The words we choose to use send powerful messages out into this world. The words we choose to use when discussing animals are no different. Subconscious associations and assumptions are made in split seconds, based on words spoken and written. And the language the world at large uses when talking about animals is often maligning.

Some say the terminology regarding animals doesn’t matter, and that the accepted terms should remain just that. But when you see how heated the issue can become—then you see that yes, indeed, it does matter. Here are five common animal terms used in our society that really ruffle my feathers:

Use instead: animal welfare activist

Though the terms “animal rights” and “animal welfare” are not exactly interchangeable, the influential Associated Press came out earlier this year with this change to its Stylebook, the go-to guide journalists refer to when writing articles. I prefer “animal welfare” to “animal rights” and like this change for many reasons: For one, because “animal rights,” in our society, has developed such a negative connotation to it, painting compassionate individuals involved in the humane movement as extremists. And two, because “animal welfare” is a broader, generic term that isn’t emotionally loaded. Bravo, AP—and hopefully more of the population will come around to using “welfare” instead of “rights,” too.

Use instead: animal or companion animal

The vocabulary we use is so often derogatory to animals, diminishing that special relationship we share with our cat, dog, horse or other. “Pet” is a perfect example of this. The word communicates the old-school view (that is still commonly held, unfortunately) that animals are lesser creatures, and simply property to be owned. I find “animal” or “companion animal” to be more dignified. My animals are not just family—they are sentient beings, too, and they deserve better. The Journal of Animal Ethics agrees: In 2011, the publication released a fascinating and controversial article discussing this very idea—that we should be careful in the language we use to describe animals. (If only “companion animal” were a little less clunky-sounding.)

Use instead: caregiver

Related to “pet” above, the term “owner” communicates the idea that animals are merely pets or property—not the special beings that we are fully committed to caring for and loving. Additionally, I prefer “caregiver” over terms such as “guardian” because it clearly conveys the emotional component of our relationship (vs. describing it in a cold and legal-sounding way).

Use instead: he or she

Let’s be honest, our special dog or cat—even if neutered or spayed—is not an “it.” Yet so many animals are referred to as “it.” In the first scientific paper she ever wrote, Jane Goodall used “he” and “she” instead of “it” to describe the chimpanzees—to much backlash. Kudos to Goodall for refusing to buckle under pressure and change, and also for promoting the groundbreaking idea that animals are emotional creatures worthy of our empathy and respect.

Use instead: lost

When homeless animals need adoption, which word makes them sound more adoptable, “stray” or “lost”? Exactly. Calling animals strays conjures up images of beastly creatures with matted fur that no one wants. But change the word to “lost”—now you create a new, positive image of a loved animal needing a new home. Or an animal who has lost his home, and needs help finding his way back. For tips on how to reunite lost animals with their human caregivers, check out the Missing Pet Partnership.

What about you? Do you feel comfortable calling your animal a pet? Why or why not? What other animal terms do you think need updating?

7 thoughts on “5 animal terms that need to be modernized”

  1. Hi Kathleen!
    I love your blogs, this one included. You bring up some good points and I agree it’s helpful for us all to think about the message our words convey, since they have a ripple effect. The one idea I would humbly share, is for us all to still be gentle with those who might use a term even if it’s not the optimal one. For example, I wrote something named “Pet Massage”, and just had a “Pet & Person Reiki” tent at a local shelter event…. As I read the blog I got a bit of a belly ache worried that the person I admire most in the holistic animal world (you! 🙂 ) might be disappointed in me….. I used it because I related the term “pet” to “kid”….. an easy to say, cute term of endearment. I think it’s great for us to all be aware of, but also to keep in mind that if someone does use one of those words, they don’t necessarily mean to belittle the animals. I hope that was ok to share. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing that Karen, and for me, the purpose of the blog is to share my own evolution of thinking and get people to think about it themselves, and of course if you feel good about your use of it, you should do what is right for you. I think most people don’t really think about it one way or another, but sometimes words come across in a certain way, even if we don’t mean them to. And I think we have great power in the way we language things, to empower and honor animals, if we so choose to 🙂 I wouldn’t be disappointed in you if I saw those words on your tent – but if I had my own event, I would call it something different, but that’s ok 🙂 Blessings!

  2. Thanks for sharing this article Kathleen. But, instead of saying “companion animal” I prefer “animal companion.” If you substitute the word human for animal you will see what I mean. “Companion human” sounds weird but “human companion” does not. I also think it’s easier to say.

    The word ‘welfare’ makes me think of helplessness, dependency and victimization. I prefer to just say that I am an animal advocate.

  3. Thank you Kathleen for bringing this up. It is something I try to actively challenge – the language we use when referring to other species. Even the word animals can be used as lesser than, as well as separating us from them, though we are all animals of varying species.

    I agree with all of the ones you listed … except for animal welfare. Having a background of working in “that world” there is a very distinct difference in what rights versus welfare mean. To the public they are used interchangeably and get confused. However they mean very different things. Basically the difference boils down to welfare accepting the use of animals for human purposes, just use them the nicest way possible. And rights challenges the notion that they are ours to use at all. Very much like your challenge of the idea of them as property.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your reason for not liking the term rights because of the reputation it has gained. I myself use neither. I say that I stand for, and work towards, animal equality. It is inclusive of all species, human and every other, that we all have an equal and intrinsic right to live our lives freely.

    And the more I work with energy systems, including Reiki, the more solid that becomes for me. It is not just a philosophical distinction. We truly are all equal – we are all energy just presenting ourselves in different packages.

    This is a good topic to get people thinking about the power of their language. Thank you for bringing it up 🙂

    Peace to all,

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