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On the Morality of Rental Pet Prohibitions

photograph of "No Dogs Allowed" sign in front of apartment complex

I recently moved into a new home. Fortunately, our new landlord allowed the furriest member of our family to join us. Not all landlords are so kind, however. Many rental agreements contain clauses explicitly prohibiting tenants from owning pets. But such limitations are now being challenged. The U.K. is currently considering legislation that would give tenants the legal right to request a pet in their home, with landlords not being able to unreasonably refuse. New York City, on the other hand, already gives tenants the right to keep a pet in a no-pet property after three months of residence.

Landlords are understandably concerned about such developments. But it’s worth considering why we might think they have the ability to refuse tenancy to the two-thirds of the population that own pets.

We might begin by taking a rights-based approach: arguing that since the landlord is the owner of the property, they have the right to dictate whatever tenancy terms they see fit. If a potential tenant finds these terms unsatisfactory, then they are welcome to look elsewhere for a home. But such an approach – while elegant in its simplicity – fundamentally fails to describe how the law approaches the relationship between landlords and tenants. Property owners are not all-powerful lords overseeing their fiefdoms. As soon as they enter into a contract to lease their property, their rights in that property become limited. Most jurisdictions, for example, recognize the right of tenants to the exclusive possession and peaceful enjoyment of their property. A landlord could not, for example, prohibit the reading of books on the property, or capriciously make a rule outlawing the possession of Tupperware.

A rule against the ownership of pets, then, must be based on more than just the landlord’s right to dictate the terms of a lease. There must be good reason why this particular use of the property can be prohibited, when others cannot.

The obvious answer is, of course, the potential for damage that accompanies pet ownership. Most landlords don’t prohibit animals on the basis of a de Vil-esque hatred of animals. Instead, it stems from a fear that their valuable investment – a home – will be devalued through the devastation wrought by non-human occupants. And let’s be honest, this fear isn’t entirely unfounded. Anyone who has owned a pet will know that animals aren’t always entirely respectful of private property. They are quite capable of causing – sometimes catastrophic – damage.

Perhaps, then, the proper argument against pet ownership in a rental property is a consequentialist one. While tenants do indeed have a right to peacefully enjoy the property in which they reside, this right can be curtailed where an activity creates significant risk of damage to the home. It would, for example, be completely unreasonable for a tenant to claim that the right to peaceful enjoyment allows them to detonate fireworks in their living room. It’s also what allows landlords to create prohibitions against things like smoking.

But there are several problems with this argument. First, if the potential for damage is what justifies a prohibition against pets, then landlords should be permitted to prohibit anything else that brings that same potential for damage. But they’re not. A docile, well-trained cat is far less likely to create chaos than a rampaging toddler. But in most jurisdictions, there are clear protections in place that forbid a landlord from refusing to rent to a family with children. In the U.S., it’s a violation of Federal Law.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between a child and a pet. For one, there seems to be a generally recognized “right” to the former, but not the latter. But this is where a second concern with the consequentialist approach arises: such an argument must weigh all of the consequences – not only the costs. And while a pet might be importantly different to a child, the benefits a pet brings to its family are of a very similar kind. Pets bring companionship and joy. They even improve our improve our mental health. And the benefits aren‘t just to tenants. A recent study showed that pet-friendly homes in New York City brought landlords an additional $250 in rental income every month. There’s every chance that these benefits to tenants and landlords may easily offset the potential costs of any pet-related damage.

Which brings us to a final problem with the consequentialist approach: any rental arrangement brings with it an inherent risk of property damage – and there are already ample mechanisms in place to reduce the cost associated with that risk. That’s what security deposits are for. If a tenant – or their furry companion – causes damage, then this deposit will provide compensation for the landlord. In fact, in many cases, this deposit can be supplemented by an additional pet deposit and cleaning fee. Access to mechanisms such as these make a blanket prohibition on pet ownership in a rental property even harder to justify.

The upshot, then, is this: while a tenant might have the right to peacefully enjoy their rental property, there are circumstances where a significant risk of damage can allow a landlord to dictate the terms of a tenancy. The ownership of a pet, however, is not sufficient to meet this standard. If it was, then other activities (like having a child) could also be prohibited. What’s more, the benefits of pet ownership for the tenant far outweigh the potential costs to the landlord – costs which, through the appropriate use of existing mechanisms like security deposits – can be almost entirely eliminated.

At the end of the day, pets are – for many – just as much a member of the family as any of the humans of the household. Giving up those family members is unthinkable, which is why pet prohibitions lock many families out of a vast number of rental properties. What’s more, prohibiting pets from rental properties – while legally enshrining the rights of certain human family members – might also be yet another example of blatant speciesism

On the Morality of Declawing Cats

photograph of cat claws pawing at chair

In late May, the California State Assembly advanced a bill banning the declawing of cats. If the bill is passed by the State Senate, California will become only the third U.S. state – along with New York and Maryland – to have banned this particular procedure. But what does cat declawing involve, and why might we have reason to think that it’s wrong?

Several months ago, I argued that we have strong moral reasons to keep our pet cats indoors at all times. It’s a necessary step in order to prevent the decimation of native wildlife (including many endangered species) and it’s also much better for cats themselves – extending their expected lifespan from 2-5 years to 10-15 years. Further, so long as owners are attentive to indoor enrichment, these benefits can be obtained at almost no cost – with indoor cats capable of being just as happy as outdoor cats.

There may be some minor drawbacks, however – chief among these being the potential damage caused to furnishing and décor. Cats regularly (and instinctually) pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer some kind of resistance. This is done for a number of reasons, including (1) marking their territory, (2) exercising their muscles, (3) relieving stress, and (4) removing worn sheaths from their claws. While outdoors, cats will typically direct this clawing behavior towards hardened ground, tree trunks, and other rough surfaces. Indoors, things get a little trickier, with cats obliviously directing their clawing behavior towards leather couches, expensive stereo speakers, and Grandma’s antique furnishings.

Frustration at this continual damage can often drive owners to declaw their cats. In fact, around 23 million pet cats – more than 20 percent of all domestic cats in the U.S. – have been through this procedure. To the uninitiated, ‘declawing’ might sound relatively harmless. But sadly, this is not the case.

Cat claws grow not from the skin, but from the bone. Thus, a cat declawing procedure – or onychectomy – necessarily requires the amputation of the last digital bone on each front toe. This would, for a human, be equivalent to cutting off the tips of your fingers at the knuckle just below the fingernail.

Understandably, this is far from a simple procedure, and is often accompanied by weeks to months of post-operative suffering and pain management. There are also accompanying risks of infection, tissue necrosis, nerve damage, and bone spurs. Even where successful, the procedure fundamentally alters the way in which a cat walks, often leading to lifelong pain.

It is these harms to cats – both actual and potential – that have already led more than forty countries (including UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) to ban the declawing of cats. In California, the only opposition to the bill came from the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), who claimed that veterinarians must be able to declaw the cats of autistic children.

This was unusual reasoning, given that scientific evidence shows that declawed cats actually bite more often – and much harder – than cats that have not been through the procedure.

It’s perhaps worth noting that declawing procedures are often charged at a rate of more than $1000/hour, meaning that successful passage of the bill will stem a large source of revenue for veterinarians.

There are, of course, certain circumstances in which declawing might be absolutely necessary – particularly for the well-being of the cat. But legislation often contains exceptions for such cases. The California Bill, for example, continues to allow the procedure for the medically necessary purpose of addressing a recurring infection, disease, injury, or abnormal condition that affects the cat’s health. What it does prohibit is the use of declawing for cosmetic or aesthetic purposes or “to make the cat more convenient to keep or handle.”

And this is precisely where the real immorality of cat declawing becomes evident. Suppose we take a consequentialist approach to an issue like this, claiming that we’ll be morally justified so long as the good consequences justify the unsavoury means. To be fair, there are good consequences that come from declawing. Having a pristine home with unshredded décor is a good thing. As is avoiding the replacement of a valuable piece of furniture or a priceless heirloom. But these very same goods can be achieved by other means – means that come at far less cost to our cuddly companions. For one, providing a cat with an abundance of more attractive clawing alternatives – like scratching posts – can minimize their desire to scratch other objects. This can be coupled with behavioral training, where cats are rewarded for clawing the right things, and discouraged from clawing the wrong things. Even frequent nail trimming (where a cat’s claws are clipped – but not removed) can go a long way to minimizing damage when a pet does target an item they are not supposed to. Unfortunately, these methods require time and energy – something many pet owners are unwilling to spend in addressing the issue of cat-related damage to furnishings. Declawing provides an easy (if not cheap) solution to the problem – but it’s certainly hard to argue that it’s the morally right one.