Can vegans own pets?
I want a cat. Since I was a very young child, I have always wanted a cat. It sort of morphed into wanting a monkey after reading Curious George and watching Friends, but even during that stage of my life, I would have been quite happy with a cat. My sisters and I had two cats only throughout the course of our childhood. Buckley was, for all intents and purposes, my cat. I was devastated when he died and locked myself in my room to grieve and draw pictures of him to post around my room. I was about seven. While I loved him literally to death, I probably treated him more like Elmyra from Tiny Toons treated kitties. The second cat we had was Lucy. She was the devil incarnate, but again, I loved her dearly and was extremely sad when she passed.
Now that I am older, living on my own and following a vegan lifestyle in which the principles of veganism are highly important to me, I have the opportunity to own a cat myself, but the reality is, I cannot get past my ethical dilemma with such a relationship.
First, let’s deal with the general dilemma of being vegan/vegetarian and wanting to own a pet. Can vegetarians/vegans own pets? Some vegans do not even contemplate the potential moral inconsistencies with “owning an animal”. Even the phrase sounds counter-vegan. If we consider animal rights, then how could owning an animal ever be appropriate? If it weren’t for humans, animals would never have been domesticated. Cats and dogs, for example, would very probably not even exist. To be sure, pet ownership inherently perpetuates the idea that other animals can be “owned” like objects and as such the laws protecting these animals are little more severe than laws protecting physical property. Essentially, while most people seem to believe that domesticated animals are treated with respect and love, the majority of these poor creatures who are lucky enough to live in a home–and are not stray, abandoned, feral, farmed for meat or fur or brought up in a mill–sadly live in a state where their “owners” do not care for their emotional needs and desires. However, even vegan abolitionists agree that owning animals is often the lesser of two evils since there is nothing we can do about their existence at this stage. It would actually be contrary to animal rights to deny domesticated animals the comfort of living in a good home that would care for them, just because we are against owning pets, in principle. Therefore, when there is an animal in need of shelter or a loving home to prevent it from starving or being abused, etc., it behooves us as moral human beings to care for and nurture these animals. This is as much the vegan agenda as it is that of any other animal lover. If you are interested in reading more on the vegan abolitionist perspective on owning pets, I recommend Gary Francione‘s article on the subject, quoted in this blog post, but for the purpose of my blog post, I believe we have an answer to this general question:
In general, vegans and vegetarians can own animals, provided that the animals are adopted or rescued. This excludes buying animals that are sold at pet stores or bred for certain aesthetic characteristics, or from (puppy) mills, etc. The mere fact that these institutions still exist is abhorrent to me, and should be to any vegan, vegetarian, animal lover or owner.
So I’m reassured that in general, vegans can own (or more accurately, adopt) animals. However, I do not believe this applies to all species of animals. Certain animals have no right in a human dwelling (such as non-domesticated animals, exotic animals, birds, and the like) and even if we do consider our acquiring of the animal to be an adoption or rescue, the animal may end up being more miserable than if it were just euthanized or set free. The borderline case that I still do not have an answer for then is whether we, as vegans, can adopt/rescue domesticated carnivorous animals, namely cats, and still stay true to our ethics, principles, and concern for non-human animals.
My sister is a veterinarian. As such, she knows a lot about domestic animal care. She also is a strong advocate for pet adoption and rescuing and is appalled by the lack of care some owners provide for their pets. The grand majority of cat owners feed their cats meat-based food, whether it is from beef, chicken or fish. This is because cats are carnivores and therefore require a meat-based diet. Vegans are, by definition, against buying and consuming animals and animal-based products. This arguably applies to pet food that contains animal. Ethically speaking, I can see no difference in buying meat for my own personal digestion and nutrition and buying meat for that of my furry little friend. At the end of the day, you would still be supporting the factory farming/meat industry or simply condoning the practice of raising and slaughtering animals for meat or other animal products. Often, pet food meat is the byproduct of the meat industry. However, I do not believe this is relevant to the ethical debate. Meat is meat, especially if it comes from the same industry.
It must be noted that there are some websites and (small) pet food operations/companies that seem to indicate that you can ethically feed your feline vegan, plant-based food and that it has all that is required to maintain a healthy pH balance and taurine. All this and you are purchasing cruelty-free pet food! However, my sister, while not against the possibility of raising animals vegan per se, is extremely skeptical of the claims made by these sites and companies with respect to the vegan food being nutritionally complete for the animals and to the lack of evidence that this food is actually appropriate and safe for the animals. Furthermore, she debunked most of the claims made on vegancats.com. So it seems for now, there is no ethical alternative to feeding cats meat-based foods.
So then how is this decision complicated? If we believe that buying meat is ethically wrong then shouldn’t the answer be evident? That is, vegans cannot own domesticated carnivorous animals, namely cats?
It’s a much more complex issue than that. In light of what was discussed above regarding the adoption and rescue of animals, we know that there are many cats who need loving homes and without which may continue to live in terrible conditions, possibly squalid or abusive. Shouldn’t we, as vegans and animal lovers, adopt these pets so that they no longer suffer? Isn’t part of being vegan reducing the suffering of animals, including cats?
Hence the Catch-22. On one side, we cannot buy meat because of the implications of supporting the meat industry and thus indirectly causing suffering to animals. On the other, we cannot not adopt a cat, because if we choose not to, we may be indirectly causing suffering to that animal. How do we reconcile our vegan ideology with the beast which is the domesticated carnivorous animal?
Due to this conundrum and my lack of a clear solution, I had abstained from adopting cats, despite my deep-seated love for them. However, recently I was confronted with the dilemma once again. I watched Animal House Calls in which my sister was an invited guest on the show. She introduced Fergie, a rescued cat who needs a home, to the viewers. I somewhat fell for Fergie and wanted to adopt her. I emailed my sister almost humorously alluding to my desire to adopt the cat. It developed into a discussion on the very dilemma above, can I adopt poor Fergie as a vegan?
On “a life equals a life” ethical basis, it appears that more animal suffering would be caused by the adoption of Fergie than by Fergie being euthanized. I know this sounds shocking for cat-lovers, but try to picture it the other way. Say you wanted to adopt a chicken, and in order to adopt that chicken you would have to kill 10 cats. Would you do it? Most likely not. That’s how I feel here. How many animals need to suffer and die so that Fergie can live? Do I want to be responsible for the deaths of those animals?
I’m not even sure this is the most appropriate way of basing the ethical debate and I welcome any arguments or alternatives to help me with this issue. Indeed, I find it a struggle. Nevertheless, presently the above perspective is how I view it and so I cannot realistically adopt a cat–no matter how much I love cats–because I believe that it would be too much of a compromise of my veganism and my commitment to reducing animal suffering.
So if you are vegan or if you are committed to reducing animal suffering, and you are not quite sure if you feel comfortable, ethically-speaking, adopting a cat, I have boiled it down to three conclusions you can make after you have done some soul-searching:
- Do not get a cat, because you can never be confident enough that a vegan diet is appropriate for cats. Your morality restricts you to adopting herbivorous pets;
- Do more research and if you find a credible trend of evidence that supports vegan diets for cats, then adopt a cat and start her/him on a vegan diet. However, you must be prepared if s/he shows signs of not being healthy, or of even not enjoying the food, to buy meat to feed her/him, because you have taken on the responsibility of care for the animal and it would be even more ethically abhorrent to disown the animal because it can’t follow a vegan diet;
- Adopt a cat and find ways of reconciling your veganism (and animal ethics) and owning a pet. (Then let me know about how you did this!)
Presently, I must admit that the only realistic option I see available to us is the first one. And so, I sign off this dreadfully long rumination, as cat-less as I was when I started it.
Check out the follow up post entitled “Follow-up commentary on: Can vegans own pets?” for more discussion on this topic!