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Companion Animals as Property of Humans Essay

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Updated: Mar 3rd, 2021


Within the latest decades, the debates concerning the place of animals in human society and people’s moral right to use nonhumans for their benefit have intensified. Domesticating some species of animals and mastering some natural forces, people position themselves as the lords of creation and use the natural resources for satisfying their needs. With the present-day level of development of philosophical doctrines, the moral right of people to use animals’ meat in food and keep them in captivity for their enjoyment is questioned.

The historical process of domestication of animals is rooted in ancient times, and the human-animal relations have prolonged prehistory. Still, the humans’ attitude to animals has always been exploitative and utilitarian. Though some animals are kept in households not for their meat, fur, or practical value but for aesthetic purposes and companionship to people, defined as pets or companion animals, they are also exploited as the instruments of enjoyment and bringing pleasure.

The research question of this paper is whether people have the moral right to treat their companion animals as their property and whether keeping pets in captivity can be justified. In answering this question I will provide a discussion on the historical background of the division between animals used for food and that of companion animals,

On the one hand, the majority of pet owners try to create comfortable conditions for their companion animals, regarding them as members of the family. On the other hand, according to the assertions of the representatives of the contemporary animal liberation movement, even providing all the necessary essentials, people cannot prevent animals’ suffering from being kept in captivity and cannot observe all their natural rights.

Considering the fact that animals cannot share their feelings, people often forget about their ability to feel suffering and their natural needs and interests. The utilitarian approach to evaluation of the people’s pleasure from keeping the companion animals as compared to animals’ suffering is helpful for analyzing various aspects of people-animals relations and the moral issue of dominating one sentient being over another.

Historical background of the division between animals for food and those of companion animals

The historical division between animals that are used for food and those who are defined as pets or companion animals was predetermined with the shifts from gathering and hunting to agriculture and farming and following development of the human society. (Zeder, 2006, p. 22). The first tamed animals were aimed at fulfilling people’s needs, while the occurrence of the companion animals which are kept for enjoyment only can be explained with the obsoleteness of their initial functions of aiding people in their household activities. (Zeder, 2006, p. 106).

Domestication is the process during which wild animals that previously lived in their natural habitat pass under the control of humans. The changes in the living conditions and the adaptation to life in the human setting caused changes in animals’ behavior and even genetic modifications. The domestication of animals is dated back to prehistoric times and was caused mainly by the utilitarian needs of humans. The process started after humans realized that farming animals can be more convenient than hunting for them. Jensen (2009) noted that “The first wave of domestication comprised the major present-day farm animals and animals such as the dog and the horse” (p. 22).

During this first wave, the animals were domesticated either for using their meat in food (cattle and birds) or for aiding humans in hunting and farming (dogs and horses). Thus, dogs accompanied men during their hunting and helped shepherds to pasture cattle, while horses were widely used in agriculture and for transportation purposes. It was much later that some of the species were tamed for aesthetic purposes and companionship despite their low practical value.

There are a number of theoreticians who hypothesize that these were the behavioral characteristics of some animal species which made domestication possible. After the occurrence of human settlements, some animals made attempts to take advantage of living close to people, such as food provision and protection from natural predators. Jensen (2009) admitted that “the new species, Homo Sapiens, emerging on the arena of life between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, may have provided a potentially rich and fruitful niche for such animals” (p. 21).

Thus, the issue of the extent of violence in the evolutionary processes of domestication of particular species of wild animals is rather controversial and gave rise to continuing debates among scholars. Still, it is doubtless that the humans were preoccupied with their own needs and conveniences while domesticating the wild species and did not take into account the needs and benefits of animals. At the same time, the processes of domestication were irreversible because of the genetic modifications and the changes in the behavioral characteristics of tamed animals.

Later on, the initial practical benefits of some of the domesticated animals such as protecting houses from rodents or aiding shepherds became outdated, but animals were kept for the enjoyment of their owners. Changing the initial motivation for keeping nonhumans in captivity, making some of the companion animals, people did not change their exploitative and egoistic attitude.

The debates concerning the peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife have a long prehistory. The people’s exploitative attitude towards animals and soil is rooted in the system of beliefs. White (1967) noted that “what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them” (p. 1205). The world’s religions are the important components of the system of beliefs and it should be noted that most contemporary religions are anthropocentric, presenting a man as a lord of creation and allowing him to exploit the natural resources for fulfilling his needs.

For example, according to Christian doctrines, a man was made in God’s image, and the rest of the world was created for serving man’s purposes. In contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions, Christianity not only opposes man to nature but also insists that it is God’s will that humans use nature for satisfying their needs. (White, 1967, p. 1205). According to the anthropocentric religious approaches, keeping the companion animals in captivity as the human property is justified. Still, a number of philosophers and legislators pointed at the importance of ensuring the natural rights of people and animals, instead of pursuing a narrower goal of protecting human rights only.

Some philosophers, such as Bentham, for instance, touched upon the problem of equal rights for all living beings. Still, these accidental attempts of defining the moral obligations of humans to animals lacked a systematic approach and remained inconsistent. For this reason, when the book Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher Peter Singer was published in 1975, it indicated the beginning of a new era in the animal liberation movement. Singer’s main argument for protecting the animals’ rights was their ability to feel suffering as opposed to anthropocentric perspectives which concentrated on animals’ inabilities as compared to humans which were expected to prove their inferiority (Singer, 2009, p. 22).

Describing the exploitative attitude of humans towards animals, Singer popularized the term speciesism which indicated the humans’ discrimination of other species. These processes resulted in the improvement of the current legislation and were reflected in the legislative acts. Though the current legislation is aimed at protecting nonhumans from harm and damage, it is insufficient for ensuring the rights of animals (Leslie & Sustein, 2007).

The US anticruelty laws, for instance, not only forbid beating and injuring animals but also requires providing them with all the necessary essentials such as shelter, food, and water supply. There are special rules for the transportation of animals and people who abandon their companion animals in public places undergo criminal penalties. Still, the budgets for animal protection programs are cut and there are a lot of gaps in the current legislation. Wenz (2007) noted that about 95% of domestic animals lack federal legal protection because they are not included in the common lists. And Pollan (2002) admitted that “animal liberation is the logical next step in the forward march of moral progress” (para. 4).

In present-day Canada, the Canadian Criminal Code prohibits endangering or injuring cattle or companion animals without lawful excuses. Mentioning the lawful excuses, people underline the fact that there are still humans’ overall controlling animals’ lives. Thus, if a particular incident is regarded as a lawful excuse, injuring a nonhuman can be justified and remain unpunished. On the one hand, this law protects animal rights and tries to control human actions that have impacts on animals.

On the other hand, this law still supports the idea of animal dependence and does allow people to kill animals in case these actions meet lawful purposes. Paragraphs 444 and 445 of the Canadian Criminal Code explain the conditions under which the actions of the owners of domestic animals are regarded as unlawful offenses and are pursued by the law. It should be mentioned that there is no precise definition of the lawful excuses for injuring animals and along with the excuse of unwillingness to injuring a nonhuman, it leaves plenty of opportunities for various interpretations of the legislation and justifying cruelty in particular cases.

Summing up the above mentioned evolutionary processes in people’s attitude to domesticated animals, since the historical domestication of the first species for satisfying their practical needs towards contemporary anticruelty legislation, it should be noted that significant improvement can be observed in the humans’ relations to animals. Although, the treatment of companion animals is still human property and their natural rights to liberty remain violated.

People need to overcome their anthropocentric approach to the rest of the world and realize that their exploitative attitude to companion animals is rooted in their system of beliefs, consider the contemporary utilitarian theoretical views on human-animal relations for changing their views, filling the gaps in the existing legislation and taking into account their interests and natural rights, treat pets as equal living beings not as lifeless things or property.

Utilitarian theoretical view on the topic of animal suffering

The contemporary proponents of the utilitarian theoretical perspective to treating animals argue that those who kill animals for food, use animal products for meeting their trivial needs, or keep nonhumans in captivity for enjoyment subject animals to great suffering and violate the moral norms (Franklin, 2005, p. 5).

According to the utilitarian theories in their simplest form, the only evil is suffering, while the only good is people’s pleasure, and the moral worth of every action is measured with its usefulness for the greatest number (Franklin, 2005, p. 2). Comparing the pleasure and enjoyment which people receive from keeping their companion animals in captivity to the suffering of pets, utilitarians consider the pleasure to be an insufficient argument for torturing animals.

As a result, according to the utilitarian theories, people should better refuse the idea of eating meat, using animals for testing chemicals, as well as keeping nonhumans in captivity for entertainment purposes. In his attempt to address utilitarianism, Julian Franklin (2005) states that “animal liberation, or animal rights, go beyond animal welfare and humanitarianism in its usual form. Showing kindness to animals and protecting them from cruelty are good, but no longer enough” (p.2).

It is important not only to prevent cruel treatment but also to observe natural animal rights. According to Franklin (2005), “utilitarianism holds that pain is the only evil and pleasure the only good, and that the test of whether an act is moral is based on its consequences, when all the pains and pleasures … are calculated and added up” (p.2). If people admit the fact that all sentient beings feel pleasure, suffering, and pain, they will accept the idea that their attitude to animal rights should be changed.

Animals’ suffering and stresses and human participation in it

Despite the widely spread misconception, that companion animals feel comfortable in their owners’ homes, they often feel suffering because of the captivity conditions. The majority of pets die not of age in their loving homes but because of the distresses caused by their transportation and visits to veterinarians. (Podberscek, 2000, p. 293) Nowadays, there are many situations in which the law is unable to protect animal rights.

For example, there is nothing unlawful in a situation when a person decides to use a dog as a guardian and chains it in the yard. A person creates the necessary living conditions, ensures food and water supply so that the law cannot prohibit this decision. Still, though it was not mentioned in the legislative acts, chaining is harmful to a dog and violates the dog’s natural rights. Along with chaining, keeping animals in captivity makes them suffer rather often.

People use the services of veterinaries to help their animals suffer less; however, at the same time, when in particular cases people make a decision to kill their pets by means of veterinarian interruption, they do make their pets suffer and treat them as their property. People are not able to define the level of animal suffering. This is why one of the most serious philosophical aspects concerning human moral obligations to companion animals is the fact that people cannot define the level of damage caused by their interruption into animal lives.

Tom Regan is the first philosopher who came up with a theory ‘’championing the rights of animals.’’ Regan argued that many animal species do feel pain: if a specific line is to be drawn in order to distinguish animals that feel pain from those that do not, only several animal species who do not suffer would be found (Kistler, 2002). The main idea of Regan’s argument was that people cannot treat animals in any way they like.

Tom used the concepts of categorical imperative, contractualism, and egoism of Immanuel Kant, John Rawl, and Jan Narveson respectively to illustrate his point and develop his ideas. Though Narveson, Rawl, and Kant implied only human rights while developing their theories on liberty, Regan expanded their ideas with animals’ natural rights and humans’ moral obligations to their pets as sentient beings.

Implementing the utilitarian approach to the evaluation of the use of companion animals as the instruments for people’s enjoyment, people’s pleasure cannot justify the suffering of pets that are kept in captivity and tortured by transportation and veterinarians’ interruptions. With the recent information revolution and the development of the advertising industry, animals are widely used for marketing purposes, such as creating a positive brand for a company that sells products that are related or not related to pets.

Show dogs and other poor creatures are used for representing particular teams and individuals and maintaining their spirit through the conditions in which these animals are kept and transported leave much to be desired and their stress from performing instead of the audience cannot be evaluated. Though measuring animal suffering is problematic, a number of scholars insist that nonhumans do suffer. Thus, treating companion animals as property and ignoring their feelings, rights, and interests cannot be regarded as the means of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number and is inconsistent with the philosophical concept of human moral obligations.

The notion of animal ability to feel pain and suffering

Previously, humans were opposed to animals on the basis of their dissimilarity and differences in the central nervous systems and abilities. At present, the emphasis was shifted to their similarities in feeling pain and suffering for supporting the idea that both humans and nonhumans deserve equal rights and the treating pets as the property of their owners, neglecting the rights and feelings of the companion animals is inadmissible.

The notion of animal abilities is an important proof of their natural rights and humans’ moral obligations to them. Humans can feel pain, pleasure, fear, etc. As it has been proved above, animals are also creatures that may have a variety of feelings though they are not able to share their feelings and make them understandable to humans. The representatives of the animal liberation movement shed light upon the suffering of the captivated animals, those whose meat is used in the food and those who are kept as the instruments of enjoyment of their owners (Singer, 2009, p. 8).

The feelings of animals are similar to those of humans, and people have to consider this fact before making a decision to keep a pet and rule its destiny without considering its interests and rights. Because of their anthropocentric beliefs, rooted deep in their consciousness, according to which they are the lords of creation, it is hard for humans to believe that they and animals are similar in many aspects; this is why some people cannot understand the importance of providing the animals with the same rights which humans possess. Humans need to pay more attention to this point and change their exploitative approach to domesticated animals in general and companion animals in particular.

Acknowledging the facts that animals do feel pain and that captivity conditions do cause damage to companion animals, violating their natural rights, and contradicting their interests are the first steps in changing the human philosophy of using pets as the instruments of enjoyment which can be treated in any way.

Domestication of nonhumans depends on people

Domestication is a process when animals are controlled by humans and used in order to satisfy human needs. When people got an opportunity to study a variety of species that existed, they were able to make decisions and to choose the most appropriate animals to use as pets. In fact, the process of animal domestication proves that the vast majority of people neglect the idea of natural selection and is concentrated on their own demands and need.

This is why the domestication of animals is still considered to be one of the most debatable issues, and there are many exponents as well as opponents of this idea. In case a person makes a decision to domesticate an animal, he or she should consider many significant aspects like the animal’s diet, conditions for living, the process of breeding, etc. People have to be confident in their abilities to domesticate an animal under the most comfortable conditions so that an animal does not suffer from its dependence. It is also necessary to define which species may be domesticated and which should remain to be free from human control. Nowadays, people find it very captivating to domesticate some predators to make some of their exotic dreams come true.

Another example of violating the animals’ rights is pedigree breeding of new species for meeting the growing demands of the human community. Thus, new breeds of dogs are created genetically for the purpose of exploiting them in shows and various competitions. Showing the enormous suffering of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dying from syringomyelia, the creators of the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed shed light shock the spectators of the film and raise the issue of the moral right of humans to interfere into the laws of nature.

The perspective chosen by the authors makes the answer to the moral dilemma obvious. Seeing the results of the biogenetical mistake when the brain of a dog was too big for the dog’s skull and other negative consequences of human interference, the spectators inevitably come to a conclusion that experimenting with living beings is unaffordable.

People’s participation in animal life: is it necessary to control animals?

It may happen that some pets find it more attractive and helpful to live with humans and take advantage of the opportunities and conditions offered by people. If the anticruelty legislation becomes successful, companion animals and pets are likely to benefit from such legislation. At the same time, the current animal rights protection legislation is underdeveloped and contains a number of gaps that are caused by a lack of public attention to the issue and the budget deficits.

Though significant improvements have been observed within the latest decades, the existing legislative acts are insufficient for protecting the animals’ rights and ensuring the worthy conditions for keeping them in captivity in every single case. Considering this fact, it can be noted that more emphasis should be put on the development of animal protection legislation and procedures for observing animal rights in every single case. The vast majority of domesticated animals depend on their owners and are helpless because of their inability to get food and other essentials.

Nowadays, the statistics prove that more than 58% of all Americans prefer to have at least one pet in the house (Warren 2002). For example, at the end of the 1980s, about 38% of dogs and 30% of cats were chosen by people as their companion animals. And at the end of the 1990s, the numbers have been changed considerably: only 31% of dogs and 27% of cats were domesticated (Warren 2002).

However, a new millennium introduced a number of new fashion trends, and the process of animal domestication undergoes considerable changes. Nowadays, companion animals are a part of fashion: George Clooney introduced his favorite pig to the public, and Mickey Rourke demonstrates his unbelievable passion for little dogs. Still, the reasonable observers need to bear in mind his primary motivation for demonstrating this affection in public for creating a positive image for evaluating the phenomenon critically. Though the evaluation of his true feelings and the conditions in which his dogs are kept is problematic, it is important to analyze the phenomenon in the context of show business and its realities.

Disregarding all the controversial moments of the people’s right to keep an animal in captivity for personal enjoyment or other purposes, it is doubtless that the owner of a pet has not only to provide all the basic essentials but also to consider the animal’s interests while making the decisions concerning transportation, medication and other spheres. Though nonhumans cannot share their feelings with their owners, express their opinion and participate in the process of decision making, people need to be able to understand their pets without words, feel empathy with them, and considering their ability to suffer and feel pain along with their dependence on human actions, to treat them as sentient beings not as lifeless property.


With the recent shifts in human-animals relations and the growing popularity of the animal liberation movement, the exploitative attitude to companion animals as the property of their owners became obsolete and should be left in the past.

The fact that the initial motivation for the domestication of animals was explained with satisfying people’s egoistic needs can be explained with the humans’ anthropocentric approach to the rest of the world. Regarding themselves as the lords of creation, people even developed the idea of protecting human rights instead of struggling for the natural rights of all sentient beings.

The contemporary utilitarian theories and Singer and Franklin as their active proponents claim that people’s enjoyment cannot justify keeping pets in captivity and ignoring their natural needs and interests as compared to the suffering of the companion animals and the damage that is caused to them by human actions. Considering their moral obligations to companion animals, people should not treat their pets as their property and instruments for their enjoyment, ignoring their interests and natural rights.

Reference List

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Franklin, J. (2005). Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.

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White, L. (1967, March). The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, New Series, 155 (3767), 1203 – 1207.

Zeder, M., Bradley, D., Emshwiller, E., and Smith, B. (eds.). (2006). Documenting domestication: New genetic and archaeological paradigms. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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