- 15.1 Introduction
- 15.2 The Welfare of Other Companions
- 15.3 Wild-Caught Birds and the Pet Trade
- 15.4 Ethical Approaches to Other Companions
- 15.5 Should Ownership of Some Species Be Restricted, or Completely Prohibited?
This book has focused on dogs and cats, as our typical animal companions: three-quarters of those households that choose to live with animals, choose dogs and/or cats. Other animals are, of course, kept in the home or garden, but not usually as companions. Aquarium fish are, for example, commonly kept for their aesthetic appeal or their psychologically relaxing effects, rather than for companionship. However, other animals that we have not so far considered can be kept as companions, though less often than cats and dogs – in particular rabbits, birds and small rodents (e.g. hamsters, rats and guinea pigs).
Defining a companion species is not straightforward, though, as different people will keep the same species for different reasons. For example, macaws could be kept either for companionship, or purely for their aesthetic appeal, while some people might turn to their tarantula or goldfish for mutual play or comfort. And keeping any animal in a household may raise ethical issues, not just those kept as companions. However, here we will maintain this book’s focus on companionship, and consider the central ethical issues raised by what we call the ‘other companions’, with a focus on small mammals, rabbits and birds.
These ‘other companions’ may be acquired for various reasons, for instance, if people are not allowed to keep dogs or cats in rental properties, or are not physically able to care for them, owing to illnesses, disabilities or allergies. But there are also positive motivations for acquiring other companions: some people may always have lived with animals of a particular kind, and be loyal to the species (Serpell, 1981). They may just enjoy, or find otherwise rewarding, interacting with animals of that kind. In addition, many of the animals in this category may be acquired for children, perhaps with the goal of teaching responsibility and care, or because the child asked for a pet (Fifield & Forsyth, 1999).
In this chapter, we first consider welfare challenges posed by these other companions, some of which are not raised, or not raised to the same degree, by keeping dogs and cats. We then also consider one broader concern – the companion bird trade – that not only raises major welfare issues for birds, but also has broader social and environmental impacts. We then move on to consider different ethical approaches to these welfare issues and to the wild bird trade. In the final section of the chapter, we reflect on whether ownership of some kinds of companion animals is normally unethical, and should be restricted or prohibited altogether.
One starting point for thinking about the welfare of other companions is to return to the Five Freedoms we have discussed before (Chapter 4): the freedom from hunger and thirst; the freedom from discomfort (including the provision of an appropriate environment); the freedom from pain, injury and disease; the freedom to express normal behaviour (including sufficient space and appropriate social interaction); and the freedom from fear and distress. However, as we also discussed in Chapter 4, these freedoms, while important, are all rather negative, focusing on freedom from what is bad, such as suffering and restrictions on normal behaviour. In addition, we should also think about positive welfare, where companions have good lives, with opportunities to flourish, and to carry out enjoyable, engaging and challenging activities.
Many of the welfare issues we have discussed in the case of cats and dogs may also affect other companions – for instance, they may become obese due to inappropriate diet and lack of exercise. However, other companions are often kept in ways that also generate some distinct welfare problems. For example, most other companions live in cages, and do not generally have freedom to move about the house. They may be allowed to run or fly indoors or outdoors on occasions, but most of the time they are closely confined, which (as we will discuss below) raises questions about their ability to perform key normal behaviours. Relatedly, partly on account of being confined (and in some cases, also nocturnal), other companions run the risk of being neglected and forgotten by their owners. While, as Sainthouse (2011) notes, cats and dogs can and do loudly pester their owners if they are hungry and thirsty, small mammals, rabbits and birds normally lack this ability. More generally, especially where other companions are small, and do not interact much with their owners, any health problems they have may be less noticeable than in the case of cats and dogs.
Another common factor shared by at least some of the other companions (mainly the small mammals and rabbits) is that, as noted in the Introduction, they are often recommended and acquired for children as ‘starter pets’ because they are supposed to be easy to care for (the ASPCA (n.d.), for instance, recommends guinea pigs as an excellent ‘starter pet’ for older children). As we will note next, however, it is not that easy to care for these animals well; the difficulties of doing so are exacerbated if, in order to teach children responsibility, the animals are left largely or solely to children’s care, which rarely happens with cats and dogs.
Finally, a major issue shared by most of the other companions concerns social contact with conspecifics. Cats and dogs are usually socially integrated into their human households, and have significant interactions with their owners. Cats may do well, or better, as solitary felines within a household; while dogs normally benefit from contact with other dogs, they are typically taken out for walks and play in dog parks where these conspecific socialising opportunities exist. However, many of the other companions, including some of the large birds, are frequently kept alone, even though they are often highly social. As we will discuss, even though they may have some contact with their owners, being kept alone means that they lack any opportunity to express important social behaviours with conspecifics.
Many different species of animals may be kept as companions, and we are unable to discuss them all here; for instance, we will not be discussing chinchillas, ferrets, and semi-wild/wild companions (such as wolf-dogs, monkeys, and exotic or tamed wild mammals), as the numbers of these animals kept as companions are comparatively small. We will focus here on the most common of the other below: small rodents, rabbits and birds.
Small rodents – sometimes called ‘pocket pets’ – have particular needs that, if not met, may lead to welfare problems; we will focus on three here: environment, social contact and veterinary care.
All these small rodents are normally kept indoors in cages (though guinea pigs are sometimes kept outside in hutches). However, caged environments that promote good welfare are difficult to establish and to maintain. Cages are often too small, even when their occupants, such as golden hamsters, are themselves small. Studies indicate, for instance, that the smaller the cage in which a hamster is housed, the more stereotypic behaviour such as wire-gnawing it performs (Fischer et al., 2007). As well as being large enough for their occupants to exercise, cages also need to be kept clean, as the animals urinate and defecate throughout; failure to clean cages can lead to disease. Yet, while it is important to keep cages clean, given the opportunity, small mammals such as gerbils create intricate tunnels that they continually modify; rats and mice can become stressed as a result of having scent marks and olfactory clues constantly removed (Sayers & Smith, 2010); Syrian hamsters prefer 14 days old to new bedding (Veillette & Reebs, 2010). So, while cage cleanliness is important, small rodents also seem to prefer familiarity, and materials they can manipulate in their environment; both appear to be important to welfare. Environmental enrichment, through adding toys, hides, food treats, and bedding materials to the cages, encourages the animals to forage and exercise (but may also compromise cleanliness).
Another element of the ability to perform ‘normal behaviour’ involves achieving an appropriate amount of social contact with conspecifics. Rats, mice, gerbils and guinea pigs, for instance, are very social: guinea pigs form lasting bonds with conspecifics, and keeping them alone is widely thought to cause significant welfare problems (Hillyer, Quesenberry & Donnelly, 1997). In fact, in recognition of the welfare importance of conspecific companionship, in 2008, Switzerland implemented a law requiring that social species, including guinea pigs, should have regular interaction with a member of the same species (Swissinfo.ch, 2008). But this need for social contact with conspecifics is not universal among small rodents. Syrian hamsters are solitary; being housed with or even near to another hamster is stressful, while male mice are territorial and fight if caged together. Thus, where suitable social housing requirements are not met, welfare is likely to be compromised.
Finally, although these species are fairly common companions, research suggests they are not often taken to vets (Keown, Farnworth & Adams, 2011), and, therefore, vets are likely to be less familiar with their health issues than they are in the case of cats and dogs. Keown, Farnworth & Adams (2011) surveyed vets in New Zealand on their familiarity with treatments for, and their willingness to treat, guinea pigs and rabbits. They concluded that in New Zealand at least, ‘there is a relative paucity of information regarding pain recognition, and anaesthetic and analgesic protocols for rodents and lagomorphs [here, rabbits] outside laboratories’ (Keown, Farnworth & Adams, 2011: p. 305). This may mean that these animals are not receiving adequate relief from pain, especially post-operatively.
Rabbits are, in some countries, the third most popular companion animals after cats and dogs; there are estimated to be 3.2 million companion rabbits in the United States (AVMA, 2012), and around 1.7 million companion rabbits in the United Kingdom (PDSA, 2013). We will consider a couple of the most significant issues affecting rabbit welfare here.
The first is diet. Wild rabbits’ main diet is grass, which is important for nutrition and digestion; and because rabbits’ teeth grow continuously, high-fibre diets (grass and hay) are necessary to grind the teeth down. While most domestic rabbits are usually given access to some hay or grass, they are often also fed commercial mix foods that are selectively eaten. Selective feeding commonly leaves rabbits with too little calcium in their diet, contributing to dental disease. In a study of 102 fairly young pet rabbits, Mullan & Main (2006) found that 29.4% had dental disease, some in an advanced state. Rabbit mix foods may also be high in protein, fat and carbohydrate, which can cause obesity, digestive problems and diarrhoea.
These problems are compounded because owners often do not understand key issues about rabbit health – in the Mullan & Main (2006) study, most owners were unaware that their rabbits had dental disease – and infrequently took them to see a vet. According to a survey of UK pet owners, only 56% of rabbit owners are registered with a vet, and while 64% check their rabbit’s teeth at least monthly, 12% of owners never check their rabbits for maggots – leaving 200,000 rabbits at risk of ‘fly-strike’ (where maggots eat the rabbit’s flesh, causing severe suffering, and, in some cases, death) (PDSA, 2013).
The second issue is environment – both social and physical – as, although companion rabbits have been domesticated, research suggests that domestication has not significantly changed their behavioural repertoire (Edgar & Mullan, 2011). In the wild, rabbits live in burrow systems with many other rabbits, and even when on the surface, they tend to remain within 10 metres of another individual 40–50% of the time (Cowan, 1987). However, many rabbits kept in the home are kept in solitude. A study in the Netherlands found that 48% of households kept solitary rabbits (Schepers, Koene & Beerda, 2009); while studies in the United Kingdom found 56% (Mullan & Main, 2006) and 65% (PDSA, 2013) of rabbits were kept alone. Schepers, Koene & Beerda (2009) concluded that this solitary housing could be a contributing factor in the short lifespan of the rabbits studied (4.2 years on average, rather than a potential 13 years). It is sometimes mistakenly thought that housing a rabbit with a guinea pig meets both animals’ needs for social contact; but only conspecifics make suitable companions (PDSA, 2013).
Access to sufficient space is also a concern. Wild rabbits have a home range of 7000–20,000 m2. Mullan & Main (2006) found that in the United Kingdom, 84% of rabbits were kept in hutches smaller than those recommended by animal welfare groups (which were themselves far smaller than the usual range of a wild rabbit); just over 20% were kept in cages smaller than those recommended even for laboratory rabbits. A more recent study in the United Kingdom found that only 40% of rabbits had access to a run, only 23% dug in the garden on a daily basis, and 18% had no access to exercise on a daily basis (PDSA, 2013).
As with the other small mammals, rabbits are often thought of as an easy companion for children to keep; however, they are especially vulnerable to a variety of welfare problems if their housing and husbandry are suboptimal. In an article in the UK newspaper The Observer entitled ‘Pet rabbits are cruelly neglected and mistreated in Britain’, RSPCA inspector Tony Woodley is quoted as saying:
If you ask any RSPCA officer which animal they feel most sorry for, it’s usually the poor, forgotten rabbit sitting in a tiny hutch without the proper food, or any food at all, and some dirty water. It might once have been loved for a brief time by some child, but it has quickly been forgotten and it’s a very sad sight that I have seen countless times.
The category of ‘birds’ is rather broad one. Many different species of birds are kept in households, from relatively small budgerigars to large birds such as macaws, though the majority of companion birds are in the Psittaciforme (parrot) order. While budgerigars live on average 8–10 years, some of the larger parrots may live for 50–80 years, making these animal companions the most long-lived of all those we are considering in this book: they can frequently outlive their human owner.
As we noted in Chapter 1, the popularity of birds kept as companions has decreased as the popularity of cats and dogs has risen; but many millions of birds are still kept as companions in households worldwide. According to the AVMA (2012), there are 8.3 million birds kept as companions in the United States; the European Pet Food Industry Federation estimates that more than 42 million caged birds are kept in the European Union (FEDIAF, 2011).
Most of the birds kept as companions are not regarded as domesticated; some are still acquired directly from the wild (see Section 15.3), and others are only one or two generations from wild birds (especially parrots, given their longevity – see Meehan & Mench, 2006). Engebretson (2006: p. 263) notes that ‘many of the bird species that are bred and traded as companion animals remain physically indistinguishable from their wild counterparts’. Given the difference between the lives of wild birds and caged companion birds, we might expect significant welfare issues to arise from keeping them in the home; we can only consider these briefly here (see Meehan & Mench, 2006 for further details on parrot welfare, in particular). Key areas of welfare concern, as with other companion animals we have considered here, are diet and disease, lack of social interaction with conspecifics, and being kept in environments that are too small and barren to allow them to perform normal behaviours.
First, with respect to diet and disease: captive birds, like rabbits, are selective eaters. Many of them are fed seed diets in the home; but these diets are high in fat and lack nutrients. According to Harrison (1998), around 90% of all clinical conditions seen by avian practitioners are caused by malnutrition. So, while birds may be provided with diets that would be at least minimally adequate if not selectively eaten, in practice, the birds may not get the nutrition they need; this makes them vulnerable to various diseases, including fungal infections (Engebretson, 2006). Although birds may have a number of health problems, research suggests that birds kept as companions are rarely offered veterinary care – strikingly less so than dogs, and, to a significantly lesser degree, than cats. In the United States, in 2006, 82.7% of owned dogs and 63.7% of owned cats had been taken to the vet at least once, but only 13.9% of bird-owning households used the services of a vet (Shepherd, 2008).
Companion birds also often lack sufficient space to perform normal behaviours, including flying, even though some nations and US states legislate a minimum cage size. The US state of Colorado, for instance, regulates cage size for birds:
The cage must be large enough to provide full body extension without contact with the confines. The cage must be wide enough in at least one direction to accommodate completely stretched wings.
(Born Free USA, n.d.)
The UK Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) likewise requires cages to be of a suitable size to allow birds to extend their wings in every direction. Even so, this does not give birds sufficient room to fly, or to perform other normal behaviours. Engebretson (2006: p. 265) reports that in the case of parrots, post-mortems often reveal stress-related lesions, which, it is postulated, are because of ‘physical and behavioural restrictions imposed by standard captive environments’. Birds that are unable to perform normal behaviours because of confinement may also perform stereotypic behaviours, or develop habits such as feather-picking (Hawkins, 2009, Meehan & Mench, 2006).
Many bird species kept as companions are social, and evidence suggests that time spent with conspecifics is important to their welfare. However, even here, social interaction may work differently between species; while new budgerigars can be fairly easily integrated with existing budgerigars as budgerigar flocks are not strongly hierarchical, other parrots require much slower introductions to new conspecifics (Hawkins, 2009). For some members of the parrot species, being housed alone is thought to be particularly stressful. African Gray parrots, for instance, live in flocks of from 20–30 to several thousand birds in the wild; keeping them singly ‘inevitably leads to psychological problems of fear and aggression’ (Girling, 2009: p. 128).
Before moving on to look at some ethical responses to these welfare concerns, we will consider one more issue that is important for bird welfare, but that also has other impacts: wild-caught birds and the pet trade.
Some birds kept as companions are captured from the wild. The international trade in wildlife – for purposes such as food, traditional medicine, entertainment or pets – is huge. Precise figures specifically relating to the pet trade are difficult to obtain, because captive-bred and wild-caught animals are often not separately identified, or are wrongly identified, and a significant proportion of the market is illegal under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and so is not formally reported at all. Much of the wild-caught pet trade concerns animals beyond the scope of this book, including primates, reptiles, snakes and fish. However, the trade in wild-caught birds destined to become companion animals is relevant here.
Originally, all companion birds were wild caught. However, many species (such as budgerigars) are now largely or wholly captive bred, and some captive breeding takes place in all companion bird species. But certain breeds of parrots and macaws are still, to some degree, illegally captured from the wild, and illegally traded, and become available on the companion bird market (although it is, for instance, illegal to import wild-caught parrots into the United States for the pet trade).
The capture, transportation and export of wild-caught birds have very negative welfare implications. Capture is stressful (for instance, birds are often caught in nets or glue traps) and may cause death through trauma or exhaustion, or diseases such as capture myopathy, a degeneration of skeletal muscle (Engebretson, 2006). Surviving birds are then usually transported in overcrowded conditions, often receiving insufficient food and water, and diseases spread quickly. Mortality rates among wild-captured birds are very high. For instance, recent research estimates the mortality rate of wild-captured grey parrots in Congo to be 45–65% from capture to market in Kinshasa (Hart, 2013).
However, this trade benefits some humans’ welfare; for example, the economic benefits to often impoverished communities from collecting and selling wild birds can be significant. A study in the Peruvian Amazon of the illegal harvest of parrot nestlings found that doing so ‘represented an important source of income for local families during the flood season, when fish and agricultural products are more scarce’ (González, 2003). Yet these benefits may be short lived: González (2003) goes on to suggest that the parrots are being driven to extinction because too many are collected, and the collection methods frequently destroy nesting trees. If the parrots disappear, then so will the benefits: not only will people not be able to collect nestlings, but future costs could be substantial, if for instance, an ecotourism industry based on bird watching might otherwise have been established.
This raises other factors that, while not directly of welfare concern, might be relevant to thinking ethically about the capture of wild birds as companions: the effects on wild animal populations, species and ecological systems, rather than on individual wild animal welfare. Removing birds can significantly deplete wild populations, reduce genetic diversity, and potentially threaten whole species (although it can be difficult to distinguish the effects of the pet trade from other more general threats, e.g. from habitat destruction). The ways in which members of the target species are captured may also damage ecosystems and cause the deaths of members of other, non-target, species. This is particularly a concern with respect to Amazon bird species, where the problem can self-reinforce:
individuals who greatly value rarity will often increase the economic incentives to capture increasingly rare species, thus creating a positive feedback loop with uncommon species being more valuable and therefore more sought-after.
(Fernandes-Ferreira et al., 2012: p. 231)
One way of avoiding the problems of the wild bird trade is to buy only captive-bred birds. But while this may be easy enough when acquiring budgerigars or canaries, it is much more difficult to be sure of the provenance of birds such as Amazon parrots and macaws. Wild-caught birds may be sold more cheaply, or they may be labelled as captive-bred and laundered through breeding farms (Schuppli, Fraser & Bacon, 2014); so a purchaser may not be sure of exactly what he or she is acquiring. For this reason, Engebretson (2006: p. 273), among others, argues that as long as people are permitted to keep parrots as companions, the smuggling of parrots for the pet trade is likely to continue.
The wild capture of birds that ultimately (even if illegally, or purchased in ignorance) end up as companions, raises a wider set of value issues alongside both human and animal welfare. These issues need to be considered in taking a broader ethical view of keeping other companions, as we suggest in the following section.
Keeping animals other than cats and dogs as companions raises a wide range of welfare problems, primarily for the animals, but in some cases, also for people; and where birds are wild caught, environmental impacts may also be significant. What should we think about this in ethical terms?
We begin with human-centred ethical approaches such as contractarianism (see Chapter 5) where human interests and concerns are of primary importance and animal welfare and the environment matter only in as much as they matter to people. Even from these approaches, the issues raised here are of ethical significance. An unsuitable companion animal (such as a nocturnal hamster for a child, that bites when woken in the day) or a companion animal that is listless, performs stereotypical behaviours, or is fearful or aggressive because its welfare is poor, can cause its owners’ distress, and is likely to reduce their enjoyment in having an animal companion. An owner may be upset when, because he or she does not know what a companion needs to flourish, significant welfare problems or premature death occur. On most human-centred ethical views, it would be better if these outcomes were avoided by improved welfare for the animal.
It is worth noting, though, that in some cases animals may suffer welfare problems without them having noticeable behavioural effects in the early stages – as with dental disease in rabbits, or some forms of malnutrition in birds. Here, as the welfare issues do not impact on human relationships to the animals, they do not matter ethically from a human-centred perspective. In other cases, improving an animal’s welfare sufficiently to avoid problems for the animal may entail sacrifice by an owner – for instance, of household space – that the owner does not want to make. From a human-centred perspective, if the owner values household space more than their companion’s welfare, then there is no ethical responsibility to give the space up.
The market in wild-caught birds is also of ethical concern from a human-centred perspective. While people who engage in the trade benefit from it, as noted earlier, these benefits are unlikely to be sustainable; while much of what owners enjoy about keeping birds as companions could be equally well produced by captive-bred birds, which also carry less risk of disease transmission to people. So, the human gains from the trade, in the long term, are small, if they exist at all. Meanwhile, many people value bird species, ecosystems, and the biodiversity they partly comprise, because they are extremely useful in providing long-term services to people (for instance, they may contribute to new drugs, they help to purify freshwater and so on) and/or because they subjectively value their existence (what economists sometimes call ‘existence value’) and deplore their loss. From this human perspective, the wild-caught bird trade is ethically unacceptable. Human-centred ethical views of this kind underpin international laws banning the capture of many species of wild birds, and national laws forbidding the importation of wild-caught birds for the companion animal market.
Other ethical approaches take animal welfare directly into account. A utilitarian might begin by asking whether, in any particular case, better welfare overall could be achieved by changing the way an animal companion is cared for – for instance, by giving animals more space, a better diet, environmental enrichment, or a companion. These changes may cause less suffering and enrich animals’ lives, and may also improve the owner’s enjoyment in the companion, especially if the change comes at minimal cost to the owner, such as switching from all seed to pelleted food for parrots. However, other changes – such as sacrificing household space for the companion – may come at a greater cost to the owner. Utilitarianism, unlike human-centred approaches, then must weigh the owner’s feelings of inconvenience, negative aesthetic experience and so on, against the benefits to the animals’ welfare. In most cases, although changes in space or companionship may be a nuisance for an owner, they make major differences to the welfare of an animal, and so the benefits to the animal will usually outweigh the costs to the owner.
One difficulty with the weighing process from the perspective of a utilitarian is that, (as we noted in Chapter 4), in practice, it is hard to work out what ‘good welfare’ actually is, even when there is agreement on how to define and measure welfare. This is because different aspects of welfare can be in conflict (as in the case of letting a cat outdoors). For example, keeping a cage very clean may reduce an animal’s risk of disease, and so make suffering less likely, something a utilitarian cares about. But it may also create a barren environment for an animal, lacking sufficient interest and enrichment, leaving the animal bored and frustrated – and a utilitarian cares about these negative experiences too. So, a utilitarian not only has to weigh human interests in relation to animal interests, but also to make a judgement about what would actually be best overall for the animal or animals concerned.
A utilitarian approach would also be concerned about the wild bird trade, in as much as it impacts on human and animal welfare. Suffering inflicted on the traded birds and other animals would be of high significance, as would the overall benefits to humans (those engaged in the trade) and the costs to humans (where welfare is impacted by the loss of the services ecosystems provide, or people are distressed by the suffering of birds or the loss of species and systems). It is worth noting that from a utilitarian perspective, the loss of species (for instance) only matters inasmuch as it impacts on human or animal welfare; it is not ethically important in itself. Given the high level of bird suffering the wild companion bird trade produces (likely to be much more than birds would experience in the wild; certainly mortality rates are higher), and other negative outcomes, from a utilitarian perspective, the trade is almost certainly unethical (though there is certainly room for debate about the best practical and policy responses to the trade).
Contextual approaches to ethics, such as an ethics of care, are concerned with questions about what is owed to a companion animal, given the animal’s relationship to the owner, and how to make the relationship between the animal and owner more fulfilling and mutually engaging. Most contextual approaches to ethics will maintain that once an animal is in the home, it has been made dependent on the owner, and as the owner has placed it in this situation of dependence, there is a moral responsibility to care for the animal and to ensure that its needs are met.
For contextual views on which the flourishing of relationship matters, given that poor welfare can lead to fear, aggression and stereotypic behaviours that inhibit flourishing, the animal will need to have good welfare (although this may not be true of welfare compromises that do not have behavioural manifestations). One particularly interesting issue here concerns bird rearing and companionship. It has traditionally been argued that both hand-rearing companion birds (which means early maternal separation, and in parrots, a higher risk of disease (Romagnano, 2003)) and keeping social birds singly, encourage birds to bond with their human owner. If this were correct, there might be a conflict between the ethical goal of developing a strong bond between the owner and the bird, and a goal of good, species-specific welfare. However, recent research suggests that, in the case of parrots at least, parent-rearing, with some human handling, creates birds just as tame as does hand-rearing (Aengus & Millam, 1999); while housing in same-sex pairs improves, rather than undermines, bird–owner relationships (Meehan, Garner & Mench, 2003).
Finally, we will consider a rights view. First, it is clear that an animal rights view would unequivocally condemn the trade in wild birds, as it infringes on every right a bird might be thought to have, and no benefits to humans could be thought to outweigh such rights infringements. Assuming that a rights view claims, most basically, that animals have negative rights such as a right not to be seriously harmed, and not to be imprisoned, concerns about keeping other companion animals also exist. Keeping rabbits in small hutches and birds in small cages are likely to be seen here as rights infringements, and significant adjustments called for in order to provide companion animals with basic liberties. As an example of a view like this, we could consider the House Rabbit Society (HRS), an organisation committed to protect the rights of companion rabbits and, more generally to ensure that they have good lives.
The HRS rests on a clearly outlined ethical position, on which all domestic rabbits are valuable as individuals; they ‘should be afforded at least the same individual rights, level of care, and opportunity for longevity as commonly afforded to dogs and cats who live as human companions’. As domestic rabbits have been produced by humans and are dependent on them, it is a ‘human responsibility that these animals be cared for in a manner appropriate to their needs’ (HRS, 2013). Interestingly, this view combines a rights perspective with a contextual ethic of special responsibility for animals produced and owned by humans. Among the ethical responsibilities that the organisation defends are neutering rabbits (though there is recognition within the HRS that neutering is an ethically serious decision), ensuring that they receive veterinary treatment, keeping them in groups of two or more, and providing spaces and opportunities for their mental and physical stimulation. This last responsibility may require significant adaptation of human homes for rabbits, either creating very large and complex interior cage structures, or allowing rabbits freedom to roam within some, or all, of the home.
Julie Smith, founder of a chapter of the HRS in Wisconsin, proposes what she calls a ‘performance ethics’ of living with rabbits in the home, where to the greatest extent possible with continued human occupation, ‘physical and mental space’ is made available for ‘animal agency’ (Smith, 2003). For Smith, this meant significant changes to her physical domestic environment:
Rabbit-proofing meant that most of the furniture was made of metal, electrical cords were fastened behind furniture or covered in hard plastic or metal tubing, and protective wood strips were tacked on to wood baseboards and wood trim around closets and windows. In addition, linoleum replaced carpet – or the carpet was abandoned to shredding – and fencing enclosed bookcases. So-called “litterbox training” primarily meant capitalizing on the rabbit habit of urinating consistently in one or two places. We simply put litterboxes where the rabbits decided to eliminate.
This description of making a home suitable for the free movement of rabbits is just one example of how difficult it can be to live with many other species in the ways we usually live with cats and dogs. In addition, in the case of rabbits, as with cats, there are also questions about the freedom to have outdoor access.
From all of these ethical perspectives, then, even human-centred, contractarian ones, it is normally better if the animals we keep as companions are cared for in ways that protect and promote, rather than undermine, their welfare. For some of the animal species discussed earlier, good welfare is possible, but the owner may have to be more accommodating to the animals’ needs than is often recognised. However, achieving good welfare, in the case of some species, just may not be possible in an average home. This raises the question whether some species should not normally be kept as companion animals at all, or whether ownership of some species should be restricted (through a ban or by requiring a licence).
We have seen so far in this chapter that keeping companion animals other than cats and dogs can raise significant welfare and conservation concerns. Previously in the book, we also considered other issues, such as the spread of zoonoses and companion animal invasiveness (Chapter 14), and aggression, particularly in dogs (Chapter 9), which can also be problematic in the case of other companions. If an animal combined enough of these characteristics (being aggressive, being a member of a threatened species, wild caught, a carrier of zoonotic disease, potentially invasive, and very difficult to keep in a state of good welfare) or manifested even one of the characteristics in a sufficiently extreme way, we might think that keeping it as a companion is unethical, and should not be legally permitted. For example, domestic ownership of some big cat and primate species is not permitted in some countries.
Schuppli & Fraser (2000), and Schuppli et al. (2014), have developed a useful framework for assessing the ethical suitability of different species as companion animals. They suggest a series of questions that should be asked about each species, concerning knowledge about a species’ welfare and the difficulty (or otherwise) of achieving good welfare in the home, the impacts on the welfare of others (human and non-human) from attack and disease, and the environmental risks posed both by procuring and releasing the animal. They then propose a rough categorisation of pets and animal companions into (see Box 15.1) the following groups, reflecting the required level of owner commitment and expertise.
Schuppli & Fraser (2000) place golden hamsters and mice into Category A (though as we have seen, even these animals can pose welfare challenges, and, according to Schuppli & Fraser (2000), require enriched cages and regular handling). Most cat and dog breeds are placed into Category B: cats and dogs are fairly demanding in terms of welfare, can create problems of noise, disease, and injury, but they can be procured from responsible sources, are reasonably well understood, many people have expertise in caring for them, and they thrive as companions. Rabbits and guinea pigs probably fall into Category B too, as they do not pose environmental hazards nor strong zoonotic threats, their procurement is not a problem, and they can have good welfare as companions, though this does require ‘substantial’ owner education.