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Pet Ownership is Not Cruel: A Reply to Charles Danten

George Orwell once lamented that “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Today white nationalism has much the same problem with anti-vax fanatics, conspiracy theorists that see Masonic symbols in their breakfast cereal, manosphere charlatans that know nothing of Darwinian theory but have a pseudo-evopsych explanation at hand for everything, religious fundamentalists, alternative medicine quacks that each come with their own absurdly restrictive diet, psychotic spinsters and most every other kind of disturbed mind. After reading Charles Danten’s latest article, I shall have to add pet liberationists to that list.

He begins his assault on pet ownership with an attack on the common belief that pet ownership has a positive psychological impact on people, which he wrongly conflates with zootherapy. He claims that psychology itself is a pseudoscientific discipline. This is false. Psychology has a replication error, as has medical science overall. But the notion that psychology involves no hypothesis-testing studies is simply incorrect. One can find plenty of studies on the effectiveness of animal therapy that compare the results of animal therapy against control groups if one goes looking. They suggest small positive short-term results. Studies of the effects of pet ownership on mental health usually show mixed results, but these are correlational studies and it is difficult to draw any conclusions from them.

Pet ownership is a personal choice, and the rewards are mostly of a personal, subjective nature. Anti-natalists could muster up similar arguments against childrearing. I wonder what a study that compared the financial and health outcomes of women with and without children would find? Reason is a means, not an end, and the fulfillment in these things can be difficult to quantify.

The more objectionable portion of the essay begins when Danten tries to argue that pet ownership is cruel to animals. He bothers at no point in the article to compare the outcomes of pets to wild animals. He claims that pets suffer anxiety because we force a bond on them and that this causes “various psychosomatic diseases such as colitis, bladder inflammation, and skin problems.” One study in Italy found that three quarters of foxes and over half of wild wolves have inflamed bladders, and the result for foxes was replicated in a Danish study. Around fifteen percent of domestic dogs experience bladder inflammation in their lifetimes. Infestations of fleas are ubiquitous among wild animals. One Floridian study found that over ninety percent of feral cats have fleas. Though feral cats thrive without human intervention, they have worse health outcomes than pet cats. Humans inflict no health problems on animals by keeping them as pets; they alleviate them. Danten claims that vaccination kills thousands of animals a year, with no evidence at all. He points to cat declawing as an example of the cruelties of pet ownership, though it is already banned in much of Canada. He claims without evidence that sterilisation inflicts misery upon animals though sterile cats live significantly longer than intact cats. He claims that veterinary interventions are inhumane, though they undoubtedly cause less stress than the alternatives.

The very notion that humans “force” a bond on social animals is false. As explained by the zooanthropologist John Bradshaw in Cat Sense, cats were domesticated by natural selection, not a purposeful process on the part of humans. Cats were drawn to the mice that fed upon our grain stores after we developed agriculture. Friendlier cats that could better tolerate living among us, other cats, and that were more willing to beg for scraps of meat survived more often than those that avoided us. The purposeful breeding of cats in the manner of other animals is a recent occurrence.

Many cats are allowed outdoors freely, and until recently virtually none were always kept indoors. Yet they rarely leave, and in the rare cases that they abandon their owners it is virtually always because their home sat in the middle of another cat’s territory. No bond is forced upon such animals. The case with dogs is even more extreme, as they cannot survive without human intervention. In Australia there have long been fears that feral dogs could destroy the wild dingo through hybridisation, but a recent genetic study found almost no evidence of this. Stray dogs simply live lives too short and miserable to intermix with wild dingos. Whatever suffering pet ownership causes animals, it is nothing compared to the harsh conditions faced by wildlife and feral animals.

Danten complains first that shelters euthanise animals, then claims that no-kill shelters are even worse. But what fate awaits the domestic dog in a world without pets? They cannot survive otherwise. Should thousands of years of selective breeding be washed down the drain because we cannot totally eliminate pain and discomfort from their lives? Wild animals live unimaginably more miserable lives than pets. Should they all die off too? Danten reminds me of the demented South African philosopher David Benatar, who argues for the eradication of all pain-sensitive, mentally or physically, life in order to end suffering.

He finishes his article with the completely unsubstantiated claim that pets are promoted by elites to lower birthrates. I suspect that he should find far more sympathy for his views among Martha Nussbaum type elites than anywhere else. He provides no evidence at all that increases in pet ownership cause childlessness rather than the other way around, and never even bothers to provide statistics to illustrate a correlation.

Pet keeping is a human universal, across cultures and races. Even the Aboriginals of Australia appreciate the companionship of animals, and introduced the dingo to that continent. Danten’s crusade against animal companionship is as foolish and wrong as the leftist crusade against another basic human impulse; ethnocentrism. I can only hope that he meets with far less success than they have.

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