Pets aren’t people and we need to care for them appropriately

Vive la difference!

girl hugs beagle pets

News and views about pets are mainstream. The BBC website has lots of thought-provoking bits and pieces.

Recently, I’ve come across these joyful video clips of animal friendships:

A magpie and whippet in Yorkshire
A lop-eared rabbit and some lambs in Wales
A very shy little boy and a ram
Dogs, people and chimpanzees

We are certainly not the only social species of animal. (If a rabbit can get along with us, why not with some fellow grass-eaters?) And, although we tend to forget it, we too are animals. We just have a more complex forebrain than the nonhuman animals we share our homes with.

‘Every animal is perfect in its kind’

Our good ol’ brains are, in many ways, our privilege and our burden. William Youatt, a co-founder of the UK veterinary profession, put it well in 1839:

monkey inspects dogs ear“Every animal—the horse, the dog, the ox, the sheep, the wasp and the bee– is perfect in its kind; and there are certain faculties belonging to each of them which would laugh our boasted intellect to scorn.”

Fortunately, our typical nonhuman friends lack the brain circuitry needed to think or speak scornfully. Otherwise, their List Of Scorn could be long – and accurate. For example, our pets might laugh about how we don’t hear or smell when there’s a mouse in the house, and we can be so horrified when—finally…!—we see the evidence.

But, hey… no species can do all possible things. And, every species is different in some way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t survive. The same is true of the many basic similarities between species. So, no surprise that we are quite like the other animals we live with.

Like them, we get many of the same diseases and we can suffer hugely from things like breathlessness, pain, anxiety, fear and loneliness. Also like our pets, we can enjoy life intensely—if our circumstances line up with our individual pleasures and preferences. We can all remember useful stuff too—the memories give us some idea of what to do or to expect in the future.

japanese girl solving jigsaw puzzleDogs are not the same as little children

And yet…despite all these similarities, we are undeniably different from our pets. We are each our own unique selves, as are each of our animal companions. And, although some dogs can solve some of the same simple puzzles that young children can, we adults can solve those puzzles, too. Clearly, it does not make adults little kids or little kids, non-furry dogs. It is not correct that dogs are the same as little children.

In our human society, we are still learning to respect our immense diversity. Instead of imposing our preferences, we are starting to tailor our healthcare and social care to each user’s needs and values. Because everyone deserves respect, and when we are sick or in need, we are vulnerable.

That may not be a bad way to approach our pets’ treatment and care, too. These valued friends – family members  – also depend on us for everything. And, they cannot speak. So, they are always vulnerable. Sure they are adaptable. But they need us to respect them and care for them as they are—and not as our brains may sometimes pretend they are.

William Youatt sums it up:

“Each [animal] is perfect in the station in which he is placed […] he has a claim on our kindness and deserves not ill-usage.”

Over to you. We can’t offer personal guidance or support, but we’d like to hear from you on facebook and instagram.
• What’s the most unusual animal friendship you’ve come across? Do share a photo or a video clip.
• Since pets are family members, maybe we should treat them like children. What do you think?

Caroline Hewson


Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS
Caroline is a vet and has a PhD in animal behaviour. She writes and gives talks that translate research relevant to pets’ end of life into points to keep in mind. 


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