Of Pets and Vegans

In memory of Sprite (with Frankie in banner photo).

For many years I’ve offered sanctuary to abandoned cats.

But there will come a time when I’m too old, meaning the risk is too high that I’ll die before they do. The worst thing I could do, even inadvertently, is to abandon them again.

At some point, I’ll just help other caregivers, should my means allow it.

My strategy of outliving the cats I adopt has, so far, been working.

As the vet and I were talking, and I sat crossed-legged on the floor stroking Sprite’s head, an agitated yap interrupted our conversation. The doctor opened the ICU locker and retrieved the noisy animal. “Little Jackson here isn’t used to not being held or carried around in a handbag.”

“What kind of animal is this?” I couldn’t tell.

The vet answered: “A mini Pom.”

The doctor met my startled gaze, nodded, and added: “As though Pomeranians weren’t already small enough.”

“You know,” I said, “This just frosts me. Dogs’ ancestors are wolves.”

The doctor answered: “And now you can’t tell this one from a Guinea pig.”

I like observant veterinarians.

“What’s the mini Pom in for?” I asked, looking at the tiny mammal in the vet’s arms.

“Broken cervical vertebrae. Bones broken in the neck. It’s a congenital issue for theses miniature dogs. Most of these dogs here, the big ones too, came to our emergency room because of congenital disorders common in their breeds.”

The Animal Liberation Movement Won’t Exist Until Advocates Stop Idealizing Pets

Each of the following slogans — you’ve read or heard theses and more, no doubt — invokes a fantasy, subtly or strongly. In each, only the use of animals in food agribusiness gets confronted, while the idea that we’re expected to have and to hold pets is left untouched.

“Friends, not food.”

“I began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others.”

“If you love some animals called pets, why do you eat others called dinner?”

You get the idea.

The vegan question is not whether we need to cuddle animals we bred to eat.

The vegan question is whether we had any right to breed them onto this Earth.

Here’s a variation on the theme — a screenshot of an activist group’s video.

I find this image disturbing on every level. Young pigs naturally would not be spotted alone like this (they live in family groups that have dozens of members); and the pig in this video is barely more than a newborn. And the message? Everything will be fine if we love pigs and groom them in a bubbling bidet.

#NationalDogDay warrants hard discussion about what we do to wolves on this planet — not expansion of a ridiculous adorbs fest on social media to include infant pigs.

Our Selves, Our Cats

We domesticated the wildcats. Another human achievement in the suppression of natural evolution. My pal Sprite was born outside, one of the millions alienated, by selective breeding, from an ancestral community of free-living felids. And then alienated again from the human community that’s supposed to care for the beings we’ve domesticated.

One of a community of free-living wildcats (Felis silvestris)

The vegan movement has largely ignored the cats, except to suggest they be forced to live ever more divorced from their evolutionary state by eating “vegan cat food” — which doesn’t exist, as the vegan principle doesn’t apply to the actions of cats.

In recent years, The Vegan Society has begun encouraging their supporters to feed their cats this nonexistent substance.

The Society has promoted a commentary by veterinary specialist Andrew Knight to back this position, but what I have read by Knight refers to an article that addresses reasons why some people want to use a vegetarian diet for their cats, and how vets can best communicate with such people. That article didn’t address crystal formation in high pH urine and urinary tract obstruction (UTI) — a very serious issue.

And in practical terms, many vegans, myself included, are rescuers in multiple-cat households who may also attempt to care for outdoor colonies. Sorting the cats’ food  according to UTI vulnerability would be prohibitively difficult even if it were a vegan action.

Dr. Knight asserts that “commercial pet foods constitute a vast industrial dumping ground for slaughterhouse waste products.” Understood. But that doesn’t logically lead us to conclude that cats should just eat plants.

Because veganism challenges human supremacy, to impose a philosophy-based diet onto a cat offends veganism.

Chris Kelly’s AR View

For years, Chris “Lone Primate” Kelly challenged the AR Views listserv, and faced more than a little anger for questioning the human prerogative to breed and keep pets. Chris has written the following commentary.

As a vegan who has loved and shared a home with cats, my decision to reject a vegan diet for them involved a lot of research, pro and con. Whether a cat can be conditioned to eat (or like) a totally vegan diet was not pertinent to me as it is abundantly clear cats are natural carnivores. My reasoning had more to do with being respectful to

Chris Kelly

their evolutionary nature and to a desire to opt out of human control whenever possible.

I have read and reread Veganism Defined (Leslie Cross, VP Vegan Society, 1951), and I feel supported in the above conclusion. Cross writes: “In a vegan world the creatures would be reintegrated within the balance and sanity of nature as she is in herself. A great and historic wrong, whose effect upon the course of evolution must have been stupendous, would be righted.”

The founding definition shows a deep respect for nature. Not all of nature’s beings can be vegan, nor are they meant to be — that is reality.  Making such a drastic (and some say experimental) change could be considered controlling and done for human benefit or comfort. In fact, it may be perceived as a sort of selective breeding, sending a message that pet keeping can be made to be harmless. This, in my opinion, hurts the very sensible and cogent argument for veganism.

As we know, the practice of pet keeping is far from harmless. The process of domestication is a cruel, frankensteinish interference in evolution and nature itself. Domestication is “the process of hereditary reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms according to the interests of people. . .”  (Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Domestication is a powerful, all-encompassing word, and, I believe, it should be used clearly and frequently in all abolitionist discourse. Why don’t the large “rights” organizations take a public stand against all domestication and call for the phasing out of pets? Could it be because they get a substantial amount of donations from “pet lovers”?

. . .Pet keeping is one of the most frivolous uses of nonhuman animals, while medical research and other user industries claim necessity and even noble justifications. How do we expect to ask for change in the latter when most pet owners are unaware of their own complicity?

We recognize domestication requires people of conscience to show empathy for those made incapable of independence. I have enjoyed the companionship and love of several dogs and cats throughout my life. Yes, their looks and behaviors were at times cute, adorable and heartwarming, but we cannot forget that they were (and are) enslaved and bred to suit the fancies and assorted motives of humans just as were all other domesticates. Portraying them in cutesy (and extreme) ways is another undignified use of animals.

Domestication in all forms is wrong and needs to be phased out.

If we take care of the victims made dependent by domestication and stand with the tenets outlined in Veganism Defined to respect nature, we will have a clear way forward.

—Chris Kelly, Carrollton, Texas, US

Animal Liberation Follies

Professional advocacy now congratulates itself for its hands-on manipulation of animal fertility. It’s a false anti-cruelty position that strives to replace guns, arrows and traps with high-tech animal removal. What gives anyone the right to impose birth control on untamed animals? What gives career advocates that right?

Read more at Dissident Voice  today.

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.