One of the things that I noticed in rescue is how poignantly it illustrates the concept of distancing language. When people would get in touch with me about giving up their family pet, it was always the same. In the initial email, people would use their pet’s name to describe her. After a few weeks, that turned into “she.” Shortly after that, the beloved family friend would become “the dog.” At that point, we knew we had only a few days before the dog would be deposited at the nearest pound. If we got a message referring to the dog as “it,” we needed to act that day. We knew that the owner had now completed the psychological journey that allowed them to strip the dog of its individual merits as a living, feeling being, and had given themselves permission to discard an animal. From that point on, they could, and did, ruthlessly ignore their dog’s feelings. We saw this time after time as owners left, stonefaced, while their newly abandoned dogs whimpered and cried in their fosters’ home.
Humans’ unrivaled ability to liberate themselves of their inconvenient responsibilities is exactly why the term “companion animal” is vitally necessary when formally describing the contract between dog and human. Legally and psychologically, “pets” are property that can be disposed of at will and without consequence. “Companion animal” proposes a mutually beneficial relationship that comes with responsibilities and promises on both sides.
Changing the language alone won’t transform the way people think, but people in our society need to be reminded of their end of the bargain. Companion is a far more accurate term to describe the animals who love us with all of their generous hearts and rely on us so entirely to protect them. They stand by our side, and we owe it to them to stand by theirs.