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.