by Griffin Mancuso
Many of us consider our pets to be our children. And like children, they become a focal point in our lives. Some of us may have social media accounts dedicated to our furry, feathered, or scaly children and our experiences raising them. Some may have shirts or bags proudly declaring our status as pet parents. Some even spend hundreds of dollars a month on toys, gear, and other enrichment for their pet. We make the choice to let a living being into our lives and take care of them, giving us a sense of fulfillment and joy. We would give them the whole world if we could.
But is the world you’re giving your pet making them happy?
There are limits to what we can provide our pets. Unfortunately, we are raising our animals in a world made for humans. For dog and cat owners, we cannot let them run free outside without the risk of them getting hurt or ending up in the back of an animal control van. Reptile owners cannot give their pets a perfect replica of the desert or jungle they were meant to live in. Bird owners can’t give their feathered companions the sky to explore and rodent owners have to keep their pets confined to cages and pens for most of the day.
Does that mean we should trash the collars and cages and set our animals free? Not necessarily.
The most common household pets like dogs, cats, rabbits, or hamsters are domesticated species and, at the very least, tolerate human interaction. Independent bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce suggests that dogs and cats in particular may have been active participants in their domestication process.
For example, a study headed by psychologist Juliane Kaminski with the University of Portsmouth, UK, found that dogs evolved to have “puppy dog eyes” as a means of communicating with humans. Cats also developed a unique way of communicating with humans—meowing. Cats rarely meow at each other, but rather use it to ask their humans for attention, food, or other needs.
Having a pet isn’t inherently unethical, but the way in which we love our pets and care for them needs to come from a place of well-researched knowledge and compassion for them.
Research and reflection is a critical step before adopting a pet. If you want to adopt a pet, do you have the financial means to take care of one? What type of pet will you get? How will you obtain this pet ethically? Are you ready to handle potential physical or mental health issues your pet may experience? Does the type of animal you want live better alone, as a pair, or in a group? How much space will they need? Are you able to take them to the vet regularly? What physical and mental stimulation will this pet need and do I have time to give it to them? If you go out of town, should you hire a pet sitter or board them in a facility?
Once you have obtained your pet, you are making a commitment to take care of them for their entire life. Now the second-most difficult part of pet ownership begins. Some requirements for pet ownership are objective, like giving them adequate food, water, shelter, and not causing them unnecessary suffering. But like children, everyone raises them differently.
There are endless choices of enclosures, gear, food, enrichment, training, and medical decisions to make. You can ask an expert like a veterinarian or trainer for advice or do research on your own time.
The first and most painful part of owning a pet is the guilt. There will always be someone telling you that you aren’t doing enough, and usually that someone is yourself. You may spend hours researching and hundreds of dollars buying the best food and toys, but the brief rush of dopamine is ever fleeting.
I find that spending some quality time with your animal baby helps combat the random surges of panic and guilt—take your dog out on a hike, play with your cat, give your rodent or reptile an extra piece of fruit and give them very gentle pets if they are up for it. If you have a fish, stare lovingly at them through the glass.
Education is a powerful thing, and by taking the time to learn how to keep your pet fulfilled and happy, you are helping shift the tide in today’s pet industry. Your pet is a responsibility and a living being with feelings and wants, and you need to treat them as such. If you were a couple inches or a couple feet tall, you wouldn’t like being ignored and stuck inside with nothing to do all day.
While more people are adopting pets, there is also a greater number of people advocating for responsible pet ownership, and you can be one of them. You may not be able to give your pet the world, but you can get pretty darn close.