Despite warnings from veterinarians, some animal caregivers are choosing to feed their pets vegetarian food for ethical reasons. Aside from nutritional health concerns, some veterinarians think it is inhumane to the animal not to feed a ‘natural’ diet. So why do these caregivers feel that vegetarian diets for their carnivorous companion animals are actually more humane? Most are vegans or vegetarians themselves who believe in animal rights and do not wish to contribute to the suffering of farm animals. They are considering the overall consequences of providing a flesh-based diet, not simply the consequences for their companion animals alone.
While this writing is not intended to serve as a justification for the animal rights philosophy or vegan lifestyle, an introduction to the theories contained therein will provide a background for the present argument. The moral equality theories posed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan provide the basis of the case for animal rights.
Peter Singer builds upon the utilitarian system of ethics created by Jeremy Bentham. The fundamental principles of utilitarianism are that (1): “The interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being” and (2) choices should be made so to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering for the greatest number of affected beings. Beings are only afforded consideration when they have interests, meaning that they are sentient and thus possess the capacity for suffering and enjoyment. Utilitarianism encompasses egalitarianism. Singer poses that “No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – in so far as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being.” He also states that equality is a moral ideal, independent of “intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact.” The application here to animals is that their interests should be considered similarly to human interests when weighing the consequences of a decision. This is why many humans have chosen to avoid supporting the factory farm and slaughter industries by becoming vegetarian or vegan. More specifically to the case of vegetarian diets for companion animals, the interests (pleasures) of one’s companion animal should be afforded equal weight to the interests (suffering) of farm animals. Since many farm animals must suffer and die to feed a single companion animal, though that single dog or cat receives gustatory pleasure and possible health benefits from the consumption of the farm animals, it follows that a vegetarian diet is the most ethical diet to feed to our companion animals. The application of utilitarianism to animal rights is perhaps best encapsulated in Bentham’s famous quote: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?”[i]
Tom Regan proposes a rights view that assigns inherent value to individuals. This inherent value belongs to any subject of a life. Regan states that “all who have inherent value have it equally, whether they be human animals or not” and that “reason compels us to recognize the equal inherent value of these animals and, with this, their equal right to be treated with respect.” Treating any animal without respect violates his or her individual rights. Regan’s rights view is uncompromising. His position on commercial animal agriculture (as with any disrespectful use of animals) is abolitionist. That is, nothing other than the complete dissolution of the animal agriculture industry will satisfy the individual rights of animals that are currently routinely violated.[ii]
The issue of feeding a vegetarian diet to carnivorous companion animals is highly controversial. Even vegans and animal rights activists diverge on the topic of feeding meat to companion animals. The essence of the argument against vegetarian food for dogs and cats is outlined below:
- It is wrong to force our moral beliefs on our companion animals. Individuals unwilling to respect the natural diet of dogs and cats should not be permitted to care for them.
- Vegetarian food is not palatable to our companion animals, and therefore deprives them of the enjoyment of eating meat and is contradictory to their taste preferences. It is thus inhumane.
- Vegetarian food is detrimental to canine and feline health/ cats are obligate carnivores/ there is not enough research to substantiate the claim that dogs and cats can be healthy on vegetarian diets.
- Meat in pet food is simply a by-product of the animals slaughtered for human consumption and as such presents less, if any, moral dilemma.
- Eating a vegetarian diet is unnatural for dogs and cats.
[i] Peter Singer. “All Animals are Equal” in Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 2nd edition, eds. Regan and Singer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989), pp. 73-86.
[ii] Tom Regan. The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983) pp. 13-26.