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Adoption centres, breeders, and rescue facilities have experienced a surge in demand for companion animals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The dramatic rise in companion animals during the pandemic is no coincidence. Public health measures have forced the relocation of office workers to the comfort of their homes, making it convenient to raise a new pet. Pets have also helped us cope with the psychological impacts which accompany a pandemic. By interacting with our pets, we trigger the release of oxytocin, which is a chemical dubbed as the ‘love hormone.’ Oxytocin helps to improve social interaction, reduce stress and anxiety, and enhance overall human health.

This rise of interest in pets comes as no surprise for scientists who have long studied the positive effects that interactions with companion animals have on humans. However, the benefits that our pets get out of these interactions are less clear.

Of course, human interaction with other animals is not a new phenomenon. For thousands of years, humans have shared affable relations with animals akin to present-day pets. It is probable that somewhere along the way, animals were domesticated by humans because they made life easier; dogs assisted with hunting and herding, for example. Eventually, some domesticated species transitioned into a new class of animals that persisted for reasons other than typical utility. Such animals resembled what we now refer to as pets.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, when pet-keeping was common among aristocrats, and up until the witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the middle class began keeping pets, pet owners faced backlash. According to some philosophers, human-animal relationships went against the natural order of life because animals lacked feelings and morality. Animals were only placed on the Earth to serve human beings, not to be their companions.

Historians cite the Victorian era (1837-1901) as the origin of the type of pet ownership we operate with today. By this point, the practice of pet-owning was a non-threatening link to the natural world. It also helped to reinforce the notion that humans dominate nature. When sentient beings like pets began being tagged as property and owned by humans, it gave humans the right of use, control, and dominion over them. 

The troubling tale of human domination tied up with pet-owning gets overshadowed by the belief that pet-ownership is beneficial for all parties involved. Some people think that the practice of domesticating animals would not have been possible had the wild wolves not viewed the food scraps from hunter-gatherer groups as a beneficial resource when their hunting was difficult.

In the present day, many pets receive more than just leftovers; they have warm fluffy beds, are drowned in love and affection, and some even enjoy daily – if often tethered – excursions outside. Yet, the presence of this seemingly mutually beneficial relationship is not enough to justify placing a muzzle on the ethical debate over pet-owning. If we really love our pets, we would not own them anymore.

The idea that domestic animals benefit from being owned by humans is a façade. Like other property owned by humans, pets get marketed as a commodity. They are mass-produced, advertised, put in storage, shipped, bought, traded, replaced, returned, and in some instances, thrown out. Apart from weak animal cruelty laws, it remains up to the property owner to decide how to value and treat their property – in other words, their pet.

Organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have fought hard to improve the welfare of domestic animals who routinely get commodified as objects. PETA believes it is our responsibility to take good care of domestic animals because they cannot survive on their own. But they strongly oppose animal mills and private breeders because animals in these environments are treated merely as “breeding machines” and denied proper companionship.

PETA encourages kind individuals to rescue one of the millions of animals on the streets or in neglectful environments. Humans can continue to own companion animals, granted that pets receive love and are treated well and cared for properly by their owners.

The challenge with mainstream animal liberation movements directed by welfare organizations like PETA is that their main goals are not radical enough. The issue with pets isn’t that they are poorly taken care of and thus require improved welfare; the problem with pets is that humans own them as property.

No matter how well one treats their pet, pets always retain their status as human property. A well-taken-care-of vehicle is just as much human property as a beloved pet is. The difference is that, unlike the car, a pet is a sentient being.

Gary Francione, an Animal Rights theorist and professor of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University, offers a radical assessment of pet-owning that goes beyond welfare from the perspective of sentience. ‘Sentience’ refers to the capacity to experience mental or physical sensations of pain and pleasure; scientific studies verify the sentience of pet animals. For example, pets are known to avoid walking on burning hot pavement in the summertime and strategically position themselves in front of sun-spotted floors to enjoy midday naps.

He affirms that humans possess fundamental rights because they are sentient beings. The right to not be property is among the most critical right a sentient being can have. Since pet animals have sentience, they must share the right not to be property with us.

As a sentient species, we have declared the enslavement of fellow human beings a violation of basic human rights. Like Francione, I believe we should also declare the enslavement of fellow sentient animals to be a violation of basic rights and, in response, ban the practice of pet-owning.

To rectify the property-based relationship that humans have with pets, the practice of pet-owning must come to an end. Francione believes individuals who currently own a pet should take good care of the animal until it dies. Like PETA, he explains that adoption centres and rescue facilities must only care for and re-home existing animals because we must stop bringing more domestic animals into existence. But, unlike PETA, Francione takes stronger issue with pet ownership as a whole because owning another sentient being violates its right.

Disrupting the status quo is not an easy task, especially during a global pandemic. But when it comes to the tradition of owning pets, we have a moral obligation to retire the leash that we have historically fastened on pets, each of whom are fellow sentient beings that share with us the right to be free from being owned by another sentient being.

Hannah Arsenault-Gallant is a Political and Legal Thought graduate student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she researches Animal Rights theory.