We have gone pet crazy

Charles Danten

50 to 60% of the population of rich, industrialized countries owns one or more pets. And this trend is rising. 70% of the people, according to a recent survey, consider their animals as family members to the point of refusing to call them “pets,” preferring the word “children.” 63 % of pet owners consider themselves as parents of a child.

This trend is thought to reflect great human qualities of compassion, love, and friendship and a deep urge to get closer to animals and nature in general.There is a persistent belief that pets are well treated in our society, as well if not better than our own children.

Fine, but what if this impression is as wrong as the idea that the earth is flat?

What if reality is considerably darker?

What if this supposedly explicit show of love for animals, considered so beneficial for all, were in fact as deadly… as smoking?

Well, unless we look into it, unless we remove our psychological blinders, we will never know the truth, and how else can we expect to bring about a meaningful change?

My job consists in reversing a false impression, which has become as deeply incrusted and resistant to change as was the not-so-old notion that the earth is the center of the universe. Essentially my work consists in narrowing the gap between appearances and reality, so that as a species we can make the best decision possible for our near and far future interests.

This is what applied ethics is all about:

The art of contributing to the survival of the human species by narrowing the gap between appearance and reality.

You cannot be ethical unless you are as close to reality as possible.

And believe me in this precise case we are very far from it.

Like in the movie 12 angry men, one by one, I will therefore proceed to debunk the arguments in favor of this false impression until I reverse the verdict radically. It won't be easy for the following reasons, but I don't shy away from a difficult challenge:

  1. So many people are doing it; it's difficult to imagine they are all so wrong. But just because everybody believes something is right doesn’t make it so.
  2. Power can use pleasure as its instrument thus leaving no trace, making it difficult to see things for what they are under the covert of good intentions and emotions. You try telling someone that has just spent $1000 on his pet, who spends his days brushing him, giving him a bath, taking him out, pampering him etc. that he is actually exploiting his pet – you will be crucified!
  3. Authority is another major obstacle to change, as you all know. The fact that veterinarians, humanitarian societies, animal activists that symbolize love and compassion at their best are actually condoning this relationship is a major hindrance. We’ll tend to believe falsely that if the SPCA vouches for it, it must be OK. Who would dare question the authority of those who know better?

Don’t our pets love us?

One of the main obstacles is that animals themselves willingly seek and appreciate our company. For many people this seemingly natural attraction is the proof that animals and humans have a noble, natural inclination to love each other. It’s all a con.

What we are confusing with a voluntary human-animal attraction can be explained by the imprint phenomena: a vital biological function discovered by Konrad Lorenz which makes any new born animal including humans automatically identify with the first moving object in his surroundings. In Syria for example, a young boy was found living with a herd of gazelles. After his gazelle family was slaughtered he was captured and taken into human society. Although his new parents tried everything to socialize him, he continued to behave like an animal refusing to be tamed. Due to his upbringing, he had developed very strong ankles and knees that made him capable of jumping from the first floor of the house to the street. In order to civilize him and stop him from trying to escape his new family had his tendons cut. Unfortunately, as this story shows, this most amazing built-in «magnet» is responsible for much misunderstanding and suffering.

In order to learn how to function and survive in his specific environment, it is vital for the newly born to quickly bond himself to his mother. Her voice, her smell, her silhouette are recorded in his memory like on a photographic film literally becoming a material object, a part of him, to which he fully identifies. The reassuring presence of the mother allows him to explore and learn the laws of the land. During this period of socialization, he learns to recognize the members of his own species, their sex, the food he needs to eat in order to survive and various other critical functions etc. In case of danger, he will always turn to his mother for security and protection. The lost of contact or any attempt to separate them will provoke in both of them serious distress and anxiety in the form of excessive vocalization, hyperactivity, and if the separation is prolonged, a loss of sleep and appetite. In birds, this period of attachment begins with hatching and is very short whereas in cats and dogs, it is well underway 5 weeks after birth; in primates like humans it’s normally around 12 years unless it is unduly extended for different reasons. Thanks to this biological function, we are able to domesticate animals and nurture an intimate relationship. Like the gazelle boy in the story, a 14 week old puppy never in contact with man will fear his presence refusing to be tamed. Every species has therefore a window of vulnerability to cases of mistaken identity.

Under normal conditions, attachment is always followed by detachment a period that allows the youngster to reach maturity and assume his rightful place in the environment. The mother gradually stops responding to the constant solicitations of her young and begins to take her distance. The strong mother-newborn bond is replaced by a social relationship and the imprint period phases out into autonomy. When a pet is adopted at a critical age within the imprint period, he transfers upon his new master the attachment he usually feels for his mother. Great and that’s what we want. Right? Well, it’s not exactly what it seems. You see, the Master becomes his surrogate mother but this denatured bond, this case of usurped identity is never followed by detachment like it normally should. On the contrary, the youngster is deliberately kept dependent never being allowed to reach maturity. This explains why all pets are so infantile in various degrees.

The persistence of this carefully nurtured dependence will eventually trigger a permanent state of anxiety that will lead to various psychological and psychosomatic problems. All species are affected in various degrees. Gregarious animals like dogs and certain birds like those of the parrot family (budgies, cockatiels, large parrots) are especially prone but so are cats, reptiles and even fish. All those that spend time in our company, that share our beds, our meals, that we constantly pet or talk to affectionately, that we give treats to are unconsciously conditioned to become affection junkies. The anxiety they feel following an absence or a lack of attention is equal to what a newly born feels when he is separated from his mother. Their happiness being dependent on this attention, they try their best in whatever ways possible to maximize their satisfaction: They will scratch or lick to attract their Masters attention who by responding will unconsciously perpetuate this behavior to the point where a medical intervention is necessary. For this reason, seasonal allergies will often last well beyond the normal time. They will fake a sore paw or cough to provoke sympathy and an interaction. They will constantly ask for the door, make objects fall, vocalize continually. Some will soil their home in order to get a punishment that will paradoxically stimulate some well-being. In short, anything but being ignored. Like a drug addict weaned of his drug, the dependant animal goes cold turkey in the absence of his master. This will often manifest in various strange behaviors. Commonly dogs for example when left alone will literally go crazy, destroying and soiling their environment. We have all heard the neighbor’s dog howling to death while his Masters are gone for the day. What he’s actually trying to do is to call back to his side his surrogate mother. Cats will urinate on their Masters cloths or bed. Parrots will start screaming and pulling out their feathers in some cases to the bone. Some will start drinking more others will become bulimic or chronic lickers. A few will become chronic masturbaters. All these behaviors are exaggerated manifestations of natural functions like eating, drinking, preening, walking or reproducing. Before long, these «perversions» become deeply incrusted habits that go out of control being triggered even in non-threatening situations. In short, by constantly soliciting the affection of a pet with various rewards and «brownie» points, we are destroying his emotional thermostat. Well-trained and well-behaved animals, the more docile kind, will just internalize this anxiety into various psychosomatic diseases. For example, anxiety in cats will often cause interstitial cystitis a chronic bladder problem often confused with a urinary infection or «stones». Chronic vomiting or itching, colitis, cancers, diarrhea etc. are other possible psychosomatic diseases. It goes without saying none of these conditions exist in wild animals living in their natural environment.

This explains why the long-term results of behavior modification and animal psychotherapy, the new gold mine of the pet industry, are so poor. The causes of most psychological problems are related to domestication and a carefully nurtured dependence and understandingly so there is no intent in curing the problem. It fact, it’s impossible in most cases. People get a dog or cat for company and when they come home from work, they want to be greeted by an affectionate, docile and cuddly pet, why else would they bother. For most people, there is no point in having a pet they cannot control or that will not submit to their every whim. The goal is rather to help the psychologically disturbed patient regain some «sanity» so that he can go back and function «normally» in the world as it is. In short, the animal psychiatrist will be concerned by the symptoms not to cure them but to help the patient cope better. He will also try to modify the behavior of the Masters who will soon loose interest for different reasons. It’s hard to teach new habits for long to an old monkey. Frustrated and disappointed by poor long term results, the «psychiatrists» involved in the treatment of this poorly «civilized» clientele, will often rely on psychotropic drugs like prozac or valium, to smother the fever of a disease caused by the inherent flaws and contradictions of an unhealthy bond. Many Masters will seek the help of a muscled dog trainer that will just make things worst in most cases. Tough love is not the way. Out of luck, many will get rid of their troubled pet who will be bounced around from one owner to another, eventually to be destroyed.

What has just been briefly described is vitally important to understand the real meaning of the human pet bond. In fact, what is taken for a loving and noble relationship of the kind that demonstrates the best in humanity, what is mistaken for a healthy and productive relationship vehemently condoned by the pet industry and society in general is nothing in fact but infantilism, emotional dependence and a reciprocal servitude for in order to enjoy and seek this kind of unhealthy relationship you have to be yourself quite infantile and dependent. The extent of this inclination will vary considerably according to the importance the subject of your «love» has in your emotional life. In other words, the more dependant and infantile, the more empty and lonely you feel, the more identified you are to the object of your affection, the more you «love» and become attached. An anticipated separation will often lead, like for the animals described above, to various expressions of anxiety. In certain cases the loss of a pet will literally be felt like an amputation. Veterinarians are frequent witnesses of these dramatic shows of bereavement.

And if you are of the dominating type, even sadistic, you find your pleasure in the control and servitude of a weaker being: « Love is not what makes the world go around. There remains affection. […] Affection mitigates domination, making it softer and more acceptable, but affection itself is possible only in relationships of inequality. It is the warm and superior feeling one has toward things that one can care for and patronize. The word care so exudes humaneness that we tend to forget its almost inevitable tainting by patronage and condescension. '', writes Yale professor Yi-Fu Tuan in his book Dominance and affection: the making of pets.

Considering the popularity of pets in rich industrialized nations it is tempting to conclude that relations of infantilism, emotional dependence and sadomasochism are the norm in our society. If it is the case, the human pet bond is far from being healthy. On the contrary, it encourages and propagates some serious flaws in our behavior.

Whatever the case may be, this bond, this case of mistaken identity and abuse of power is the first link of a subtly perverse chain of exploitation; subtle because it is not apparent and perverse for it operates under the covert of good intentions and sentiments. Precisely for those reasons though, it is much crueler in its hypocrisy and sophistication than the other forms of animal abuse.