Can vegans have pets? Doesn’t confining an animal express just the speciesist domination vegans reject? To me, pets and vegans are—for the most part—indeed irreconcilable; there’s nothing vegan about breeding an animal, buying an animal, or choosing an animal based on its cuteness. And yet I live with two cats, because I believe that those pets already alive deserve a home. I think it is relatively more „vegan“ to adopt a pet than to ignore the abundance of animals living in shelters because „vegans shouldn’t have pets.“
But if vegans have pets, what should we feed them? When people object to our own veganism, we can gently remind them that it is our own private „bigotry“ we’re exercising and own physical health we’re „jeopardizing.“ If they think we’re joyless and healthless, at least we can point out that we have every right to be. But when it comes to feeding a pet—much like a baby—it is not just our bodies we’re talking about. From my experience, feeding your pet only plants is contested even among vegans. And you’d be surprised how many omnivores suddenly defend an animal’s right to health, when you tell them your pet is vegan.
The most common argument against vegan pet diets is that veganism is not „natural“ or healthy for dogs and cats. Studies have shown that dogs can live perfectly well without meat, while most evidence for vegan cats has been anecdotal. The lone peer-reviewed study monitoring health in vegan cats found no significant nutritional deficiencies. I’m not a vet, so I’ll focus on the moral argument of veganism being „unnatural“ for cats and dogs.
There’s nothing natural about cats and dogs in the first place. Humans have bred them for their needs, and cats and dogs barely survive if marooned in nature. Cats and dogs simply aren’t „natural“ animals to begin with. This of course doesn’t mean that they’re not worthy of respectful treatment. They, like all living beings, should lead the life closest to their needs. But what if those „needs“ interfere with other animals’ right to a life adequate to their needs? By feeding my cat meat, am I not suggesting that my cat is more important than the animal I’m feeding it? And isn’t that just as speciesist as the notion that humans have a right to eat other animals? And anyway, few cats and dogs hunt their own prey, and the argument that meat is the „natural“ food for them quickly loses its merit when that meat comes from a cow. Cats „naturally“ hunt mice, small birds or little fish, but you’d be hard pressed to find these species among the dozens of animals contained in the average can of pet food.
In sum, not only are cats and dogs not „natural“ creatures and the notion of their „natural“ place in the food chain is therefore wobbly at best, this idea becomes even more absurd when you think that pets are fed animals thirty times their size or from continents they would never „naturally“ roam.
Let’s suppose for a moment it were „natural“ for cats and dogs to eat the meat we serve them. Let’s say it were the healthiest and tastiest meal we could provide. So what? Since when does natural mean right? And isn’t veganism based on the idea that what is tasty, healthy, or customary isn’t necessarily morally right? It is speciesist to argue that my cat’s eating pleasure and health are more important than another animal’s livelihood.
The question what we should feed the animals we live with is contested even within the vegan community—which is exactly why we should be talking about it. Being vegan and having pets is a contradiction, but it’s one we’ll have to deal with as long as there are pets waiting in shelters.