Nonhuman animals who live with humans are subject, legally and in practice, to the desires and whims of those who are legally their owners. Some people adopt animals and treat them with respect, considering the animals members of their families. But many others consider themselves simply owners and masters of the animals who live with them, and the law does little to protect the animals. Animal owners are allowed to abuse the animals during training, neglect them, use them as workers, and even kill them as long as such treatment does not meet the legal definition of “animal cruelty”, which is different from the common sense understanding of the term. Laws regarding nonhuman animals are a lopsided balancing of animal interests against human desires. Nonhuman animals are considered property, and property owners have rights to control and use their property with few restrictions.
There are currently millions of homeless animals.1 Like animals living in the wild, they often suffer from cold, hunger, and disease. They are also susceptible to multiple attacks by humans. Of all dogs, cats and other animals who are born for the purpose of being “pets” or to become breeding animals, those who live in homes are a minority.
Even those who are not abandoned do not always have good lives. There are many cases in which they are kept outdoors in the cold. They may spend most of their lives chained up, which can harm them in many ways. They can be harmed physically from lack of exercise and injuries from chains, as well as psychologically by boredom and frustration. Or they may not be chained up but still lack room to move. Social animals like dogs who are kept in solitude suffer a lot from lack of social interaction. For other animals such as birds and fishes, confinement in cramped cages or aquariums is also a significant cause of suffering.
In most parts of the world the fate of many dogs and other animals is to die on the street, in kennels, or in some cases in laboratories, after having suffered a great deal.2 A fundamental problem exists here because this does not happen only occasionally, but continually. It is perpetuated because every year more animals are bred who face the same fate. Every new birth poses further difficulty in finding homes for the animals, and makes it difficult for caregivers who temporarily accommodate them.
Animal breeding simply means, in practice, that more and more animals come into the world only to be killed, often after having suffered enormously.
There are several reasons why:
In view of what has been said above, we can clearly see the terrible consequences of breeding and selling huge numbers of animals. “Pet” shops, puppy mills and other private breeding businesses are directly contributing to an increase in the suffering and deaths of animals.
In addition to this, in shops the animals are locked up until they are bought, often with little food and water. They have to withstand uncomfortably high and low temperatures, and often uncomfortable lighting conditions. Having people constantly walk by their cages can cause them a great deal of stress and frustration, because they want to run away or hide but they are trapped in their cages, often with nowhere to hide. In general, animals like puppies suffer from frustration and psychological distress when they are torn away from their mothers and confined in an environment in which they don’t feel comfortable and safe.5 In recent decades, there has been a growing awareness of the stress and discomfort of animals kept in pet stores, but concern is mainly focused on dogs and cats. In response to this as well as the number of homeless animals, some pet shops in the US and Canada have banned the sale of dogs and cats, but they still sell rodents, fishes, and reptiles.
Still, private breeding of animals continues. Animal breeding commonly has the objective of raising animals that have certain desired characteristics, not because it will make their lives better, but because those characteristics are more useful or aesthetically pleasing to human beings. In other words, there is a human interest in this practice. This can have very negative consequences for the animals.
Sometimes people are interested in buying animals with specific physical traits or behavior. In other cases, they seek animals who can compete in athletic skill or agility contests. In others, the aim is increased strength, so the animals can be taught to behave aggressively.
Those in the animal breeding business use animals as resources. To them, animals are commodities to be bought and sold. The animals’ hormonal cycles are manipulated so their reproduction can be controlled for the sake of the breeders’ convenience and profit. The bred animals are taken to shops or are directly sold to people interested in buying them.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of breeders who call themselves “ethical breeders”,6 with the intention of differentiating themselves from negative connotations of the word “breeder”. In several countries there are even associations and awards for such breeders. They present themselves as being interested both in the breeding of animals for certain genetic traits and in the care and wellbeing of animals. This is contradictory because those two goals are incompatible.
For one thing, possessing the characteristics for which they are bred is often negative for the animals. More importantly, bringing more domesticated animals into the world is negative due to the reasons mentioned above.
With so many stray and abandoned animals in the world, spaying and neutering ensures fewer births of animals who no one can care for.7 Spaying and neutering are simple procedures. Even though they are carried out under anesthesia, the animals are walking again on the same day of the operation and are fully recovered within a week. Most animals can be spayed or neutered from the age of four months onwards.
One objection to this is that preventing animals from reproducing may threaten the existence of the species or breed to which those animals belong. However, this argument cannot be accepted from an antispeciesist position. According to antispeciesism, the species or variety of animal is not morally relevant. What matters is each individual who has the capacity to suffer and feel joy, and that’s why each individual should be taken into moral consideration, rather than the species as a whole. The species is nothing more than a taxonomic concept for grouping individuals who have certain common characteristics. So the existence of different breeds and species of domesticated animals has no value in itself. On the contrary, the breeding of domesticated animals is counterproductive to a shift towards a society with less speciesism and less suffering.
Spaying and neutering also produces benefits to the animals, such as:
We have seen the harm that animals suffer when they are bred as animals for use as “companions”. However, there’s a way of living with animals in an ethical and respectful manner, according to their needs and interests rather than our convenience or desires: adopting them and taking care of them.
Fortunately, there are shelters in many countries that care for homeless animals and do their best to find them homes. Shelters provide the possibility of finding homes for the animals who live there. When one animal is adopted, it also means that their place in a shelter can be filled by another animal in need. However, the resources of shelters are often very limited, and most abandoned animals cannot find a home and end up dying.
Those who cannot commit to adopting for a long period of time can provide a foster home for an animal living in a shelter. Someone providing a foster home looks after an animal temporarily until a permanent home is found, which means that the fostered animal’s place at the shelter can be taken by another animal. While animal adoption is often associated with dogs and cats, animals of other species can also be adopted, such as mice, rats, hamsters, and rabbits.
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8 Beauvais, W.; Cardwell, J. M. & Brodbelt, D. C. (2012) “The effect of neutering on the risk of mammary tumours in dogs – A systematic review”, Journal of Small Animal Practice, 53, pp. 314-322.
9 Gobello, C.; Concannon, P. W.; Verstegen, J. & Linde-Forsberg, C. (2000) Recent advances in small animal reproduction, Ithaca: IVIS.
10 On this see Chastain, C. B.; Panciera, D. & Waters, C (1998) “Associations between age, parity, hormonal therapy and breed, and pyometra in Finnish dogs”, Veterinary Record, 143, pp. 493-498.