Do you consider yourself a responsible pet owner?
Of course you do, but what do you think that even means?
Is it feeding them, making sure they have water and providing them with a comfortable place to sleep?
What about taking them for regular health check-ups and ensuring they get enough exercise?
These are all crucial aspects of owning a pet, but there’s something else.
Something a lot of people don’t even consider.
We Need to Change How We View Animals
Pet ownership is nothing new. Evidence suggests humans have been domesticating animals for thousands of years.
For the large majority of us, pets are very much the norm. We’ve grown up around animals and in many ways, they are our best friends and truest companions.
Having a pet has even proven to offer health benefits. Yet, despite our close bond with them, there’s still a disconnect.
We see ourselves as ‘pet owners’ and we refer to certain species (goldfish, hamsters, etc.) as ‘starter pets’. It reveals itself in our actions, too. We’ll yank on a dog’s leash to get them to move, for example.
It’s not that there’s any intended malice on our part. If probed, those of us with pets will profess our love and adoration for our non-human companions.
But, the fact that we don’t intend harm doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. There is, and it’s something most of us don’t even think about.
I didn’t when I had pets.
It’s the way we view animals.
We may not be consciously aware of it, but most people view animals as less important than humans.
How else do you explain things like factory farming, dog fighting, cockfighting, rodeos, bullfighting, steeplechasing, puppy mills, animal husbandry, hybrid cats, etc.?
We treat animals as a commodity instead of seeing them for what they are: sentient beings with rich emotional lives and consciousness.
Once we make that shift, being a responsible pet owner won’t matter. All we’ll need to focus on is being a kind and considerate human.
Should We Even Be Keeping Animals as Pets?
Some ethicists believe we should stop keeping pets. I can see where they’re coming from. In the last few years, Sporty and I have become more and more uncomfortable with the idea of pet ownership.
It is a little impractical, though. What would happen to the millions of animals who are currently in our care, for example? A better alternative —at least in the interim— is to change our mindset.
In his book The Emotional Lives of Animals, award-winning scientist Marc Bekoff blends the latest research with extraordinary stories of animals expressing a gamut of emotions (joy, empathy, grief, embarrassment, anger, love, etc.).
Given the evidence, it’s clear humans have been underestimating animal intelligence since, well, forever. We need to change our archaic opinions.
What Makes a Responsible Pet Owner?
As I mentioned earlier, responsible pet ownership is about more than making sure your non-human friend is well fed, up to date with their shots and has a comfy bed (or hammock) to relax in.
Inviting an animal into your life is a big responsibility. There’s a lot to consider and take into account before you make the leap. If you already have a pet, perhaps these tips will offer additional food for thought.
1. Pet Responsibility: Educating Our Kids is Key
All animals deserve to be treated with equal respect. We need to teach our children that a pet comes with a lot more responsibility than a new toy.
In her book, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, author Jessica Pierce stresses that getting a pet is an ethical commitment. It’s not something be taken lightly.
Explaining what it means to have a pet will instil a sense of responsibility in kids. This means waiting until they’re old enough to grasp the concept.
It’s vital that children are old enough to really ‘get’ what they’re taking on by asking for a pet. If the point is lost on them, Mom will be left taking care of the family’s new addition when the novelty wears off.
Waiting until they’re older also means they’ll be physically able to take care of an animal. Up until a certain age kids can barely look after themselves. Expecting them to properly care for an animal is a tall order.
2. Make Sure You Talk Through the Details
All too often, we adults are as likely as children are to get caught up in the idea of getting a puppy or kitten. We don’t stop to think about what that means, both on a day to day basis as well as in the long term.
Do you have the time, space and financial resources available to care for the animal? What will happen if you need to move home? Finding pet-friendly accommodation isn’t always that easy.
Do you travel a lot for work or leisure? Whenever you go away you’ll have to hire a pet sitter or send your animal friend to stay elsewhere. Either way, it’s unsettling for them.
It’s also not fair on the animal to constantly have other people taking care of them. I’m not saying you should never go on vacation, but if travel forms a big part of your life having a pet probably isn’t for you.
3. Spend Quality Time With Your Friend Everyday
Deciding to get a pet means being a hundred percent invested with what that entails. Having a dog, for example, requires daily walks regardless of the weather or how you’re feeling.
Cats may be independent by nature, but they also enjoy feeling loved and wanted. It’s important to make the time and space to bond with them. (On their terms, obviously.)
I’m not a fan of keeping fish, hamsters, birds or any animal that requires caging. If you decide to go that route, at least make extra effort to spend quality time with them.
I had mice, fish, budgies and hamsters growing up. I hope one day someone invents a time machine so I can go back and explain to my younger self that it’s not okay.
4. Cohabiting Should Be Fun for Everyone (Humans and Animals Alike)
We need to keep in mind that we’ve chosen to invite the animal into our lives. They don’t have any choice in the matter. There must be boundaries, but at the same time we need to make sure our non-human housemates feel welcome and part of the family.
Sleeping and bathroom facilities should be comfortable and accessible. Fishbowl and cage inhabitants should enjoy a good view of their surroundings, etc.
Dogs and cats must have free access to the outside world. I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to keep dogs crated in apartments or force cats to be indoor animals. It’s not.
You wouldn’t leave your toddler locked in a cage while you’re at work, so why is it okay to do it to a dog? Cat enclosures are equally problematic. Felines are roamers by nature, let them move freely.
5. Adopt Don’t Shop (Say No to Cheap Puppies)
With so many animals living out their lives in cramped shelters, adopting a pet should be a no brainer. (You only have to look at these happy pets on their adoptiversaries to see why.)
Again, it starts with educating our kids. If we take them to the pet store to ‘choose’ a pet, it gives them the idea that animals are something they own.
When we take them to a shelter and explain the concept of adopting a pet, children will understand that animals are not toys.
6. Playing Dress-Up with Animals Is Not Okay
The pet industry is booming. Holistic pet food, pet health insurance and pet-friendly travel are the norm nowadays. On the downside, humans are also of the opinion that playing dress-up with animals is okay.
We need to identify our pets’ needs (toys, food, a place to sleep, etc.) and steer away from fashion accessories. Pets have very little autonomy as it is. Putting them in silly outfits for our amusement is only exacerbating the problem.
7. Would I Be a Good Dog Owner (Everyone Knows Cats Own You)
We often get so caught up in the idea of adopting an animal that we fail to consider ourselves in the process. What kind of pet owner do you imagine you’ll be?
Are you suited to the task at hand? Do you have the right type of personality? It might sound silly to bring this up, but it goes back to thinking through the details.
Even if you think you’re the world’s number one animal lover, spend some time unpacking your personality traits. Imagine various scenarios you might find yourself in with your new companion.
At worst, you’ll have wasted 10-15 minutes writing out a pros and cons list when you already know the answer. It beats realising you’ve made a mistake after the fact.
It’s also a good idea to volunteer at a shelter for a few months. Spending time with animals on a regular basis will enable you to see how you’ll handle different situations.
The Benefits of Being a Responsible Pet Owner
Choosing to share your life with an animal is infintely rewarding. Their capacity for unconditional love is beyond anything we can offer in return.
Animals adore us in spite of our many shortcomings. Being a good human to them is the only way we can reciprocate. Let’s at least do that to the best of our ability.
We need to treat them with the respect they deserve. At least as an entry point, that means dropping the notion that we own them and instead see them as our equals.