Straining the Bond: Ethics and Companion Animals
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Bernard E. Rollin, PhD
University Distinguished Professor, Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Animal Sciences, University Bioethicist, Colorado State University, Department of Philosophy
Fort Collins, CO, USA


Whether or not religion plays a significant role in one's life, no educated person can deny that the Bible serves as a template for many of the concepts that undergird western civilization. And human relationships with animals are no exception. In the Noah story, wherein Noah rescues breeding pairs of animals from the Deluge, one finds metaphorically articulated the notion that the lives of all animals rest in human hands. Correlatively, it was widely believed in ancient times that he who saves the life of another bears responsibility for that life as long as both live. Thus, from the Noah story, one can deduce the human obligation to care for the animals, to preserve them, and to prevent their annihilation, even as God promises to preserve humans from a recurrence of natural disaster. God preserves men; man preserves animals. As David Hartley remarks in the eighteenth century, articulating this moral:

We seem to be in the place of God to [animals] and empowered by Him to receive homage in His name. And we are obliged by the same tenure to be their guardians and benefactorsa.

The Noah story focuses on the human obligation to all animals, "wild" and domestic. But elsewhere in the Bible, domestic animals are singled out as the beneficiaries of special human attention. In particular, cattle, sheep, asses, goats and other farm animals are awarded pride of place in terms of human concern. In skeletal form, the Bible articulates the concept of animal husbandry, which historically becomes the ethical/prudential template governing the agricultural use of animals by humans. We are to avoid cruelty, hurting or harming animals for no purpose, what the rabbis called, "tsaar baalei chayem", the suffering of living things, or depriving them of sustenance, or care, or protection. Humans are under a positive obligation to care for domestic animals; to place them into optimal environments that suit their biological needs and natures, to protect them from predation; to provide medical attention and help in birthing; to shelter them. In turn, they provide us with their toil, their products such as milk and wool, and sometimes their lives. But while they live, they live well. Without human care, the life of defenseless farm animals would be, in Hobbes' unforgettable phrase, "nasty, miserable, brutish and short."

This ancient, symbiotic contract with domestic animals becomes the basis for the traditional theory and practice of animal husbandry, the word being derived from the Old Norse phrase "hus/bond," bonded to the household. Indeed, so powerful and appropriate is the contractual relationship between humans and domestic animals, that when the Psalmist searches for a metaphor for God's ideal relationship to humans, he chooses the shepherd. In the hauntingly beautiful, too familiar words of the 23rd Psalm (I say too familiar because we sometimes forget to attend to what it tells us about our obligations to animals):

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he leadeth me to green pastures; he maketh me to lie down beside still waters; he restoreth my soul.

We, as human beings, want no more from God than what the good shepherd provides to his flock; a metaphor that repeatedly arises in both the Old and New Testaments. Thus both our power over animals and our mutual interdependence creates a strong moral and prudential bond that would appear unbreakable to all but the sadists and psychopaths to whom neither self-interest nor moral obligation is of concern, and for whom the anti-cruelty laws and ethic are intended.

Yet despite the omnipresence and seminal symbolic significance of husbandry, it has shown itself vulnerable to the relentless march of modernism and technology. In the mid-twentieth century the bond created by the ancient contract with farm animals was severed. Industrial approaches to agriculture were developed to assure increased production, and the values of efficiency and productivity supplanted the values of husbandry and the way of life. Whereas husbandry was about putting square pegs in square holes, round pegs in round holes, and creating as little friction as possible, technological "sanders" such as antibiotics, vaccines, and air-handling systems allowed us to force square pegs into round holes profitably, with huge costs to animal welfare. Animal productivity was severed from animal welfare; the ancient bond was broken.

What was a symbiotic contract was transformed into patent exploitation. In industrialized confinement agriculture, animals no longer could express their biological or psychological natures.

Absent an environment that suits animals' biological natures, new diseases, either non-existent or unimportant under husbandry--"production diseases," i.e., diseases that are caused by how we raise the animals--liver abscesses in feedlot cattle caused by low roughage diet; environmental mastitis in dairy cattle; shipping fever--plague animals raised under confinement conditions.

The attention paid to individual animals has vanished under the replacement of labor by capital, and with the tiny profit margin per animal.

Finally, workers who know, understand, and care about animals, who are, in the words of one of my agriculturalist friends, "animal-smart," have been replaced by under-paid, minimum-wage, inexperienced workers with no real feeling for animals.


Though our bond with agricultural animals is both ancient and historically powerful, in a way it contained within itself the possibility of its own destruction. That is, it is essentially based in pragmatism and mutual benefit. Ultimately we keep these animals for practical purposes; food, fiber, locomotion and power. As long as there was no practical way to override our ancient contract with these animals, the relationship was stable. On the other hand, as soon as it was practically possible to break this contract, and increase their use value for us, we did so with surprising ease; surprising, given the millennia of husbandry ethics.

The glue holding the bond together between agricultural animals and humans, then, could not withstand the rise of technological short cuts that enabled us to extract more productivity and profit from animals. Greed overwhelmed our commitment to animal well-being and since there were no sanctions save moral ones, we broke our promise to the animals.

If one chooses to talk in terms of a social contract beyond agriculture, it is difficult to find a more clear example of this sort of "contract" than that of man's relationship to the dog. Let us elaborate upon this claim. One may choose to see the human relationship to the dog as involving something like a social contract, in which the animals gave up their free, wild, pack nature to live in human society in return for care, leadership, and food, which people "agreed" to provide in return for the dog's role as a sentinel, guardian, hunting companion, and friend. It is clear that the dog has played a unique and important role in the development of humans, having been with us since the birth of humanity. (Recent evidence in China indicates that tame wolves were associated with Peking Man society about five hundred thousand years ago.) The dog evidences in countless ways its fulfillment of the contract with humans. The dog has been, and still is, a guardian of the home, a warrior and messenger, a sentry, a playmate for and protector of children, a guardian of sheep and cattle, a beast of burden, a rescuer of lost people, a puller of carts and sleds, a friend, a hunter, a companion, a constant assistant to the deaf and blind and other handicapped persons, an exercise mate. And humans have shaped the dog into all sorts of physical and personality forms that are literally incapable of survival outside of human society. (Consider the bulldog, or the Chihuahua.) According to some ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz, humans have actually developed the dog into a creature whose natural pack structure has been integrated into human society, with the human master playing the traditional role of pack leader. It is hard to imagine a more vivid and pervasive example of a social contract, an agreement in nature and action, than that obtaining between humans and dogs. (Similar arguments hold, though not as neatly, for other pet animals, mutatis mutandis.)

The dog in its current form is essentially dependent upon humans for its physical existence, behavioral needs, and for fulfillment of its social nature. Man, in turn, is dependent on the dog and on other pets in the ways described above and more, some only recently discovered or rediscovered and that are quite remarkable. This has long been recognized in many cultures. One of the most eloquent statements of this awareness may be found in ancient Eskimo practice. These Eskimos would lay the head of a deceased dog in a child's grave so that the soul of the dog, which is everywhere at home, would guide the helpless infant to the land of souls. Let us look for a moment at some of the more surprising ways that the pet animal, especially the dog, is integral to human life.

The rise of a bond between humans and animals rooted not only in mutual symbiotic benefit, but also in something putatively more solid did not occur until the twentieth century, with companion animals and the new sort of relationship we formed with them. While humans have enjoyed symbiotic relationships with dogs and, to a lesser extent, with cats for some 50,000 years, the bond was, as we saw was the case with agriculture, one largely of mutual practical benefit. Dogs were useful as guardians of flocks, alarms warning of intruders, hunting partners, pest controllers, finders of lost people, haulers of carts, finders and retrievers of game. In terms of mutual interdependence, dogs were very much analogous to livestock except that they were probably worth less.

In the past 50 or so years, however, dogs (and to a lesser extent, cats and other species) have become valued not only for the pragmatic, economically quantifiable purposes just detailed, but for deep emotional reasons as well. These animals are viewed as members of the family, as friends, as "givers and receivers of love" as one judge put it; and the bond based in pragmatic symbiosis has turned into a bond based in love. This new basis for the bond imposes higher expectations on those party to such a bond on the analogy of how we feel we should relate to humans we are bound to by love and family. If a purely working dog is crippled and can no longer tend to the sheep, it violates no moral canon (except, perhaps, loyalty) to affirm that he needs to be replaced by another healthy animal, and like livestock, may be euthanized if the owner needs a functioning animal. (In practice, of course, people often kept the old animals around for super-erogatory or "sentimental" reasons, but, conceptually, keeping them alive and cared for when they no longer could fulfill their function was not morally required any more than was keeping a cow alive that could no longer give milk.)

But insofar as an animal is truly perceived as an object of love or friendship, as companion animals have come to be perceived in the past 50 years, or a member of the family, a different set of moral obligations are incurred. We do not euthanize or adopt out (let alone relinquish) a crippled child or sick spouse or aged parent--at most we may institutionalize them if we are unable to provide the requisite care. A love-based bond imposes a higher and more stringent set of moral obligations than does one based solely in mutual pragmatic benefit.

The rise of deep love-based relationships with animals as a regular and increasingly accepted social phenomenon came from a variety of converging and mutually reinforcing social conditions. In the first place, probably beginning with the widespread use of the automobile, extended nuclear families with multi-generations living in one location or under one roof began to vanish. At the beginning of the 20th century when roughly half of the public produced food for themselves and the other half of the public, significant numbers of large extended families lived together manning farms. The safety net for older people was their family, rather than society as a whole. The concept of easy mobility made preserving the nuclear family less of a necessity, as did the rise of the new idea that society as a whole rather than the family was responsible for assuring retirement, medical attention, and facilities for elderly people.

With the concentration of agriculture in fewer and fewer hands, the use of industrialization, and as the post-Depression Dust Bowl and World War II introduced migration to cities, the nuclear family notion was further eroded. The tendency of urban life to erode community, to create what the Germans called "Gesellshaft" rather than "Gemeinschaft", mixtures rather than compounds, as it were, further created solitude and loneliness as widespread modes of being. Correlatively, as selfishness and self-actualization were established as positive values beginning in highly individualistic 1960s, the divorce rate began to climb, and the traditional stigma attached to divorce was erased. As biomedicine prolonged our life spans, more and more people outlived their spouses, and were thrown into a loneliness mode of existence, with the loss of the extended family removing a possible remedy.

In effect, we have lonely old people, lonely divorced people, and most tragically, lonely children whose single parent often works. With the best jobs being urban, or quasi-urban, many people live in cities or peripherally urban developments such as condos. In New York City, for example, where I lived for 26 years, one can be lonelier than in rural Wyoming. The cowboy craving camaraderie can find a neighbor from whom he is separated only by physical distance, the urban person may know no one, and have no one in striking distance who cares. Shorn of physical space, people create psychic distances between themselves and others. People may (and usually do) for years live six inches away from neighbors in apartment buildings and never exchange a sentence. Watch New Yorkers on an elevator; the rule is stand as far away from others as you can, and study the ceiling. Making eye contact on a street can be taken as a challenge, or a sexual invitation, so people do not. One minds one's own business, one steps over and around drunks on the street, "Don't get involved" is a mantra for survival.

Yet humans need love, companionship, emotional support, and need to be needed. In such a world, a companion animal can be one's psychic and spiritual salvation. Divorce lawyers repeatedly tell me that custody of the dog can be a greater source of conflict in a divorce than is custody of the children! An animal is someone to hug, and hug you back; someone to play with, to laugh with; to exercise with; to walk with; to share beautiful days; to cry with. For a child, the dog is a playmate, a friend; someone to talk to. The dog is a protector; one of the most unforgettable photos I have ever seen shows a child of six in an apartment answering the door at night while clutching the collar of a 200 pound Great Dane, protected.

But a dog is more than that. In New York, and other big, cold, tough cities, it is a social lubricant. One does not talk to strangers in cities, unless he or she--or preferably both of you--are walking a dog. Then the barriers crumble. On of the most extraordinary social phenomena I have ever participated in was the "dog people" in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These were people who walked their dogs at roughly the same time--morning and evening--in Riverside park. United by a common and legitimate purpose, having dogs in common and thereby being above suspicion, conversations would begin spontaneously. To be sure, we usually did not know each others' names--we were "Red's owner", "Helga's person", "Fluffy's mistress". But names didn't matter. What mattered was we began to care for each other through the magic of sharing a bond with an animal and the animals not knowing New York etiquette and playing with one another. And we cared for each others' animals.

Red was a huge German Shepherd owned by Phil (I don't know his last name), a former British commando. Though aggressive with male dogs (Phil put him in a pen alone to run or let him run with females), he was an obedient angel with people. When Phil had surgery, we all took turns walking Red for the two weeks Phil was in the hospital. We had a key we passed around; though Phil did not know our last names or addresses, he seemed to assume we were worthy of trust. Through the animals, Gesellshaft was replaced by Gemeinschaft.

Perhaps two years after Phil's operation, I was suffering from chronic asthma, experiencing attacks every night and sometimes multiply in a night. My physician was preparing to hospitalize me indefinitely until the cycle was broken. I mentioned this to Phil one evening. He nodded and said nothing. The next evening he handed me an envelope. "What is this?" I asked. "The key to my cabin in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a map." "Stay there until you can breathe. The air is clean and there is no stress. It beats a hospital."

For more old people than I care to recall, the dog (or cat) was a reason to get up in the morning, to go out, to bundle up and go to the park ("Fluffy misses her friends, you know!") to shop, to fuss, to feel responsible for a life, and needed.

I used to walk my Great Dane very late at night feeling safe and incidentally other people spoke to me: A black woman who had gotten off at the wrong subway station while heading for Harlem and was terrified. With no hesitation, she asked me to walk her a mile to Harlem, where she felt safe. "I'm okay with you and that big dog," she said, never even conjecturing that I could be a monster with a dog!

Most memorably, I recall walking miles to the theater district at 4 AM. At one all-night cafeteria, the prostitutes used to assemble after a night's work. "Helga!" they would shout with delight when my dog approached. I was simply attached to the leash and was addressed only when they asked permission to buy her a doughnut. These guarded, cynical women would get on their knees and hug and kiss the dog, with a genuine warmth and pleasure, letting the child in them show through in these rare and priceless moments. I cannot recall these incidents without emotion.

These companion animals then, in today's world, provide us with love and someone to love, and do so unfailingly, with loyalty, grace, and boundless devotion. In a book that should be required reading for all who work with animals, author Jon Katz has chronicled what he calls the New Work of Dogsb, all based on his personal experiences in a New Jersey suburban community. Here we read of the dog whom a woman credits with shepherding her through a losing battle with cancer, as her emotional bed rock. Katz tells of the "Divorced Women's Dog Club," a group of divorced women united only by divorce and reliance on their dogs. He tells the tale of a dog who provides an outlet for a ghetto youth's insecurity and rage, and who is beaten daily. He relates the story of a successful executive with a family and friends, who in the end deals with stress in his life only by long walks with his Labrador, totaling many hours in a day. While raising the question of whether we are entitled to expect this of our animals, Katz explains that we do, and that they perform heroically.

Our pets have become sources of friendship and company for the old and the lonely, vehicles for penetrating the frightful shell surrounding a disturbed child, beings that provide the comfort of touch even to the most asocial person, and inexhaustible sources of pure, unqualified love.

But, even as they meet their end of this emotionally-based, non-economic bond, we fail them. A divorced woman meets a man, falls in love, the animal hitherto so important to her is abandoned. A child is born to a childless couple; the animal is no longer needed as a child substitute, the former focus of attention is regulated to background, and becomes an annoyance rather than a delight.

And so, like confinement agriculturalists, we routinely break our own promise to these animals on both a social and an individual level. And this broken promise is far less forgivable than what emerges from confinement agriculture; there at least, huge profits are involved. In the case of companion animals, we reap no benefit from violating our bond with these animals; we do it out of stupidity, ignorance, laziness, or heedlessness, and return evil for good.

A list of our failures with regard to companion animals is profoundly disturbing. As I wrote in a previous essay on companion animals:

We kill somewhere between 10 and 20 million healthy dogs and cats a year (or between two million and four million). (I am always astounding by the ferocity with which the exact number is debated, and I am reminded thereby of a Marxist-Stalinist colleague who, confronted with the accusation that Stalin killed 50 million people, loudly proclaimed that he had killed no more than 20 million!) In addition, we treat them appallingly. We perpetuate dozen of genetic diseases of dogs through aesthetically-based dysfunctional "breed standards." The Bulldog's respiratory problems or the Shar-Pei's skin problems provide clear examples. We ignore the functionality of these animals and treat them as, in the words of one of my veterinary colleagues, "living statues." (Veterinary medicine should take a strong stand against this approach for reasons of preventative medicine alone!)

We acquire these animals while knowing nothing of their needs and natures, then get rid of them because they cannot help those needs and natures. We lavish affection on them--as a child does to a new toy--until familiarity or age takes the edge off cuteness. We adopt them on a whim, and get rid of them when it passes. And, exactly like the profit-motivated confinement agriculturalists most pet owners would profess to abhor, we alter them surgically to fit the truncated environments or hoops to jump we provide. Many trim beaks in chickens, crop ears and dock tails in dogs. Many castrate and sometimes spay beef cattle without anesthesia, and do the same to companion animals without analgesia and sometimes with "anesthesia" that is in fact little more than chemical restraint--e.g., ketamine alone--for cat spays. Many owners train with shock collars and negative reinforcement, rubbing a puppy's nose in its feces when it does what comes naturally. Many find nothing problematic in crating a dog all day, while we profess to abhor the crating of veal calves. Where it is still legal, many declaw cats, yet let them go outside, robbing them of both defense and escape. Others "devocalize" dogs because they bark. These owners fail to understand and respect companion animal nature as surely as do those animal researchers or intensive agriculturalist who see animals as tools, and keep them in a manner determined by our convenience, not by their needs or comfort. Rhinestone collars (or diamond collars), painted toenails, and birthday parties do not begin to compensate for days of neglect followed erratically by hours of child-substitute attention.

The suffering of companion animals is profoundly troubling morally. Essentially no benefit emerges from it, save for the emotional satisfaction of the owner; there is no claim comparable to that of the morally conscientious scientist who affirms that though there is ultimately no moral justification for harming innocent animals for human benefit, he or she will continue to uneasily do so for the tangible benefit it proves. Our injustice--for such it is--to companion animals cannot even be seen as constituting a moral dilemma, for what is the upside of our behavior? Indeed, there is a demonstrable down side--we treat irresponsibility as acceptable, the sidestepping of moral responsibility as inevitable, the bond to others who depend on us as revocable for convenience. If failing to check cruelty to animals inexorably leads to cruelty to humans, does something similar result from failing to honor our responsibilities to animals? People already see marriage vows as trivial; my students go impulsively into marriage, telling me that if it doesn't work, they'll get divorced. Similarly with obligations to children in divorce--now, we rationalize, they'll have two Christmases, eight grandmas, lots of birthdays. As everyone knows, we are an aging society. How comfortable can we be trusting our fate in our declining years to those who kill something that has loved them unequivocally and without reservation because they are "too much hassle." Older people too perhaps, are "too much hassle."c

About thirty years ago, the veterinary community began to speak in glowing terms of the human/animal bond. Such talk has been little more than a marketing ploy for veterinary services, or else a cynical attempt by some funders of conferences on this subject to eclipse burgeoning social concern about animal welfare by stressing "the bond."

I do believe that veterinarians are guardians of the well-being of animals, and thereby do indeed serve the bond. Most veterinarians, in my 28 year experience in veterinarian medicine see themselves, as, by the logic of the profession, primarily serving the animal's interest, in a manner analogous to a pediatrician, or the Good Shepherd. Yet organized veterinary medicine has, by and large, failed to utilize its Aesculapian Authority to help mend our broken promise to both farm animals and companion animals. Veterinary medicine has consistently failed to criticize confinement agriculture for not maintaining husbandry, and has not spoken against the highest confinement, even though producers have asked veterinarians to tell them when they are pushing animas too hard.

By the same token, veterinarians have failed to speak effectively against the unjustifiable abuse perpetrated on companion animals, and are floundering at the predictable social requests that the economic value of companion animals be raised from market value. As one state veterinary leader said to me, "we vigorously press the great value of the bond yet, when the public tries to articulate this value in laws raising the economic value of companion animals, we kill such efforts with the lame excuse "we didn't mean money!"

Yet veterinarians are in a unique place to bring us closer to our moral obligations, even as pediatricians have historically led the fight for child welfare. Veterinarians can guide the agriculture industry to restoring husbandry and satisfying public moral concern for farm animal treatment

Similarly with our broken promise to companion animals. In previous articles, I have argued that veterinarians are perfectly positioned to assure that our baseless, purposeless, and profitless abrogation of responsibility towards these animals we profess to love is ended by education. Restoration of this bond is not only of benefit to the animals, but it can help buttress the formidable status that veterinarians enjoy in society. In addition, it can remove a major source of job dissatisfaction for veterinarians standing helplessly by while their charges are needlessly killed and abused.

Plato made a wise observation in The Republic. He pointed out that the primary obligation of a shepherd in his capacity as shepherd is caring for the sheep. The money he earns is acquired in a subordinate capacity; that of wage-earner. The moral obligation towards the animals in the shepherd's care come first. This is equally true of the veterinarian, the only profession founded on dedication to the well-being and interests of the animals we use and love. Whether the task is restoring husbandry to our ancient contract with farm animals, or assuring that our bond of love for companion animals remain healthy and whole, it is conceptually a major part of veterinary medicine to defend the interests of animals. Though it is prudentially wise for veterinarians to shoulder this burden in a society ever-increasingly concerned about the morality of animal treatment, it is ultimately a moral requirement for veterinarians to guide us in keeping our promises to the animals.


a. David Hatley (1749), Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty and His Expectations. 2 vols. Reprint. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1976.
b. Jon Katy, 2003. The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love and Family. New York: Villand.
c. Bernard E. Rollin and Michael D.H. Rollin. 2001. Dogmatisms and Catechisms: Ethics and Companion Animals. Anthrozoos. 14 (1).

Speaker Information
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Bernard E. Rollin, PhD
Colorado State University, Department of Philosophy
Fort Collins, CO

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