Speaking of Pets

Emy wrote:

A dilemma that is repeatedly raised: A “pure” vegan should not have pets, as this is another form of domination. Also pets such as cats cannot survive on a meat-free diet. I have cats (all rescued) as furry companions and in reality they dominate me. However, they do eat meat. Lee, what are your thoughts on this?

…To date the only articles that I have read argue that vegans should not keep cats or other meat eating animals. Dogs, I think, can do fine on a plant based diet? It would be great to hear what others think. “Speak” soon.

An important question, thoughtfully posed. It’s comforting to think these animals domesticated themselves many thousands of years ago by hanging around the warmth of our campfires; and we do enjoy cuddling up together on a frosty night. But yes, domination is the rub. Wildcats and wolves never asked to become Persians and pit bulls. We came up with those ideas.

The process of neoteny—selectively retaining juvenile traits in the adults—makes cats and dogs dependent. It’s a vulnerability that taps into that nurturing response we feel for a lost child. No wonder people go into a pet shop with the rescuer’s urge. It’s very hard to turn away from the face of the doggie in the window.

I’d never say cats and dogs lack volition, sensitivity, various forms of strength, or individual character. But I think we need to acknowledge that their biology has been changed in a way that creates reliance on human care. Imagine bulldogs trying to fend for themselves, and it’s clear. In fact, because of their shape, most bulldogs can’t give birth without surgical assistance.

Felis silvestris

An autonomous cat: Felis silvestris

The vegan principle calls on us to end the exploitation of other animals, and to defend their interests in living on their terms and not ours. If we apply this to wildcats and wolves, we cannot agree with the breeding of these animals into a vulnerable state.

Our deeply personal connections with cats and dogs are real, but they present no justification for this systematic manipulation. The most thoughtful love for an individual cat or dog would, on the contrary, bring us to ask if humans aren’t unfair to feline and canine communities when we assume they are ours to have and hold.

Please don’t shop

We do not steer anyone to “responsible” or “humane” animal breeders. It’s neither responsible nor humane to encourage animal dealers. The retail pet shops and the breeders down the road all profit from the notion that other animals are our things; and they fling more dogs, cats, fishes, birds, gerbils, ferrets, rabbits and other domesticated animals into the stream of commerce, while abandoned animals multiply and the ones in pounds are routinely killed—predictable elements of a commercial cycle of supply and demand.

A feral kitten looks out from beneath an apartment block.

A feral kitten looks out from beneath an apartment block.

So we’ll suggest that people who wish to live with animals go to the local shelter or cat rescue group, for many animals could do with a permanent home. Should vegans adopt as well? Sure. These animals are the refugees from a system that uses them. It’s right for their advocates to help them if we can.

I live with several cats who were in dire straits when I met them. I care for them with my whole being. But they don’t really exert power over me: they can’t make me care, or ask for what they want.

I let them in. I hold the keys. Many cats much like them, including from their own family, will never be saved from those streets where cats are chased into traffic as sport, and sometimes caught by people training fighting dogs.

According to the American Kennel Club, "the Siberian Husky is known for its amazing endurance and willingness to work."

According to the American Kennel Club, “the Siberian Husky is known for its amazing endurance and willingness to work.”

Many vegans—showing discomfort with what Emy noted as the domination, involving the animals’ reliance on an agreeable human for acceptance and lifetime care—prefer to call the animals in their homes companions. But companion means partner, one with whom one shares bread. The bond of companionship is by mutual agreement, not by selective breeding for the purpose. So, like man’s best friend, the term companion is a euphemism.

It’s frank, not disrespectful, to say cats and dogs are animals bred as pets. Those we know, we call by name.

Vegan pet food?

My friend at Green Menu asked:

Hi, Lee! A friend posted on my wall about cats being carnivores…your opinion? I want to raise my cats properly and make sure they eat right.

For a vegan, caring for a carnivore is no easy feat. With dogs, the case seems easier. Many vegans buy vegetarian dog food (although they still have VP - dog foodto face the connection between veterinary pharmaceuticals and industries that vegans would rather avoid).  Some vegans save money and spare the excess packaging by taking the DIY route to dog nutrition.

But how do we feed our cats? Special vegan formulae have been created and called cat food, but are they safe? A study published by Christina M. Gray, DVM, et al. (2004) in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association was inconclusive; and the researchers stated in a follow-up piece in 2005:

While a manufacturer’s statement that thousands of healthy and long-living animals are on their diets is interesting, additional information is needed to support the diets’ nutritional adequacy. Thousands of cats may be fed these diets, but we are not aware of any data that have emerged from a comprehensive health assessment of any of them.

Basically, then, expecting cats to become vegan amounts to in-home animal testing.

Humans are primates; we can apply the vegan principle to our diet. When asked if the meals we eat are safe and nourishing for humans, including our children, we might confidently quote the Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada on Vegetarian Diets: “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”

Now, what do we cite when it comes to the animals in our homes? Shouldn’t we be able to state we’re ensuring appropriate nourishment—even though the dogs and cats can’t ask us to present proof for them?

The most up-to-date, comprehensive study of the daily nutrient requirements for dogs and cats currently available is the 424-page Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats (2006). Here are two excerpts, from page 313:

  • Dogs differ from cats in that they are not strict carnivores but fall more into the omnivorous category. This fact allows a great deal more latitude in ingredient selection and formulation. It is entirely feasible to formulate an adequate dog diet using no animal tissue-based ingredients.
  • Generally speaking, strict vegetarian diets, when fed alone, are not nutritionally adequate for cats, even though such diets can be made sufficiently palatable to be readily consumed.

If we’re going to take animals in, we have to offer them appropriate care. At the same

Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, issued by the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences.

Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, issued by the National Research Council (United States: National Academy of Sciences).

time, we need, I firmly believe, to be forthright about why the entire custom of having pet animals needs to be challenged—for it has pressed us to stay dependent on the very animal agribusinesses we ourselves have renounced.

And for the animals’ own sake. Though we might go to great lengths for the animals we know and love, we also know that many can’t or won’t. In the United States, some 5 to 8 million dogs and cats are relinquished to U.S. shelters each year. Each is as likely to die as to be saved. Some shelters try to stave off tragedies, setting up animal food banks, for example, to help cash-strapped people who’d like to keep their animals. Yet the number of pets who die each year in U.S. shelters equals the number of people in Los Angeles. Something is deeply wrong with our everyday relationship with other animals, and we need to go deep into ourselves to transcend it. Social justice is elusive in human relations; but we strive for it, and we need to also strive to be fair members of the community of life on Earth.

Ecological impacts

We currently use resources faster than our planet can replenish them. We’re running out of grain and the space to grow it as our population is now outpacing food production. It turns out we use more grain to feed our domesticated animals than to feed the human population. And not only on farms. One dog can consume around a quarter-ton of food each year.

And we take up a lot of land, water, and landfill space because we’re breeding animals whom we then must provide for. Our cats and dogs, horses too, compete with coyotes for the right-of-way in green spaces. Dog waste pollutes water and kills aquatic life.

Not only do cats chase frogs, chipmunks and birds when roaming outside; their presence also imperils wildcats. Yes, conservationists say the greatest threat to the world’s vanishing wildcats is interbreeding with domesticated cats.

What we can do 

Before the 1800s, pet-keeping was mainly an aristocrat’s hobby. It only took off as a popular custom in the Victorian period. Since then, pet sales and pet care have become an industry supported by tens of billions in annual spending. But the industry is a relatively new invention, and not too deeply ingrained in our culture to challenge.

Lately, municipal bans on pet sales are being proposed. Granted, these provisions bar only certain (usually high-volume) outlets. Still, they can lay the groundwork for ending breeding and sales. Various dog breeds are now banned in Europe. It’s breed-specific legislation, yes. And I think it’s the right thing to support.

What else can we do?

  • Defend undomesticated cats and dogs, including bobcats, wolves, dingoes or coyotes;
  • Support the work of local trap-neuter return groups to care for, while phasing out, feral cat colonies;
  • Have the audacity to speak out against pet breeding—whether for high-volume retail sales or local clientele.
Companions. A pleasant word for pets, but it sugar-coats manipulation. Their ancestors were wolves.

Companions. A pleasant word for pets, but it sugar-coats manipulation. Their ancestors were wolves.

Some will say a culture without pets would be joyless. I’ve also been told—told, indeed, by other vegans—that it’s unrealistic to question a practice so enjoyed as pet-keeping. But we can care about other animals, and derive joy from their presence, without controlling them.

What’s more exhilarating than a view of a wolf or a wildcat running over their own land? There’s breathtaking joy in respecting animals untamed.


Featured image: source. Wildcat: source. Please consult a veterinarian about the health of the animals in your care. Neither this blog nor any other website can substitute for medical advice for an individual animal.    

18 thoughts on “Speaking of Pets

  1. Thanks so much Lee. Well written and insightful as always. I am going to process all this information before I fully respond. For me there are definitely issue of co-dependence around having pets/companions. Yes, I do nurture them but they respond with affection and often possessiveness if other cats show affection. The word “pet” to me suggests a power relationship. The word companion or fur-child still feels ok for me, as it fits in with the rest of the anthropomorphisation that I am prone to heap upon my cats. I do believe domestic cats have become a different species to wild cats and I do believe the anthropomorphisation of wild animals poses huge problems. Their needs are totally different …

    Oh dear – that was just my impromptu response 🙂

  2. We have two cats. My daughter pestered us for years about getting a kitten and we finally gave in when I discovered there was such thing as vegan cat food and a friend had one that needed re-homing. I’ve heard vegan cat food is fine for female cats (which both ours are) and they do seem to thrive – one is now 7 years and the other, 5. No illnesses detected so far, in fact the last time one went to the vet (to be spayed), he commented on how fit and healthy she seemed. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him she was fed a vegan diet.
    However, I completely agree that keeping pets is not really ethical and have family who keep hamsters and chinchillas in cages (of which I totally disapprove). However, if they can be fed a vegan diet and are rescue animals, then I can live with it.

    • your an idiot forceing your ego on animals wtf is wrong with you cats need meat your depriveing them essential nutrients wheather you like it or not your whole thought process is twisted you expoloit animals
      it doesent matter if she looks healthy your cats gona have all sorts of problems your a garbage human being

  3. “But we can care about other animals, and derive joy from their presence, without controlling them.”

    Another excellent post. I haven’t owned or lived with pets since early childhood, but I think about them often in the context of animal liberation theory. One aspect of pet keeping that haunts me, and which I’m sure has been more thoughtfully examined by feminist theorists, is the tendency to mask domination by humans in the language of love and friendship. As Lee has suggested, domesticated pet breeds would not exist without an ongoing legacy of domination. I also suspect that, in part, many people enjoy their pets precisely because they have control of them. That is to say that the pleasure of pet ownership often overlaps with the the broader pleasure of domination.

    I can only speak from personal observation here, but I hope some of what I’m suggesting rings true with others. Don’t we all know pet owners who revel in dressing their pets in uncomfortable and ridiculous costumes? Isn’t part of the fun the animal’s confusion or discomfort? Yet when asked about the practice these owners explain it as “adorable” and something their pet “actually enjoys”. I’ve met people, both men and women but generally dog owners, whose relationship with their pet seems more like that of a manipulative boyfriend to fearful/insecure girlfriend. They relish the dominated’s sadness at their departure and jealous excitement at their return. (“My dog loves me so much! She gets so worked up even if I leave for just a few minutes!”) The dominated is there for the master’s pleasure: when master is in need of affection after a long day of work to put food on the table, the “pet” should enthusiastically comply. After all, what is the pet’s function in this household but to give pleasure? And of course the pet is often locked indoors all day, unable to socialize with others of her own kind, which exacerbates anxiety and thereby increses dependence on her master.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that all pet owners (or all dog owners) are domineering or manipulative. I’m saying that dressing up a relationship in the language of love and friendship doesn’t change what it really is, and i think that many relationships between owners and pets are really about pleasure through control, to a significant extent.

    If you’re still suspucious of my line of thinking, consider how our society’s idealized conception of pet keeping may influence vegan/animal liberation advocacy. Long before Mercy For Animals’ “Why love one but eat the other?” campaign, vegan advocates have been asking the public to try and see farmed animals as the moral equals of cats and dogs. But have we made great inroads in the large community of “animal lovers”? My own experience suggests we haven’t although that isn’t a remotely conclusive estimation. The donor base of HSUS isn’t vegan, and neither is the base of regional Humane Societies. Perhaps this has something to do with the inherently dominating aspects of pet ownership. It may have something to do with the particular mode of pet keeping in the urban USA. And it may have something to do with the distorted understanding of love/respect/friendship in pet keeping that I’m trying to elaborate. In any case, it seems that thinking critically about pets can help us a) understand the limitations of asking the public to extend a “pet ethic” to farmed animals and b) design more effective vegan campaigns in communities of “animal lovers”.

  4. I didn’t read all the comments, just wanted to drop a note on “Also pets such as cats cannot survive on a meat-free diet.”

    This is just wrong – both cats and dogs can not only survive on vegan diets but thrive as well. In fact, our own rescue staffie just loves the organic Benevo… This has been scientifically proven and shown, even though I in fact do think that you can’t “have a pet” (as in “ownership”), but we do have a cohabiting dog who just happens to be (without any own fault) depending on us to cater for his need, which we happily do =)

  5. This is a challenging subject for me, personally, being a dog walker, I boss the dogs I walk around at times. They get in trouble, eat things, get in fights, try to bite people they don’t like etc … It’s a real challenge and I often want to quit because I know I’m not living up to my highest standards, but their owners will hire someone else if I quit…
    What I notice among pet owners is “pride in ownership”. The pride in having a smart or pretty or athletic or funny, tough etc looking/ acting pet. And in that pride in ownership I really have to recognize that “ownership” is the key word. Ownership denotes domination. And although its unspoken there’s implicit awareness that ownership means “I can do what I want with this thing”. The ability to control and manipulate as we see fit.
    The dogs I know do give me a great deal of affection, and that, as well, is a result of domination, genetic domination. It’s our decision that it’s OK to purposefully bring into this world an individual whose purpose it is not so much to give love to, but whose purpose it is to fawn on us, to adore us no matter how badly we treat that individual. There’s something very off about that relationship. No human relationship of this nature would stand scrutiny. Talk about domination. To genetically engineer an individual to love us. Where’s the free will in that?

    Well done Lee. As usual you’re bringing to awareness thoughts that are floating just under the surface of my consciousness.

  6. This discussion has raised several issues, which I appreciate. It is not always easy to marry the practical with theory. In an ideal world people would not have genetically engineered wild animals to become domesticated – dogs being a few steps ahead in this process. Dogs need different things to cats. In the wild there is a pack leader. Is this domination or does it lead to order and security? Cats in the wild are predators and this is unfortunately genetically wired into the domesticated cat. So why is eating meat ok with wild animals but not domesticated animals? We already know that dogs can survive on a vegan diet. It is more complicated with cats.
    Domination: I believe nurturing is different to domination. Nurturing facilitates both mental and physical health in another. Domination breaks the spirit of another being, for example making animals do tricks and kneel for us to ride them -an exercise in humiliation. I would never support this domination. I would never buy an animal as a commodity. I also believe in sterilisation.
    Yet I live with 15 cats, some of whom arrived on the doorstep – abandoned by humans. They want food, shelter and yes, also love. Two kittens were rescued from a feral colony. Both were born with 3 limbs and were being drained of life by fleas. Without nurturing they would have died.
    The relationship with our cats may be symbiotic but it is not a partnership. No problem if I must give up the word “companion” to be politically correct. The cats do not work, shop and clean the house. They lie around shedding hair and demand to be fed whenever they want. They can come and go but choose to stay, as the world is hostile towards creatures on the loose. My commitment is to nurture them for the rest of their lives and not dispose of them when they are ailing.
    Feeding: If I can find vegan food that my cats will eat that will be a happy day. Veganism is to respect others and “to defend their interests in living on their terms”. Is it, therefore, respectful to impose my need onto cats? This, I think, would be a form of domination. So if I want to cohabit with cats I should respect their need to eat meat. All I can do is be as ethical as possible about where this “food” comes from. Or must I abandon these cats and let them survive on their own? I have already answered that.

  7. Emy, you might find this amusing. Most of my (rescue) kitteh brood are ferals. My Petie is quite enamored with my vegan meals. Well, stated more precisely, he freakin’ loves nooch! While it isn’t likely that he would thrive on a vegan diet permanently, I do take great joy in those moments that he devours bowl after bowl of noochy brown rice that I serve him at his wish. 😀

    • Thank you Tyme. I am definitely going to try out some DIY dishes. Brown rice and carrots are good to add to this. I am open to trying out anything that will not harm the cats.

      • I like to add healthy things like cooked brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, etc. to my kittehs (commercial) wet food. I’m sure it is good for them; but, perhaps it is more wishful vegan thinking on my part.

  8. I have four cats that eat a 100% plant based diet. Some would call it vegan but although I’m vegan, I hesitate to describe my cats as being so.
    They are two boys and two girls ranging in age from 3 to 15 years and all are not only healthy but happy with their food. Their vet is aware of their diet. I have had them all since they were kittens and all have been eating plant based food since coming to live with me. I previously had three other cats who also ate a plant based diet.
    I’m happy to share my feelings-thoughts-approach and experience if you think that they and our experience together would be of any help to you and your cats or just of interest to you.


    • I want to keep the commentary on this site valuable, sound, and accurate, Jeff. I am interested in communicating directly with the vet if you mean your vet finds a vegetarian diet acceptable for cats. I work with a New Jersey-based group offering legal advocacy, rescue and TNR. In the course of years of doing TNR work, I’ve encountered a good number of rescue-oriented vets, and several of these vets are vegans themselves. I have found that advocacy-oriented vets often agree that a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet can work for dogs. Not one is recommending vegetarian pet food for cats.

  9. Pingback: How Pro-Pitbull Crusades Harm Workers — and Dogs » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

  10. When I go for my evening walks, I see pet parents control the pet by yanking the leash in sometimes less violent and sometimes more violent ways, and I feel the hurt. The dog is constantly looking for a treat or affection from the parent, and it shows complete subservience to a “master” whether we acknowledge it or not.

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