Photo: "Ellie' from Stuart Chalmers Flickr Photostream

Beloved companion or health risk?  Or dinner? Start a debate about how we should relate to other species, and sparks soon fly – the ethics of hunting, bull fighting, laboratory tests on rabbits, eating some animals and not others, and pet ownership are all guaranteed to ignite ethical outrage.

Add ‘health risks’ to the moral maze, and somehow the issues get even murkier. Walking the dog is good for you, stroking the dog is good for you, but dog poo probably isn’t.  So should we ban pets from city streets? A recent article by Jane Derges and colleagues claims that number of people actually infected from dog poo in the UK is very small – yet it was the top topic of complaint when they talked to people about their neighbourhoods.  It is, they say, a ‘marker of incivility’, reminding residents of their marginalisation from the city authorities.

And as for eating dogs … well, mostly we don’t, because they are ‘pets’, and we divide up the animal world into ‘pets’ (not edible), ‘livestock’ (edible) and ‘wildlife’ (edible if you’re a bit of a foodie).

Asking ‘Who’s afraid of turkeys?’, Colin Jerolmack urges us to look more carefully at these arbitrary categories  – because, he says, they contribute to unhelpful divisions between those organisations and professionals who deal with different ‘kinds’ of animal.  This is a call to support the ‘One Health’ initiative for closer collaboration between human and animal medicine – for, it says, the benefit of ‘all species’.  One driver of this initiative is the rise in ‘zoonotic’ disease: those that can jump species boundaries.  Intensifying agriculture and global travel have increased risks from diseases such as avian flu, swine flu, and West Nile fever, and closer collaboration, it is argued, with help with monitoring the risks.   Of course, in practice, the human species is the one that apparently matters most (no one is saving the tsetse fly), and it seems, some humans matter more than others.

As Kennedy Mwacalimba suggests in his report on experiences on preparing for Avian Influenza in Zambia, international responses protect humans in rich countries at the cost of humans and animals in resource-poor countries. The risk of Avian Influenza for the population of Zambia was actually quite low (compared with the massive public health burdens of HIV and TB, and the rather more pressing cattle diseases that Zambian farmers struggle with) – but the international community, worried about global threats from supposedly ‘dangerous’ African farming practices, poured huge resources into ‘pandemic preparedness’.

So health risks are a shaky guide to practice: it all depends what risks we worry about (infection from dog poo, or civil disrespect?), and whose risks count most (the Zambian chicken farmer, or the highly mobile European traveller?).   But, maybe thinking a bit more about how relations with animals reflect our relations with people, and how both could be more respectful, might just help us think about what ‘healthier’ might look like.