It was the carefree summer of 2019, and I was on a beach in San Francisco – surrounded by a thousand corgis. Sand is not the natural environment for dogs whose legs are only as long as ice lollies. But this was Corgi Con, possibly the world’s largest gathering of corgis. It was weird. It was glorious.
There were corgis in baby harnesses and corgis under parasols. There were corgis dressed as a shark, a lifeguard, a snowman, a piñata and Chewbacca from Star Wars (the latter two were overweight). There were stalls selling sunglasses and socks for dogs. I overheard two people considering whether to buy a corgi-emblazoned cushion, but decide against it on the basis that they already had one.
If a Martian wanted to understand the depth of humans’ obsession with their pets – the commoditisation of animals and the merging of our social lives with theirs – Corgi Con would have been an ideal first stop.
In California, such pet-wackiness is not unusual. San Francisco’s newest doggy day care was charging up to $25,500 (£18,500) a year, more than the state minimum wage. Google declared dogs “an integral facet of our corporate culture”. Marc Benioff, founder of software firm Salesforce, had appointed his golden retriever as the company’s “chief love officer”. But pet worship is worldwide: the archbishop of Canterbury says that pets can go to heaven, while Japanese architects have designed a ramp to help dachshunds sunbathe alongside their owners.
Our love for them is easily dismissed as frivolous or private. But in a way, it’s revolutionary. Our pets represent our closest ties to another species. If they can sensitise us, and make us care for other sentient beings, they could change the course of history.
For the last two years, I have investigated how we treat other animals – including working in an abattoir and a pig farm, and visiting fish markets and zoos. Pets are truly the exception. We push slaughterhouses to the back of our minds. We delay turning to the destruction of forests and coral reefs on which wild animals depend. Compare that with domestic dogs and cats, for which we’re always on emotional speed-dial. Pets are animals whose lives we value, whose emotions we appreciate and whose flesh we wouldn’t dream of eating.
Lockdown has seen a pet boom. Deprived of the company of other humans, we looked for the company of animals instead. Britain’s dog population exploded, rising by an estimated 2 million. There were complications. Soaring prices fuelled unscrupulous breeding and thefts. New owners found themselves unable to socialise their puppies in a time of social distancing. They struggled on, hoping that their pets would help their mental health, although therapy sessions might have been cheaper. Over a lifetime, a dog costs a minimum of £4,600 to £13,000, depending on size; care costs can take the total above £30,000, says animal charity PDSA. Americans’ pet spending has surpassed $100bn a year for the first time. Meanwhile, shelters are preparing for a wave of unwanted animals.
Like many parents, I hoped that having a pet would help to teach my children about nature. I grew up with a terrier, which I fondly remember as the source of my internet passwords. We now have a cat, which generally lies on my laptop whenever I try to work. Yet I wonder if pet ownership is not a missed opportunity. We needed a new relationship with nature, instead we ended up with feline Instagram accounts. We love pets, yet accept factory farms and extinctions. Shouldn’t pets spur us to treat all animals better? Or is that hope, like newborn puppies, too cute?
The first stumbling block is that our love for pets is not as pure as we would like to think. Pet ownership is so ingrained that we rarely question its implications. The relationship can bring great joy, and not just to us: when was the last time you saw a person happier than a dog chasing a Frisbee? But that’s not the whole story.
By owning animals, we take control of their lives. We decide who they live with, when they socialise with others of the same species, and whether they can have offspring. Often we feed them into obesity. Often we decide when they die. The extent of our control only hits us belatedly: one colleague admitted that taking his dog to be neutered was “some serious Handmaid’s Tale shit”.
In Chile, many dogs roam the streets in packs. They have more freedom, and perhaps more fun, than their pampered cousins. In Europe and North America, many pets arguably live in a form of lockdown: they are well fed and safely homed, but lack social interaction and autonomy. This lockdown lasts their whole lives.
We love our pets deeply, we want them to be happy, but we struggle to know what they are thinking. (I generally assume my cat is judging our choice of furniture.) We also expect them to fit in with our schedules and needs. In reality, many rabbits don’t want to be cuddled. Pet fish and tortoises probably don’t value our company at all. Wild parrots often live in huge flocks, but as pets they are mostly kept alone; one study found that American owners spent only 15 minutes a day interacting with their parrots. What are these highly intelligent birds meant to do the rest of the time?
Similarly, when devoted dog owners return to offices and work after lockdown, how are the dogs meant to react? Modern human societies may not be easy places to live: nearly three-quarters of dogs show at least one anxiety-related behaviour, such as sensitivity to loud noises. There’s some evidence that free-roaming street dogs, which have more control over their lives, are less excitable. “We have a perception that being owned is an inherently positive experience. I am not convinced that it is,” says Heather Bacon, an animal welfare expert at the University of Edinburgh.
What we love about dogs, in particular, is that they offer us unconditional love. Yet this has “almost made us lazy about meeting their needs”, Bacon says. Nowhere is this more evident than in breeding. Dogs were probably domesticated more than 20,000 years ago. Breeds, as we understand them today, have existed for under 200 years. They were standardised, often on arbitrary, aesthetic criteria, based on dogs from small gene pools. This was the Victorian age of empire and of social hierarchy. Ideas of pure bloodlines and racial improvement were acceptable. London Zoo was trying (unsuccessfully) to domesticate wild animals. Dog breeders’ ability to manipulate a single species into very different shapes and sizes helped to inspire proponents of eugenics.
Breeding has had indefensible results. Some of our most popular pets are brachycephalic dogs, such as pugs and French bulldogs, whose flat faces affect their airways and much else. Brachy dogs are three times more likely to have respiratory problems. Some cannot close their eyes. Many cannot give birth without caesarean sections (that is, they would not be able to breed without us).
Yet people find flat faces cute and loving. Some owners also believe that brachy dogs are low maintenance because they don’t require much exercise (in fact, the dogs just cannot breathe properly). So one-fifth of dogs in the UK are flat-faced. In March Lady Gaga offered a $500,000 reward after her French bulldogs were stolen. It’s weird to value your dogs’ company so much, but value breeding for health so little.
Our unethical breeding also affects cats too: Scottish fold cats, which Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran have helped to popularise, suffer a cartilage defect. Most Persian cats have at least one health disorder. Put a cat in a wheelie bin and you become a national hate figure; create a cat vulnerable to eye disease and you become a wealthy breeder. As Dan O’Neill, a companion animal epidemiologist at the Royal Veterinary College, puts it, pets’ health problems are “actually human problems”.
We could start to solve these human problems. Right now, pet-buyers often seem to be acting on a whim – like the hapless narrator in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, who panic-buys a miniature dachshund to turn his life around, but wakes up to find the dog peeing on his head. We could do our research, and stop trying to make fashion statements through animals. We could also try to offer our dogs choice (when Bacon walks her dogs, she let them help to choose the route: “It’s their walk, not my walk”). Advertisers could stop using French bulldogs and other unhealthy flat-faced dogs. Another option is to push breeders to cross-breed – diversifying the gene pool, even though it breaks the supposed purity. This is being trialled in the Netherlands, where the government has restricted the breeding of purebred bulldogs and pugs. Why not be radical, and drop our obsession with pets’ appearance altogether? We regard eugenics as beyond the pale; why should we celebrate the canine and feline equivalents?
We should start prizing mongrels. We need to think less about how our pets look, and more about how our world looks to them. The problem isn’t that we think of pets as almost human-like; it’s that we don’t think of them as human-like enough.
Even if pet owning is done well, it only brings us close to a small slice of the animal kingdom. At least 1,300 species of mammals, including both species of African elephant and 1,400 species of bird, such as snowy owls, are endangered. Few of these animals would live happily in our homes. To save other animals, humans must shrink their footprint on the natural world – by eating less meat, creating more protected areas, and so on.
The difficulty is that our love for our pets increases our footprint. We need more chickens, cows and fish to feed our pets: US dogs and cats eat as many calories in a year as 62 million American people, according to the UCLA geography professor Gregory Okin. Pets no longer just eat our offcuts, because we want them to have the best. As a result, feeding an average size dog can emit more than a tonne of greenhouse gases a year.
There’s more: in the US, cats have been estimated to kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year, and between 6.2 and 22.3 billion mammals each year. It’s not clear how big a chunk of the bird population this represents, or whether the cats are taking mainly weaker birds that wouldn’t have survived anyway.
I find this tricky: I love cats and birds. Having shared more nights on the sofa watching Netflix with cats, I value their individual existence over most birds’. I also recognise that cat and dog populations are doing well, while those of birds are not, and that this puts our ecosystems off balance. Our cat has rarely brought anything back into the house, but I have to admit that our garden is not full of birds. Owners can try training their cats or attaching bells to their collars. Yet the failsafe way to protect birds is to keep your cat indoors: something that affects the quality of a cat’s life.
Dogs, too, impinge on wildlife – as shown by the sad recent incident on the River Thames where a pet dog savaged a seal known as Freddie Mercury. Farmers complain about dogs disturbing nesting lapwing and other birds. Other pets can be even more disruptive: Florida’s Everglades have been overrun by Burmese pythons and green iguanas, which have escaped or been released by bored pet-owners.
This is not an argument against pets. It’s a call for balance. There are, on a back-of-an-envelope calculation, as many parrots in captivity as in the wild. The world has close to a billion dogs and several hundred million cats. Meanwhile, some of their closest wild relatives – such as dholes, a species of Asian wild dog, and African lions – are losing their habitats. Britain has found space for tens of million of dogs and cats, but no wolves or lynx and ever fewer Scottish wildcats. If we truly love animals, we should make sacrifices for them, whether or not they curl up on our sofa. If pets represent our deeper love for the natural world, perhaps we could match every pound we spend on them with a pound given to conserve wild animals.
Maybe we could use our love for pets to reconsider where our food comes from, too. Farm animals exhibit many of the same emotional and social behaviours as pets. Right now, we exaggerate pets’ abilities – Barbra Streisand thought her dog Samantha could speak English – and ignore farm animals’ instincts, such as dairy cows’ desire not to be separated from their calves after birth. Before lockdown, half of UK adults had a pet, but only one in 20 was vegetarian. We are outraged when dogs are killed in China or South Korea, but not when 11 million pigs are killed every year in the UK. We should think about why we wouldn’t be happy for our pets to live on farms, or be put down in slaughterhouses.
Our pets can sensitise us. Jane Goodall said that her dog had taught her about animal emotions, long before she carried out her ground-breaking observations of chimpanzees. The American activist Henry Spira said that taking care of a friend’s cat pushed him to become interested in animal rights: “I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another.”
For the Victorians, who laid the groundwork for our modern pet-keeping, the natural world was a vast treasure chest to be explored and tamed. Things have changed. Our challenge now is to live on a finite planet, without jeopardising our own existence or the animals that we love. It requires a shift from a mentality of hierarchy to one of humility.
In San Francisco and beyond, conscientious humans often refer to their pets as “companion animals”, and themselves as “guardians”, rather than pet owners. This phrasing doesn’t quite work for me. It implies that animals are only our companions if we keep them in our homes. Yet the birds in our cities, the beavers in our rivers, the pine martens in our forests – these are our companions, too, and our wellbeing depends on their survival. I take more joy from the ring-necked parakeets in the park (presumably descendants of someone’s escaped pets) than I would do from a parrot living mate-less in my home. Our cities and countryside should have space for wildlife, not just dogs and cats.
Corgi Con hasn’t decided whether to go ahead this year. I hope it does, but I also hope we pet owners look beyond it. There is more to loving animals than owning them: our pets should be the beginning of our love for other animals, not the end.