Problems with domestication: Recognising the in-between existence of our non-human family members

When talking about the rights of non-human animals and striving to reject speciesism, it is impossible to ignore moral questions that exist around domestication and the institution of “pet ownership”.

Millions of non-human animals live a kind of in-between existence, not quite part of the human or natural worlds. They’re viewed as family but also property, the world to some and disposable to others, free to express natural behaviours as long as they fit human standards.

Is this ethical? Should we continue to seek out non-human animals as companions or strive to end domestication?

Let’s take a look.

What is “domestication”?

The term domestication, from the Latin domesticus, means “belonging to the house” and firmly positions non-human animals as property.

Melinda A Zeder, an American archaeologist and anthropologist, has carried out extensive research into the origins of plant and non-human animal domestication. She says that with so many conflicting approaches to conceptualising domestication, she would offer up the following definition:

“Domestication is a sustained multigenerational, mutualistic relationship in which one organism assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another organism in order to secure a more predictable supply of a resource of interest, and through which the partner organism gains advantage over individuals that remain outside this relationship, thereby benefitting and often increasing the fitness of both the domesticator and the target domesticate.”

Many people use this argument – that both the domesticator and the domesticate benefit from the relationship – to reason that keeping non-human animals as pets is morally acceptable.

But is it this clear cut?


People tend to see domestication as a benign process (the “mutualistic relationship” in the definition above) that evolved to benefit humans and other animals alike.

But in his book, Animal Oppression and Human Violence, sociologist David Nibert explores how domestication has always been mired in violence, facilitating the oppression of non-human animals and violence between humans. In fact, Nibert rebrands domestication as “domesecration” because it has been so damaging.

Nibert reasons that it’s through the domesecration of non-human animals that humans have been able to expand their territories (e.g. using horses for transport and military power or keeping herds of cows as a constant food source for travelling armies) but also it’s because of domesecration that humans are constantly seeking more land for grazing and water.

Driven by the need for resources, groups of humans set out – usually violently – to colonise lands, displacing and killing indigenous populations and other animals in the process.

And so oppression and domestication became inextricably linked, remaining so today.

Mass-produced commodities

Domesticated animals continue to be used and “mass-produced” to meet human demand. Every facet of pet ownership represents opportunities for big business. And, while rescue centres and sanctuaries are bursting at the seams with unwanted animal companions, the breeding programmes continue, often with little to no regulation.

Puppy farms, for example, reflect this conveyor-belt production of animals as commodities. Female dogs are forced to have litter after litter until they can’t carry any more. Once their breeding days are over, they’re often killed or abandoned.

And it’s not just dogs who suffer this fate. Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, budgies, cats and many other domesticated species are often bred and raised in dire, overcrowded conditions, frequently facing extensive physical and emotional difficulties as a result.

It’s hard to see how the non-human animal benefits in any way from this.

Some people would argue that it’s unfair to compare “responsible breeders” with backstreet breeders out to make a quick buck. But do responsible breeders really exist? Can any form of breeding be responsible when it directly robs those already in shelters of potential homes or even their lives?

Using dogs in the US as an example, 34% of those who end up in shelters every year come from “responsible breeders” and 20% of all shelter dogs are euthanised (nearly 700,000 dogs a year). Where a domesticated animal is born clearly isn’t a guarantee of future happiness.

Their lives in our hands

We only have to look from one home to the next in any country in the world to see that the value of any domesticated animal is decided by the person recognised as their “owner”.

In some homes, non-human animals are viewed and treated like family members, as much as possible. In other homes, an animal of the same species might be viewed and treated as little more than a piece of furniture.

The status of a domesticated animal can change at any time. All too often, people fall on hard times or their personal circumstances change (perhaps a new job or the arrival of a new baby) and suddenly the “pet” who meant everything needs a new home.

In the eyes of the law, your animal companions are your property to do with as you will. As long as you meet the basic needs of food, water and shelter, almost any other decision you make on behalf of a “pet” is at your discretion, apart from inflicting “unnecessary suffering” (although the law doesn’t define at what point suffering becomes unnecessary).

If you decide to see your animal companion as having a high value, the law would support this. Equally, it would support you viewing a pet as having little value.

Sadly, even humans who describe themselves as “animal lovers” may view their animal companions as commodities when push comes to shove. This particularly seems to apply to smaller, so-called “exotic pets” like guinea pigs or hamsters when people will not seek veterinary treatment because it would be “cheaper to just get a new one”.

If one party in a relationship has a price tag attached to them, there will always be an imbalance that leaves that party vulnerable to the other.

They rely on humans for everything

Even in the most progressive and considerate of families, there’s no denying that non-human animals have little autonomy.

We humans decide where they will live, when and where they can sleep, when and what they can eat, how easy it is to access water, who their companions will be, if and who they can mate with (or even if they get to keep their sex organs), when they can exercise, when and where they can toilet, how they can spend their time and so much more.

They rely on us for everything.

Some people find peace with this by comparing our non-human family members to children (perhaps the reason why the term “fur baby” is so prevalent now?). After all, we decide all of these things for our young children and we would never question that it is right to do so.

The difference is that children eventually mature to take agency over their own lives. And, on the path to doing so, they are given increasing opportunities to express their wants and needs.

This is rarely possible for domesticated non-human animals.

The in-between existence of domesticated animals

As Professor of Law and Philosophy and animal rights activist, Gary L Francione highlights, “Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the non-human world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything and at risk of harm from an environment that they do not really understand”.

Worse yet, humans have bred characteristics into many non-human animals that are actively harmful to them, even though we find them pleasing in some way.

Consider, for example, brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs or cats. Many humans are drawn to brachycephalic breeds’ faces because of something called the “baby schema effect” – this is increased attention to and willingness to care for beings who have facial features that resemble a human infant, i.e. a large head and round face, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and a small nose and mouth.

Dogs and cats have been successively bred to exhibit these features, despite the fact that they cause life-long health problems, including skin conditions, eye injuries, reproductive problems, breathing difficulties, heart disease and much more.

This article by Caen Elegans highlights how 100 years of so-called “breed improvement” has inflicted devastating changes to certain dog breeds. In January 2022, Norway announced that it is banning the breeding of British Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels because of the multitude of health problems these dogs now experience.

It is clear that none of these changes orchestrated through selective breeding has benefitted our animal companions in any way.

It’s not just in their physical appearance that we humans seek to anthropomorphise domesticated animals.

We expect dogs, for example, to exhibit a happy-go-lucky love of anyone and everyone, welcoming strangers with a loose tail wag, despite centuries of genetic selection honed towards herding, guarding or hunting.

We talk about cats thinking they’re better than everyone else or label horses as stubborn when they refuse to jump.

There are thousands of YouTube videos where “guilty pets” stand beside a sign (or wear it around their necks) stating their crimes and misdemeanours as if the individual made a moral choice to misbehave.

If a dog uses their voice and barks at the wrong person, it can be enough to fall foul of the Dangerous Dogs Act. If a cat scratches a sofa, they can end up being declawed or rehomed for destructive behaviour.

And so it is that the more we believe other animals should fit seamlessly into our families, the more they are asked to suppress their instincts or held up to impossible standards of behaviour dictated by humans.

The future of domestication

There is clearly a huge moral dilemma attached to the institution of “pet ownership”.

More than ever before, we have proof that non-human animals have rich and complex emotional lives. We see our animal companions as family members (in a 2018 survey, almost a third of people said they love the cat or dog in their family more than they love their human partner), acknowledging them as “someone” with a unique personality rather than “something”.

But recognising this also means recognising that it’s morally wrong to rob a sentient being of their autonomy.

At the same time, while we can see why domestication of non-human animals should never have happened, it has and millions of animals now exist who would surely suffer and perish without human intervention.

We have a responsibility to provide each of those beings with as much agency as possible over their own lives within a safe and caring environment. The question is, how can we do this without perpetuating domestication?

That’s not an easy question to answer.

Many people who are passionate about animal freedom share their homes with animal companions.

In an article, Pets: The Inherent Problems of Domestication, Gary L Francione admits that he and his partner lived with five rescue dogs at the time of writing it “and try very hard to provide them with the best of care and treatment”.

He says “we both encourage anyone who can to adopt or foster as many animals (of whatever species) they can responsibly have”.

However, he also states, “But if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end”.

Ultimately, animal freedom is only possible if we stop breeding other animals for human use, whether for food, clothing, entertainment or companionship. There are too many domesticated animals in desperate need of homes to consider bringing more into the world.

If we do choose to share our lives with other animals, we have a moral duty to provide a safe and compassionate environment where they have as much autonomy and opportunity to express their natural behaviours as possible.

We need to constantly look for ways to do better as guardians to animal companions. While we might not share a spoken language, our animal kin are constantly communicating. It’s our job to pay attention and respond to what they’re saying.

In this way, we can help to ensure that the non-human animals who occupy the in-between world of domestication can live rich and content lives until, in more enlightened times, domestication one day ends.


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