How Do You Know When a Pet Is More Than Just a Pet?

Dr. Patty Khuly with her very first chicken, Elvio.

Earlier this month, a New York dog owner announced that she was filing suit against a swanky Manhattan pet shop for selling her a pup that now suffers from painful diseases.

On the surface, the claim is no different from plenty of other lawsuits seeking compensation for astronomical vet bills and a high-priced pup.

But this case offers a cool new twist: It argues that Umka isn't really a pet — she’s more like a seven-year-old child, with intrinsic value as a soul-bearing individual.

It’s an interesting argument, but I’d be shocked if the courts ruled in Umka’s favor. I can’t imagine our justice system conferring human rights on animals, like they did in Spain for great apes in 2008.

Animals With Added Worth

Regardless, it’s clear that some pets really are more than just pets and deserve special treatment. These are animals that work for us in some capacity, earning them value beyond their Umka-like worth as companions. I'm talking about breeding animals, those who compete in athletic events, animal actors, service animals, military canines and farm animals, to name a few.

In my case, 12 of my pets have a market value. But does it diminish them emotionally?

In some cases, I can imagine that an animal's inherent usefulness actually makes them potentially more beloved. Consider service dogs, who provide constant companionship and perform basic functions for the disabled. Wouldn’t you think that these pets are more tightly bonded with their owners?

A Full (Hen) House of Quasi Pets

My own “animals with added worth” situation is nowhere near as impressive as Umka’s or as defensible as that of a service dog: I have 11 backyard hens, who not only produce eggs but come with the added distinction of being edible.

I got to thinking about their petness about two weeks ago, when one of my hens developed a big hematoma on her leg. I had no way of knowing how she’d suffered the trauma or whether she’d sustained some internal injuries as well.

But that wasn’t the worst of it: As she cowered in a corner of the coop, her sister hens began pecking at her head and pulling out her feathers. (Just so you know, 12-year-old girls have nothing on chickens when it comes to mean-girl behavior.)

So what’s a veterinarian to do?

If she were a companion-style working dog, I’d be at the specialist’s place ASAP. If she were Umka, I’d head for my regular vet, but spare no expense if she needed pricey care. If she were mere livestock . . . she’d be dinner.

Since my hens straddle the blurry line between being Umka and livestock, I opted to isolate her and wait. It worked out well — she's now back on both feet and once again laying eggs in the bosom of her flock.

The role of animals — whether as pets, workers or protein — often overlap in uncomfortable ways, making consistently moral decision-making a constant challenge. I’d gone through the decision-making process carefully, and I ultimately felt that my approach with the hen was consistent with my general worldview on animals.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the next situation won’t be every bit as fraught. Regardless of whether they’re service dogs who make our disabled lives doable, chickens who may be dinner, or soulful, Umka-like pets, it’s never that simple. But it is always worth contemplating.

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