Pet Ethics

From Emily Anthes writing at Aeon, a rare levelheaded look at the ethics of domesticating animals.

Over the course of history, we have often treated animals as raw material, mounds of clay that can be sculpted and shaped into whatever forms suited our own needs. In many respects, the domestic dog is our masterpiece. Starting with the gray wolf, and using nothing more than selective breeding, we created a whole new universe of creatures. Among the 400 or so dog breeds that exist today, there are canines with round, floppy ears (the basset hound) and pointed, erect ones (the German shepherd); dogs with smooth, silky coats (Afghan hounds) and rough, wiry ones (Airedale terriers); pooches with long, graceful legs (the Italian greyhound) and short, stubby ones (the corgi). Thanks to our careful breeding, the dog is now the most morphologically diverse species on Earth…

…Some of our canine preferences seem utterly arbitrary, but others reflect a deep-seated attraction to creatures with ‘neotenic’, or juvenile-looking, features. The young of many species look similar, with their large heads, big eyes, round foreheads, and snub noses. We have a natural affinity for these traits, thanks to evolution, which has equipped us to find human babies irresistible. Some evolutionary biologists have gone so far as to suggest that neotenic animals — such as puppies and kittens — are actually hijacking our innate attraction to infants, tapping into our natural parental instincts and tricking us into caring for them. This ‘cute response’ might have helped spur the creation of toy dog breeds and explain why we’ve pushed some breeds to have bigger heads and eyes, and shorter muzzles. More recently, our love of all things neotenic might be responsible for the development of dwarf cats or tiny teacup-sized pigs. (And also, perhaps, the proliferation of videos and pictures of adorable animals on the internet.)…

…The trouble is that in our quest to create alluring animals, we sometimes inflict great damage. Even simple selective breeding can have calamitous effects. Purebred dogs are the classic example. Once conformational dog shows became the arbiters of breed standards, we began to exaggerate the canine form: if dog show judges ruled that a bulldog with a large head and a shortened muzzle was good, then surely a bigger head and a flatter face would be even better. Over time, we selected for increasingly extreme versions of a breed’s idealised traits. And because these dogs didn’t need to perform any real tasks, there was no need to make sure they were physically sound. Today, bulldog puppies have heads so huge that they can’t fit through the birth canal — most are delivered via Caesarean section — and their faces are so squashed that they have trouble simply breathing…



  1. James

    Short, stubby legs!!! The gall of this woman!

    On google images-ing her in order to critique her physical appearance, I found a shot of her holding a King Charles Spaniel, “Milo”. It’s hard for me to give any weight to her ethical declarations when she has propagated the behavior she is calling into question (or to anyone who gives a feline name to a dog Also, the bulldog is such an easy target for this argument because of its physical appearance. When looking at the build of the King Charles Spaniel, nothing apparent comes to mind, yet the breed is dogged with unique maladies ( An article discussing how these less visible diseases could develop in a breed would be more original and informative.

    • thecopybara

      The article is mainly about glofish, bioengineered fish that have been spliced with GFP or whatever to make them look cooler. It is worth reading, perhaps I should have better employed my excerpting skills.

  2. Jan

    I concur with James. The cuteness quotient of nasopharyngeals is off the charts. And with short, stubby legs, they don’t have very far to fall either. My French Bulldog, Coquette was also one of the most loyal confidantes that ever walked on this planet.

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