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Are our pets actually miserable?

A woman plays with her dog at sunset. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
A woman plays with her dog at sunset. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on May 2, 2024. Click here for that audio.

For pet owners, their dog or cat (or fish, or gecko, or bird) is a major source of joy. But is the relationship reciprocal? Are our pets as happy as they make us?

Some research suggests they might not be. The question was the focus of a recent piece by Vox staff writer Kenny Torella called “The case against pet ownership: Why we should aim for a world with fewer but happier pets.” Torella says he wrote the piece because he wanted to get inside the mind of his own dog Evvie.

“I work from home so I’m able to give her a lot of walks and playtime,” he said. “And yet, I always wondered, is Evvie just bored and frustrated all day from being cooped up inside?”

Torella wanted to understand Evvie better and to hold himself accountable for learning more about dog psychology and positive dog training. Evvie is one of the 250 million animals that live in American households.

Kenny Torella’s dog Evvie. (Courtesy of Kenny Torella)

Author, animal ethicist and pet owner Jessica Pierce — who Torella interviewed for his piece —has thought a lot about what it means to have a pet. And unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for these animals.

6 questions about pets’ happiness, answered by animal ethicist Jessica Pierce

Are our pets actually miserable? 

“It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but yes, I think our pets are actually not that happy being our pets. We tend to think of all animals who live in our homes as really pampered and well-protected, and we love them. So obviously they must be happy. But as a matter of fact, animals who live in our homes as pets are, I think, one of the most miserable populations of animals on the planet. I think that’s a really hard thing for people who live with animals to hear because we love our pets. But we put them into human environments that are really challenging for them in many ways.

“I think in the case of dogs, we do our best, but often, it’s really not enough. We tend to look at their world and their experiences from our perspective. And what I try to encourage people to do is to step into the paws or claws of the animals themselves and say, ‘What does the world look like from their perspective?’

“We might think it’s a great gift that we just feed dogs kibble twice a day. They don’t have to do any work. It’s just there for them. But meaningful work is really important for animals. Animals need to have a purpose in life. It’s what they have evolved to do. Food gathering and foraging is one of the most basic patterns of behavior that animals have evolved. If an animal doesn’t have the opportunity to engage in those behaviors, they end up feeling out of control, frustrated, bored, and maybe acting out.”

What data do we have to show pets are miserable?

“A couple of studies have really stood out to me. One is a large-scale study that was published in 2020, which really shocked me. It was a Finnish study and it was published in Nature and Scientific Reports. They looked at the medical records of almost 14,000 dogs. And they found that 75% of all dogs suffer from some anxiety-related problem.

“I think that’s really just kind of the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other ways you might triangulate the problem of stress in dogs is by looking at the literature on dog behavioral problems, which can be a manifestation of a dog who’s struggling to adapt to his or her environment. There’s a lot of stuff coming out in the veterinary literature about noise, sensitivities, separation anxiety. There was a study out of Japan that found that 86 percent, so I mean, pretty close to almost all, dog owners reported that their dog had behavioral problems. That’s a lot of dog behavioral problems. And it’s not a canine crime wave. It’s dogs struggling to adapt to the stressors that impose on them not knowingly, I think.”

But haven’t pets and humans evolved to be together?

“I think dogs and cats and other domesticated social mammals can live happily with humans and in human environments. But what’s different now? The way that I’ve talked about it in my work is that dogs are more intensively captive than they used to be.

“Some of that is related to regulations like it’s illegal for a dog to be off leash unless they’re in a designated off-leash dog area. So they no longer have the freedom to simply roam around, which is something that dogs behaviorally are really motivated to do. Incidentally, about 80% of the dogs on the planet live on their own and not as pets. Their lives are quite different [than dogs that live inside homes]. And [through research on those free-roaming dogs] we can get some ideas about what might be stressing our pet dogs by looking at how dogs live who have more freedom.”

You have a dog named Bella, and you say she might be your last dog. Why?

“It’s not that I necessarily think it’s wrong for people to live with dogs. I don’t. I think the dog-human relationship is beautiful. It’s powerful. There’s nothing else like it. But for me, the responsibility of giving Bella a decent life under the constraints that we’re in is a lot of responsibility. And I’m tired.

“I feel guilty if I go on a trip. I feel guilty that I’m not giving her enough enrichment from morning to night. And it’s just a lot of pressure. Because their entire life, their entire happiness is in our hands. And that’s a pity, if you think about it. That’s a pretty heavy moral responsibility.”

How can pet owners better support their pets?

“The most important thing we can do is give them a greater sense of control over their own lives and their own environment. There are a million ways to do that. And you can get really creative.

“When I take Bella out for walks, it’s about her. It’s for her. And I probably look funny to other people, but I let her choose the pace. I let her choose the direction. If she wants to go into the middle of a muddy field in order to sniff something, I will go there with her and I just give her the time to. And I just try to let her be a dog. And sometimes that means if she wants to roll in the grass or in the field, then sometimes I don’t know what she’s rolling in.

“I let her do it because she doesn’t have that much excitement in her life. So when she can find these small moments of joy, I embrace them for her. But let your dog be a dog. Figure out what that means and then let them do it.”

Are there any animals more people should consider as pets?

“One of my favorite pets (and I know it might make members of your audience go, ‘ew’) is the rat. They are wonderful.

“They’re not inclined to bite like hamsters and gerbils. They actually enjoy the interaction. They’re very smart. They’re trainable. I really think you can give them interesting lives. And in return, they are wonderful friends.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Healy also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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