Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?

Do you have pets?

I don’t. I absolutely love cats, and dogs, and all sorts of living creatures, and I would absolutely love to have a fluffy companion I could cuddle with. However, I am fully aware that my current living and financial situation would not allow me to give this living creature the treatment and care that they deserve. I realize that just like any other living being, they would require at least an hour a day of my time and attention, which would include not simply feeding and ensuring their survival, but also play time, and most of all – love time.

I would love to have a pet whenever I can confidently say that I would be able to spare this time and take really good care of them, and basically be able to do the best for them. And when I say ‘pet’ I mean a cat or a dog or both – the type of animals that are ‘traditionally’ considered as pets, and who would usually find it hard to survive if living as stray or wild animals.

What about a bird, or a hamster, or some of the more ‘exotic’ creatures that people like to keep in captivity and have as companion nowadays? I have always felt repulsed by the thought! To be honest, as I was little, I always dreamed about having a monkey, because I felt like it would be the perfect buddy to have, but as I grew older, I realized the monkey wouldn’t feel too comfortable living in a city environment, while it was meant to live in the wild.

Pets are a subject I have not touched a lot here on I Nourish Gently, and I decided it is time to do so, since I came across a piece by Jessica Pierce in NYT.

Here are some of the highlights I believe everyone must consider (whether they’re vegan or not):

AMERICA is experiencing a population boom — of pets. Driven by rising disposable income and urbanization and by evolving attitudes toward animals, the number of pets has grown more rapidly since the mid-1970s than the human population, to the point where there are now about as many pets as there are people.

We don’t just buy pets as never before, we also treat them differently.

Is your pet lonely and bored?

More animals are living in our houses and are given over to a life of leisure. Animals are spoken of as family members — and not just dogs and cats, but rabbits, rats, bearded dragons and snakes. We feed them scientifically formulated organic diets and take them to veterinary specialists of all stripes. Veterinarians and psychologists describe these changing practices as evidence of a deepening “human-animal bond.”

I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the very notion of “pet.” Scientists studying animal cognition and emotion are continually peeling back the mysteries of animal minds, revealing an incredible and often surprising richness in the thoughts and feelings of other creatures.

For instance, the more I’ve learned about goldfish — they are more intelligent than we think, feel pain and engage in socially complex behaviors.

Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?

When I came upon the conclusion by the University of Tennessee ethologist Gordon Burghardt that the best we can do for captive reptiles and other animals is a life of “controlled deprivation,” I wished I had never bought Lizzy, our leopard gecko. I felt a pit in my stomach when I learned that Lizzy’s perpetual clawing at the glass wall of her tank was most likely a manifestation of captivity-induced stress. We had basically been torturing her, and it is perhaps not surprising that she died after only two years, despite our efforts to give proper care.

Like me, well-meaning pet owners may unwittingly cause harm by keeping animals in captive environments that might not meet their behavioral needs, such as a small bowl for a lone goldfish or a 10-gallon glass tank with fake vines for a leopard gecko.

The way the pet industry advertises and sells animals gives the impression that having a pet is easy and fun,

and that pets themselves are cheap and disposable toys. You can, for instance, stop at the pet store at the mall and, for $20, buy a brightly painted hermit crab, complete with a cage that would fit on a 5-by-7-inch index card. Yet did you know that the recommended size tank for adequate hermit crab welfare is at least 10 gallons? Or that hermit crabs, despite their name, are actually social creatures that live in large colonies? Or that the hermit crabs sold at the mall have most likely been plucked from their wild home, since they don’t breed well in captivity? That hermit crabs can live 30 years or longer? That they probably feel pain?

The ethical problems with the various small creatures we stuff into cages and tanks are relatively clear-cut.

Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?

The more challenging moral questions, in my view, arise in relation to our closest furry friends: dogs and cats. Unlike animals that must spend their entire life in a cage or that must struggle to adapt to a human environment, most cats and dogs have it pretty good. Many have the run of our homes, share in many of the activities of their human families, and may even have opportunities to form social relationships with others of their kind. They have lived in close contact with humans for thousands of years and are well adapted to living as our companions. They can form close bonds with us and, despite species barriers, can communicate their needs and preferences to us, and we to them.

Yet the well-being of our cats and dogs is perhaps more compromised than most of us would like to admit.

Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?

There are, of course, the obvious systemic problems like cruelty, neglect, abandonment, the millions wasting away in shelters waiting for a “forever home” that will never materialize or whose lives are snuffed out because they don’t or can’t behave the way a “good” pet should. But even the most well-meaning owner doesn’t always provide what an animal needs, and it is likely that our dogs and cats may be suffering in ways we don’t readily see or acknowledge. We can too easily forget that although we have an entire world outside our home, we are everything to our animals.

How many dogs, for instance, are given lots of attention inside a home, but rarely get outside?

How many spend their weekdays inside and alone, while their owners are at work, save for the one or two times a dog walker or neighbor drops by for a few minutes to feed them and take them out briefly? Is it going too far to suggest that these dogs are suffering?

In addition to love, a dog or cat owner also has to have time, space, energy, patience, money and a strong sense of commitment to being there for and with their animal. The choice of being a pet owner is rarely thrust upon us unexpectedly. Saying no is often the most responsible option.

If we buy fewer dogs and cats from breeders and pet stores, the pet population boom might gradually taper off, and the numbers of abandoned animals in shelters should start to decline as well.

It may be hard to recognize the harmful aspects of pet keeping when all we hear is how beloved pets are, how happy they are to be in our company, and how beautiful and enduring the human-animal bond is. Advertisements showing golden-haired children frolicking with golden-haired puppies and YouTube videos of cats doing hilarious things make pet keeping look ever so precious.

Yet if we really care about animals, we ought to look beyond the sentimental and carefully scrutinize our practices. Animals are not toys — they are living, breathing, feeling creatures. Perhaps we can try to step into their paws or claws and see what being a pet means from their perspective. We might not always like what we see.