Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Ethical Treatment of Animals (July 2015): Companion Animals

By Walter Hogan and Eric Owen

Companion Animals

For most people, close and continuous relationships with companion animals, especially dogs and cats, form the most robust involvement with living members of other species.  Of the vast literature on companion animals, only a fraction is concerned with ethical questions.  Strict animal rights activists maintain that no animals should be treated as property, confined, or otherwise interfered with.  That is a distinct minority view.  Far more prevalent is the position that members of some long-domesticated species such as cats, dogs, and horses can have fulfilling lives of their own while enriching those of their human companions.  However, among the many adherents of that perspective, a wide divergence of opinion exists on the handling and breeding of companion animals, on practices such as declawing and the docking of ears and tails, and on the question of what should be done with feral and “surplus” animals.

Nathan Winograd has been an outspoken advocate for the “no kill” movement, which has revolutionized the animal shelter community.  His scorching condemnation of traditional shelters that euthanize most of the animals coming through their doors is expressed in Redemption.  Winograd claims that shelter killing is not the result of pet overpopulation, but instead the result of the unenlightened practices of shelter managers who find it easier to dispose of animals than to make the effort to save them.  Simple improvements such as extending adoption hours beyond the normal business day can make a big difference.  Allie Phillips’s lucid Defending the Defenseless provides another inside view of the world of surplus pets and animal shelters.  Her view is more nuanced than Winograd’s; she tries to avoid “divisive binaries” such as “kill” versus “no kill” shelters, recommending strategies that can dramatically reduce the number of animals being killed at any facility.  Phillips, an attorney and advocate, details her extensive experiences on numerous fronts to reduce mistreatment and premature euthanization of unowned cats and dogs.

Not all companion animals are simply pets; many dogs, especially, are used for work and for hunting.  Additionally, a growing number of persons employ domesticated animals in service and therapeutic roles.  Although the literature on service animals tends more to the practical than the philosophical, some ethical questions do arise.  In Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society, John Ensminger, an attorney and service animal advocate, addresses a number of ethical issues during the course of a thorough explication of the legal environment in which these dogs and their human companions operate.

Arnold Arluke has written extensively on “the link” between violence to animals and violence to humans.  For his book, Just a Dog, Arluke assumed the role of an “ethnographer of human-animal relationships,” conducting over 250 interviews with animal control officers, animal hoarders, shelter employees, and others.  Arluke explored the caring/killing paradox of shelter workers tasked with euthanasia.  He estimates that 90 percent of animal mistreatment results from ignorance and neglect rather than from deliberate cruelty.  A growing number of people believe that, in some contexts, treating pets as members of the family is beneficial.  Pamela Carlisle-Frank, a professor of behavioral and social sciences, and her coauthor, Tom Flanagan, a retired law enforcement officer, describe animal cruelty as part of a continuum of abuse within the family.  Their Silent Victims suggests that professionals include household pets in their investigations and remediation instead of viewing mistreatment of the family pet as a distraction from their “real” mission of working with the humans in an abusive household.

Works Cited