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For me, one of the most challenging aspects of a plant-based lifestyle is not the difficulty of finding food in an airport. Nor is it what to do on holidays. For me, the biggest challenge is feeding my companion animals. My household currently includes three cats and two dogs. They eat meat every day. In addition, I volunteer at a humane society, and I like to bring “high value” treats for the dogs. I work in a program for dogs with special needs, and they sometimes need an extra incentive to walk on a leash for the first time or to be lured back into their kennels. What all of this adds up to is that I am implicated in the deaths of many of the animals commonly referred to as livestock in feeding the animals we have chosen to keep as companions.

In terms of ethical veganism, this puts me in a difficult position. How can I sponsor the killing of innocent animals to feed my own pets? Perhaps you have thought about this, too. Here are the options, as I currently see them.

Option 1: Feed pets a vegan diet. The option was outlined on this site. Cats, as obligate carnivores, must have nutrients that are found only in meat. Dogs are omnivores, and some can thrive on a vegan diet. But this option is not without consequences.

A plant-based diet requires killing. I am not talking about the “plants feel pain” argument. What I am talking about is the killing of millions of animals such as mice, pheasants, rabbits, moles, and others, who die because of growing and harvesting plants. As animal scientist Stephen Davis has argued, these animals are the “collateral damage” of raising crops. A 2002 article in TIME summarizes Davis’s support for “ruminant-pasture model of food production, which would replace poultry and pork production with beef, lamb and dairy products. According to his calculations, such a model would result in the deaths of 300 million fewer animals annually (counting both field animals and cattle) than would a completely vegan model.” Those who want to dispute this have suggested that farmers exercise more care in their operations. This is an impractical option if you have ever seen large-scale harvesting. Things are different on small farms, but small farms cannot feed everyone on the planet. Farming is not bloodless. And I won’t even mention the insects and microorganisms.

Option 2: Stop keeping pets. That, too, has been suggested on this site. When I have proposed this, people immediately thing I am talking about killing all the existing dogs and cats, or letting them run loose. That isn’t what I mean at all. I mean that when your current pets die, just don’t replace them. Phase into not keeping animals as companions. Just say no. But here’s the thing: I have never gone out and sought a dog or a cat. As I said, I volunteer at a shelter. The pets my husband and I have were all, for one reason or another, considered unadoptable. That is how we ended up with our current family members. Almost anyone who volunteers at a shelter will end up taking home a hopeless case or two. Or five. So supposing that my current cats and dogs lived out their natural lives, what should I then do when I meet another hopeless case? Just say no? That’s not going to happen.

We could simply stop breeding dogs and cats. One could argue that having dogs and cats as companions is neither normal, nor natural, nor necessary, to borrow Melanie Joy’s Three N’s. We could allow the existing generations of dogs and cats to live out their natural lives. We could socialize children differently, so that they do not consider dogs and cats part of human families. Ban “Lady and the Tramp” and similar films, along with any books that portray pets. We would need to retrain ourselves, too. But dogs and cats have been a part of human existence for so long that it is hard to imagine life without them. It may not be natural or necessary, but it is indeed normal. In addition, many breeds of dogs are ancient, and they would have their defenders. Breeding would go underground. The traffic in animals would be inhumane. Pet-keeping would become an elite practice. So this option, too, is unrealistic.

Option 3: Own the decision. Honor the commitment you’ve made to the animals in your care and recognize that adopting an ethical paradigm, whether it’s veganism or anything else, is a process.

In honoring the commitment, we have to acknowledge our limitations. For example, I have geriatric dogs. One has arthritis and failing kidneys. I feed him what the veterinarian recommends. For better or worse, the formula has been tested for its impact on the kidneys, and the proportions have been calculated so that controlling weight—and thus minimizing impact on aging joints—is easy. One of the cats is prone to pancreatitis, and another is susceptible to urinary crystals. Both conditions are managed with diet. Formulating a vegan diet for animals takes knowledge of biology, physiology, and nutrition that I do not have. To safeguard the health of the animals who depend on me, I depend in turn on professionals who have researched and developed standards for pet food. The skills to do what they do are beyond me just now.

Some might call my attitude “excuse-itarianism.” Like the people who have a million excuses for why they can’t stop eating meat, I have excuses myself for feeding it to my animals. Putting dogs and cats on a vegan diet is a choice. For some, it will be the only way to go. For those who don’t go that route, our choice means living with contradiction. When I consider the options, I’ll take the contradiction.

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9 comments on “On Pets, Meat, and Me”

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6 Years Ago

Hi I wanted to feed our cat a vegetarian diet but our Vet strongly advised against it due to his specific dietry needs, I would never endanger his health so have continued to feed him biscuits with meat content (all be it low) I was wondering if there were more 'friendly' types of cat food, for example made up of byproducts from the meat industry? at least then I could fed him what he needs to eat but not actively contribute to the meat industry, rather use the stuff that would ordinarily get junked! Any ideas?

6 Years Ago

Thank you for this wonderful article, it is a dilemma. Here is another solution that I like. Everyone can own a Pet TickleMe Plant without guilt. TickleMe Plants are the only plants that will move like an animal by closing its finger like leaves and lowering its arm like branches when tickled. You can see a video of this plant in action at www.ticklemeplant.com Like most pets it needs to be watered, fed (no fish emulsion please) and be given a suitable home with light and heat. The good news is your Pet TickleMe Plant needs no meat just some sunlight. My kids at school run to class each day to see them and I never worry that my family, friends and staff members have one when I give them out as holiday gifts. If you want to excite someone about nature and gardening visit www.ticklemeplant.com to get a kit to grow your own.

Jason Nivelles
6 Years Ago

I appreciate your concern with this issue but I would challenge you to keep pushing through it. If you are truly committed to living a non-violent lifestyle and diet and ensuring that you do not contribute to animal suffering and cruelty, then you need to realize that your choice (the dogs and cats didn't just walk into your house) to keep the animals is noble, but also entirely your ethical responsibility. The choices you make for them are ethical decisions that reflect upon you, not their "needs." That being said, as you mentioned, dogs are omnivores. They can not only live on a vegan diet - but thrive! In fact, like humans, they are much healthier on a vegan diet from the same benefits that humans receive: zero cholesterol, low saturated fat, etc. which leads to better heart health for your dog. So the statement should not be, "some dogs can live on a vegan diet", but "all dogs should and can be on a vegan diet." Dick Van Patten makes great vegan dog food which can be purchased online or from many retailers nationwide. http://www.naturalbalanceinc.com/dogformulas/Vegetarian.html As far as cats go, they are also omnivorous, despite the misguided belief that they must eat meat. In fact, there are a number of vegan cat foods available, which I encourage you to try. http://www.vegancats.com/ Finally, the argument that we shouldn't feed dogs and cats a vegan diet because it hurts mice in the field when the grains are harvested is ridiculous. If this meat-eater's argument carried any weight, then why do you even both eating a vegan diet? After all, you're killing the mice! No doubt that it is unfortunate that some mice and insects are inevitably killed in the harvesting of crops like soy, wheat and corn, but the amount of animal suffering that takes place in order to produce this vegan food pales in comparison to the animal suffering that is involved in actually killing billions of animals for food. Also, it is important not to forget that by feeding a dog or cat meat you are feeding them a dead animal that was likely abused and was fed grains that allegedly killed mice and insects - so the meat diet does the alleged damage of the vegan diet plus the damage of a meat eating diet. Therefore, the vegan diet produces the least amount of harm - and this is why we even bother eating a vegan diet in the first place. Besides, the number of animals killed in order to produce a vegan diet is negligible as you can tell in this graph from Animal Visuals. http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc Thank you for reading my response. In no way did I intend to offend you. I simply wish to challenge other vegans to pursue a truly cruelty-free lifestyle, which includes not owning dogs or cats (but still aiding in their rescue at municipal and non-profit animal shelters) and by feeding the pets that we currently own a vegan diet. Thank you and good luck. Best, Jason

Stanislaw Gadomski
6 Years Ago

One of the problems that cannot be solved satisfactorily. We are guilty, whatever we do and our guilt is just existence. It causes the suffering of the others. The only comfort is that it is temporary.

6 Years Ago

I struggle with this too, I live with an older (almost 16 y/0) cat and a 5 year old dog. I've been thinking about feeding the dog (Bruno) a plant based diet, im not sure how he will do but tis worth a try right? He has a digestive problems, loves lettuce and carros and would maybe even benefit from eating vegan? However I do no want to harm him or cause illness so this is where the issue is, such a double edged sword

15 Mar 2012

Thanks for writing this. I've been tyring to avoid thinking about this, as I was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes after being a vegan for 6 years, but a really unhealthy vegan. The doctor wanted to put me on a few meds, and told me that it was my vegan diet that was to be blamed for my diabetes which made me feel like shit. I don't want anyone to think they have to eat animals to be healthy, and for my doctor I just proved to him that vegans weren't health and it made me sick. I told him it wasn't because I was vegan, it's because I eat so much crap, lots of fat, sugar, fried stuff. I am going to prove to him that vegans can not only be healthy but eating a healthy vegan diet can reverse the diabetes with out drugs. I'm so pissed with myself for doing this to myself, becuase I knew it wasn't good for me, but I justified my eating by saying it was vegan, even if it was deep fried. So thanks for the reminder, I needed it, and you are right, all drugs are tested on animals, and the less selfish we are the better it is for animals.peace to you.

6 Years Ago

Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece, Leslie. I also have a rescue cat whom I would never be willing to give up. I believe that taking responsibility for an animal means honoring its needs and nature. In the case of my cat, that includes a high quality, meat-based diet. I do prioritize the needs of my cat above the lives of other animals. If I hadn't been willing to do that, I would have gotten an herbivore pet. At any rate, I consider putting cats on a plant-based diet that is so entirely foreign to what they've been eating for their whole evolutionary history to be a form of animal experimentation. Especially with cats, who often seem fine up until the last second of getting really, really sick, significant organ damage can occur before there are any symptoms. I'm not saying that it's impossible for cats to be healthy on a vegan diet, but I am unwilling to take any chances with my companion's health.

6 Years Ago

This is something that I am faced with having recently moved from vegetarian to vegan. I am already overwhelmed with all the other impacts this has had on my life (until such times as I become accustomed to what a vegan can and can't buy/eat/wear) and become more knowledgeable in the process. My head had been on the verge of imploding with the information I've taken in and the infinite possibilities that there may be animal products in practically everything I come into contact with in my daily life. I've already banished the unnecessary (nail polish etc) and will replace the more expensive items (leather shoes etc) as and when they run their course being that I am not wealthy enough to replace everything with vegan friendly products overnight. I feel guilty still using products I know have been tested on animal or contain animals but just can't afford to throw it all out and replace it so I will phase these things into my life as I go along. As for feeding my dogs a vegan diet - whilst I have the choice about what I eat I don't believe that it is fair to enforce that onto our companion animals. I would like to feed them a fresh diet as opposed to 'pet food' but again it comes down to income unfortunately. Whilst it may make me a hypocrite to abstain from eating animals myself yet feeding them to my dogs, it is a compromise I will just have to reconcile myself with. I am doing the best I can and ultimately that is all I can do.

09 Dec 2011

To think, I was confused a muntie ago.

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