Companion Animal Ethics: a neglected field of bioethics


  • Chrysanthi Sardeli MD, PhD, Associate Professor - Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology, School of Medicine, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece - Laboratory for the Study of Medical Law and Bioethics, Faculty of Law, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece - Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, European Commission
  • Ioannis Savvas DVM, PhD, Professor - Companion Animal Clinic, School of Veterinary Medicine, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece - Research Ethics & Deontology Committee, University of Ioannina, Greece


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Ethics is defined as the set of moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour and actions. A human’s or a group of humans’ moral code is culturally defined, and may depend on religion, politics, or nationality (Croney & Millman 2007). However, cultural differences aside, one may argue that certain universally accepted values exist, with most humans being strongly against hurting or mistreating other humans, especially children. Likewise, universally accepted values also exist in relationship to animals, with most humans displaying strong empathy towards animals, especially with those species, to which they are culturally and emotionally attached (Merz-Perez et al. 2001). Most people would agree that any animal kept by humans, must at least, be protected from unnecessary suffering and that one should not hurt animals for trivial reasons. This corresponds to treating animals one owns well, so they can better serve their owners (utilitarian principles); treating them well because the owner has been given responsibility for them (“parent” principle); or treating animals well because animals have a value of their own (intrinsic value) and therefore have certain rights (right based principle) (Farstad 2018).

Companion animals as moral beings

Companion animals (pets), in contrast to laboratory and farm animals, have not been paid the same degree of attention as moral beings, nor consideration of how to recognize and address key ethical issues relating to the way humans treat them (Yeates & Savulescu 2017). Pets differ as moral beings from laboratory and farm animals, the latter usually bred and kept for the advancement of knowledge or for profit, respectively. Pet owners form relationships with their pets that are distinctly different from those the same people would form with laboratory or farm animals. In an ideal society, companion animals would be kept to bond with humans, to offer and receive love, companionship and loyalty and to enrich one’s life.

Despite these facts, humans frequently do not uphold their part of the bargain, to protect and cherish their pets. Companion animals are mostly intentionally bred; can be bought or sold; used (and often abused) during training; neglected or overprotected; attributed “human” status and roles; they can be used as workers and kept alive or killed at their owners will or whim. Furthermore, pets are employed in some special and therapeutic activities known by the generic term of “Pet Therapy”, due to their positive effects on human health and quality of life (Friedman et al. 1995, McNicholas & Murray 2005, Verga & Michelazzi 2009). At the same time, they share their owners’ homes and lives, as if they were regular members of a “human” family. Consequently, human actions frequently cause or prevent companion animals from experiencing pain or pleasure; frustrate or satisfy their desires; restrict their freedom or provide opportunities and end or extend their lives. Pets are totally dependent on humans for their survival and well-being and need humans to care for them daily (Stephens & Hill 1996).

This editorial aims to generate attention about the neglected field of companion animal ethics, which is a field overlapping significantly with those of animal ethics, family ethics and healthcare ethics (where veterinary issues are concerned), though not simply a subsection of any one of those fields (Yeates & Savulescu 2017). There are important questions about how humans treat and care for their pets and specific elements of the human-companion animal relationship (such as mutual companionship, family “membership”, proximity, direct contact, privacy, dependence, and partiality) that are unique, frequently giving rise to significant ethical issues. These questions concern animal welfare and are at least partly “ought to” questions, questions of ethical obligation concerning the environment pets live in, as well as their management and supervision by humans. What one refers to when discussing an animal’s welfare -and good animal welfare implies both physical fitness and a sense of well-being- is basically what do humans owe the animal, and to what extent these obligations are fulfilled.

Companion animal welfare and wellbeing

Animal welfare is closely associated with animal breeding. Humans must take ethical dimensions into account when they define breeding goals based on a balance between human demands and the animals’ requirements and needs. Strategic breeding can have a negative effect on animal welfare. Sandøe et al. (2016) have divided these negative effects into three groups: breeding of extreme phenotypes which in themselves cause health and welfare problems; increased prevalence of diseases caused by a lack of genetic diversity; and increased prevalence of behavioural problems. Pets are particularly affected, since they are frequently born by means of deliberate animal breeding (i.e., the deliberate sexual reproduction of animals) and, more often than not, through strategic breeding (i.e., the activity of keeping and caring for animals in order to produce more animals of a particular kind or with particular attributes). Subsequently, a question arises: is deliberate production of animal offspring ethical? Animal breeding, in order to be deemed ethical, needs to involve “the use of healthy animals true to their species in behaviour and looks, and when applicable, showing a sustainable performance” (Olsson et al. 2006), a statement especially true in the case of companion animals.

Any domestication effort affects animal behaviour, in ways that differ among the different species. Adaptation to human environments occurs to varying degrees. Behavioural problems often occur, which can be divided into adaptive behaviours that are inopportune for the owner; behaviours that are the results of an animal’s coping attempt to a non-optimal environment; and non-adaptive behaviours (e.g., compulsive disorders) (Mason 1991).

Pets, unlike the children, they are companions or (more and more frequently) substitutes for (Greenebaum 2004), never “grow up” or become “adults”, able to care for themselves the same way “normal” human children are expected to when becoming adults. Moreover, companion animals never achieve the expected level of independence or develop the same survival capabilities they would, if allowed to breed and survive freely in a more “natural” habitat. Neither can they perform or communicate as humans do, although during the domestication process of dogs, humans have selected some social-cognitive skills that enable dogs to communicate with their owners in a preferential way (Hare et al. 2002). High or unrealistic expectations from the owners can cause great distress to their pets, resulting in negative effects on their welfare.

Companion animals benefit from interaction with humans themselves, not only for food and basic needs (as other captive animals do), but because they too form emotional bonds with their owners. For example, lack of human (or other) company for dogs can lead to signs of stress (Hubrecht 1993, Bradshaw et al. 2002, Fallani et al. 2007, Yeates 2012), with “hyper-attached” dogs appearing especially stressed when separated from their usual caretakers (King et al. 2000). Indeed, socializing with humans and other dogs may be separate motivations (Rooney et al. 2000, Odendaal & Meintjes 2003), and the former may be more important (Rooney & Bradshaw 2002). However, “human” rather than “animal” welfare is what often takes precedence, and many pets end up neglected or homeless (Olson & Moulton 1993). Abandoned pets often suffer from cold, hunger, and disease. They are also susceptible to multiple attacks by humans or other animals, if they end up homeless or if they are “freer” to roam than indicated for the animal or the species.

Some abandoned companion animals, mostly dogs, end up in rescue shelters. Animals housed in rescue shelters or in other non-optimal conditions frequently suffer from a reduced level of welfare and are susceptible to stereotypical or compulsive behaviours due to confinement, frustration and lack of socialization (Verga & Michelazzi 2009). Rescue shelter dogs frequently suffer from disease, dietary changes and/or malnourishment, novelty of the environment and changes in routine, kennel size, temperature changes, noises and odours, experiences that can have a negative impact (Coppola et al. 2006). Social isolation, lack of exercise and limited environmental stimulation may impair the welfare of shelter dogs and promote behavioural problems (Hetts et al. 1992, Wells 2004).

Preventing companion animals from reproducing freely is part of responsible pet ownership, and the permanent surgical removal of reproductive organs remains a vital component of pet population control. Gonadectomy is the most common surgical procedure performed on pets and reduces undesirable mating behaviours. Preventing companion animals from breeding has both positive and negative impacts on companion animal welfare for various reasons, including potential effects on neoplasia, orthopaedic disease, reproductive disease, behaviour, longevity, and population management as well as the risks of anaesthetic and surgical complications. However, many factors other than neuter status play an important role in these outcomes, including breed, sex, genetics, lifestyle, and body condition. Potential consequences for an individual animal must also be weighed with the necessity of managing pet overpopulation (Houlihan 2017).

Apart from the suitability of particular species as pets, pet breeding, pet domestication and breeding prevention, issues such as pet trade (a billion dollar industry by most calculations), tail-docking, pet hunting, pet food, rehoming and adopting previously owned animals, euthanasia, pet disease control and the use of living or dead pets in teaching or research, frequently raise ethical questions (Morton 1992, Burgess-Jackson 1997, Boonin 2003, Jessup 2004, Palmer 2012, Palmer et al. 2012, Moutou & Pastoret 2010, Hess et al. 2011, Passantino et al. 2010, Tiplady et al. 2011, Yeates 2010a, Yeates 2010b, Yeates 2016, Yeates et al. 2013, Sandøe et al. 2016).

The role of the veterinarian

Veterinarians are often faced with the issues discussed above, since their moral obligations are divided between the animals they treat, their owners, their peers and the profession, society in general, themselves, and their employers - if they are not self-employed. Ethically charged situations present themselves where any or all or various combinations of these obligations occur and must be weighed against one another.

Companion animal rights -rights collectively known as the five welfare freedoms, that is the right to live in a suitable environment, to have a suitable diet, to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease- often end up violated in various ways and the veterinarians are frequently the first and only line of protection for these animals. Vets need to be aware of companion animal rights and be educated about companion animal ethics, as it is among their professional duties to instruct owners about these rights and safeguard their pet patients’ health and wellbeing. Besides that, veterinarians should be able to consider and discuss concepts relating to human-animal relationships, where important issues include what does “consent” mean in veterinary practice; should veterinary doctors be afforded professional autonomy, what powers might owners exercise over their animals; is ownership the best relationship for both parties; who is qualified to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of pets?, etc. Similarly, vets should be aware of differences between humans and pets within the context of a family of human and nonhuman members. One should be familiar with comparative ethics - considering how differently humans treat different companion versus non-companion animals (which do not always fit across species divides: rabbits may be pets, wild pests, zoo exhibits, research animals or food), and between humans and animals. Such awareness helps to provide bridging concepts between “human-centered” and animal ethics or help to isolate ethical concepts through thought experiments comparing pets and other animals or family-members (Yeates & Savulescu 2017).

All these ethical issues (i.e., companion animals as moral beings with specific rights, the special relationship of companion animals with their human owners, the dynamics of mixed human-nonhuman families and the differences between pets, research and farm animals) constitute the field of companion animal ethics. This field covers topics that require a tailored ethical approach, different than the ones applied to current mainstream fields of bioethics. There is more to companion animal ethics than preventing uncontrollable breeding or allowing pets to run around somewhat free and avoiding straightforward animal cruelty - however people need to be educated about what “more” is about, including not euthanizing pets for trivial reasons, failing to understand and provide for their pets’ needs and stop proliferating genetic disease due to the desire of owning pets with specific aesthetic traits. Educating owners or potential owners regarding the rights, needs and welfare of their pets or prospective pets can be a source of extra income and professional joy and recognition for any veterinarian doctor willing to invest time and effort in this activity.


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How to Cite

Sardeli, C. and Savvas, I. (2020) “Companion Animal Ethics: a neglected field of bioethics”, Hellenic Journal of Companion Animal Medicine, 9(2), pp. 149–156. Available at: (Accessed: 27November2022).




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