In his book Obligate Carnivore, Jed Gillen writes about the difficult decision caregivers are forced to make where essentially they are choosing between animals. He speaks of his newly adopted kitten: “Nature may have evolved her to be a carnivore, but it most certainly did not evolve me to go into the grocery store and buy dead animal parts to feed to her. Those same laws of nature that designed her to eat flesh did not tie my hands at all. If I chose to sustain this one life at the expense of many ‘food animals,’ on what would this decision be based? The fact that she was adorable and lived in my house, while they were just nameless and faceless statistics?” That sort of thinking is defined by Peter Singer as speciesism, which is arbitrary discrimination based on species.
From a utilitarian point of view, the reduced quantity of farm animal suffering and sacrificed lives far outweighs the possible health detriments and taste preferences of a single companion animal. Gillen explains further using Regan’s principle of inherent value: “If I were killing chickens to feed a cat, what message would I be sending other than I value cats more than I value chickens, and it is perfectly valid to create a hierarchy of inherent worth based on species?” One could pose that caregivers feeding cats vegetarian food are forcing their morality on them. The counter to this argument is to ask if it is truly justifiable to force our immorality on countless other animals such that they will live and die in distress on factory farms.[iii] It is important to recognize that animals do not have morals of their own – this is a human attribute. Does it cause any innate harm for humans to force beliefs on beings who lack a belief system to begin with (assuming of course that this will not cause them to suffer)?
Should these caregivers be forbidden from having pets? As a matter of fact, many vegetarians choose to avoid keeping companion animals so they can avoid this ethical dilemma. This is not an easy task though. Bryanna Clark Grogan points out that “because most of us love animals, when a stray presents itself at our door, we often find ourselves the reluctant (at first, anyway) caretakers of cats and/or dogs.”[iv] The alternative, of course, is that those animals would not have homes. More companion animals without homes essentially equates to more of them being euthanized in shelters. This is not an acceptable option.
Some dogs and especially cats may find vegetarian food unpalatable. Dogs exhibit the evolutionary advantage of marked flexibility in their catalog of acceptable food items based on availability and quality. Early experience dictates future food preferences in dogs. For instance, puppies raised on a mixed vegetarian diet for the first six months of their life will refuse to eat animal protein. The vast majority of dogs have more variety in their early diet, which leads them to be food neophilic (preference of novel flavors) later in life. This helps ease the transition of older dogs onto a new vegetarian diet. Anecdotally, dogs adapt quickly and willingly to vegetarianism. Cats, on the other hand, are notoriously finicky and will refuse to eat for days when offered food that they dislike. This behavior can lead to the development of hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) if caregivers aren’t quick to provide more appetizing food. Since the author is not aware of any first bite or volume consumed palatability tests on cat or dog vegetarian food, the suggestion that it is less palatable is mere speculation.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that vegetarian food is less palatable and denies companion animals the otherwise pleasurable experiences and gustatory satisfaction of meat consumption. Mylan Engel explains: “It would only be an impoverished life in a meaningful sense if there were no other pleasures comparable to the pleasures of eating meat and animal products that you could provide for your dogs [or cats]… With a little effort, you could provide your dogs with vegetarian foods that they would love.” Even if a vegetarian diet disagrees with a cat’s taste preferences, it is unethical (and speciesist) to hold the taste preferences of one species above the grave misery and death of many animals belonging to other species. The companion animal will survive while the farm animals face imminent death. Another important consideration according to Gopi Sundaram is that “the ‘rules’ of domestication include getting fed what the master eats.” This historical perspective on the diet of our companion animals suggests that vegans who feed their pets vegan food are acting in a humane manner because diet sharing is an expected result of the human-domestic animal relationship.
Both dogs and cats belong to the order Carnivora due to certain anatomical similarities. Belonging to this order however does not implicitly mean an animal is a meat eater. Members of the order Carnivora such as bears and raccoons are omnivores, and the panda is primarily vegetarian. Most veterinary nutritionists will agree that it is acceptable to feed dogs vegetarian food since they are nutritionally omnivores and with a little effort can thrive on a vegetarian diet. In fact, at least one dog food, Nature’s Recipe® Vegetarian Canine Formula, has proven through feeding trials that it provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult maintenance according to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). As a result, the majority of vegans and animal rights activists feel that it is fine (if not preferable) to feed canine companions a vegetarian diet. Cats however are obligate carnivores, meaning that flesh is considered an essential part of their diet.