Use of the Word “It” when Referring to Animals

I'm a he

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The English Language & Usage website of stackexchange.com says the following about the use of the word “it” when referring to people and animals:

It is not generally considered appropriate for humans. We use he, she, etc. It implies that the human in question is an object, or has no gender (which is generally considered offensive). As far as animals go, it and its are fine.

My life experience informs me that over 90% of people refer to animals as “it”. People never use “it” when speaking or writing about people. It would be a clear insult implying that the person was not human – an object, instead.

Therefore I conclude that 90% of people consider animals as objects as opposed to sentient, feeling beings or they use “it” by convention. That’s pretty shocking don’t you think? Don’t you think it is time we moved on and developed more respect for the other living creatures who share the planet with us? I believe the use of the word “it” for animals is rooted in the past. Using “it” is an indication that humankind has a long way to go before it can be considered civilised and as a good as it thinks it is.

The reason for using “it” must be human arrogance. A belief that we are so intellectually superior that animals are tantamount to “its” – objects, hardly alive and definitely not smart enough to feel emotions or even pain or be conscious of their own existence. I am sure many people still don’t understand that animals feel pain.

When I googled “animals feel pain” the top page was one by The Welcome Trust entitled, “Can animals feel pain?” The article starts off:

“Whether animals can feel pain has been a controversial issue for many years.”

This uncertainty must account, in part, for humans calling animals “it”. Yet, for me it is common sense that animals feel pain. It is obvious animals do because they have anatomy similar to ours with highly developed nervous systems etc..Nerves transmit pain signals. Even vets understand that now (at one time they were not so sure and used painkillers less often as a consequence).

As for emotional pain, we don’t know scientifically if animals experience it. Hunters probably justify what they do (inflicting pain on animals as a consequence of their enjoyment) by believing that animals are different and don’t experience suffering as humans do. But they don’t know and it is convenient for them to maintain this blind spot.

Putting aside humankind’s natural arrogance and ego-centric nature, morally and ethically we should make a presumption based on common sense that animals experience pain and emotions similar to ours. There are probably differences but animals do have these feelings.

Therefore out of respect for animals we should refer to them as “him” or “her”, if we know their gender, and if we don’t we can write “him or her” or “her/him” or “him/her”. Or we can refer back to the name of the animal rather than use the pronoun thereby circumventing the problem.

Particularly thoughtless people refer to their own companion animal as “it, because they know the animal’s gender and please note that desexing (spaying and neutering) an animal does not give anyone the right to refer to the animal as “it”.

My initial thoughts on this subject is that the more educated and enlightened a person is, the less likely they are to use “it” when referring to animals. This supports my viewpoint that using “it” is rooted in the past, outdated and linked to vast swathes of humankind’s general ignorance and arrogance and as a result it should stop as soon as possible.

This would lead to a better relationship with animals, better conservation and a greater respect for them. It would put a barrier to animal abuse, the massive international trade in animals and for example the eating of tigers for some idiotic reason only humans could dream up.

We should refer to people who abuse and use animals as “it”.  That is an appropriate use of the word in my book.

10 thoughts on “Use of the Word “It” when Referring to Animals”

  1. I agree, it is disrespectful and wrong to call any animal ‘it’
    I always use he/she if I don’t know the sex or am talking generally.
    We don’t call a castrated man or a woman who has had a hysterectomy ‘it’ and really they are neutered just like cats and dogs are!
    Until every one sees every animal as a living feeling being with feelings of pain and emotion, they will keep on being treated like inanimate objects, to be used, abused or eaten.
    Just because animals can’t read or write or talk in the same language as we do, it doesn’t mean they are not as intelligent as humans (in fact many are much more intelligent that some humans)
    It suits some people to think of and call animals ‘it’ so that they can keep on deluding themselves that humans are superior……

    Reply
    • Amen again Ruth! I hate people sometimes why do we think that we are so bloody superior? Animals just would not do to other animals what we do to animals and other people.

      I rarely call an animal ‘it’ why would I if I know the sex? It implies that they are an imanimate object which of course they are not, my feeling is that some people are so thick, stupid and unfeeling they have to justify their existence by vilifying animals. To vilify by the way only applies to people however it should apply to animals as well as people do it all the time.

      I just don’t get why people could still think that animals don’t feel pain when as Michael says they have a nervous system and pain receptors just like us in fact apart from the level of intellegence (which I feel is sometimes in question especially when I think of declawing) animals are so like humans in far more ways then they are different.

      Reply
  2. Michael, I have always called any anipal “him or her” or him/her if I do not know the gender. I agree with you. I truly feel that the anipals are living, thinking, breathing and feeling beings as we are — albeit to a smaller degree, but that does not lessen the reasoning behind calling them him or her appropriately. I speak to my kitties as if I am speaking to a human toddler — in PLAIN ENGLISH!!!!! I believe they deserve that, and I respect them for who they are!! ♥♥♥

    Reply
  3. I suggest that people use the word “It” when referring to a cat they are not familiar with and the gender is unknown. One example would be me at a cat asking of a cat I have never seen before “How old is it?” This is rather more abstract than gender related.

    Reply

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