What heartless person doesn’t think this is the cutest thing ever?
Well, me, actually.
Over the years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue about everyday instances of animal cruelty. I’ve tried, instead, to be subtle, to slip in bits of information in a non-threatening and non-guilt-inducing way. More than politics, sex or religion, people are incredibly defensive about their pets. Who wants to hear that their dog or cat’s delightful flat face makes it difficult for them to breathe (brachycephalic)? That those adorable wrinkles are uncomfortable for their dog and are prone to infection?
No one wants to think that they are being cruel by choosing a pet that is the result of rampant inbreeding, not to mention the hundreds of other questionable practices out there in the pet world. And I don’t want to be that annoying person wagging her finger in everyone’s faces.
Today I’m going to make an exception. Today I’m going to speak honestly about pets. After all, not ten feet away from me is a mother cat and six kittens from the SPCA—the result of negligent owners who did not spay or neuter their roaming felines.
No punches will be pulled. That’s my final warning.
What does it mean to “love” an animal?
I love dogs and that is precisely why I do not own a dog. I know what a dog needs to be healthy and happy and I know I can’t provide that at this point in my life. I love birds, which is why I will never own a bird. I cannot imagine depriving a bird of the one thing that I would kill for: the gift of flight. I love cats but my life has been too crazy in the last several years for a full-time cat, which is why I choose to foster for the SPCA. I love tropical fish, but if I were to have an aquarium I would be damn choosy about the fish I put in there and the source of those fish. I love tigers but they are wild animals and should never be pets.
As most parents know, love often involves doing things that don’t make us happy in the here and now. If your young child wants ice cream for breakfast, you’ll probably say no, even if you know that it will make them cry. Love is about doing the right thing, the ethical thing, no matter how non-fun that may be.
But what if you don’t know what the right or ethical thing is? Where pets are concerned, I think this is often the case. So let’s talk about ethics and pets.
Pure Bred Dogs and Cats
Humans have been selectively breeding dogs for thousands of years. The wild ancestors of today’s domestic dogs were chosen mostly for skill and temperament—humans wanted dogs that were good workers and wouldn’t bite their faces off. But somewhere along the line things got weird.
There’s a reason humans don’t allow first cousins to marry and produce offspring. Inbreeding causes all kinds of health problems. But in order to keep a breed of dog “pure”, there are strict regulations about which dogs can mate, regulations that limit the size of the gene pool. The result? A genetic nightmare.
But don’t take it from me. Just ask Adam.
Just about every “pure” breed of dog comes with inherent health problems but those can be exacerbated by unscrupulous breeders. During my time as a veterinary assistant I met some of these breeders and dealt with the aftermath of their handiwork. Dogs condemned to a life of suffering from: crippling bone and joint disorders; eye diseases that cause reduced sight or total blindness; heart disease; hypothyroidism and diabetes; epilepsy; skin diseases that cause frantic itching; chronic diarrhea and vomiting, kidney and liver diseases; and cancer.
Pure bred cats also come with a list of health problems but, generally, people don’t seem to place the same emphasis on owning a “pure” breed of cat and the overall cat population is fairly healthy.
Does this mean you should never own a specific breed of dog or cat? No. But it does mean that you should do your homework and make sure you’re choosing a breed of dog or cat that is genetically healthy and appropriate for your lifestyle, from a reputable breeder.
If you really have your heart set on a breed that isn’t genetically healthy, at least adopt an adult pet that needs a home or a puppy or kitten from a shelter.
Where Do Pets Come From?
Pets do not appear magically out of thin air and they do not magically appear in pet stores. Consider the fact that reputable cat and dog breeders do not sell to pet stores. So where do pet stores get their “stock”?
There are a few stores that have started working in partnership with animal shelters, which is terrific. Usually the pet store will advertise this and you can easily do a little fact checking before you purchase. Other stores? Puppy mills, commercial breeders, or irresponsible breeders are their main suppliers. In every case, the motivating factor is money, not love and care for a living creature. These animals are frequently mistreated, malnourished, unhealthy, and not properly socialized.
When you start talking about other species, the story gets worse.
I am not a fan of owning birds as pets. No…wait.
I hate seeing birds as pets. Hate. Hate. HATE! I hate seeing a bird grounded, caged, and deprived of everything that makes it beautiful.
But, if you really must own a bird, think carefully about where that bird came from and how it ended up for sale.
Despite the Wild Bird Population Act that was passed in 1992, a shocking number of birds sold in US pet stores are a product of the illegal wild bird trade. Wild birds are captured and smuggled out of their native country in everything from pants to water bottles. And of the wild birds smuggled into North America, about 60% die on the journey.
The other main bird providers are the same kind of commercial operations that supply puppies. Like their canine counterparts, these birds are frequently raised and kept in dirty cages with little light. It’s all about the money.
Snakes, lizards, frogs, even fish—especially fish—are most often taken from the wild or bred in substandard conditions.
An estimated 99% of aquarium fish taken from reefs in places like Indonesia and the Philippines die within one year.
Abandonment and Lack of Proper Care
When I worked as a veterinary assistant, we had a saying: There’s no such thing as a free kitten.
Pets are living beings that come with a list of responsibilities that far exceed “food and water”. Some of these responsibilities can be expensive, time consuming, and difficult. The more exotic the pet, the longer the list.
In September 2014, over 70 cats were surrendered to the Nelson SPCA. Seventy cats in a city with a population of only ten thousand people! Among those cats surrendered, I’m sure there were some legitimate reasons—illness, change of financial situation, divorce, pregnancy, etc.—but I also guarantee a good number of those cats were simply the result of owners who didn’t consider pet ownership a serious responsibility.
And when I wag my finger now, it’s because I’ve been there. As a kid, I loved animals. Loved them, sure, but really had no idea how to properly care for them. My hamster died after I got bored and forgot to feed him. My aquarium was basically a liquid death camp. The pure bred Sheltland Sheepdog I begged my parents to buy me ran away one day when I accidentally left the back gate open. I can only hope he was found and taken in by someone who wasn’t thirteen and too consumed with friends and school and dance classes to spend time grooming and walking and playing with him. But he was probably hit by a car. And, sadly, that is not the entire list.
Yes, I briefly owned a bird. A finch. Another disaster.
I get it. I know how it feels to want the idea of a pet and then fail utterly when faced with the reality of a pet. Too many animals suffered before I understood that their rights supersede my desires.
Before you buy or adopt, ask yourself the hard questions and be prepared to say, “No, I’m not ready for a pet” if you are, in fact, not ready.
Here is the SPCA’s awesome list of 12 questions to ask yourself before you adopt a pet.
Oh, and if your child—no matter how earnest and responsible you think they are—is begging for a pet, remember that ultimately the pet will be yours and you will have to care for it. I know some of you want to disagree with me but ask yourself this: Would you leave a human infant entirely in your child’s care for a year? Ten years? Twenty?
As for exotic pets such as snakes and lizards, you need only google “abandoned exotic pets” to see how many of these animals end up dropped off at zoos or sanctuaries, or are simply dumped by the side of the road. At least abandoned cats or dogs stand some chance of getting adopted. Your odds of finding a new home for your pet snake, when you realize you really aren’t cut out for snake ownership, are depressingly low.
It’s Not All About You
Every time I hear someone complain about landlords who refuse to rent to people with pets, I want to scream. Pet ownership is a choice and a luxury. The world is not required to accommodate your choice.
Understand that when you choose to own a pet your decision may affect more than just you. The consequences of that decision fall on your shoulders, and yours alone.
Along with all the rewards and joys of owning a pet, you also get the hassles:
- It’s going to be more difficult to find a place to rent.
- Traveling with a pet will require more effort and planning.
- Traveling without a pet will require some kind of boarding or pet-sitting arrangement.
- Some of your friends and/or family may be allergic to your pet or afraid of your pet.
- Pets get sick and injured and that can get expensive.
- Pets get old and come with all the same kind of problems that old humans have to deal with.
- Pets can cause problems for your neighbours, such as your dog’s excessive barking. (One of my absolute pet peeves).
- Pets can harm or kill local wildlife.
You and your pet do not live in a vacuum. It is not your neighbor’s responsibility to tolerate your dog barking for hours on end. It is not a landlord’s responsibility to allow pets in a rental property. It is not the responsibility of the stranger walking on a wooded trail to know that your dog—who is running toward them off-leash—is friendly and to not be scared. It is not the veterinarian’s responsibility to offer their services at a price you can afford when your dog needs medical care. It is not the local zoo’s responsibility to take in the lizard you couldn’t care for. It is not the SPCA’s responsibility to take in your kittens because you didn’t spay your cat.
Accept responsibility for your choice!
Keep It Wild
Ask any wildlife or animal welfare organization member about their feelings on keeping wild animals as pets and you will be met with a resounding, “NO! BAD IDEA!”
It’s a bad idea for the animal (they have needs that you can’t adequately meet and you could threaten the survival of the rest of the wild population), and a bad idea for the owner (you or your family could get sick or injured, there could be property damage, or you could face legal problems).
I don’t care how justified you feel you may be in owning a wild animal as a pet, it’s selfish. Animals should benefit from the pet-owner relationship. Their lives should be enhanced, not diminished, by living with humans.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides as list of animals they consider suitable pets. I may not be in complete agreement with all of these but, overall, it’s a sound selection:
- Dogs, domestic cats, guinea pigs, domestic rats and mice, domestic gerbils, common hamsters, domestic ferrets, domestic rabbits, domestic chinchillas.
- Interesting insects like African millipedes or Hissing cockroaches.
- Responsibly captive-bred parakeets, canaries, cockatiels, doves, and pigeons.
- Responsibly captive-bred reptiles and amphibians such as red-footed tortoises, lizards (bearded dragons, leopard geckos), snakes (corn snakes, king snakes, ball pythons) and frogs (White’s tree frog, ornate horned frog, fire-bellied toad, red-eyed tree frog).
- Tropical fish that are captive-raised or responsibly collected from sustainable wild populations make good pets. Look for certification from the Marine Aquarium Council when you buy tropical fish for your home aquarium.
With great Power…
Bumming you out yet?
Look, I want everyone to have a pet at least once in their life but not at the expense of an innocent animal, and not if it means propagating bad practices like inbreeding and wild animal smuggling. In my dream world, all pets are wanted, loved, properly cared for, healthy and happy.
If you’re not ready for a pet, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy interactions with animals. You can volunteer at a shelter or sanctuary; offer your services as a pet sitter or dog walker; foster kittens or puppies; spend time visiting with your friends’ pets; visit a dog park; get involved with organizations that work with cats or dogs such as BC Pets and Friends.
There’s an animal out there that needs you. What are you waiting for?