Is it ethical to keep pets?

Through this forced dependency and domestication, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons – including behavioural “problems”, for belonging to a stereotyped breed, or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.

In the mid 20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a “total institution”. This sees inhabitants cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space. Natural barriers between social spheres are artificially eliminated and an intense socialisation process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.

Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums and other physical spaces as examples. But I believe pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed “total institution”. This is because nonhuman animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and re-socialised. True consent is not possible under such conditions. Animals are groomed to participate and those who are unable to follow the rules of human social life are likely to be punished – sometimes fatally.