Ethics and Broader Impacts of Companion Animals

Chapter 14
Ethics and Broader Impacts of Companion Animals

  1. 14.1 Introduction
  2. 14.2 Public Health and Zoonoses
  3. 14.3 Companion Animals and Use of Resources

    1. 14.3.1 Animal food and human food
    2. 14.3.2 The opportunity cost of companion animals

  4. 14.4 Companion Animals, Sustainability, and the Environment

    1. 14.4.1 Resource use and waste
    2. 14.4.2 Wildlife competition and predation

14.1 Introduction

It is often claimed that companion animals are reservoirs of disease, that they use resources that could otherwise help people or maintain other animals, or that they are environmentally unsustainable. For instance, in The Guardian newspaper in 2014, under the heading ‘Are pets bad for the environment?’, Erik Assadourian of the Worldwatch Institute disapprovingly noted that ‘Two German Shepherds use more resources just for their annual food needs than the average Bangladeshi uses each year in total’ and argued that the earth cannot sustain growing populations of companion animals.

In this chapter, we consider claims about such broader impacts of companion animals, and largely focus on the potential negative impact that companion animals have on human well-being, other animals, and the environment. We will not consider the broader positive impacts of companion animals’ relationship with their owners, since these were discussed in Chapter 3; nor will we consider dangerous dogs (see Chapter 9). However, since debates on the topic generally extend to include stray and feral cats and dogs, we will include these animals here (in addition to what has already been said in Chapter 13). Where we discuss companion animals in the context of wildlife (in Section 14.4.2), we will briefly discuss birds kept as companions, since some bird species raise distinctive issues here.

We will begin by considering ethical issues raised by zoonoses (infectious diseases that can be transmitted between non-human animals and humans), and then we will explore a variety of ethical worries about companion animals, resource use, sustainability and the environment. The concern here is not that the companion relationship in itself is ethically questionable (a view we considered in Chapter 5), but rather that problems arise because of the human and/or environmental impacts of companion animals. This does not necessarily mean, though, that we will only take a consequentialist perspective. It is theoretically possible that some impacts are never acceptable, for instance, because they infringe on others’ rights.

14.2 Public Health and Zoonoses

It is estimated that 75% of newly reported human infections emerge from a (non-human) animal reservoir (Taylor, Latham & Woolhouse, 2001). Zoonotic diseases carried by companion animals may cause minor ailments such as skin irritation (mange, ringworm) or gastrointestinal upsets (campylobacter or cryptosporidia). However, they can also be fatal; rabies is the best-known example. In some cases, infections can be mild or asymptomatic in normally healthy adults but can have serious consequences in children and the immune-compromised – for example, toxoplasma, a protozoa found in infected cat faeces, can infect the human foetus, causing brain damage or blindness. Some zoonoses are transmitted by direct contact through bites and scratches (e.g. rabies, cat scratch fever (Bartonella henselae)), while others are transmitted indirectly via contaminated soil or water (e.g. roundworm in dog faeces). Zoonotic diseases shared with birds, such as psittacosis, may be transmitted through airborne means. Cats and dogs also transmit diseases between themselves; in particular, unowned and feral cats may have higher levels of FIV (the feline version of HIV) than owned cats (Muirden, 2002), and can transmit both FIV and FeLV (feline leukaemia) to owned cats allowed outdoors (Figure 14.1).


Figure 14.1 Feral cat colony. Many of the cats are in reasonable body condition, although obviously scarred from fighting.


Outdoor and feral cats can also transmit disease to wildlife. In California, for instance, high numbers of sea otters are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, shed only in the faeces of cats (Dabritz et al., 2006). However, it is worth noting that cats and dogs can be vulnerable to cross-species transmission too. Humans can, for example, infect companion animals with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and influenza A (H1N1) pdm09 virus (Day et al., 2012).

Acquiring a zoonotic disease from a companion animal normally has a negative impact on human welfare (however welfare is understood); in some cases, the disease can be very severe, or even fatal. And of course, many of these diseases (not least rabies) are also very bad for animal welfare. But is this of ethical concern?

One way in which a zoonotic disease may be of ethical concern is when people choose to acquire companion animals that may put themselves, or other people, at risk of disease. This may mean that owners have moral responsibilities to protect others from the possible disease impacts of their dog or cat. A second way in which a zoonotic disease may be of ethical concern is that it normally causes suffering. Utilitarians who aim to minimise suffering should, therefore, try to tackle these diseases, and to reduce their incidence. This raises questions about what strategies should be adopted to achieve this reduction, and by whom – the national government, local communities, individual companion animal owners, or all of these groups? Internationally, strategies have ranged from preventative action, including vaccinations, surveillance, careful husbandry to reduce exposure, and bans on keeping animal companions in urban areas, to wide-ranging animal culls.

Culling is generally the most ethically challenging policy, especially where it involves not only feral animals, but also the animals with whom people actually live. In the industrialised West, few formal culls of companion animals or unowned dogs or cats have been carried out for zoonotic reasons; most severe zoonotic diseases have been controlled by surveillance, vaccination and medication. From some ethical perspectives, such as that of an animal rights theorist, killing – especially of a dog or cat that does not actually have a disease – in order to protect humans or other animals is morally unacceptable (just as culling people in similar cases would be unacceptable). From a utilitarian perspective, however, if there were no plausible alternative, and a cull would likely bring about best overall consequences, it could be ethically justified. In the case of rabies in particular, though, it is sometimes argued that programmes of trapping, neutering, vaccination and release of feral dogs are actually more effective in preventing the spread of disease than outright culls, and so would bring about better consequences (Molento, 2014). Certainly, countries where unowned dogs and cats are primarily controlled by shooting or poisoning in situ do not report a reduction in their overall populations (WSPA/RSPCA, 2007).

Ethical concerns about reducing human and nonhuman pain and suffering underpin arguments that individual owners, communities, and governments have a responsibility to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases from companion animals. For individual owners, this primarily means ensuring that the animal receives relevant vaccinations, and safely disposing of an animal’s faeces. However, the safe disposal of faeces is practically problematic in the case of cats (see Section 14.4.1). In the case of dogs, disposal of faeces is easier in principle, but in practice, many people fail to do so safely. Failure to pick up after dogs can spread worm-based disease, as well as create a community nuisance; this has led most public authorities to regulate in this area. Many locations ban dogs (for instance, from beaches) and others have dog fouling bylaws carrying significant financial penalties. Some cities take concerns about zoonoses especially seriously. Reykjavik in Iceland, for instance, for many years banned dogs to avoid the risk of zoonotic disease and dog aggression; while it is now possible to gain a legal exemption (at a price), dogs are still banned from most public places. However, given how much dog ownership matters to many people (see Chapter 3) and the possibility of regulation for various protective measures (such as vaccination and cleaning up dog faeces), from a utilitarian perspective, at least, the costs of such a ban may well outweigh the benefits it provides.

One further concern about the linked nature of human and animal disease is the use of antibiotics in companion animal medicine, where there are worries that ‘veterinary use of antimicrobials is contributing to the emergence of resistant bacterial strains in humans’ (Bonner, 2014). While the primary concerns here are about the prophylactic (preventative) use of antibiotics in agricultural animal production, veterinary use of antimicrobials in companion animals has recently come under scrutiny, especially in Europe. Since increasingly resistant bacterial strains are likely to increase suffering in people and in animals, different ethical perspectives will largely converge in agreeing that actions that make bacterial resistance more likely should be restricted, both as an ethical practice by individual vets, and, where necessary, by regulation.

The linked nature of many human and animal diseases need not always be regarded negatively. The development of ideas about ‘One Health’ – defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as ‘the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines – working locally, nationally, and globally – to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment’ (One Health, 2008: p. 13) has emphasised more positive impacts of the closeness between humans and animals. Rabinowitz et al. (2008), for example, drawing on the idea of One Health, argue that rather than seeing animals as posing a risk of disease (‘Us vs Them’), we should think in terms of shared risk, in particular with respect to the effects of environmental hazards. Animals could be regarded as ‘sentinels’ of disease risks to humans, and as companion animals live so closely with humans, they may be particularly useful for this. For instance, it has been suggested that cancer in dogs linked to lawn chemicals or indoor air pollution ‘could be a model for diseases in children sharing the same households’ (Rabinowitz, Odophin & Dein, 2008: p. 226). While this approach may appear human-centred (valuing animal diseases as a way of better understanding threats to human public health from disease), it could nonetheless contribute both to human and to companion animal welfare.

14.3 Companion Animals and Use of Resources

Two ethical concerns are popularly expressed about companion animals in the context of human resource use. One is that companion animals are competing for the human food supply. The second is that given global hunger and poverty, spending significant amounts of household resources on animal companions cannot be ethically justified.

14.3.1 Animal food and human food

Concern that companion animals are eating food that humans would otherwise eat has a long history – as we saw in Chapter 1, people reflected on this even in the sixteenth century. The worry may rest on some combination of two different beliefs: firstly, that humans could, and otherwise would, eat what companion animals are consuming, and secondly, that there is an overall shortage of food, so that if companion animals are being fed more, what is available for humans is decreasing, or not increasing as fast as it otherwise would.

We will consider these ideas in turn. Most cats and dogs eat commercially produced food, usually a combination of animal products, water, some kind of grains and starches, binders and thickeners, preservatives, and various supplementary nutrients required for health. The ethical concern here is (usually) that the meat or fish protein (rather than the grains and other products) in cat and dog food otherwise could, and perhaps would, be used to feed people. In order to assess this concern, we need to know what meat and fish actually are in pet food.

Animal products in commercial pet food are usually composed from different sources. The food may contain meat left over from production processes, including what is removed from mechanical deboning, and other meat not usually marketed for human consumption (Nestle & Nesheim, 2010). Most commercial dog and cat food also contains meat by-products, including heads, feet, beaks, viscera, lungs, blood, brains, bones: parts not usually eaten in the industrialised West, but sometimes eaten in other areas of the world. Commercial foods also frequently contain animal meals from rendered ingredients with a variety of sources including ‘4D’ meat (classified as being from animals that were dead, dying, diseased or disabled at the time they were inspected), used cooking oil from restaurants, and expired meat from retail sources, as well as unwanted parts of slaughtered animals. These materials are ‘rendered’ – ground up, heated, sterilised and dehydrated in a process designed to kill viruses and bacteria, and to prevent disease transmission. The process separates out fat and dried protein solids, both of which are then used in companion animal food. Rendered protein meal provides 5–40% of the protein and fats in most commercial cat and dog foods (Aldrich, 2013); about 25% of rendered material in the United States is used for pet food (the rest is used in non-food products such as soap). Cat and dog food also contains fats, including tallow and lard/white grease, which could be eaten by humans, so ‘pet food companies may partially compete in the human edible market for this ingredient’ (Aldrich, 2006); however, these fats are in plentiful general supply.

Much commercial cat and dog food, then, contains mostly by-products of slaughtered animals that humans do not usually (but could) eat, and rendered products that are not intended for human consumption. So, the production of this kind of companion animal food does not appear to compete directly with the human food supply, given current tastes about which parts of animals are normally eaten.

However, the situation is different with fish protein. Fish-based cat food is often not only made from fish by-products but also from small pelagic forage fish, such as anchovies, mackerel, herring and sardines. Fishmeal also mostly comes from fish primarily caught to make the meal, rather than from by-products (Nestle & Nesheim, 2010). Although not a significant part of the diet in the industrialised West, these fish are an important protein source in many developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Small pelagic fish also constitute about 12–13% of the diet of marine animals and seabirds (Kaschner et al., 2006); so plausibly, an increase in companion animal consumption of small pelagic fish may impact on wild animal welfare. In addition, these small pelagic fish and fish by-products are increasingly used in aquaculture in the form of fishmeal and fish oil (to feed farmed salmon, in particular). Demand for small pelagic fish both from aquaculture and from pet food has led to increased competition for the resource, as industrial fishing companies take substantial catches, reducing their availability to local people who rely on small pelagic fish, and plausibly shifting the allocation of the resource from people (and wild animals) to cats (Tacon & Metian, 2009). At present, although aquaculture is a far bigger consumer of small pelagic fish than the cat food industry, the cat food industry’s consumption of fish is growing (though accurate statistics are hard to come by), and so cat food production may also constrain the growth of the human farmed fish supply. In 2002, according to De Silva & Turchini (2008), the cat food industry used 2,478,520 tonnes of raw forage fish – this much fish made into fishmeal, they claim, could have supported a doubling in global farmed salmon production. And an increase in global farmed salmon means more food for people. So, indirectly, wild pelagic fish now fed to cats could feed people, via farmed salmon (although, obviously, expansion of fish farming depends on much more just than availability of fishmeal).

A second issue here is particularly interesting. Some dog and cat owners do not want to feed their animals rendered meals, meat by-products, binders and preservatives: food that they would not eat themselves. Their concern is that the low-grade meat by-product and rendered meat meal in commercial pet foods threaten their companions’ health: if pets are family members, it might be argued, they should be fed like the rest of the family. As an alternative to standard commercial foods, then, these owners buy ultra-premium pet foods, or make pet food at home from meat and fish of a quality they are willing to eat themselves. This practice does take food from the human food supply, with the goal of improving companion animal welfare. Of course, it is very unlikely that any particular food item fed to an animal companion would otherwise have been redirected to a human being in need. But direct diversion of food from human beings to companion animals may not be all that is at stake; it is possible, for instance, that an increase in demand for human food for companion animals could lead to an increase in food prices, making food less accessible to those living in poverty.

Thinking about food prices indicates just how complex this issue is (too complex to be considered in any detail here). Underpinning worries about diverting food from the human food supply to companion animals is the concern that there is, or will soon be, an overall shortage of food in the world (if there were no concern about food supply, presumably the diversion issue would not matter). In absolute terms, though, it can be claimed that there is ‘enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life’ (WFP, 2014). However, this obviously does not mean that no problems exist: some people cannot access sufficient food, others can access it, but cannot afford to buy it; a substantial proportion of it is wasted in production, transportation (or lack of transportation) and in the home, and there are significant concerns about future availability of food with growing human populations. So, even if there is no absolute shortage of food, some individuals and communities, now and in the future, will not have enough of it.

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Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Ethics and Broader Impacts of Companion Animals

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