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Respecting the privacy of my feline research participants

Image by Kris Hill (2019)

Kris Hill, Anthrozoology PhD candidate, University of Exeter 

General Cat Data Protection Regulations (GCDPR)!

Figure 1. A Facebook group ‘announcement’ posted in an open group, April 2021

The above ‘announcement’ (Figure 1) showed up in one of the many Facebook groups for domestic cat (Felis catus) guardians and enthusiasts that I am a member of. The post makes fun of the EU’s relatively new General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) legislation, but in doing so it trivialises the notion of privacy being extended to more-than-human animals (hereafter abbreviated to animals). The message implies that the notion of extending privacy rights to cats is ridiculous. But is it? The concept of privacy in relation to animals is something I continue to grapple with, both as a researcher and personally as a cat guardian.

What is privacy?

Moore (2003) describes two types of privacy – bodily and informational. The former refers to the moral right of a person to control access to their own body, capacities, and powers. The latter relates to personal information about oneself. For humans, the concept of privacy is embedded in the notion of private and public spaces, with the home being considered to be a private place (Shapiro, 1998). While privacy is generally recognised as being essential to human liberty, the precise definition, legality, and ethics of privacy are highly contested (Nissim and Wood, 2018). Speaking exclusively for humans, Moore (2003: 215) claims ‘Privacy, whether physical or informational, is valuable for beings like us.’ But what of animals?

Should the privacy of animals be respected?

I confess to being somewhat bemused when first presented with this question during my MA studies. It honestly had never occurred to me that the surveillance of animals might be problematic. From a young age, I appreciated the importance of gaining consent before approaching and touching another animal. This was something I was taught as a child regarding how I interacted with dogs. And despite those first lessons being primarily about my own safety, I was encouraged to be considerate when interacting with all animals and to appreciate not everyone wanted to be approached, touched, or picked up. But I saw no harm in unobtrusive observation. I felt no shame in watching other species eat, defecate, procreate, or in sharing their images for entertainment or education. As an anthrozoologist who advocates for animals to be respected as morally significant beings, I am forced to re-examine these long-held beliefs and assumptions.

I continue to support the sharing of images of animal suffering in activist literature, albeit with growing unease. My rationale being that such images are justified, providing the intention is to raise a level of awareness necessary to invoke a change in the attitude and behaviours that led to that suffering. Why should we be concerned about animal privacy when humans are causing them much more tangible harm? Aaltola (2014: 20) asks the question: ‘If, indeed, nonhuman animals are individuals with inherent worth, is it not possible that their suffering—just like that of human beings—is at least in certain contexts a matter of privacy?’ By offering human comparisons, Aaltola’s paper explores this idea further, making comparisons to human scenarios where the sharing of private moments of pain is morally questionable. By not respecting privacy in moments of suffering, we devalue those whose pain is being exploited.

Nature documentaries also share images of pain and suffering inflicted by one animal species on another, and unlike activist literature these are not intended to affect behaviour change. Aaltola (2014: 22) suggests that ‘through the stereotypical notion of ‘natural’ animal suffering, nature documentaries may offer a guilt-free way of enjoying scenes of nonhuman suffering.’ Wildlife documentaries endeavour to record and share the private lives of animals who remain unaware they are being observed (Mills, 2010). Ethical considerations tend to focus on not disturbing or harming the animals, but little attention has been given to whether it is acceptable to record the private lives of animals whose behaviour indicates a desire to remain unseen (for a few exceptions see Aaltola, 2014; Mills, 2010; Pepper, 2020).

Is ‘do no harm’ enough?

My approach to the subject of animal privacy is pragmatically grounded in the no-harm principle. One thread of my PhD research entailed recording cats I encountered around town (including photos and notes). In my research I obscured landmarks and identifying marks to protect feline participants from being recognised by humans who might do them harm. This is something I had never considered as a lay person taking and sharing photos of street cats. I never approach or impose myself on a cat. I take care not to disturb any cat I am observing, although oftentimes they do become aware of my presence. Essentially, I am invading their privacy.

Figure 2. Unknown neighbourhood cat, photo taken by author (2019).

Guardianship and ‘pet parenting’

Regarding the online culture of sharing cat photos and cat stories, I plead guilty. I have shamelessly posted images of my cats throughout the years, and for this I am mostly unapologetic. As far as I am aware my actions never harmed or embarrassed my cats (unlike some of the photos parents share of their human children, which might be found and ridiculed by peers during the sensitive teenage years!). It is possible that one image I shared of Sophie in her Halloween costume inspired others to force their cats to do something they disliked. After all, she did look cute! In my defence, the offending Halloween photoshoot took place when I was new to cat guardianship, and I was not entirely insensitive to her discomfort (I never played dress up with her again). Arguably a minority of cats actually enjoy being dressed up, but many become physically and psychologically stressed by this practice (RSPCA, 2019). Furthermore, the act of dressing up has been proposed to compromise the dignity of animals (Abbate, 2020; Hurn, 2011).

As a cat guardian, I defend my prerogative to share their images and tell stories because these actions come from a place of love and my intention is not to be exploitative or to cause harm. I have been sharing my cats’ private moments on social media for over a decade. However, recently I hesitated to share a picture of Yoder because of how the image embodied her vulnerability. The photo was taken soon after she came home following a major surgery. I find the image particularly touching because she is holding her favourite toy that went to the hospital with her. In that photo I know she is drugged, confused, and in pain, and I waited until she was on the road to recovery before sharing with a small circle of family and friends who cared for Yoder.

As part of my PhD research I recruited cat-human case study participants, where I interviewed the human participants about the relationship they had with their cat(s). Informed consent could only be given by the human. To some extent I relied on the humans to protect their feline, although I was in a position to exclude any information I deemed potentially identifiable and harmful to a cat. The nature of my research meant this was unlikely, but the fact remained that the cat cannot not give consent to me sharing their hunting habits as part of my thesis. There are ethical guidelines for researchers engaging with small children or other groups of humans unable to give consent (Furey et al., 2010), some of which could be adapted by anthrozoologists. I am concerned that likening healthy adult cats to children demeans them, yet myself and other cat guardians invariably ‘parent’ them to varying degrees (Finka et al., 2019; Owens & Grauerholz, 2019; Zito et al., 2015).

Dignity and respect?

I argue that my intimate knowledge of my own cats grants me some authority to make decisions on their behalf. But what about all those photos and notes I took of town cats for my research? For that matter, what of my private ‘cats hanging out in historical sites’ photo collection? I don’t know those individuals. My encounters were fleeting. As a human I would feel annoyed at best, or devastated at worst, to find myself on display as part of a ‘street humans’ collection. I go out of my way to avoid cameras and online memes have made me nervous around anyone using their phones in the gym. The gym memes in particular make me cringe because I can emphasise with how the subjects might feel. However, provided I am sure no harm is being done (directly or indirectly), I will happily watch cats doing silly stuff (although I am growing less and less comfortable with this).

I could argue that no cats will be psychologically harmed or embarrassed by the invasions of their privacy I have described here. Does this make it ok? Aaltola (2014) suggests not, pointing out that humans who are unable to form an understanding of privacy are still granted it through the concept of ‘dignity.’ Essentially, ‘the privacy of beings possessing dignity can be violated’ (Aaltola, 2014: 24), and by not respecting privacy we take away dignity. Mills (2010) claims that granting the right to privacy to humans, while disavowing other species the same rights, is a form of speciesism that allows humans to maintain their dominance. Certainly, this topic is deserving of further scholarly attention and could be a PhD thesis in its own right. I find many of the points raised here disconcerting because they challenge how I interact with and relate to other animals, both in my research and daily life. However, I feel it is important to remain reflexive if we as anthrozoologists are serious about valuing animals as ethically significant beings, and not simply treating them as research subjects.

Author Bio:

Kris is working on her PhD while building the foundations of a new career – either as an academic, educator, or within a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of both human and non-human animals. Her research looks at cat-human relations in urban environments and social discourses surrounding free-living and free-roaming cats (Felis catus).


EASE profile:

Twitter: @Humananimalx

Personal webpage:


Aaltola, E. (2014). Animal Suffering: Representations and the act of looking. Anthrozoos, 27(1): 19–31.

Abbate, C. E. (2020). Valuing animals as they are—Whether they feel it or not. European Journal of Philosophy, 28(3): 770–788.

Finka, L. R., Ward, J., Farnworth, M. J., & Mills, D. S. (2019). Owner personality and the wellbeing of their cats share parallels with the parent-child relationship. PLoS One, 14(2): e0211862.

Furey, R., Kay, J., Barley, R., Cripps, C., Shipton, L., & Steill, B. (2010). Developing Ethical Guidelines for Safeguarding Children during Social Research. Research Ethics, 6(4): 120–127.

GPDR. The History of the General Data Protection Regulation.

Hurn, S. (2011). Dressing Down. Clothing Animals, Disguising Animality? Civilisations, 59(2): 109–124.

Mills, B. (2010). Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy. Continuum, 24(2): 193–202.

Moore, A. D. (2003). Privacy: Its meaning and value. American Philosophical Quarterly, 40(3): 215–227.

Nissim, K. and Wood, A. (2018). Is privacy privacy? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 376: 20170358

Owens, N., & Grauerholz, L. (2019). Interspecies Parenting: How Pet Parents Construct Their Roles. Humanity & Society: 43(2), 96–119.

Pepper, A. (2020). Glass Panels and Peepholes: Nonhuman Animals and the Right to Privacy. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 101(4): 628–650.

RSPCA (2019). What are the animal welfare issues with pets wearing costumes?

Shapiro, S. (1998). Places and spaces: The historical interaction of technology, home, and privacy. Information Society, 14(4): 275–284.

Zito S, Vankan D, Bennett P, Paterson M, & Phillips, C. J. C. (2015). Cat Ownership Perception and Caretaking Explored in an Internet Survey of People Associated with Cats. PLoS One, 10(7): e0133293.


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