John Bradshaw Ph.D.

Pets and Their People

Does Fixing Pets Need Fixing?

Clarifying the complex ethics around companion animals.

Posted Mar 28, 2017

A century or so ago, when most dogs and cats were working animals, their relationship with mankind was largely utilitarian and relatively uncomplicated. However, as they have become companions first and foremost, so ethical controversies have emerged. Breed-specific legislation for dogs, extreme conformations that satisfy the public’s demand for unusual or “cute” pets, the devastation that conservationists claim that cats cause to wildlife; these are just three issues that have arisen over the past decade or so, and proved difficult to resolve. Others, such as whether it is justifiable to neuter pets purely for the owner’s convenience, have barely been discussed, but may raise their heads in the future.

The problem appears to be that in all of these debates, the opposing sides adopt incompatible ethical stances, resulting not so much in a conversation but in statements made by one camp that pass straight over the heads of the other. Conservationists place the rights of “innocent” wild animals above those of the pet cats that hunt them, cat owners emphasise the relationship they have with their pet, and seem unconcerned if it is a hunter.

A new book in the UFAW Animal Welfare Series, Companion Animal Ethics, provides welcome clarification of the diversity of ethical approaches to these and many other issues, and shows how the approach that is adopted at the outset can produce apparently contradictory endpoints. The owner of a cat needs to be away from home for several weeks: should she take the cat with her, deposit the cat in kennels, or leave the cat at home to be looked after by a neighbour? Or even (as does happen) take the cat to be euthanized by a vet before she departs, knowing that it will be easy to obtain a replacement from a shelter when she eventually returns? Her decision would likely depend on how reliant she is on the cat’s company, how much she values the cat as an individual, how willing she is to take the cat’s perspective on the solution it might prefer, and so on.

In the book, Peter Sandøe, Sandra Corr and Clare Palmer dissect the three different kinds of issues that arise around our animal companions. First, there are often uncertainties about what is actually in their best interest, despite the many recent scientific advances in the understanding of their welfare. Second, moral dilemmas arise as a result of different weightings given to the rights of the animals and the people whose lives they impact upon—highlighted in the refusal of some authorities to allow pets to be rescued with their owners following Hurricane Katrina. Thirdly, ethical disagreements often stem from such questions as, what is a cat worth, or how should a moral person behave towards a dog?

Source: Alan Peters, from "The Animals Among Us", used with permission

Readers who accept the mantra of the animal rescue charities, which say that every dog and cat should be de-sexed, may be surprised to find a sizeable chapter on the ethics of routine neutering, and even more so to read the conclusion—that there is a good ethical case for neutering male cats and female dogs, but less so for female cats, and a plausible argument for leaving male dogs entire. The latter mainly stems from recent research at the University of California at Davis, showing that while neutering bitches prolongs their lifespan, castrating dogs may enhance the risk of several types of cancer and disorders of the immune system (although breeds vary in their susceptibility).

Taking a fresh look at routine neutering has made me realise that it raises all kinds of ethical dilemmas. From a rights perspective, what authority do pet owners have to put their animal through an uncomfortable surgical procedure if its benefits for that individual animal are dubious? Sterilisation of humans against their will is almost universally condemned, so are owners convinced that their pets would have agreed to lose their capacity to reproduce, if they had been able (as they almost certainly can’t) to understand what that meant?

The argument in favour of routine neutering is generally focused at the population level—that for every dog or cat that is neutered, the fewer “unwanted” puppies and kittens will be destroyed or die of natural causes. Sometimes this may also work for the individual: for example, a female feral cat that is neutered will no longer be able to produce large numbers of kittens which are unlikely to enjoy a good quality of life. However, if a well cared-for pet cat produces kittens, and these can all be found good homes, the consequent reduction in welfare only applies to other cats, those which the rescue organisations cannot then find homes for because all the “vacancies” have been filled. Clearly there is an argument to be made that cat owners should place the overall welfare of the species (all domestic cats) over the (possibly imaginary) “rights” of their own individual cat.

Even when focusing on the individual pet-owner relationship, cases can be made both for and against neutering. If the relationship is improved, perhaps because a male cat no longer wanders from home, then perhaps neutering is morally defensible. But if it is done for the convenience of the owner, perhaps as an attempt to prevent a male dog from “humping” the knees of visitors, then it could be regarded as contrary to the duty to take account of the animal’s instinctive needs and desires (and perhaps use training to prevent the unwanted behaviour).

As Sandøe and his co-authors conclude in their book, “neutering of companion animals is a complex and largely unexplored ethical issue”.