Are Pets As Happy As Their Owners Think They Are?

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Photo: Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures

It’s the seemingly lightweight question at the heart of The Secret Life of Pets — or, at least, at the heart of its ad campaign: What do pets do all day? The film spends most of its running time detailing an unusually adventurous day for this particular band of New York City companion animals, but it also gives the viewers a hint about what they get up to in a typical day; for some of them, it’s not much, actually. One character in particular — the canine protagonist, Max, voiced by Louis C.K. — spends most of his day staring longingly at the door of the small apartment he shares with his beloved owner, Katie, as he waits for her to come home.

But there’s another question that film only sort of asks, and then only sort of answers. As much as people love their pets, how selfish is the pet-human relationship, really? It’s something a few critics have already picked up on. “There are intriguing tensions in the subtext that the movie does its absolute best not to explore. (Is it better to be a free pet or a pet in fealty to humans? Does human love make up for being trapped in a 600 square-foot apartment for 22 hours a day?)” The Atlantic noted in its review.

If the ethics of pet-keeping provides the barest of subtext for The Secret Life of Pets (and, as such, had me feeling vaguely uncomfortable as I left the theater), a recent book tackles the issue with an excruciatingly straightforward manner. In writing Run, Spot, Run, published by the University of Chicago Press in May, bioethicist Jessica Pierce has clearly thought deeply about the “ambiguous ethics” of the practice of pet ownership. It’s a more complicated commitment than it’s often seen as, she writes; as a consequence, sometimes even our best intentions backfire. (Reminder: Dogs hate hugs.)

In the U.S., there are about 470 million pets and about 316 million people, according to Pierce, and too many of them aren’t well cared for. (A quick note: Pierce’s book covers all sorts of animals, from cats and dogs to birds, reptiles, rodents, and even exotic animals; for simplicity’s sake, I’ll be focusing here on cats and dogs.) “Pet owners, on average, spend far less than they should on veterinary care,” she writes. “At least a quarter of all dogs and cats never see a veterinarian, and millions live with untreated chronic pain or slow-moving illnesses that owners either fail to notice or are too tightfisted to address.” On the other hand, there are those of us who spend exorbitant amounts of money on veterinary care; we’re not exempt, either, Pierce argues. Our furry friends bring us so much joy and meaning to our lives, but is the feeling necessarily mutual? And, perhaps more important: How many pet owners have even stopped to consider the question?

It seems, at first, like a fairly ridiculous question. Pets have it easy! They don’t have to hunt for their food; you buy it for them and serve it to them. They don’t have to worry about predators; you provide them with shelter and a place to sleep (and, chances are, that place is your own bed). You provide them with medical care, you take them out for exercise — you literally clean up their shit, for heaven’s sake. What more could they need? “All of these things are pretty clearly good for our animals,” Pierce said in an interview with Science of Us. “But the downside is that they don’t really have anything to do … We make them really dependent on us, by socializing them to be indoor animals. And then we leave! We leave them at home alone, which is hard on a lot of animals.”

There is a faintly unbelievable statistic Pierce cites in her book, taken from the American Time Use Survey: pet owners spend, on average, just 40 minutes per day on “pet care” — that is, feeding, grooming, exercising, and playing with their animals. It’s worth being skeptical of that figure; it’s just an average, and it’s often hard to tell much from averages. Some people surely spend much more time with their pets, while others spend less. Pierce agreed the number did seem unusually low to her, too, but thinks it might be like the TV-watching statistics, which seem incredibly high, until you think through your own time spent watching television.

At any rate, even the most-loved pets are often bored and lonely, she writes in her book; in a way, it’s the same paradox many zoos are facing with their animals. “You hear this all the time,” she said. “They say, ‘Well, these animals are really well off, because they don’t have to get their own food — we give it to them — and they don’t have to protect themselves from predators — we do that for them. The problem is they are behaviorally evolved to do those jobs themselves. So it’s leaving all these behavioral needs unmet.” Some zoos now are beginning to address this problem by looking for enrichment opportunities, defined recently by one team of scientists as “making changes to an animal’s environment that provide the animal with added stimulation, choice or control.” There is, alas, little academic research concerning enrichment as it applies to domesticated animals — most of it focuses on zoo animals — but animal behavior experts have some ideas of how to make your pets’ lives happier.

Let’s start with cats, who, it turns out, are not exactly the easy pets their reputation would have you believe, said Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior consultant and Ph.D. student at UC-Berkeley, where she is studying psychology. In her work as a behavior consultant, she visits people’s homes, where she sees what people aren’t even realizing what they’re not providing for their feline companions — and these are people, presumably, who have both the interest and the means in providing the best lives possible for their cats, given that they, you know, called a cat-behavior consultant. “I don’t think most people neglect their pets’ welfare intentionally,” Delgado said. “I think with cats, there’s this thought that they’re low-maintenance pets.” If only.

Cats — even older cats, even lazy cats — want, and need, to play, mimicking the hunting behaviors that come natural to them. And most of them need you to play with them, instead of “just leaving a bunch of ping-pong balls and mice toys lying around,” Delgado says. She recommends one of those string-and-feathers-on-a-stick toys, which you can move around — slowly, mind you, or else the cat can’t focus his eyes on it — waiting for them to pounce. (A cat that keeps you up at night, Delgado told me, is likely a cat that hasn’t gotten enough exercise during the day.)

Additionally, it would benefit both cats and dogs if you made them work for their food, with the use of food puzzles (Kongs, for example). “When we brought them into our homes we provided all their food at once — we took away one of the biggest things they used their brains for, which is to get food,” Delgado said. Social enrichment is a big deal for pets, too, and taking the time to play with them is one important way to provide that for them. For dogs, interaction with other dogs — say, at the dog park — is crucial, too, advises Marc Bekoff, an animal cognition researcher. (There is of course so, so much more to enrichment for pets; I’d recommend starting with Pierce’s book if you want to know more.)

Pierce’s intention isn’t to condemn pet owners, but if she’s made them feel guilty — well, good. Investigate that feeling, she urges, and understand that pet ownership isn’t something to be taken lightly. Our animals make our lives so happy; it’s the least we can do for them in return.