If you’ve been watching a lot of TV lately (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you may have caught an interview a few months back on Good Morning Britain where a spokesperson from the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) argued that we should be encouraged to move away from the use of the word ‘pet’ to refer to companion animals (dogs, cats, etc.) and use kinder terms: “A lot of people at home who have dogs and cats refer to them as pets and they refer to themselves as owners, and this implies that the animals are a possession.” Terms such as ‘companion’, ‘guardian’ and ‘human carer’ are suggested as more friendly alternatives.
This controversial argument certainly has stirred up some backlash, both at the time from host Piers Morgan, and later on the internet. So is PETA right – should we refer to animals as something other than ‘pets’? Or is their argument flawed? Today we will attempt to ignore any bias and present both sides of this argument objectively.
Why we shouldn’t call animals ‘pets’
PETA’s main argument that encourages the move away from ‘pet’ is that the word implies ownership and subservience, placing animals as less important than humans; this in turn can lead to negative behaviour towards animals which would not be appropriate towards humans. Language is a powerful tool, and even someone with the greatest love for animals can be influenced subliminally by the use of language – if the word ‘pet’ is thought of as an object, we may subconsciously treat animals as such. Some parallels on the use of language were drawn between animal and women’s rights, and how the use of certain terms to refer to women subliminally placed them on a lower footing than men – this, therefore, may be similar to the use of ‘pets’ in humans (note that this argument was not made by PETA themselves, but by commenters later on).
Following on from this was a discussion on the mindset of education as a whole, and how small changes like this can change the mindset of people and how they think about animals in general. Though animal rights have come a long way in the past century, and the UK is considered one of the most animal loving nations on Earth, some animals are still arguably used as objects while being referred to as pets – examples include pet shows, dog races, agility classes and so on. While many of these examples can benefit and be of enjoyment to the animal, there is an argument the animals are still being used by humans as objects for our gain. An animal on an equal footing with humans should not be subjected to something it may not want to do. If these animals are referred to as ‘companions’ for example, which implies equality, people may be more reluctant to use them as tools. Of course, an animal can never expressly consent to doing these activities, and it is fairly clear most are having fun, but still something to consider on how we ‘use’ animals.
Finally, as rebuttal to Piers’ argument that you cannot change language, is the point that language is fluid and ever changing. Just because a term was considered acceptable, it does not mean we should be reluctant to change terms to be more friendly. Consider the use of racial or homophobic slurs today compared with a few decades ago, and how this could parallel animal-related terminology. Whether the argument itself is flawed or not, there aren’t any particular downsides to moving away from the use of the word ‘pet’. As PETA put it in a Tweet after the interview, “If we have the opportunity to use language which is kinder, more respectful towards other living beings, why wouldn’t we do that?”
Why it is okay to call animals ‘pets’
On the flipside, an argument against PETA, and for the continuing use of the word ‘pet’, is that ‘pet’ does not imply ownership and subservience, but instead implies care. Piers’ mentioned that the word likely originated in Scotland and northern England as a term of endearment (which is still in use to this day). If the word itself is not thought of as a term of ownership, subliminal or overt, there presumably is no issue with using it. Of course, just because a dictionary states one definition, does not mean that people do not use the word ‘pet’ to imply ownership, as PETA claim. Nevertheless, an argument on the terminology used can be argued in many different ways, and there is no reason ‘guardian’ or ‘carer’, PETA’s preferred terms, may not also be seen in a negative way and worsen animal rights as well.
Another issue with PETA’s argument against subservience and ownership is that companion animals are inherently owned and mostly subservient. Companion animals legally have to be owned, and the use of kinder terms rather than ‘pet’ would not change this. Furthermore, animals generally are subservient to people (whether this is natural or not is another argument) and language would not change this either. Unlike with people (women’s rights and slavery popped up here again in the comments), being owned does not mean rights cannot improve and animals be considered on equal footing despite being legally owned by a person. Many millions of people refer to their animals as ‘pets’, and many of them would go above and beyond to care for them. For these people, the use of the word ‘pet’ would probably not change the way they care for their animals.
This nicely brings us to the next point that PETA can work to improve animal rights in many other ways without attacking abstract and imprecise terminology. PETA is a controversial organisation at the best of times, and they presumably must have known that this argument would create some backlash. Perhaps the time and resources spent on this message would have been better spent attacking more serious breaches of animal rights? Of course, suggesting we use a term other than ‘pet’ does not mean PETA aren’t working to improve animal rights in other ways – this was just one small additional step they would like us to make. If we are sticking with the comparison to women’s rights, just because women in this country enjoy far greater rights than in others, for example, doesn’t not mean we shouldn’t try and aim for equal pay. The animal rights movement, and how we strive to improve animal rights, should perhaps be dealt with in the same way.
So we sadly cannot answer the question of whether you should call pets ‘pets’, and we leave it up to you on whether you would like to start using a different term. Perhaps changing the term would do nothing to improve animal rights. However, if avoiding the term means even one person is kinder towards their animal, surely it is a worthy goal to try and work towards? Likely the use of the word ‘pet’ is not going anywhere soon; but times change quickly, and things considered normal can soon be considered inappropriate. In the future, we may look back on how we used to use the word ‘pet’ and make a face at how inappropriate it was… or perhaps not…