You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 10 p.m.

In keeping pets, are we doing what's best for them - or ourselves?

By Lorrie Shaw


Are fish as deserving of consideration of their physical and mental well-being as other pets, like dogs?

flickr photo by The Busy Brain

The fields of ethology and behavioral ecology are ever-growing, and for so many reasons, that's a great thing.

We've come a long way in understanding animal behavior. In fact, seeing it for what is and comprehending it by way of processing what is actually happening, as opposed to viewing it from a perspective that is in many ways seen as "humanly superior," has been crucial.

Understanding the behavior of an animal clearly is vital because it's interpretation has, through the years, affected their very existence: we have positioned ourselves — willingly or not — as curators of their well-being.

The way that animals are treated and valued as a whole by us, shapes their present, and their future. It also influences their behavior.

What comes to mind when you hear the terms, animal behavior, ethology or behavioral ecology?

Chances are, you think of dogs and cats first, and for obvious reasons. These species not only share a roof with us, but they are meshed so deeply in our lives.

In somewhat less common circles, the same holds true for reptiles and birds kept as pets. Many of these animals are rescued from situations that are less-than-ideal.

Other exotics in captivity, for example, sugar gliders, are at the root of vigorous controversy.

One article written by Douglas Quenqua got me thinking about more broad questions when it comes to ethology and behavioral ecology:

  • Why do we keep pets, and why do we choose the animals that we do? Why are new species of animals being introduced as a viable choice to keep in captivity? (What motivates humans to keep dogs or rats — or even snakes, perhaps?)
  • Are we doing enough to cultivate an environment that is optimal for the pets that we keep? (Rather, are we doing what we see as convenient for ourselves or what top-rated cable television series' and the pet product market tells us — or are we doing our utmost for the good for the animal? How ethical are the resources that we have?)
  • When considering the breeding of animals, what takes precedence? The best interests of a breed? Profit? Have the breeds been curated with mindfulness?
  • Why do we place a higher value on some animals, and maintain a dismissive stance on others? It is intelligence? Is it because some animals are seen as "pets," while others are considered "food"?
  • Where is "pet ownership" going?

Quenqua writes about an unlikely species when thinking about behavior and well-being with pets: fish.

The article focuses on a study on the effects of overcrowding done by Ronald G. Oldfield, a professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University.

The findings of the study were not all that surprising, really. After observing Midas cichlids — a species popular amongst those who keep fish as pets — in two separate experiments, Oldfield found that overcrowding in fish tanks causes aggression and guarding of resources.

In one tank, size was kept constant while increasing the number of fish. In the other tank, three fish were placed in consistently larger and more complex tanks.

In the latter case, the ciclids aggression reduced considerably when the fish were placed in a 100-gallon tank with several plants and rocks to form crannies.

The findings confirmed what Oldfield found when observing wild Midas cichlids.

"If you go out and observe these fish swimming in a river, they're not aggressive at all, really."

Oldfield points out that most fish tanks used by hobbyists are puny — one-10th the size of the smallest that he used in the study.

"If people kept dogs in these conditions, they’d be put in prison," Oldfield states.

"It's something we should think about."

Read the original article that cited another study and more information from experts on by clicking here.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger on and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Follow her pet adventures on Twitter.



Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:01 a.m.

Don't breed or buy while unwanted pets die.

John Spieser

Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 11:55 p.m.

@ woman in ypsilanti, I think the clarification would be, some pets thrive beyond their wild counterparts, most do not as far as statistics tell. Furthermore, the untimely demise of their wild counterparts is also significantly affected by human interference. All animals, in the same predicament... "what to do with these uprights" !

Woman in Ypsilanti

Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

Don't domesticated pets live longer than their wild counterparts more often than not? I know that is true of dogs and cats anyways. Yes we could do better when it comes to taking care of these animals but I am not sure that pet ownership is something that is generally bad for the pets. Unless a pet trade is harming a wild population, I don't see any problems with it although I hope people will be responsible. I had to stop trying to keep fish because I was killing the fish but all my other pets have had good long and, I hope, happy lives.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:20 p.m.

"Don't domesticated pets live longer than their wild counterparts more often than not?" Not often, at least not for exotics like reptiles, fish, birds. Yes, some animals are well cared for, and do live longer than average, but many many die in the process of being collected, distributed and sold, and many more die while in the care of naive or careless owners.


Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

Nice to see Ron Oldfield getting some press, he is a UM alumnus. I've been especially dismayed by the popularity of reptiles as pets. The number of tortoises, turtles, snakes, and lizards that die in the pet trade every year in the U.S. is mind-boggling. People think they are a lot easier to care for than mammals or birds. They aren't, really, they just take longer to die from neglect and poor care, and it's harder to tell when they are sick.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 4:03 a.m.

Epengar: Thank you for mentioning that. I feel silly for not correlating Dr. Oldfield's name with The Aquarium Society of Ann Arbor - a group co-founded by him (for those readers who are not aware): <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> I agree with you about reptiles. In interviewing Mark Creswell from GLZS in Ann Arbor several weeks ago for a piece that I posted in November, he spoke about the deficits that these animals suffer as a result of poor husbandry. And you're correct - it IS more difficult to detect when there is illness or stress on an animal, because of the lack of knowledge on the human's part. It's terribly sad. I thank you for your comment.

John Spieser

Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 2:01 p.m.

Good stuff to think about Lorrie ! What disturbs me deeply is the fact that if you really break down the statistics, as a society here in the U.S; we push more dogs and cats into jeopardy than we rescue or securely home. This goes on year after year ! Think about it, the HVHS just completed their expansion (in part designed to accomodate greater numbers of unfortunate pets) and they are already, barely 2 years later, busting at the seams with homeless animals. Any credible stastical research looking at the pet crisis in the U.S (aspca) predicts that the numbers we are seeing are low at best and that it is likely that there are millions of pets unaccounted for facing dire conditions or death, that is in addition to the ones we know about. It really makes me wonder if people, generally speaking, are responsible enough to have them.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:49 a.m.

That's a great point, John. I, too, suspect that the numbers of homeless pets are indeed higher than are accounted for. It's a sad, sad situation. The programs and knowledge are out there to help get the problem under control. The issue is that it's a people problem. It always will be. :(


Wed, Jan 4, 2012 : 1:34 p.m.

•Where is &quot;pet ownership&quot; going? What's with the quotation marks? Not required. I own my dog and if I had a sugar glider, I would own that too. No need to be PC.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:44 a.m.

EyeHeart: Putting the phrase in quotation marks was in no way intended to be PC. It was done to emphasize the topic. It's one that does incite a bit of controversy all on its own, I've found and may be worthy of further examination. Thanks for chiming in!


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

I kept him for his humour's sake, For he would oft beguile My heart of thoughts that made it ache, And force me to a smile. - William Cowper (1731–1800), British poet. Epitaph on a Hare


Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 2:41 p.m.

Very nice article. I studied ethology in college (many moons ago) and still cannot watch squirrels, birds, frogs, etc. without analyzing their actions and reactions. It makes a lot more sense when you know the science behind the behavior. I would love to read the articles from the Behavior Ecology Journal but am not so sure I can afford that habit.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:28 a.m.

RunsWithScissors: It does make sense when you understand things from that perspective. *sigh* And there tends to be less 'drama'!

Sarah Rigg

Tue, Jan 3, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

In answer to the first bulleted question, Jared Diamon'd book &quot;Guns, Germs &amp; Steel&quot; contains are pretty convincing theory for why we domesticated the animals we did, and why we did NOT domesticate other animals closely related (i.e. domesticating horses but not zebras). He also makes a pretty convincing case that we basically domesticated *each other*.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:26 a.m.

That's on my list, Sarah, for that very reason! It should be a fascinating read.