A woman plays with her dog at sunset. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

For pet owners, their dog or cat (or fish, gecko, or bird) is a great source of joy. But is the relationship reciprocal? Are our pets as happy as they make us?

Some research suggests they might not be. the question was the focus of a recent piece by Vox staff writer Kenny Torella called “The Case Against Pet Ownership: Why We Should Aspire To A Fewer But Happier Pet World”. Torella says that he wrote the piece because he wanted to get into the mind of his own dog Evvie.

“I work from home so I can give him lots of walks and play time,” she said. “And yet, I’ve always wondered, is Evvie herself bored and frustrated all day from being cooped up?”

Torella wanted to better understand Evvie and take responsibility for learning more about dog psychology and positive dog training. Evvie is one of the 250 million animals that live in American homes.

Kenny Torella’s dog, Evvie. (Courtesy of Kenny Torella)

Author, animal ethicist and pet owner. jessica pierce —whom Torella interviewed for his article—has given a lot of thought to what it means to have a pet. And unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for these animals.

6 Questions About Pet Happiness, Answered By Animal Ethicist Jessica Pierce

Are our pets really miserable?

“It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but yeah, I think our pets aren’t really that happy being our pets. We tend to think of all the animals that live in our homes as really pampered and well protected, and we love them. So obviously they must be happy. But in fact, the animals that live in our homes as pets are, I think, one of the most miserable animal populations on the planet. I think that’s a very difficult thing for people who live with animals to hear because we love our pets. But we put them in human environments that are really challenging for them in many ways.

“I think in the case of dogs, we do the best we can, but often it’s not enough. We tend to look at your world and your experiences from our perspective. And what I try to encourage people to do is get in the paws or claws of the animals themselves and say, ‘What does the world look like from their perspective?’

“We might think it’s a great giveaway that we only feed kibble to dogs twice a day. They don’t have to do any work. It’s just there for them. But meaningful work is really important to animals. Animals need to have a purpose in life. It is what they have evolved for. Gathering and searching for food is one of the most basic behavior patterns that animals have developed. If an animal doesn’t get a chance to engage in those behaviors, he ends up feeling out of control, frustrated, bored, and maybe acting out.”

What data do we have to prove that pets are miserable?

“A couple of studies have really caught my eye. One is a large-scale study that was published in 2020 that really blew me away. It was a Finnish study and was published in Nature and Scientific Reports. They examined the medical records of nearly 14,000 dogs. And they found that 75% of all dogs suffer from some anxiety-related problem.

“I think that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other ways you can triangulate the problem of stress in dogs is to look at the literature on dog behavior problems, which can be a manifestation of a dog struggling to adjust to its environment. There’s a lot coming up in the veterinary literature about noise, sensitivities, separation anxiety. There was a study out of Japan that found that 86 percent, which is pretty close to almost all, of dog owners reported that their dog had behavior problems. That’s a lot of dog behavior problems. And it’s not a canine crime wave. I think they are dogs struggling to adapt to stressors that are unknowingly placed on them.”

But haven’t pets and humans evolved to be together?

“I believe that domesticated dogs and cats and other social mammals can live happily with humans and in human environments. But what is different now? The way I’ve talked about this in my work is that dogs are more intensely captive than they used to be.

“Some of that is related to regulations like it’s illegal for a dog to be off leash unless it’s in a designated off-leash dog area. So they no longer have the freedom to just roam, which is something dogs are really motivated to do from a behavioral standpoint. By the way, about 80% of the dogs on the planet live alone, and not as pets. Their lives are quite different. [than dogs that live inside homes]. AND [through research on those free-roaming dogs] We can get some insights into what might be stressing our dogs by looking at how dogs with more freedom live.”

You have a dog named Bella and you say she might be your last dog. Because?

“It’s not that I necessarily think it’s wrong for people to live with dogs. No. I think the dog-human relationship is beautiful. It’s powerful. There’s nothing like it. But for me, the responsibility of giving Bella a decent life under the constraints we are in is a lot of responsibility. And I’m tired.

“I feel guilty if I go on a trip. I feel guilty for not giving him enough enrichment from morning to night. And it’s a lot of pressure. Because all his life, all his happiness is in our hands. And it’s a shame, if you think about it. That’s a pretty heavy moral responsibility.”

How can pet owners best support their pets?

“The most important thing we can do is give them a greater sense of control over their own lives and their own environment. There are a million ways to do that. And you can be very creative.

“When I take Bella for a walk, it’s about her. it’s for her. And I probably seem funny to other people, but I let her pick the pace. I let her choose the direction. If she wants to get into the middle of a muddy field to smell something, I’ll go there with her and give her time to do it. And I’m just trying to let her be a dog. And sometimes that means if she wants to roll on the grass or the field, then sometimes I don’t know what she’s rolling on.

“I let her do it because she doesn’t have that much emotion in her life. So when she can find these little moments of joy, I hug them for her. But she lets your dog be a dog. Find out what that means and then let them do it.”

Are there any animals that more people should consider as pets?

“One of my favorite mascots (and I know it could make your audience members go ‘yuck’) is the rat. They are wonderful.

“They are not prone to biting like hamsters and gerbils. They really enjoy the interaction. They are very smart. They are trainable. I really believe that you can give them interesting lives. And in return, they are wonderful friends.”

gabrielle healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with gabe bullard. Healy also adapted it for the web.