“The Ethics of Canine Care” by Craig Merow

In his book “The Ethics of Canine Care: Relationships Generate Responsibilities,” retired bioethicist Craig B. Merow explores the moral and legal responsibilities we have towards dogs in light of their changing role in society. While dogs are now regarded as beloved family members, the existing moral and legal frameworks have not adapted to reflect this shift. Merow argues that this disconnect leaves dogs vulnerable and in need of better protection. He suggests that reclassifying dogs as “custodial property” rather than “personal property” would be more appropriate.

Merow highlights the vulnerability of dogs, which stems from the intentional breeding for certain characteristics. These traits, such as flat faces and elongated bodies, make dogs dependent on human care and prone to health issues. Additionally, dogs are selectively bred to form strong emotional bonds with humans, making them susceptible to harm.

Beyond providing basic physical needs, Merow emphasizes that dogs have social, emotional, and cognitive needs. They require regular interaction with people and other dogs, as well as mental stimulation. Merow argues that our responsibilities towards dogs extend not only to individual pets but also to the broader community of dogs. Dogs have become integral parts of our lives, participating in activities and providing companionship. Therefore, society as a whole bears a moral obligation to protect and care for them.

Merow proposes a new moral and legal framework for canine ethics, advocating for the creation of a fourth category of property called “custodial property.” This designation would recognize the unique characteristics of companion canines and emphasize the responsibilities that come with ownership. By focusing on the interests of companion animals, this framework would provide comprehensive protections for dogs. Merow urges lawmakers to pass legislation that reflects this new categorization.

While Merow’s framework primarily applies to dogs, he acknowledges that other sentient animals, such as cats, could also fall under the custodial property category. However, expanding this framework to include animals used for food or research would face significant resistance from agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. Therefore, the focus for now is on elevating the moral and legal status of companion animals.

Regarding the issue of brachycephalic dogs, Merow’s proposed framework places a high priority on the welfare of dogs. Breeding dogs with flat faces has led to severe breathing difficulties and birthing complications. Within the custodial property framework, breeding practices would prioritize the overall health and fitness of dogs, selecting for temperament and purpose rather than fixed conformation standards. This approach would minimize suffering and reduce veterinary costs for dog owners.

In conclusion, Merow’s book prompts us to consider our ethical responsibilities towards dogs in light of their evolving societal role. By reevaluating the moral and legal frameworks and adopting a custodial property framework, we can provide better protection and care for dogs as vulnerable and valued members of our communities.