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Ethics and Morality

The Ethics of Canine Care

An interview with Craig Merow about our ethical responsibilities toward dogs.

Key points

  • Dogs play a significantly different role in society now than they did 75 years ago.
  • Moral and legal frameworks for protecting dogs have not changed to reflect the "new work of dogs."
  • We have made dogs increasingly vulnerable, and thus increasingly in need of our protection.
  • The legal designation of dogs as "custodial property" would be better than "personal property."

A fascinating new book called The Ethics of Canine Care: Relationships Generate Responsibilities, by Craig B. Merow, challenges each of us to think through our individual and collective moral responsibilities to dogs. Merow, a retired bioethicist, argues that although dogs have achieved a new social status in the United States over the past 75 years and are now mainly regarded as beloved members of human families, the moral and legal status of dogs remains largely unchanged. Laws regulating dog ownership and veterinary practice have not kept pace with evolving social attitudes. This disconnect harms dogs by failing to provide them with adequate moral and legal protections; it also leads to moral distress among dog owners and veterinary professionals. Merow argues that the moral and legal status of dogs has some catching up to do and he develops a detailed framework for how this new moral and legal status should look. “We need,” Merow says, “to accept the responsibilities of care that come with the creation of a class of vulnerable, dependent family and community members” (15).

I asked Dr. Merow to answer some questions about his book.

McFarland Press/Used with permission
McFarland Press/Used with permission

Jessica Pierce: Dogs have been selected (over time, through domestication and through breeding practices) for characteristics that make them vulnerable. What are some of these characteristics and why do they make dogs vulnerable?

Craig Merow: Dogs are artifacts. We deliberately breed them to have flat faces, thin coats (or no hair at all), elongated backs, and stubby legs. These physical characteristics make it impossible for them to survive on their own and make them prone to medical problems. We also selectively breed dogs to form strong, lifelong, emotional bonds with us. We do this by selecting for juvenile traits: friendliness, inquisitiveness, playfulness, and a trusting nature. While these traits help dogs get along in human families and communities, they also make them vulnerable to harm. We have created “perpetual puppies” who need perpetual care.

JP: You argue that the decision to acquire a dog establishes a strong set of moral obligations toward the animal; when we establish a relationship, we generate responsibilities. Some of these responsibilities may seem obvious to readers, such as the responsibility to provide appropriate food and shelter. What are some of the less obvious responsibilities?

CM: In addition to physical needs, dogs have social, emotional, and cognitive needs. Many dogs spend ten hours a day confined to an empty house while their owners are at work. Dogs are complex social beings who need regular interactions with people and other dogs. They benefit from training sessions and activities that stimulate their minds.

JP: You also suggest that humans have responsibilities not just to individual dogs they take on as pets, but to the broader community of dogs. Can you give one or two examples of these broader responsibilities toward dogs? And does this mean that even someone who doesn’t own a dog and perhaps doesn’t even like dogs still has moral obligations to dogs?

CM: Responsibilities for dog care are often—incorrectly, I argue—thought of as limited to dog owners. We need to recognize that we as a society have chosen to include dogs as members of our communities. They play with our children, visit hospital patients, accompany us on morning runs, and keep the elderly company. They are welcomed in many hotels and retail establishments. They have their own supply stores, groomers, walkers, and daycare centers. Multispecies communities have responsibilities to individual dogs, such as strays, and to canine collectives, such as breeds bred to have pathological traits, just as they have responsibilities to human orphans and the disabled.

JP: Can you briefly describe your proposed moral and legal framework for canine ethics?

CM: There are three legal categories of property in the United States: personal, real, and intellectual. Dogs are classified as personal property along with umbrellas, toothbrushes, and lawnmowers. I think this classification is an example of what philosophers call a "category error." My little roommate, Grendel, a long-coated Chihuahua, is as different from my umbrella (personal property) as my condo apartment (real property) and my book (intellectual property). Grendel is a sentient being who experiences emotions—fear, joy, anger—and whose life can go well or badly from his point of view. My umbrella has no interests, no emotions, and no point of view. The solution to this category error is the creation of a fourth category of property that recognizes the morally and legally salient characteristics of companion canines. I refer to my proposed category as “custodial property” to highlight the responsibilities of care that ownership entails. The establishment of this new category of property would focus attention on the interests of companion animals and the systematic development of a consistent and comprehensive package of protections—a custodial property framework. Our representatives in Washington should write and sponsor (and pass) appropriate legislation.

JP: Do only dogs qualify as custodial property or do other animals, such as cats and pigs and guinea pigs, qualify as well?

CM: I have defined “custodial property” to include animals who are (1) sentient, (2) typically owned by humans, and (3) intended to form an emotional bond with their owners. Companion animals—primarily cats and dogs qualify, while food animals and laboratory animals do not. While many animal rights advocates may want to classify other sentient animals as custodial property as well—pigs, cows, guinea pigs—any legislation that affects the legal status of animals raised for human consumption or used for medical research will be fiercely resisted by agricultural interests, the drug industry, and many voters. Raising the moral and legal status of companion animals, however, is politically feasible at this time; a broader initiative is not.

JP: How would an individual person’s decision to purchase a brachycephalic dog fare within your proposed framework?

CM: Not well! Our desire to have canine companions with flat faces like ours has resulted in breeds that have difficulty breathing and often must be delivered by C-section. The breeding of English bulldogs has been banned in Norway because of these heath concerns. Within the custodial property framework, the welfare of dogs would assume a high priority. Rather than breeding for fixed conformation standards from closed populations, dogs would be bred to be “fit for purpose.” Types of dogs, such as small companion dogs or athletic running partners, rather than “purebred” dogs, could be developed by selecting for temperament, health, and fitness for purpose. These types would be bred to be free of extreme pathological traits and to have far more genetic diversity. Such a practice would eliminate much suffering and considerably lower the average dog owner’s vet bills.

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