This April 11th we celebrate National Pet Day, a time to acknowledge the joy that our furry companions bring us, from guinea pig to Great Dane. Over the past 50 years the number of animals kept as pets has grown enormously, especially during the pandemic, which brought greater flexibility in working arrangements and more need for companionship. But is ‘pet’ really the best word for the four-legged friends who share our homes?
Dogs Are More Than Just Pets
After all, describing ourselves as pet owners might suggest that these thinking, feeling sentient beings are simply another piece of property that we ‘own’, when we know they’re so much more than that! The language we use to describe our animal companions is hugely important and sometimes the word ‘pet’ is used in damaging contexts. We describe smaller animals like goldfish and birds as ‘starter pets’, suggesting they’re just practice for the real thing, and often ‘pet’ can be a belittling word. Reducing a dog, with all his or her complex behaviours and emotions, to the basic role of household pet seems outdated to us at THE PACK. We can’t possibly ‘own’ these beautiful animals, who have their own individual, autonomous lives! Instead, we offer them guardianship.
That’s why we try to avoid the words ‘pet’ and ‘owner’ when we talk about dogs and dog guardians, preferring instead terms like ‘furry friend’, ‘companion’ and, when referring to us humans, ‘pawrents’. For us at THE PACK, this is far more reflective of the value and equal relationship that our dogs have in our homes. Treating dogs with the respect they deserve means dropping the idea that we own them, and that means thinking carefully about how we speak about them. Our dogs are ‘who’, not ‘that.’ They are ‘he’ or ‘she’, but never ‘it’.
How Animals Were Valued In The Past
Of course, this is still a relatively new idea. Throughout history, we haven’t always treated our dogs like family members or even as sentient beings who can experience real emotions. We’re told in the bible that human dominion over all other animals is natural, Genesis declaring “Dread fear of you shall come upon all the animals of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon all the creatures that move about on the ground and all the fishes of the sea; into your power they are delivered.” Ancient theologians spread the message that animals were there for us to use as we see fit.
In the late 1800s, the most influential psychology book, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, insisted that animals behaved like machines and had no internal emotions at all! It’s unsurprising then that the first animal protection law, passed in 1822, wasn’t great. It only banned mistreatment of animals by people other than their owners: if an animal was your property, you could treat them how you liked. That’s why this concept of pet ownership still seems harmful; it takes basic moral rights away from dogs and places them with human ‘owners’.
The Legal Rights Of ‘Pets’
Today, certain animals still only have legal rights so far as they’re private property of humans: in farming and laboratory research, for instance. The law can restrict how we use our property, i.e., ensure the animals are used ‘responsibly’, but a researcher is still allowed to hurt their animals in the name of medical science so long as they attempt to control their pain and distress, and a farmer can still send a healthy animal to the slaughterhouse so long as they are killed ‘humanely’.
For companion animals, things are a lot better. In the 1970s, the inspirational ‘mother of animal law’ Joyce Tischler challenged the assumption that animals have no rights outside of their role as human property and co-founded the Animal Legal Defence Fund. Dogs and cats began to be given additional protections as they came to share not only our gardens, but our homes, sofas and even our beds. Now, if you keep an animal as a pet, you must provide them with proper care: a complete diet and fresh water, a warm home, appropriate social companionship, veterinary treatment and the ability to express themselves in species-appropriate ways. If you don’t, you may be fined or sent to prison for up to 6 months and banned from keeping pets in the future.
Rethinking ‘Pet Ownership’
Of course, our dogs remain wholly dependent on us, regardless of how we refer to them, and some people think that ‘pet keeping’ should be abolished altogether because it violates the animal’s freedom and natural behaviour. At THE PACK, we disagree. While we have a responsibility to keep our companions safe in a dangerous human-centred world, which inevitably means restricting certain natural behaviours and freedoms, we also have a responsibility to make them happy. That means giving them as much freedom as we can within safe boundaries. Having seen our furry friends thrive, we know that we can offer them not just a good life but a great life. The first step in making this happen is reframing ‘pet keeping’ as ‘companionship’ and building a relationship with our dogs built on mutual understanding. Because although domestication of animals initially served our own interests (dogs were historically used to guard homes, shepherd farmed animals or hunt), there have always been benefits for them too, from the guarantee of a warm bed to a nutritious dinner or medical care from a vet.
Today, as philosopher Bernard Rollin once said, that bond based on practical benefits “has turned into a bond based in love”. We know that when we stroke our dogs and cats we feel calmer and happier, our heart rates slowing as the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream. In fact, that’s a huge part of the messaging around National Pet Day, who’ve partnered with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to determine the physical and mental benefits of having a pet, including contributing to overall cardiovascular health by lowering cortisol, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels. But this relationship isn’t one-way. Oxytocin is found in all mammals and research has found that dogs also release oxytocin when enjoying a positive social interaction with a human (not just dogs either - stroking a horse reduces his or her heart rate!)
Friends Not Pets
When dogs become our friends instead of our pets, we start to rethink how we view their abilities. After all, the whole concept of friendship suggests that both friends must care for each other; it’s not one-sided. We know that every pawrent reading this blog will have a story about their dog demonstrating selfless care or affection for their human, whether it be simply putting up with the rough play of a toddler or protecting us from an aggressive stranger.
So, this National Pet Day, let’s ditch the word ‘pet’ and celebrate our companions for the incredible, complex individuals that they are!
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