Translate This Blog

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Pets" Is A Four Letter Word

Some headlines just grab you. Last week I saw one in my daily veterinary email list: "Calling animals 'pets' is insulting, academics claim". HUH? So of course I followed the link to the article (check it out here).

Apparently there is a new publication, the Journal of Animal Ethics, that discussed the "proper" terminology for animals. They came up with some surprising answers!

“Despite its prevalence, ‘pets’ is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers,” the editorial claims.
“Again the word ‘owners’, whilst technically correct in law, harks back to a previous age when animals were regarded as just that: property, machines or things to use without moral constraint.”
It goes on: “We invite authors to use the words ‘free-living’, ‘free-ranging’ or ‘free-roaming’ rather than ‘wild animals’
“For most, ‘wildness’ is synonymous with uncivilised, unrestrained, barbarous existence.
“There is an obvious prejudgment here that should be avoided.”

"Pets" is a derogatory term?  Since when????  In my own practice we deliberately call our patients "pets" rather than "animals" because the former has an inherent connotation as a companion animal that shares our homes and is cared for by us.  It's a good term, not a derogatory one.  Frankly, I'd like to see how and why the authors came to think of it in a bad way.

And I'm sorry, but if you look at so-called "free-roaming" animals, I'm pretty sure that they qualify as "uncivilised" and "unrestrained".  Plus, "wild" has meanings other than the definition these authors give.  How many people enjoy a "wild night out"?  How many people describe a thrill ride as "wild", having obviously enjoyed it?

Domestic dogs, cats, hamsters or budgerigars should be rebranded as “companion animals” while owners should be known as “human carers”, they insist.

Okay, I can see a certain sense in getting away from the term "owners" and use "caretakers" or something similar.  I agree that the term goes back to when animals were only seen as property and not as companions.  But at the same time, this term is commonly used with no apparent negative intent or influence. 

Prof Linzey and his co-editor Professor Priscilla Cohn, of Penn State University in the US, also hope to see some of the more colourful terms in the English language stamped out.
Phrases such as “sly as a fox, “eat like a pig” or “drunk as a skunk” are all unfair to animals, they claim.
“We shall not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use less than partial adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them," they say.

I read things like this and I have to call bulls***.  This is political correctness gone rampant, and will do nothing to improve the perception or care of our pets and other animals.  Such PC thinking really irritates me, as it does nothing to further our society or understanding of animals or each other, and is mostly a waste of time.  I get just as bothered by PC talk and attitudes between humans and in politics as well, and think it can hamper our relationships and discussions more than help them. 

For example, let's take the debate on what to call people with dark brown to black skin.  We can't say "colored people" anymore.  So what about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?  We can't say "negro" anymore, but there is the United Negro College Fund.  PC says that we're supposed to use the term African-American (here in the US, at least), yet Africa is a contient and not a country, and most people in Africa don't see them as long-lost relatives.  Plus, many of those people may have come from some of the Caribbean islands more recently than from Africa.  And what about Australian Aborigines?  They have similarly colored skin but we can't exactly call them of African descent.  I guess not many people get upset about saying "black".

We should be respectful to each other and to the pets and other animals in our care.  But if we get over-sensitive about certain terms we are going to be far too afraid to talk to each other or say anything remotely honest or negative.

And I have PETS, thank you very much!


  1. I agree.

    I think a lot of this PC "ethics" stuff is from PETA and HSUS folks who would rather we open the doors and let our chihuahuas and persian cats run wild - oops! I mean "free".

    My animals are pets because to me they are part of the family. Heck, sometimes I refer to them as "the kids" but I better watch out or the people in charge of child ethics may fuss over that.

    I'm sorry, the whole thing about eliminating common phrases because they're "disrespectful" is just baloney.

    I'm sticking with calling my furry crew "pets" who "eat like pigs" and would much prefer to laze in the bed than be "free roaming". Sorry, PETA.

  2. This is ridiculous. If I'm talking to someone and mention 'companions' or that I'm a 'carer' they will think I'm talking about people!

    I do use the word 'companions' in the strapline for my business (Contented Companions, Happy Homes) and I do think of my dogs as part of my 'social life' as I like to spent time with them, for instance it's not a holiday unless the dogs are with me. But for the vast majority of owners, they are pets. They are cared for, but they wouldn't chose activities to spend time with them, as you would a person.

    Also I seriously object to being called a 'carer' for a dog. I am already a 'human carer' for my autistic son. It's insulting to imply that caring for a dog or other animal is anywhere near that serious a commitment.

  3. sounds like the guys in Penn Uni need to get a life - I never heard anything so stupid in all my life - the important thing should be that PETS or COMPANION ANIMALS are cared for properly by their OWNERS - a duty of care for sentient beings in our care. I hate this about academics - they would study two flies going up a wall and so long as they were first authors on their ground breaking work and getting paid for this BS they would be blissfully happy.

  4. Couple thoughts:

    1) Isn't there at least some risk in 'caretaker' from the liability (for the vet) standpoint? I thought one of the useful aspects of classifying pets as property was that it kept the liability issues that have hurt human medicine so much out of the veterinary world for the large part.

    2) I find this phrase particularly odd: "property, machines or things to use without moral constraint." Since when does owning something (property) mean using it without moral constraint? Hopefully we exercise moral constraint in the use of everything we own!

    3) @Linda: I understand your point about your son, but there are gradations for LOTS of things. Calling a human a 'caretaker' for their dog doesn't imply that caretaking for a dog is on the same level as caretaking for an autistic child, I don't think, any more than me saying "I'm a pilot" is insulting to a professional airline pilot who routinely holds a few hundred lives in his or her care. Or, put differently, my son is the 'caretaker' for our snake, but that's not insulting to me because I'm the 'caretaker' for our dogs, which require significantly more upkeep than the snake. Anyhow... I apologize in advance if you find this offensive; I'm just trying to convey that it doesn't have to be *interpreted* as offensive.

  5. I actually just wrote about this earlier this week.

    I think it is PC gone crazy too. I don't have any issue with calling my cats my pets, or being called a pet owner. I think it's nice to be considered a care taker (carer seems awkward.) since that is what we do for our pets. But, I don't call myself that either.

    Companion animal is a fine term too, but it's bulky to use. Pets is a very understood term that requires no explanation, and it's short! Works for everything :)

    I doubt that this prof will have much luck getting the terminology changed in the near future.

  6. Maybe to add a different opinion than everyone else's -

    I understand where the article is coming from. To put it in perspective, a 'pet' can be derogatory when it's used with humans, such as teacher's pet, or to refer to a human as a plaything. Similarly, to call a companion animal a pet is to say that the animal has no mind of its own, no will to live, or life, it is simply there for its owners' amusement (and many people discard their 'pets' as such, treat them with neglect or abuse, etc). Among people who believe that animals deserve far more rights than they actually have, or even who believe humans are no more special than animals, calling an animal a pet has these connotations.

    As for wild animals, yes, 'uncivilized' actually has negative connotations. That is exactly what Native Americans were once called and they experienced a systematic genocide, because they were 'savage,' 'wild,' and 'uncivilized.' In fact, they were different than white people and very misunderstood. Like wild animals, who are misunderstood by humans, and who, like us, are trying to survive, even if it is unlike the way we go about our lives. Does that make them any less significant than us, or are pets? Humans are very blind and like to define the world through their eyes and don't take into consideration that we aren't the only living creature on this planet. At one time, civilization as we know it did not exist, and humans did not manipulate the world as we do now. Was that world any less relevant than the one now?

  7. In the end it all comes down to perception - what is deemed a "derogatory" term for one person can be a term of endearment for another - In Ireland "Pet" can be both when applied to a human - "teacher's pet" or "ah pet what's wrong?" (to a child or young person). One has negative connotation - the other, far from it.

    We even say things when referring to someone we really like - as a pet - it would not be unusual to hear someone say "Ah X - she is such an auld pet" - not derogatory at all in fact quite the opposite.

    If I said in Ireland "my dog is an auld pet" everyone would understand that he is much more than a PET but is a much loved member of the family.

    These PENN uni guys need to get out more and find something worthwhile to write about - next they will devise a PhD course on linguistic conditioning and ethical dilemmas in language use.

    My dog continues to be the biggest pet and I, a proud owner.

  8. This is erring way too much towards the PeTA mindset...


Thank you for making a comment on my blog! Please be aware that due to spammers putting links in their comments I moderate every comment. ANY COMMENTS WITH AN EXTERNAL LINK NOT RELATED TO THE TOPIC WILL LIKELY BE DELETED AND MARKED AS SPAM. If you are someone who is posting links to increase the traffic to another website, save me and you the time and hassle and simply don't comment. To everyone else.....comment away! I really do enjoy hearing from readers!