Although I love animals and am a self-diagnosed pet addict, I often feel a vague sense of discomfort—like the whole business of buying and keeping pets isn’t as fun for the animals as it is for me or for my child. I’ve spent a few years researching for a book on animals at the end of life, and so I’ve done a lot of reading about how animals die. And the more I learn, the more uncomfortable my pet addiction starts to feel.
According to the American Pet Products Association, 62% of U.S. households have at least one pet animal. In the U.S., during one year, we will have purchased or otherwise acquired an estimated 15 million birds, 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million freshwater fish, 14 million reptiles, and 16 million small animals.
What happens to all these animals?
Let’s look at dogs and cats, about which at least partial information is available. One survey found that about 3.4 million cats and 2.4 million dogs living in U.S. households died or were killed during one year. Of these, 1.34 million cats and 1.6 million dogs were euthanized because of old age or illness. Another 0.13 million cats and 0.21 million dogs were euthanized for other reasons, usually not specified by the survey respondent. No information was given about how the remaining 1.7 million cats and half a million dogs might have died—perhaps accident, illness, old age. Perhaps something more unpleasant.
What about the birds, fish, reptiles, and small animals? No one really has any idea how these animals die, and no one keeps track. There is no crime in buying a pet and killing it, as long as you don’t do it on purpose or with cruel intent. Millions of small critters that parents buy for their children suffer from profound neglect, languishing and dying in tiny bowls or cages: goldfish, hermit crabs, gerbils, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, and so on. I am known among the parents of my daughter’s friends and classmates as a total pushover, and I can’t tell you how many of these parents have tried to foist their unwanted rats, hamsters, and mice on us. “My son just isn’t that excited by it anymore,” they’ll say. Or, “he just doesn’t have time to clean the cage.” “Wouldn’t your daughter like to adopt it? I just would rather not have to take it to the shelter…” A friend of mine once put her children’s pet rats in the closet. It took the four children more than two weeks to ask where the rats had gone. Small mammals are incredibly resilient, and can survive high levels of neglect. But reptiles and amphibians such as snakes and geckos require a relatively controlled environment—heat lamps, daily humidifying, live food—and have very high mortality rates when taken in as pets.
Forgive me if I sound rather shrill. I am speaking here as a guilty party, and it makes me upset. I have brought a whole slew of pets into my house (we’re known in the neighborhood as “the farm” or “the zoo”). We did pretty well with rats, keeping them alive for the average pet-rat lifespan. But although I tried, I did not do so well by our hermit crabs, which never lived more than a couple of months. I killed (inadvertently) the salamander that we were babysitting for my daughter’s second grade class. I didn’t do well with the snake we adopted, though I researched snake care and spent way too much money on lamps and humidifiers and crickets other such. Lizzy the gecko we kept alive for about three years, which seems pretty good, except for the fact that the lifespan of a gecko is about 25 years.
And even when I did reasonably well with care and keeping, I never quite shook the feeling that every time I stepped into PetSmart (which I did A LOT), I was entering the animal version of Walmart, so that shopping was a guilty pleasure—with the emphasis on guilty. Here I was, supporting an entire industry that buys, breeds, and sells animals as nothing more than pieces of property. Within the pet industry, there is a great deal of what you might call collateral damage. Many animals die in pet stores, on the way to stores from breeders, and at breeders. At our local big box store, animals that get out of their cages in the store can no longer be sold (and guess what happens to them?). We have, of course, the die-offs that routinely occur in puppy mills and kitty mills, and also likely in rat, hamster, guinea pig, ferret, mouse, and gerbil mills.
A bustling pet industry goes hand in hand with a bustling shelter industry. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 6-8 million cats and dogs enter the shelters each year, and 3-4 million are euthanized. Take a moment to think about that. Every community needs a shelter, otherwise abandoned and unwanted pets can become a serious problem. There are at least 8700 large pet retail stores in the U.S., but only 3500 animal shelters. We need fewer pet stores or more shelters, one or the other.
Although many people who purchase and own pets are well-meaning and kind, the easy availability of animals also makes them vulnerable to abuse. We have the puppy whose mouth was taped shut and who suffocated to death; the hamster bludgeoned to death with a hammer by a young boy (his mother’s chosen punishment for neglecting his homework); the dog shot for soiling the carpet; the house full of a hundred cats abandoned and left to die of starvation. The animal advocacy website Pet-Abuse.com keeps a database on over 16,000 active criminal abuse cases. You can search the database by type of animal or by type of abuse (beating, bestiality, burning (caustic substances), burning (fireworks and fire), choking/strangulation/suffocation, drowning, fighting, hanging, hoarding, kicking/stomping, mutilation/torture, neglect/abandonment, other, poisoning, shooting, stabbing, theft, throwing, unclassified, unlawful trade, unlawful trapping, and vehicular).
Even knowing all these things about the pet industry, I still can’t imagine life without Maya (the dog) and Thor (the cat). And there are many ways in which I can “own” and love my pets, while trying to do so as ethically as possible and with as little collateral damage to animals themselves (subject for another day, another blog).