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The Dogenius Institute
Inspiration & Ethical Education for Animal Advocates

Feb 15 / Dr Teresa Tyler/ Dr Emily Stone

Are Pets Family members?

Increasingly, dogs, along with other companion species, are valued and perceived as being an important part of our multi-species families. For many years within anthropological research, kinship had been viewed as based upon procreational or biological lines (based on traditional ideas that a family consists of biologically related individuals). However, this idea of family has been increasingly challenged to reflect and recognise that there are different variations in family structure, not based on procreation or a nuclear idea of family that has been a dominant framework within a Western context. There is growing recognition of there being multiple forms of kinship and this has been referred to as voluntary kinship.
One of many issues related to the idea of dogs as family members is that there is some concern that thinking of dogs as exactly the same as human family members can result in a lack of engagement with the species-specific characteristics and needs of dogs (Swabe, 2005), and this has been discussed in relation to dogs being valued or positioned as children, or sometimes referred to as ‘fur babies’. Swabe notes that ‘the distinction between human and animal can become so blurred that the owner’s decisions pertaining to the animal are not necessarily made in the interests of the animal’ (2005, p.104). This raises an interesting consideration around how we think of the dogs within our families. This is not to state that there is any issue with thinking of dogs as family members, but that there can be when we forget the needs of dogs as a species. 

There is growing recognition of there being multiple forms of kinship and this has been referred to as voluntary kinship.

Despite all of the ways in which we think of dogs as family members, the evidence seems to suggest that this relationship is often different to how we think of family with regard to other human members. The position of the dog as family member in many households can shift in response to changing circumstances, relations, approaches, and attitudes. Shir-Vertesh (2012) referred to companion animals as having what they termed as flexible personhood to reflect the ambiguities and inconsistencies in human-animal relations and how the position of individuals within the household could change. In many ‘Western’ cultures, such as the UK, dogs are considered property in legal terms. Krithika Srinivasan (2013) discusses how this property status means that it is expected that dogs belong to a specified human, and if they do not appear to be owned by anyone then they become ‘out of place’ and disposable if a shelter spot cannot be secured. As well as impacting individual dogs who fall outside of human ownership, the property status also affects dogs as a population, by working to further their ‘ethico-political marginalisation’ (Srinivasan, 2013, p.109). 

Another contradiction which arises in the human-dog bond is the large number of dogs who end up relinquished to shelters or abandoned. In the UK approximately 130,000 dogs pass through welfare and rehoming centres every year, according to a, now dated, 2012 exploration of the data (Clark et al., 2012). The reasons for dogs ending up in shelters are myriad, including both those human and dog related. Diesel and colleagues (2009) conducted research exploring the reasons for relinquishment in the UK to the Dogs Trust organisation which runs various shelters, they looked at the data arising from a 12 month period in 2005. They found unwanted behaviours, particularly destruction and aggression towards humans or other animals, and lack of time to provide adequate care and a misunderstanding of the amount of care required, were the main reasons behind relinquishment. Based on this, Diesel et al. postulate that there may be an issue with inappropriate selection and lack of advice when choosing to bring a dog into the home in the first place. A more recent study which looked at relinquishment data between 1996 and 2017 at shelters in Denmark found that the main reason for relinquishment of dogs to shelters was due to guardian ill health (29%), followed by behavioural issues (23%), and lack of time for adequate care (14%) (Jensen et al., 2020). This practice of rehoming dogs is summed up well by Jessica Pierce (2015), who writes in one of her blog pieces for Psychology Today, “They are persons when we want them to be, and when we tire of them or they create tension in a family or we are moving house, they are demoted to “just a dog”” and become expendable.

Dogs have come a long way in their journey from campsite scavengers to sleeping in our beds. Many of us now perceive and value our dogs highly as family members and can’t imagine our lives without them. However, this position is not as secure as it might first appear and throughout this module, we have looked at a number of ways in which this position can shift and flex depending on our circumstances. Their role of companion also involves many contradictions and ambiguities in terms of the care that we provide and terms such as ‘responsible dog ownership’ contain varying meanings and interpretations between individuals and groups. We care deeply for our dogs and also in the process exact controls on their ability to express their agency and ‘dogginess’.
And finally, through our socially constructed ideas on what particular breeds of dogs should look and behave like, we have perpetuated a range of health problems that are detrimentally impacting upon our dogs’ wellbeing.
Is being a family member good for dogs? It's an ethical dilemma for sure.