Think you’re an ethical pet owner? Perhaps you should think again

French bulldogs are the most popular dog breed in the United States, but should they even exist? It’s a question US-based bioethicist Jessica Pierce has been considering for years. 

“A lot of the breeding that we do and the choices that we make are not dog-centric,” she explains.

“They have to do with human[‘s] cultural or aesthetic preferences.”

In the past, dogs were bred for functional purposes — to pull sleighs, hunt prey or herd stock. Now, the focus is largely on appearance, and flat-faced doggies are du jour. 

For Dr Pierce, the popularity of these brachycephalic (short-headed) breeds is “disturbing”.

“[They are] dogs who have extremely foreshortened skulls, like the French bulldog,” she tells ABC RN’s God Forbid.

“They’re not bred so that they can have the most enriched, fulfilling, happy and healthy lives.

“[They’re] bred with maladaptive traits … because they meet a certain peculiar human interest in the way a dog looks.”

Middle-aged woman with long light-brown hair, crouching to hug a dark-haired dog, in field.
Dr Jessica Pierce says that becoming the guardian of a pet is a “profound” responsibility. (Supplied: Anna Oberg)

As it turns out, flat-faced canines have a long history.

Pugs are believed to have originated in China in the fourth century BCE. 

And last year, the Journal of Archaeological Science revealed that a dog skull, dating back to the Roman period, was discovered in western Turkey. 

According to the authors, the canine lived sometime between 169 BC and 8 AD and was “a pet-like dog, resembling small dogs of the French bulldog type”.

Can you really afford your pet?

Genetically mutated dogs may have been around for millennia, but in this modern age, should we be rethinking how we breed, buy, and care for our pets?

Wildlife scientist Ellie Sursara certainly thinks so.

“[It’s one thing] … buying a puppy on impulse, because it’s cute [and often] it’s from the puppy mill,” she says. 

“That’s different from going to the RSPCA and saying, ‘Here’s a dog that needs a home, I’ve got the time and the funds to do this, let’s take it home and give it a life’.”

Impulse-buying pets isn’t the only practice with which Ms Sursara has issues.

She believes pet owners should be able to demonstrate they can afford to properly care for certain breeds, prepurchase.

Young woman with long blonde hair, standing on sandy beach with ocean in background.
Ellie Sursara is researching the effects of humans on Australian biodiversity. (Supplied: Zac Eddy)

“There are some dogs that we just shouldn’t have, or at least there are some dogs that you may need to show a financial means to be able to have,” she says.

Ms Sursara points to French bulldogs as one example. 

“They’re a breed of dog that requires a reasonably wealthy person to own them, because … when they’re three or four months, they need to have a surgery to clear their airways for their quality of life,” she says.

Brachycephalic breeds aren’t the only dogs to face genetic complications.

“I know a lot of people with golden retrievers, and they’re a beautiful dog, but if you don’t get them through a very specific breeder, they have hip dysplasia,” says Ms Sursara.

“[Some] people can’t afford that care, but they love their dogs too much to put their dogs to sleep — even though that’s probably what [the dogs] need.

“So, they have golden retrievers who live for 11 years in extreme arthritic pain.”

Light-coloured golden retriever, sitting on grass with tongue out.
Hip dysplasia is a progressive disease that can limit dogs’ mobility and decrease their quality and quantity of life. (Pexels: Stefan Stefancik)

Providing care, against the odds

Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world, with more than two-thirds of us owning an animal friend.

Although some pets are relatively inexpensive to care for — looking at you, goldfish — others quickly rack up costs.

It’s estimated, for instance, that Australians spend around $3200 on their dogs each year.

According to recent survey findings from Pet Insurance Australia, more than 20 per cent of pet guardians are scaling back on regular check-ups and preventive care appointments.

Cost-of-living pressures are at least partly to blame.

In April, Foodbank Australia published a report that found 14 per cent of respondents had surrendered their pet in the past 12 months due to their financial hardship.

And almost a quarter were skipping meals so their pets could eat.

“Having a pet is expensive,” says Ms Sursara, who cares for several rescue animals, both domesticated and native.

“If you can’t afford to take the dog to the vet, if you can’t afford to buy the right food, [then] you can’t afford the dog.”

But cashed-up pet owners don’t necessarily offer the best care.

According to Dr Pierce, research shows that pet owners in the US “will spend far more on a new television or on their beer than they will on their pet”.

“It isn’t that they don’t have the money, it’s that they don’t spend it on what we … might consider to be the morally preferable expenditures,” she says.

Yet, animal historian and Russian Orthodox priest John Simons points out that even people with minimal resources can still provide good care for their pets.

Man with grey beard, wearing round glasses, tan-coloured beret and red gloves, stands in front of pink wall.
Professor John Simons is an animal historian and ordained Russian Orthodox priest. (Supplied: John Simons)

“I used to volunteer in a night shelter where homeless people could go,” says the emeritus professor at Macquarie University.

“We used to let people take their animals in and … those animals were actually extremely well-cared for.

“Given the challenges that the people, who were their companions, had to meet — challenges, which most of us would not find it easy to cope with — they would put their animals first.”

Becoming a better pet parent

For Dr Pierce, the distinction between good pet owners, or ‘guardians’, and bad ones is too sharp.

“We are all imperfect,” she says.

“I think it’s dangerous to just assume, ‘Oh, I’m a good dog owner … because then you stop being curious about your dog’s experiences and your own interactions with your dog’.”

She is certain that everyone who lives with an animal could be doing a better job — herself included.

Woman holding brown and white spotted dog, crouching on grass.
Dr Pierce says her previous dog Maya (pictured) made her rethink what it means to be a pet parent. (Supplied: Sage Madden)

“When I had my previous dog, Maya, I really believed that more training was better and that, in order to be a good dog guardian, I needed to teach her to walk behind me politely on a leash,” Dr Pierce says.

“I have come to think that was not a good approach, because for her that was impossible. It was just against her nature.”

Dr Pierce believes humans shouldn’t necessarily be the “leaders” of their dogs, but rather both should collaborate and learn from each other.

“I think we can evolve into a much more humane and sensible relationship with animals with whom we form affiliative or affectionate relationships,” she says.

Part of that involves asking ourselves uncomfortable questions.

“There’s the kind of the broad meta question, you know, does a culture that valorises pet keeping harm animals … on the large scale?” Dr Pierce asks, pointing to animal abandonment and shelter overcrowding as areas of concern.

While she believes that living with an animal can make a person kinder or more considerate, she disagrees with the idea that we should require animals for personal betterment .

“I do think that our acquisition of animals is often … selfishly motivated,” she says.

“I don’t know how many times a day I see some headline, or an announcement [saying], ‘If you’re lonely, get a pet. If you’re unhealthy, get a pet, it’ll make you better.’

“We’re not so much thinking about what the animal needs, but what we need and what the animal can give to us emotionally.”

Kittens waiting to be adopted inside a cage.
Charities say cost-of-living pressures, the pandemic, and a “throw-away attitude” are behind the surge in abandonments in recent years. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The ‘sinister’ side of pet breeding

Prof. Simons says that pet ownership, as we understand it today, is a relatively modern concept.

“For most pet owners, really up until the middle of the 20th century, the idea of a pet was actually a tamed wild animal,” he says.

“People used to keep wallabies as pets in Tasmania quite commonly.

“There’s a class stratification that goes on, and domestic pets — which are bred especially to be pets — were, until quite recently, not an everyday thing.”

But the history of pets has a less fluffy side.

During the Victorian era, there was a “major shift in focus towards selective breeding for appearance”, as noted in a recent issue of the scholarly journal Animals.

“Pets were part of the conspicuous consumption of Victorians and were bred increasingly for their fashion value,” the authors wrote.

And, according to Prof. Simons, this correlated with ideas around eugenics.

“There are quite interesting crossovers between the early dog breeders and people who espoused racial theories about eugenics,” he says.

“It’s a kind of sinister legacy, really, that we live with.”

For Prof. Simons, showing kindness to animals is a human duty.

“The specific ethics of pet ownership don’t really stop at the boundaries of, you know, keeping a dog at home, or keeping a fish in a tank or keeping a bird in a cage,” he says.

“They lap into our whole relationship with animals and the environment, and the way that we turn everything — almost as an inevitable part of being human — into a commodity which we can choose to use or not and choose to value or not.”

2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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