The Ethics of Companion Animal Abandonment in Times of Crisis

Andrew Fenton and Timothy Krahn analyze some of the ethical issues at stake when humans are forced to abandon their companion animals in a time of crisis.


Though companion animal abandonment is not a new ethics issue, two recent crises foreground the realities at stake: the abandonment of Afghanistan by “Western” allied forces and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. The efforts to get shelter animals from Afghanistan were met by some with celebration of such a compassionate commitment to these vulnerable individuals, and by others with condemnation of “prioritizing” animals over humans. Stories have emerged from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine of animals abandoned in their home communities or at places of departure when their guardians were forced to leave them in order to secure passage out of Ukraine. There can be little doubt that in both of these recent events we occasionally see the effects or expression of anthropocentric speciesist attitudes or values, but that is not our direct focus. Though other animals are also harmed in wars, that too is not our focus here.

Whatever our views of duties to other animals, it’s important to understand what’s happening to animals in these times of crisis as a moral issue. Social inequities are starkly visible in times of crisis. Consider again the situation in Ukraine, and let’s narrow it to those who tried but failed to get their companion animals out of the expanding war zone. Likely, significant social harms attend this abandonment, affecting both guardians and companion animals. We have good reason to think that the guardians travelling with their companion animals were strongly motivated to save them as valued members of their households—after all, it wouldn’t have been easy in circumstances where they were fleeing for their lives. And the animals, lacking relevant levels of understanding to fully comprehend what was happening, were left in strange places, surrounded by distressed human strangers and the sounds of war, without food security and the emotional support of the humans with whom they are bonded.

Photo Credit: cocoparisienne/ pixabay. Image Description: A dog stares through metal fence at something.

Forced companion animal abandonment can happen in countries like Canada. An example occurs when folks needing to relocate to a care facility (or even qualify for public housing) are not allowed to bring their companion animals with them. Again, we have good reasons to think that this comes at a cost to both parties. Even those companion animals lucky enough to find an alternate “forever home” will likely experience some distress from the changes in their lives. The guardians forced to give up their companion animals lose that relationship and the attendant benefits, including health benefits.

Ethics is at stake when individuals experience harm; relevant harms for our discussion include hunger, pain, distress or suffering, dysfunctional development, and killing. Roughly speaking, this list tracks basic interests (e.g., to be free of hunger or pain, to properly develop, to continue to live). That these interests matter morally, whether or not the individuals are humans, is an insight of philosophico-religious reflections going back to at least the classical period. Two insights of reflective ethics jump out to us: (i) the moral importance of avoiding unnecessary harm; (ii) cultivating what Kant called “our humanity.” Harm is unnecessary when it can be avoided without precluding securing a morally acceptable and proportionate benefit. “Our humanity,” for philosophers like Kant, refers to those capacities that are necessary for human moral agency. Kant held the view that we have a duty to cultivate these capacities, a view that resonates with various South and East Asian philosophies (think of Buddhism or Confucianism, to name just two).

Are the harms to guardians and companion animals which we have highlighted unnecessary? We think so. Where there is no threat to “life or limb,” guardians should not be forced to abandon their companion animals and so dissolve their interspecific family unit. A commitment to avoiding unnecessary harm commits relevant parties to make every reasonable effort to keep these interspecific family units together. When this is impossible, reasonable efforts should be made to help the affected parties adjust to these new circumstances, be they human or nonhuman animals. We’re inclined to think that those forcing the companion animal abandonment are responsible to make these efforts.

What of the prescription to cultivate our humanity? When guardians are forced to dissolve their interspecific family units they are failing another for whom they assumed care, by their own moral standards. The consequences of such a failure matters morally, even to those like Kant who did not think we can morally wrong animals.

Companion animal abandonment in times of crisis can involve interspecific harms. Without doubt, that matters to those harmed. But it should also matter to the rest of us and change how we support those in crisis.


Andrew Fenton is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University

Timothy Krahn is a Research Associate in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University.

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