Floyd is funny. Floyd is warm. Floyd is snugly.

And Floyd isn’t going anywhere.

The battle lines haven’t quite been drawn, but doubts over the ethics of keeping pets have sparked debate overseas as people question whether we should keep owning pets.

And with robot “pets” already on the market, one Kiwi academic says it is possible within 20 years our pets will more likely be powered by battery pack than heart muscle.

But not in Sarah Hayton’s home.

The Remuera woman is the owner of Floyd, a four-year-old Shitzu, and she can’t imagine life without him.

When his time comes to cross the rainbow bridge, she also can’t see herself switching to a companion that responds based on its hard drive, rather than its quirky little brain.

“The way we live now, our world now, we are on our own so much. They fill that void. And it’s that interaction.

“Floyd’s got personality. I just can’t see a robot having personality and that warmth of a living thing.

“It’s like loving your cellphone more than your dog.”

She runs Floyd’s life, with only a wag or a whine to indicate his feelings. Is Floyd happy with the arrangement?

Hayton thinks so. Because she is self-employed, she can take to Floyd to work, a big plus.

Given the choice, he’d stay, she says.

But others aren’t so sure about the decisions we are making for our animal friends.

It was a tub of baby rats that prompted United States’ bioethicist Dr Jessica Pierce to question the idea of pet ownership.

She was at a pet store buying crickets for her daughter’s gecko when man arrived with the rats, she believed for sale as pets or snake food.

“Rats have a sense of empathy and there has been a lot of research on what happens when you take babies away from a mother rat. Not surprisingly, they experience profound distress.

Robot pets don't need vets, or food. Photo / 123RF
Robot pets don’t need vets, or food. Photo / 123RF

“It was a slap in the face. How can we do this to animals?”

Pierce wrote Run, Spot, Run, which outlines the case against pet ownership.

From the animals that become dog and cat food and the puppy farms churning out increasingly unhealthy purebred canines, to the goldfish sold by the bag and the crickets by the box, pet ownership is problematic because it denies animals the right of self-determination.

Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look. Even whether they get to keep their sex organs.

Pet ownership not new

Treating animals as commodities isn’t new or shocking. Humans have been meat-eaters and animal-skin-wearers for millennia. However, this is at odds with how we say we feel about our pets.

There’s no doubt there’s money to be made from pet owners – for one thing, with a population in New Zealand of 4.6 million, there are almost as many companion animals as there are humans.

A survey by the New Zealand Companion Animal Council last year found spending on dog clothing, leads and bowls increased by 154 per cent in five years.

Almost one in five dog owners also insured their best friend, part of a total average spend of $1200 a year, up from $1047 in 2011.

Cats aren’t hard done by either – the average New Zealand cat-owning household spent an estimated $1005 on its felines each year.

A survey by pet food brand Jimbo’s revealed almost two-thirds of dog and cat owners wanted their pet to feel like part of the family.

Canstar Blue research published last month found a quarter of pet owners would rather spend time with their fur babies than immediate family. A third share a bed with their pet.

Kiwi animal experts are less convinced by overseas arguments against pet ownership.

Massey University professor Kevin Stafford, a vet with an interest in animal behaviour, says it is important to distinguish between animals that have been domesticated and been living with humans for a long time, such as dogs, and wild animals tamed and kept as pets.

He has no time for what he called the “stamp collecting” of wild animals by collectors.

Dogs, though, have lived with humans for up to 20,000 years and depend on us for their existence.

The past 60 years has seen a change, Stafford says.

Floyd with his best friend, Sarah Hayton - or is she just his meal ticket? Photo / Doug Sherring
Floyd with his best friend, Sarah Hayton – or is she just his meal ticket? Photo / Doug Sherring

“It’s phenomenal. They’ve moved off the street into our yards and into our homes.”

At the same time society had changed. Dogs are more likely to be left alone as people worked, which is “not really suitable” for such highly social animals.

“So you either [need] to have more dogs or spend more time with your dog.”

He thinks the popularity of domesticated animals, such as the dog, is on the way out.

With the arrival of robot pets – which can respond to commands, sit on laps and make comforting noises, and competing financial pressures, the pet ownership boom could burst within a generation.

But what about love received from a living, breathing pet? That doesn’t really come into it, not as we imagine, anyway.

“It’s not so much having a robot as having an emotional outlet.”

Life is already full of falsehood – from fake dating app photos to Facebook timelines featuring only the highlights.

“Most people are spending a lot of time in a network that convinces them they are some place else. My generation regard having a dog as normal. But my grandchildren regard the cellphone as a normal part of their environment.

“are an important part of my life, I have three, but just because I have dogs doesn’t mean that I regard that as the way of the future.”

Do we have the right to control our pets’ lives?

Western Carolina University psychology professor Dr Hal Herzog, one of the founders of the field of anthrozoology – which examines human-animal relations – described pet ownership as “morally problematic”.

People were more thinking of these as “people”, but research was also revealing the emotional lives of animals are more complex and rich than once thought, even for relatively “simple” animals such as goldfish.

“The logical consequence is that the more we attribute them with these characteristics, the less right we have to control every single aspect of their lives.”

Does this mean that, in 50 years or 100 years, we won’t have pets?

Institutions that exploit animals, such as the circus, are out of fashion and there are calls to end, or at least rethink, zoos.

It is possible our pets will more likely be powered by battery pack than heart muscle, says a Kiwi academic. Photo / 123RF
It is possible our pets will more likely be powered by battery pack than heart muscle, says a Kiwi academic. Photo / 123RF

In Britain, veganism is on the rise, skyrocketing 350 per cent in the last decade. Figures aren’t available in New Zealand, but Vegan Society Aotearoa NZ spokeswoman Claire Insley says numbers here are growing.

Some vegans draw the line at keeping pets – one spoken to by Herzog for his book on the motivations of animal rights’ activists set his pet cockatiel free, despite knowing it would probably starve.

Among our vegan population is Philip Armstrong, co-director at the New Zealand Centre for Human Animal Studies and the owner of a collection of rescued dogs, cats, chickens and birds – the latter living in a room to themselves, rather than a cage.

Keeping pets is not new, what has changed is the commodification of them on a massive scale, such as animal breeding, Armstrong says.

“And I think there’s a spectrum in how we circumscribe the lives of the animals we live with. Some of them we control and maybe even exploit in quite extreme ways, such as the rabbit you keep in a cage and when you get sick of it you just kill it. At the other end you have animals who might actually have quite a lot of choice about whether they live alongside us, such as the cat.”

Companion animals, when treated empathetically, are good for our heads and hearts.

He’s not convinced a robot can fill the void.

“Until robots have consciousness and can suffer, you can’t really have empathy with them, and therefore they can’t help you develop empathy.”

‘You don’t see a goldfish driving a Maserati’

Henderson Vet Clinic owner Brett Christian isn’t convinced all animals have advanced to want more.

“Goldfish haven’t evolved, for example. They’re still in a bowl. You don’t see a goldfish driving a Maserati, wearing a suit.”

Better understanding of what’s going on in our pets’ minds could be valuable for those with a bit more going on between their ears, such as dogs. That might mean changing our own behaviour around them, such as with play, but he can’t see a future without pets.

“It’s something we’ve always done, but the reasons have changed. In modern times we keep pets more for psychological reasons.”

Overseas experts argue differently, that until the 19th century, most animals owned by households were working animals that lived alongside humans and were regarded unsentimentally.

Veterinarian-turned-philosopher Bernard Rollin recalls pet owners as recently as the 1960s putting their dog to sleep before going on holiday, reasoning it was cheaper to get a new dog when they returned than to board the one they had.

More recently, however, several countries have moved to change the legal status of animals – New Zealand led the way in 2015 recognising animals as sentient beings, effectively declaring them no longer property.

But thousands of animals still end up homeless, with some put down.

The simple fact is our animals can’t tell us whether they are happy to be pets.

Pierce calls it “an illusion” that pets have more of a voice now.

“Maybe more that we are putting words into their mouth,” Pierce says, pointing to the abundance of pets on social media plastered with witty projections written by their “parents”.

“Maybe we are humanising them in a way that actually makes them invisible.”