey. As we have seen, assigning companion animals reproductive rights may be in tension with the welfare of the puppies and kittens produced by unneutered dogs and cats, and with the welfare of the owners of these unneutered animals. Even without accepting the details of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s argument, how tensions like these may best be addressed, both ethically and in policy terms, will surely be one of the key problems for the future.
While Donaldson and Kymlicka’s arguments rest on a theoretical view about companion animal citizenship that is itself unlikely to be widely accepted any time soon, many of the more practical issues they raise, such as the responsibility to rescue companion animals in the context of disasters such as storms, floods and fires, are likely to be an important element of future companion animal policy, as we suggest in the next section.
Related to debates about the appropriate ethical and political frameworks for thinking about companion animals are ongoing discussions about the development of companion animal law and policy, found in most industrialised Western nations (and elsewhere). These include very broad debates about the proper legal status of companion animals, and much more specific discussions about concerns such as compensation to owners for the loss of companions, the treatment of stray and unowned animals, allowing cats outside, rescue of companion animals in disasters, dangerous dogs, dog waste, leash laws and pet trusts. It is worth noting that many of these specific legal and policy concerns are about protecting humans, usually from the impacts of their own, or others’, companion animals, rather than about protecting animals for their own sake.
In many countries, such as the United States, companion animals are legal property. Technically, this means that owners can ‘buy or sell them, bequeath them in … wills, give them away, or choose to “destroy” them’ (Hankin, 2007: p. 321), although most states and nations have some anti-cruelty and animal welfare statutes that mean owners have an obligation to look after the basic needs of the animals in their care. Some countries, particularly in Europe, exert greater legal control than the US over what owners may do to their companion animals, for example, through banning declawing and other forms of ‘convenience surgery’ (see Chapter 11). So, even if companion animals are property, there may still be significant legal requirements concerning how their owners may treat them.
Property status for companion animals has been widely challenged, for two reasons. One reason concerns what, it is argued, is owed directly to the animals themselves: as companion animals are independent beings with their own interests, they are not appropriately thought of as ‘just property’. This position has already been endorsed in some countries; for instance, the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act (2010) states: ‘Animals have an intrinsic value which is irrespective of the usable value they may have for man’; in 2014, France recognised companion animals as no longer just ‘moveable goods’ but ‘living beings capable of feelings’ (Bacchi, 2014); and the European Union as of 2009 recognised animals as ‘sentient beings’ (EU, 2007).
The second reason for the challenge is that where animals are legally mere property, arguing that their owners are owed substantial damages when a companion is harmed or killed is legally very difficult or impossible. In the United States, this issue came to a head during a pet food recall in 2007, when owners sought damages from pet food companies after thousands of animals died from eating contaminated food. As the animals were classified as being property, the owners were only entitled to claim ‘reasonable economic damages’. More generally, when a companion is harmed or killed, an owner who files a lawsuit for damages is only entitled to claim ‘fair market value’ for the animal, which may of course be very little, especially if the animal is of a mixed breed. As long as animals are mere property, no straightforward legal entitlement to damages for emotional harm or loss of companionship exists (although in a very few cases, such awards have nonetheless been made (see Roukas, 2007)). However, if companion animals’ legal status changes, making them something other than mere property, more substantial claims for damages become possible.
One of several systematic proposals to change companion animals’ legal status in those countries where they remain mere property has been developed by Favre (2010), who suggests that companion animals be placed in a new category of what he calls ‘living property’. In one sense here, the animals are still property: they can be kept, owned and used. However, the idea of ‘living property’ recognises that companion animals also have their own interests, and should, therefore, be assigned some legal rights – for instance, to sufficient space, not to be harmed, and to be cared for, as animal welfare legislation in some countries already requires. Favre suggests that the owners of animal companions should have similar legal responsibilities to meet their animals’ basic needs as parents do to their own children. This means that ‘the rights of owners will have to be limited to some degree to accommodate some of the interests that their property asserts against them’; that those who do not own companion animals will still have some duties towards other people’s animal companions; and that companion animals will have some rights themselves (Favre, 2010: p. 1053). As Smith (2012: p. 85) notes, in making this proposal, Favre takes advantage of a distinction between what is known as legal title and equitable title. If a person has legal title, he or she has control of the property; but someone who has equitable title should benefit from it. Thus, the holder of legal title (here, the human owner) has a legal duty to take the interests of the holder of equitable title (the owned animal companion) into account.
In countries where companion animals are now solely legal property, a future legal status change to something like ‘living property’ seems plausible. As we have seen, there is already precedent for this in many European countries, and it would reflect the widespread shift in attitudes towards viewing companion animals as family members. However, such a change is likely to be opposed. Some groups will argue against it on the basis that this would be the first step on a slippery slope to extend similar protections to other animals, including agricultural and laboratory animals, who have similar levels of sentience and who are similarly dependent on human provision. Others, including some vets and pet food manufacturers, may be worried about the potential cost to them of a legal status change, for instance, in terms of how much they might be sued. Yet others would oppose such a change on the grounds that it does not go far enough – that companion animals should not be regarded as property, living or otherwise, but rather as independent legal persons, rather like human beings (NHRP, n.d.). However, the latter proposal seems far less likely to gain legal acceptance than the more restricted idea of them becoming some form of legal living property.
A huge array of laws and policies pertaining to companion animals are currently under discussion, or have been implemented in some places and are likely to be implemented elsewhere. Some of these directly protect or promote the welfare of the animals themselves, some aim to benefit or protect their owners, and some aim at both; others aim to protect other people, other animals, or the environment from the impacts of companion animals. We will just consider a few of these here.