A dog and cat snuggling on grass.

How to care for your cats and dogs (ethically)

18 September 2017

Caring for pets can be a joy as well as a challenge. Veterinarian Dr Anne Fawcett shares her top five tips for ethical pet ownership during this episode of the University’s Open for Discussion podcast.

Australia has one of the highest household rates of pet ownership in the world, with the majority of owners considering their dogs and cats part of the family.

In this episode of the University of Sydney’s Open for Discussion podcast, veterinarian Dr Anne Fawcett joins host Dr Chris Neff for a robust interrogation of the ethics of pet ownership.

Anne considers pet ownership justifiable "if we make an effort to meet the animal’s needs and ensure that they benefit from the relationship."

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Dr Anne Fawcett
Producers: Rachel Fergus, Verity Leatherdale
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Dr Anne Fawcett
Anne Fawcett is a lecturer in the University's School of Veterinary Science as well as a companion animal practitioner in Sydney’s Inner West. She’s researched extensively on human and animal interaction and veterinary ethics, and recently co-authored the book Veterinary Ethics: Navigating Tough Cases

For animal owners, or those thinking about owning an animal, here are Anne’s top five suggestions to ensure we’re treating our cats, dogs and other pets ethically. 

1. Know what your pets need

As Anne says in the podcast, “If you’re thinking about owning a pet the key question you need to ask is: what are the welfare needs of this animal?

“If you can’t meet those needs, then that animal isn’t for you at this time.”

2. Consider life from your pets’ point of view

While some people may feel uncomfortable doing this, Anne says: “There’s nothing wrong with thinking about what your pet’s home, lifestyle and routine looks like – from their point of view.”

3. Don’t own a shark

“One of the problems with fish or animals kept in aquariums and terrariums is people think they are set and forget, that is, you put them in the tank and you don’t need to do much at all.

“Actually, you need to still engage with those animals… And it’s really hard for most people to meet their welfare needs.”

4. Be willing to change

“It’s never too late to change our behaviour in light of new evidence,” Anne says.

“You are living with a different species on this planet. We don’t fully understand everything that’s going on in their mind, but we can do our best – we can learn.”

5. Limit the environmental impact

A prolific blogger, Anne recently wrote about a US study that examined the (significant) environmental impact of pets and pet food.

Anne considered the author’s suggestions to reduce overfeeding and waste, and to develop pet foods based on alternative protein sources, helpful.


Listen to Dr Anne Fawcett in conversation with Dr Chris Neff on SoundCloud, subscribe on iTunes.

Join in the discussion on Twitter using @fawcettanne@ChristopherNeff and #USYDPod.

Meet our host Dr Chris Neff

Full transcript

(music plays)

Chris Neff: We call them man’s best friend. We let them sleep in our beds, eat out of our hands and regard them as part of the family. Australia has one of the highest household rates of pet ownership in the world at over 60 percent. In 2016, we spent over 12 billion dollars feeding and caring for them. What is our obsession with pets?

Joining me today on Open for Discussion is Dr Anne Fawcett from The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science. She’s researched extensively on human and animal interactions and veterinary ethics and is passionate about translating animal welfare science into real life recommendations.

Thank you so much for joining us Dr Anne Fawcett.

Dr Anne Fawcett: Thank you so much Chris.

Chris Neff: I’ve never interviewed Dr Doolittle before…

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs)

Chris Neff: … but it sounds like we’re pretty close.

Dr Anne Fawcett: I don’t know about that, I can’t talk to animals. I wish I could.

Chris Neff: Well we’ll see. By the end of the podcast you know… anything is possible.

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs)

Chris Neff: So Anne, can I ask, how did you come to this area of research?

Dr Anne Fawcett: So, before I did veterinary science I actually studied philosophy and I was really interested in an obscure area of philosophy which was 17th century metaphysics and ethics and I got to the end of that degree and realised when I went to the careers centre that actually (laughs) wasn’t a lot of work in that area and philosophy really is a tool that’s meant to be applied to other things. And one area that I’d loved all my life was this idea of working with animals so I thought I’ll see if I can get into vet science. Lo and behold I did and I studied to be a vet and loved it and have come full circle and now interested really in veterinary ethics.

The other thing that has interested me since the moment I was born is the question, what is a good life? And what is life about? And I really don’t think you can answer that question without looking at other life forms. So, I studied veterinary science, I became a vet and became really interested in veterinary ethics and human animal interactions. It’s fascinating.

Chris Neff: It is. What interests you about human animal interactions?

Dr Anne Fawcett: We’re all life forms on this planet and who knows what the purpose of that is but it seems to me that my worst nightmare would be living a monospecies existence. There’s so much to learn from these other beings and the way we interact with them is telling a lot about us as well.

Chris Neff: What do we know about how animals feel and think? From your research, what do we know about these other species we live with?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Actually, quite a lot. I think we were held back for many years when science really had this view that you couldn’t talk about animal emotions and animal thoughts and because we had no access, no direct access to their subjective experience, we couldn’t infer that they really had one but I think that’s been overturned now well and truly.

Animal welfare sciences established unequivocally that animals feel emotions, they can feel positive and negative emotions just like you or I can. Maybe they don’t think in the same kind of language that we do but certainly their behaviour indicates they can have good and bad welfare states. They have interests in achieving certain things and doing things in their lives just as we do. So, there’s a lot of similarities there.

Chris Neff: So Anne, I understand you have a new book.

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs) Yes... ahh.

Chris Neff: Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Dr Anne Fawcett: This book… it’s called Veterinary Ethics: Navigating Tough Cases and it was co-authored by a Dr Siobhan Mullan and myself. Dr Siobhan Mullan is from Bristol University and she’s a real pioneer here in the field of animal welfare, science, ethics and law and it was fantastic to be able to work with her. And we wrote a whole lot of scenarios based on very real-life cases and ethical dilemmas and then we put them to a whole range of experts from around the world. So, veterinary ethicists and even medical ethicists, we have laboratory animal scientists, all kinds of people looking at these dilemmas and showing the readers how they reason through them which we felt was an important resource because it’s really hard to suggest just blanket rules about dealing with some of these dilemmas. They’re so very different.

Chris Neff: Is there a top dilemma or are there a couple of dilemmas that you could share with us? And how they were dealt with?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Yeah, so, well… we went from some really big philosophical questions like whether animals are slaves or not. That’s a question that’s being asked and I guess by groups like PETA for example who are quite influential. Professor John Webster who’s the father of the Five Freedoms answer that dilemma. We also had Emmanuel Giuffre who was formerly from Voiceless, he was the legal counsel for Voiceless, answer the same dilemma. And so they both had very, very different views. John Webster argued that animals weren’t slaves at all and Emmanuel Giuffre argued that in fact they are and that we really need to be rethinking our relationship with animals, so I think that’s a really provocative and interesting question.

That’s a little more esoteric in a sense because your average vet who’s dealing with patients in practice is more likely to come up against dilemmas where particularly the interests of the animal owner or guardian are in conflict with the interests of the animal. So, an example of those dilemmas would be convenience euthanasia. Now in veterinary circles convenience euthanasia refers to euthanasia that’s performed – it’s really not euthanasia, it’s killing I guess – that’s performed for the convenience of the owner.

So, for example an owner is going away for six months overseas and can’t find anyone to look after the animal. It’s a three-year-old, healthy dog, let’s euthanase the animal, let’s kill the animal and therefore there is no issue and that’s something that’s faced by veterinarians reasonably regularly in practice and something that causes a whole lot of moral stress.

The advantage of our book I guess in dealing with these issues is that there is a recognised mental health problem in our profession. Vets are up to four times more likely to commit suicide than someone in the general population.

Chris Neff: God. Ok.

Dr Anne Fawcett: It’s really, really high and a part of the issue we think is this moral stress. Feeling conflicted about the right thing to do in certain situations.

Chris Neff: You mentioned that animals are really quite complex. So, talk to me about pet ownership. If we know that animals are so complex, how do we justify owning pets and keeping them in our home?

Dr Anne Fawcett: That’s a really good question and that’s one that a lot of people are looking at right now actually Chris. So, pet ownership still is a form of animal use but I think it’s really evolved. I think that it’s become a form of companionship and James Serpell who wrote the book In the Company of Animals, talks about mutualism so pet ownership is justifiable if it’s mutually beneficial. So, beneficial not just to the human who gets the companionship and all of the health benefits that are established around interacting with animals like lower blood pressure and fewer visits to the doctor. All of those things but also the animal gets something. They have their needs and wants and welfare requirements taken care of.

So, my personal view is I think that it is justifiable if we make an effort to meet the animal’s needs and ensure that they benefit from that relationship.

Chris Neff: But is it… I’m going to take the devil’s advocate position here. Is it mutual if the power dynamic isn’t mutual? If you can lock a dog in your house… I mean you tell them when to sit, you tell them when to heel, you tell them when to pee. I mean… isn’t there a power dynamic issue here that means that it’s not entirely mutual?

Dr Anne Fawcett: There’s absolutely a power dynamic issue but I guess that’s a theoretical question isn’t it because what would be the alternative? We live in a world that’s dominated by humans and one of the ways that animals can flourish is when they are taken into human care. These are animals that have been domesticated for years and years and years. There’s recent literature that shows that in fact cats probably kind of domesticated themselves alongside humans and so they may have had some choice in the matter. And I think that when it comes down to the day to day needs of animals, they are still better off when they’re in human care than when they’re not.

Chris Neff: Ok I’m going to push back again. You know… because we do this with orcas. We say well the orca was injured, we brought it into the marine park. It’s now been here too long, it’s being fed by humans so it can’t survive on its own in the wild. And so therefore that justifies us keeping it in captivity for the rest of its life. What’s the difference?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Yeah, well… I think first of all I want to talk about the similarities between say dogs and orcas and there’s many. They’re both really complex creatures. They are sentient beings. They have memories, they learn, they’re social animals. It’s much, much harder to meet the welfare needs of an orca than it is to meet the welfare needs of a domesticated animal like a dog for example.

The other issue for me is that with marine mammals, humans are actually much, much less adept at interacting with those animals in a way that can be satisfying to those animals than we are at interacting with dogs and cats and other domesticated species. So that would be a factor as well.

Chris Neff: You know… I understand and I want to certainly draw a distinction between pets and service animals because I have a completely different position, the devil’s advocate position is completely different with service animals. I don’t think that there’s any problem with people who have needs working with service animals.

Dr Anne Fawcett: That is interesting because that’s actually been raised in the ethical literature and some people who find it acceptable to look after an animal, argue that service animals are… it’s more of a slave use of animals which is really interesting. I don’t agree with that position but that’s certainly been raised in the ethical literature because the service animals are working all of the time, but yeah.

Chris Neff: Where I’m… I guess I just don’t think, I think that there’s…

Dr Anne Fawcett: Yeah…

Chris Neff: …a lot of grey in here and I think we’ve come across quite a bit of it…

Dr Anne Fawcett: There’s heaps (laughs).

Chris Neff: … just in our conversation. What about fish? Because I was doing… you know I study sharks and so I did a little Googling and I was like, what’s the top pet sharks? And one of the top pet sharks was actually a wobbegong and I wouldn’t have thought that that was a good shark to have because they can get quite big so if you’ve got a little tank in your house it’s going to out-grow it quite quickly. Any thoughts on wobbegongs or any thoughts on sharks as pets?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Well sharks as pets I think would probably be very unsuitable because I think that it’s really hard for most people to meet their welfare needs in terms of the size of the tank, the enrichment. We know from studies that fish are incredibly intelligent. That whole goldfish has a three second memory thing is a load of rubbish. It’s one of those urban myths that’s had its own life. What we know is that all kinds of fish learn socially, they can feel pain, they can learn to avoid pain, they have memory, they’re quite intelligent in ways that perhaps we haven’t allowed. And we need to still engage with those animals in ways that I don’t think people are so aware of.

So, I get a bit nervous when people talk about keeping wobbegongs or other animals that are a little more exotic as pets.

Chris Neff: Can I follow up on a point that you made about cats and how they might self-domesticate? Can you explain that a little bit more?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Yeah, it’s really interesting because we tend to think about the way dogs have been domesticated very much became part of human societies and used by humans and they were working and so on. And cats work too. They worked as rodent controllers but they did it on their own terms and so there’s some recent discussion about the fact that the way cats have been domesticated is almost beside humans rather than by humans. You know… they benefited from their proximity to us because our sedentary lifestyle, our storage of grain meant that there were all these rodents around human civilisation and therefore it was a really nice place to be next to and gradually they kind of moved into our lives when they weren’t necessarily asked to (laughs).

So, and I guess that’s reflected in the way that cats tend to live with people these days as well. They tend to do their own thing, to do things on their own terms. And certainly, when they’re frightened, which I see sometimes in the clinic, they revert to that wild behaviour very, very quickly and much more quickly than a dog would.

Chris Neff: Mm hm. There also seems to be a rising consumerism around pets. Huge pet warehouses that are selling toys and coats and special food. What do you think about what this says about our pets and about the rise in consumerism?

Dr Anne Fawcett: To my view, those kinds of expenses are senseless. They’re completely about making money, they don’t benefit the animals. But there are some things that I think are quite beneficial for example high quality foods. We know that premium diets, to a certain extent, can be very good for animals. We’re not seeing a lot of the issues with under nutrition that we were seeing.

However, we’re now seeing quite a lot of pet obesity so it’s about how we as humans engage with those things and use them. There’s a lot of marketing around pet products as well. You can get bling on your cat that’s designed to cover its anus so you don’t have to look at the cat’s anus. You can get diamante collars, you can get down… you know feather down bedding and things like that for animals which I think is problematic.

Chris Neff: It is. Especially if your pet has allergies. That was a joke.

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs) Sorry! I laughed silently.

Chris Neff: You did. Most people laugh silently…

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughing)

Chris Neff: … when I tell a joke.

Dr Anne Fawcett: I did…

Chris Neff: So… this is a difficult question. When is it ok to put an animal down?

Dr Anne Fawcett: That’s a question that I get asked a lot. As a clinician, I euthanase animals quite a bit. I’m in a fortunate position where I work in a practice where in that case, that euthanasia is really being done because I am preventing further suffering. So, I’m usually euthanasing an animal at the end of their life and many cases in Sydney’s inner west, animals are looked after really, really well and so that’s the end of quite a long, natural life in many cases. Occasionally it’s a tragic early ending, a young animal that may have been hit by a car and can’t be treated or a young animal that has a terribly rare cancer. Something like that.

The interesting thing and the difficult thing for vets and pet owners or pet parents or guardians or whatever you want to call them, is that there is no minimum standard, minimum quality of life below which you decide this is definitely a case where we need to euthanase the animal. It always boils down to the quality of life of that animal in their lifestyle and their household. You have to think about those things.

You may have an animal that could be treated but the owner is just not able to give the animal the treatments that they need and therefore the euthanasia would come a bit earlier than if there were another owner who were quite experienced and able to nurse the animal. So, all those factors have to be taken into account.

Chris Neff: So, what would you say to our listeners who want to figure out how to be a good pet owner? Like are there three things that we could say to them? Like you know… introduce your pet to your parents…

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs)

Chris Neff: ...or are there things that you would advise? Like we’ve got pet owners who are listening…

Dr Anne Fawcett: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … and if they wanted to up their game in three ways, what would you say?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Well there’s no mandatory standards about who should own a pet. There’s no license that you get that gives you qualifications or anything like that and to some extent one of the problems in our society is some people feel like pet ownership is a right. Really, it’s a privilege and if you’re thinking about owning an animal it really should be about what’s the most appropriate species for you to own, what’s the most appropriate breed, what’s your lifestyle like, what are you going to be able to give this animal? I think that’s the key question you need to ask. And if you can’t meet those needs, then that animal isn’t for you at this time. For example, it’s really common for me to see people who own reptiles and they don’t understand that they need UV light. That’s really, really important. If they don’t have that, they’re really going to suffer. So, it’s never too late to look up the animal welfare needs of an animal that you live with. I think that’s really important.

The other thing that I would do is reflect on what your animals’ life looks like from their point of view. Some people are really uncomfortable about doing this because they feel like it involves anthropomorphism and anthropomorphism isn’t scientific but actually it’s the best place…

Chris Neff: What, what is anthropomorphism?

Dr Anne Fawcett: Right, so it’s like assuming that an animal has thoughts and feelings just like us.

Chris Neff: Mmm hmm.

Dr Anne Fawcett: So, a bad version of anthropomorphism would be if your cat pees on your clothing and you say, oh my cat did that to spite me. Because maybe if your little brother did that, that’s exactly why they would do that but in fact that’s not the case. So, that would be a negative version of anthropomorphism.

I guess the third thing would be reflect, constantly reflect. You are living with a different species on this planet. We don’t fully understand everything that’s going on in their mind. We can’t possibly but we can do our best and we can learn. If we realise that perhaps we’ve been doing the wrong thing in terms of say animal training, then it’s not too late to pull back and change our behaviour.

So, I think if we can keep an open mind and reflect, change our behaviour in the light of new evidence and that might be because your pets behaved in a different way to you or it might be because you’ve read an article that looks at the science of the way cats behave, try to incorporate that into your behaviour.

Chris Neff: That’s great. We’ve sort of danced around but do you live with pets?

Dr Anne Fawcett: I do. I live… in fact they’re all former patients. So, like many vets I passively acquire animals through my work. So, I have one three-legged cat, one four-legged cat who’s very old, she’s got kidney disease but as a kitten she was found crossing Parramatta Road and brought into a vet clinic where I worked.

Chris Neff: Mmm.

Dr Anne Fawcett: I have a 14-ish-year-old little rescue dog called Phil and three buggies. Now I am really uneasy about those because they are caged birds but they were pet birds who were brought in so I’ve tried to provide the best environment I can but I wouldn’t choose to have caged birds, I wouldn’t purchase them.

And I have two guinea pigs. As well the guinea pigs weren’t necessarily my choice (laughs). I was working in a pet store many, many years ago and I had to euthanase some very unwell animals at that pet store and then I turned and I saw this quite sick guinea pig and I said well would you like me to treat this guinea pig? And they said oh no, it’s not worth the money. And I did the terrible thing and I actually paid them for the guinea pig and took it home. And then of course the guinea pig thrived and so I had to find him a friend and then there upon started the chain of guinea pigs because you shouldn’t have them on their own. So, you should always have a friend with a guinea pig so when he passed away his friend was still around so his friend needed a friend and so on. Do you have pets?

Chris Neff: I don’t have pets. I’m not renting a house that is favourable to pets…

Dr Anne Fawcett: Mm hm.

Chris Neff: … and I always worry about being home enough, like I see people who, you know… they leave events and they leave dinners and they go home early to do these things and it’s not that I wouldn’t want to.

Dr Anne Fawcett: It is a big responsibility though they tie you down in a sense but I’m quite happy to be tied down in that way.

(music plays)

Chris Neff: Well this has been if I might say, a very enriching experience…

Dr Anne Fawcett: (laughs)

Chris Neff: … for me and I’ve learned a lot. Thank you so much for joining us on Open for Discussion, Dr Anne Fawcett.

Dr Anne Fawcett: Thank you so much Chris.

Chris Neff: Thank you for joining us on Open for Discussion. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud and you can find me on Twitter @christopherneff.

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