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Do we love our pets till death?

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Pets are more popular than ever. About two-thirds of American households have at least one pet, up from 56% in 1988. According to the American Pet Products AssociationAmericans spent $136.8 billion on their pets in 2022, up from $123.6 billion in 2021. An estimated 91 million households in Europe own at least one pet, an increase of 20 million households in the past decade. India’s population reached 31 million in 2021. This is an increase from 10 million in 2011.

Our pets are becoming more like us, too — or at least, that seems to be the goal. We pamper them with customized nutrition plans and backpack carriers, doggie spas and boutique cat hotels. At All the Best, a high-end pet store chain in Seattle, the most popular items are felines and canines. Educational toys,The aim is to stimulate them and bring joy to animals who are increasingly “lying around lonely and bored”, said Annie McCall, the chain’s marketing director.

Now, some animal welfare ethicists and veterinary scientists are beginning to wonder whether we’ve gone too far in our efforts to humanize our pets. The more we treat our pets like people, they argue, the more restricted their lives become, the more dependent they become on us, and the more health and behavioral problems they suffer.

“We now view pets not just as family members, but as children,” said James Serpell, professor emeritus of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “The problem is that dogs and cats are not children, and owners are increasingly protecting and restricting them. As a result, the animals are not able to express their nature as dogs and cats as freely as they should.”

Of course, the health risks begin with breeding. One of the most popular dog breeds in the U.S. is French Bulldogone of the flat-faced brachycephalic dog breeds Getting along well with others but having trouble breathing, and other serious health problems.

But we’re also changing the relationship animals have with their surroundings. Many cats now spend their entire lives indoors, fearing bird predation. Until the late 1970s, even city dogs spent much of their time outdoors, either in backyards or roaming freely in neighborhoods. Today, “off-leash, off-leash dogs are considered unnatural,” says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist in Colorado whose work focuses on the relationship between animals and humans.

One of the fastest growing segments is the so-called pet confinement industry, which includes cages and indoor enclosures, as well as Headband and electronic collars. “The level of restriction that dogs face is very serious,” Dr. Pierce said. Although dogs were more likely to be hit by cars decades ago, she added, “those risks are offset by the freedom of experience and movement.”

The modern pet paradox, in a nutshell: “Owners don’t want their dogs to behave like dogs,” Dr. Serpell said.

Even as dogs are allowed into more and more human spaces — restaurants, offices, stores, hotels and more parks with designated dog-walking areas — their presence has not translated into greater independence.

Confinement and isolation, in turn, breed Increased separation anxiety in animals and aggression, Dr. Serpell said. About 60 percent of cats and dogs ACurrently overweight or obese. In addition, due to the burden and cost of modern pet ownership (veterinary fees, pet sitter fees, foster care fees), more and more people are abandoning animals in animal shelters, leading to an increase in euthanasia rates. According to data from animal rights organization Shelter Animals Count, in 2023, shelters euthanized more than 359,000 dogs, a five-year high.

“We’re in this weird period of time where we’re obsessed with pets,” Dr. Pierce said. “There are too many pets, and we’re getting them too often. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for the pets.”

Of course, taming animals always means striking a balance between their nature and ours. “Defining freedom is a very interesting dilemma for an animal that has been domesticated and co-opted for so long,” says Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition researcher at Barnard College.

She compared it to free-range dogs. There are approximately 900 million dogs in the world, most of which fall into this category.Dr. Horowitz noted that free-ranging dogs have shorter lifespans and less secure food, but they can make their own decisions. “This is an interesting model to study — thinking about how to make dogs’ lives more varied so they are not always subject to our whims, but without endangering society as a whole,” she said.

In recent years, Scandinavian countries have begun to ban breeding some dog breeds Pets that are particularly susceptible to illness, such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. In Sweden, it is illegal to leave a pet alone at home for long periods of time; in Sweden and Finland, it is illegal to keep an animal confined in the home in most circumstances.

But it’s unclear whether these animal welfare policies reconcile or reinforce the fundamental contradictions of modern pet keeping, said Harold Herzog, a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University who studies animal-human relations. “The more we view dogs and cats as autonomous creatures, the less reason we have to keep them as pets,” he said.

A few years ago, Dr. Herzog was on vacation in Tobago and spent much of his time observing the stray dogs that roamed the island. “I asked myself, ‘Would I rather be a pampered dog in Manhattan, or a dog playing with friends in Tobago?’” Dr. Herzog said. He concluded, “I’d rather be a dog in Tobago.”

That’s not a practical option for most people, and it’s not necessarily a good thing for the Tobagonians of the world. Instead, Dr. Serpell offers this advice for modern pet owners: “Do everything you can to enjoy your dog’s company. But dogs are not people. Get to know them from their animal’s perspective, rather than forcing them to obey you. This allows you to vicariously experience another being’s life.”

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