The Ethics of Pet Ownership

Cat in Tokyo

Dogs playing fetch in parks, cats perched on window sills, hamsters rattling in cages at night – our relationship with pets is more prevalent than ever.

Globally, over billions of animals are kept as pets, with half of households owning at least one. In the US, pet-related spending surpassed in 2021 for the first time, reaching a staggering 70% of households.

Commonly, more pets are seen as a sign of growing animal love and an expanding circle of compassion. While people might be happy with their animal companions, the question of animal well-being is rarely considered.

The truth is, pet keeping often harms animals. As an ethicist, I’m deeply concerned by the global increase in pet ownership.

The many harms of pet keeping

Some harms are attitudinal. By buying, selling, and using animals for our own amusement, emotional fulfillment, or profit, we treat them as objects, not subjects; as commodities, not beings with inherent value. This commodification makes it difficult to understand animals from their perspective. We focus on how pets make us feel, not how keeping them makes them feel.

Other harms are more direct. Extensive scientific research confirms the suffering pets endure. Physical confinement, social isolation, and chronic stress—the hallmarks of captivity—can lead to measurable physiological damage, including reduced neural plasticity and long-term activation of the fight-or-flight response. This can impact immune function, increase the risk of chronic diseases, and shorten lifespans. The effects of captivity manifest in behaviors like pacing, feather plucking, and obsessive tail chasing.

The pet industry accepts significant animal suffering and mortality as part of its model. A raid on a major exotic pet wholesaler in Texas revealed 80% of 26,400 animals representing 171 species were “grossly sick, injured, or dead.” Ethically, consuming pets isn’t different from consuming meat: you take a life and participate in an industry that inflicts suffering. A large puppy or kitten mill, or a warehouse full of snakes, geckos, and other animals awaiting shipment, isn’t so different from a factory farm. If you want to enjoy your pet/steak, look away.

Even the billions spent on pet products often undermines animal welfare. Some spending goes towards veterinary care, but the majority is on junk food, shock collars, bark deterrents, cages, and tanks. Marketing these products with labels like “natural” or “premium” can make them seem harmless. However, imagine living your entire life in a space no bigger than your body, with no meaningful work, social interaction, species-appropriate stimulation, or opportunity to engage in natural behaviors. It would be torture. Humans and animals are similar in their reactions to captivity.

Dogs are perhaps the least captive pets, being well-adapted to sharing homes with humans and potentially having fulfilling lives. Yet, pet keeping practices still take a toll. Dogs experience social isolation, lack of stimulation, confinement, restraint, and other issues. Research has found that roughly three-quarters of all dogs suffer from anxiety severe enough to impact their quality of life – evidence of the felt effects of captivity.

Finally, there are the climate impacts. A study estimated that the meat-heavy diet of US dogs and cats is equivalent, in terms of carbon emissions, to nearly 14 million cars on the road. Like industrialized animal agriculture, industrialized pet keeping is ecologically unsustainable.

A way forward

Can we have companionable relationships with animals without harming them or the planet? Absolutely. But it would look very different from current practices. Human-animal ties would be mutual and freely chosen – friendships, not ownership. Captivity wouldn’t be the defining factor in our relationship. Reducing the number of pets, mitigating harm to those already in captivity, and prioritizing their physical and emotional well-being can lead us closer to this goal.

People who love animals are ironically the ones who end up with pets. (I’m guilty of this.) But we need to consider that loving animals might point us away from pet ownership towards different kinds of friendships. Ones that don’t treat animals as commodities, involve captivity, or cause suffering.