Are we loving our pets to death?

Pets are more popular than ever. According to the American Pet Products Association, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet, up from 56% in 1988, and Americans spent $136.8 billion on their pets in 2022, up from 123, 6 billion dollars in 2021. An estimated 91 million households in Europe own at least one pet, an increase of 20 million over the last ten years. India's pet population reached 31 million in 2021, up from 10 million in 2011.

And our pets are becoming more and more like us – or at least, that seems to be our goal. We pamper them with personalized nutritional plans and backpack carriers, hydrotherapy for dogs and stays in boutique cat hotels. At All the Best, a high-end pet store chain in Seattle, the most popular items are enrichment toys for cats and dogs, designed to stimulate them and bring happiness to animals who are increasingly “walking around alone and bored,” said Annie McCall, the chain's marketing director.

Now some animal welfare ethicists and veterinary scientists are wondering whether we have gone too far in our efforts to humanize our pets. The more we treat pets like people, they argue, the more constrained and dependent their lives have become on us, and the more health and behavioral problems our pets develop.

“We now view pets not just as family members but as equivalent to children,” said James Serpell, professor emeritus of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. “The problem is that cats and dogs are not children and owners have become increasingly protective and restrictive. So animals are not able to express their canine and kitten natures as freely as they could.”

The health risks obviously begin with reproduction. One of the most popular dog breeds in the United States is the French bulldog, a member of the brachycephalic family of flat-faced dogs that bond well with people but have difficulty breathing, among other serious health problems.

But we are also changing our animals' relationship with their surroundings. Out of fear of bird predation, many cats spend their entire lives indoors. Until the late 1970s, city dogs also spent most of their time outdoors, in yards or roaming the neighborhood off-leash. Now, said Jessica Pierce, a Colorado bioethicist whose work focuses on human-animal relationships, “the dog running loose and off-leash is considered contrary to the natural order of things.”

One of the fastest growing market segments is the so-called pet confinement sector, which includes indoor cages and enclosures, as well as head harnesses and electronic collars. “The level of duress that dogs face is profound,” Dr. Pierce said. Although several decades ago dogs were more likely to be hit by cars, he added, “such risks were outweighed by the freedom of experience and movement.”

The modern pet paradox, simply put: “Owners don't want dogs to behave like dogs.” Dr. Serpell said.

Although dogs are allowed into an ever-increasing number of human spaces – restaurants, offices, shops, hotels and even parks with designated enclosures – their growing presence has not translated into greater independence.

Confinement and isolation, in turn, resulted in increased separation anxiety and aggression in animals, Dr. Serpell said. Today, approximately 60% of dogs and cats are overweight or obese. And due in part to the burden and expenses associated with modern pet ownership – veterinary bills, pet sitting, boarding costs – more and more people are abandoning animals in animal shelters, leading to higher rates of euthanasia. In 2023, more than 359,000 dogs were euthanized in shelters, the highest number in five years, according to Shelter Animals Count, an animal advocacy group.

“We're in a strange time of pet obsession,” Dr. Pierce said. “There are too many of them and we care about them too intensely. It's not good for us and it's not good for them.”

Of course, domesticating an animal has always meant finding a balance between its nature and ours. “Defining freedom for a dog, an animal that has been artificially domesticated and selected by humans for so long, is a really interesting puzzle,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition researcher at Barnard College.

It highlighted a contrast with free-range dogs, a category to which most of the world's estimated 900 million dogs belong. Free-roaming dogs lead shorter lives and have no guarantee of food, Dr. Horowitz noted, but they can make all their own choices. “This is an interesting model to look at: thinking about how to make a dog's life fuller of choices so that they aren't always prisoners of our whims, without endangering society at large,” he said.

In recent years, Scandinavian countries have begun to ban the breeding of certain dog breeds that are particularly prone to diseases, such as the Cavalier King Charles spaniel. In Sweden it is illegal to leave pets alone at home for long periods of time; In both Sweden and Finland, keeping animals in cages at home is illegal in most cases.

But it's unclear whether these animal welfare policies reconcile or reinforce the fundamental paradox of modern pet husbandry, said Harold Herzog, a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University who studies human-animal relationships. “The more we view dogs and cats as autonomous creatures, the less we can justify keeping them as pets,” he said.

A few years ago, Dr. Herzog vacationed on the island of Tobago and spent much of his time observing stray dogs roaming the landscape. “I asked myself, 'Would I rather live in Manhattan as a pampered dog, or would I rather be a dog in Tobago hanging out with my friends?'” Dr. Herzog said. He concluded: “I'd rather be a dog in Tobago.”

This is not a practical option for most people, or necessarily a good one for the Tobagos of the world. Instead, for the modern pet owner, Dr. Serpell offered this advice: “Absolutely enjoy your dog's company. But dogs are not people. Get to know the animal from its perspective instead of forcing it to conform to yours. It allows you to vicariously experience the life of another being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *