Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Is it wrong for vegetarians and vegans to keep pets?

13 Comments

@LouFederer requested that I write a post about the ethics of vegans and vegetarians keeping pets, particularly when those pets are carnivorous.

Some theorists think animal ownership is right out: ownership represents a system of slavery, exploitation, oppression and dominance. In short, the status of animals as property makes it impossible to extend justice to them: animals cannot be liberated until they are no longer regarded as property (cf. Francione, 1996). My own view is that, whilst the status of many animals as property does create conceptual confusion as to their moral status, and this is not helped by inconsistencies and contradictions in law, being property is not necessarily harmful to non-human animals. In fact, I think that ownership of an animal is compatible with humans and other animals living mutually enriching and beneficial lives together.

One reason I disagree with Francione is that the interest a non-person has in not being free is qualitatively different to the interest a person has in being free. Freedom is important for persons because it is necessary for them to be able pursue autonomous lives – to make and revise choices in pursuit of their goods. For a person to be the property of another not only harms their well-being, but it is also a denial of their nature as rational moral beings, for if I am a slave then I cannot directly respect the rights of others since that is under the control of my master. When we curtail the freedom of our pets we merely change their sources of potential pleasure or prevent instinctive behaviour. Whilst this may, in certain circumstances count as a harm, it is not by its nature harmful in the way that ownership of a person might be (cf. Cochrane, 2009).

We might think that treating non-human animals as property is intrinsically wrong because it may licence treating them as mere objects rather than as beings with a good of their own and worthy of moral concern for their own sakes. I agree that this is a real problem, after all, there’s nothing in the law, for example, to stop dog owners from having a vet kill their dog if they decide the dog’s fur doesn’t match their new sofa covers. The separation of the world into persons and things, for which we have Kant to thank (Steiner, 2002, p. 184), leaves animals in a precarious position. However, property rights need not be absolute: if I own land I am limited in what I can do to it – I cannot poison it, build without permission, close off rights-of-way etc. There’s nothing in the concept of property that prevents animal ownership from being benign (cf. Cooke, 2011). This means that vegetarians and vegans need not take a stand against the idea of owning a companion animal. Neither does it seem likely that a refusal to own a companion animal would lead to a change in the inadequate laws that presently exist.

However, in owning a companion animal, there are still duties that owners have, both to their pets and to other animals. First, they must ensure that the animals enjoy the conditions necessary to flourish and live a minimally decent life. I doubt, for example, that a bird can flourish whilst kept cooped-up in a cage. Second, owners, being responsible for their companion animal, must ensure that it does not harm others. This means that if the animal is carnivorous, it should be fed an acceptable vegetarian diet, and reasonable steps should be take to prevent it from killing other animals. Fortunately there are some very good vegetarian pet-foods out there and some very easy steps that can be taken to prevent animals harming one another (such as a bell round the neck of a cat). Nor is it difficult to simulate the kind of hunting activities that predators such as cats so clearly enjoy (as anyone who has trailed a piece of string for their cat, or bought it a catnip-infused toy mouse, will attest).

So long as companion animals are kept in conditions that allow them to flourish and live a decent life, and they are respected by their owners as beings with their own inherent value, and so long as ownership does not entail harm to others, then I see no strong reason why vegans and vegetarians cannot own non-human animals in good conscience.

References

Cochrane, Alasdair (2009) ‘Do Animals Have an Interest in Liberty?’, Political Studies, 57(3), pp. 660–679.

Cooke, Steve (2011) ‘Duties to Companion Animals’, Res Publica, 17(3), pp. 261–274.

Francione, Gary L (1996) ‘Animals as Property’, Animal Law, 2, p. i.

Steiner, Hillel (2002) ‘Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Talent Differentials and Distributive Justice’, In The Moral and Political Status of Children, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

13 thoughts on “Is it wrong for vegetarians and vegans to keep pets?

  1. Nicely explained. However, it is not just the ownership that is potentially problematic for the vegetarians and vegans it is also the husbandry of the companion animal.

    By this I mean what to feed them on a regular basis. While it is relatively straight forward to keep dogs on a vegetarian diet, with any animal products used coming from excellent welfare sources, cats are a different issue. They are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat in their diet – or rather more accurately without supplementation of certain amino acids they are unable to survive on vegan food alone. I am currently unaware of reputable source of these supplements or vegan food for cats that is good for their specific dietary needs. It means that a vegan keeping a cat is going to have to make a choice on funding some kind of animal farming process in order to feed the cat.

    While you could say the owner can provide a vegan diet and the cat can then go out and kill any additional food it wants and thus get the nutrition it needs the problem comes with sustainability. If the cat is ill (or it is lazy), full from the food provided or the local population of mice and birds is not available then it is not going to be able to hunt. We, as legal owners, have a responsibility to maintain the cat in health and so a decision will need to be made on the source of the meat products for them.

    Obviously this is not a direct problem in owning the cat, but an indirect one.

    just a thought…

    • Thanks for the comment Martin. I’m not so sure that there aren’t good pet foods for cats – veggiepets.com sell a couple (we had cats that lived happily on the stuff they sold for 6-7 years). My view is that, if you can’t find a nutritious and tasty alternative to meat for your pet, then you shouldn’t obtain one. However, this does raise the question of how owners of carnivorous animals should proceed if they become vegetarian or vegan after they’ve been living with an animal that they cannot obtain vegetarian or vegan food for. Giving the animal away seems both overly burdensome in terms of the effect it will have on the mental well-being of both companion animal and owner, and it simply shifts harms and wrongdoings onto someone else. In such circumstances then I think that the owner is obligated to seek the food option that does least harm. Some options might be food produced where welfare standards are relatively high, or scrap meat from butchers/fishmongers, or meat from animals with the lowest levels of sentience (fish/molluscs/insects).

      • Thanks for the reply.

        I was unaware of veggiepets.com, I have had a look and I shall investigate it further. I would be very pleased if it is a good food alternative for cats but I would have to be very sure as it is difficult to feed obligate carnivores on anything but meat.

        I suppose my thoughts really reside in the necessity. But first your point on welfare, absolutely agree. If we are to feed with an animal product then it must, come from the system with the least harm. I had not previously considered insects as a source, and allowing for essential amino and fatty acids that the obligate carnivores need, then maybe this is excellent alternative.

        Although i do agree that if we keep a cat and there is a suitable non-harming food source out there that the cat enjoys then it is hard to argue for not selecting it as the food source. we will take that as given. But I am just not sure that the argument on keeping a cat is dependant upon an external technology to quite such a high degree for example, keeping a cat cannot suddenly become permissible at the advent of veggie pets.com. But I am thinking of the necessity principle. For average people in britain there is no need for meat, it is a luxury item that many people enjoy (and often perceive it to be necessary), it is hard to argue for people using the idea that it is needed for normal living. The same is true for dogs, meat is an enjoyable luxury for them, but not necessity. But for the cat, it always has been a necessity (until veggiepets.com if we accept that).

        So is there a justification for living with a pet cat when it necessitates buying a meat product because there is no alternative? Well I think there must be. We regularly choose to harm one being over another for a necessity principle. It is me versus bacteria when I take antibiotics, it is the dog versus the worm when we treat with anthalmintics and so on. With the obligate carnivore cat, we have to wonder if it is the same battle. Do you think that prior to an alternative meat product for cats, it was impermissible for a vegan to keep a cat, or is it just that it is inconsistent with their world view. If it is the latter then I think the necessity must come into it. But I am only thinking out loud here and I would welcome your thoughts!

      • I have a feeling that it’s taurine (among other things) that cats need, which we now synthezise like hell for energy drinks (I’m probably wrong, but that’s what my memory is telling me).

        I do think there are reasons that would count towards the permissibility of vegans and vegetarians keeping obligate carnivores even if companies like Ami, Benevo, VeGourmet, and VegeCAT did not exist: values like companionship, happiness etc. Saving abandoned cats from shelters and being put down also might provide reasons. But, I think the duty not to contribute to the systems of meat production would be an overriding reason not to keep an obligate carnivore if you could not provide meat alternatives.

  2. Thanks for the interesting article and comments. I have recently become a vegetarian, and am thinking of also becoming vegan. I have been wondering about the ethical debate of what to feed a cat/whether I should really keep one. I agree with most of your comments, and that we should always pick the least harmful option.

    I have only just started my research, so maybe there really are vegan options for cats, but I am quite worried about it… they are carnivores unlike us, and I think they really do need meat. When you say your cats lived off veggiepets.com products for 6-7 years, do you mean that that was their total lifespan, or just the time frame in which you fed them that diet? Because 6-7 would be a very sad shortened lifespan for a cat! 😦 I think if we take on the responsibility of owning a pet we have a duty to give it a high quality of life and the best possible health, as it is totally dependent on us. If a vegan diet is shortening the cat’s lifespan then I think it is wrong.

    • Thanks for the comment. We had our cats before we became vegan. After becoming vegan we tried them out on vegan pet foods, some of which they really liked, and some of which they really did not (being cats, they also supplemented their diets with hunting and scavenging, but there wasn’t much we could do about that beyond sticking bells on them). I can’t remember exactly how old they lived to, but I think it was in the region of 13-15 years and they were pretty healthy creatures.

      • My “free range” cat is 22 now, and until last year you would have hardly told she was 21. Not really sure a vegan option would have been as effective as a more traditional one, preys included, but only time will tell.

  3. There are many interesting points raised in this discussion, some which I’d be very interested to explore. I won’t enter into debate regarding the ethics of feeding a carnivorous or omnivorous pet on a vegan diet. Nor will I discuss the ethics of animal domestication, husbandry and breeding. My question regards the notion of allowing a cat to take wild prey. They domestic cat is not a native animal, thus by hunting in the wild it kills native species, generally birds but sometimes others. I’m interested to know how you justify the ownership of such pets, which may harm native ecosystems.

    • Thanks for the comment. The first thing to say is that I think we have duties to prevent our companion animals from harming other animals. The second thing to say is that I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically valuable about native species (or about species as classes of beings), and no intrinsic reason to privilege them over non-native species. Ecosystems are valuable not for their own sakes, but only insofar as they contribute to the well-being of individual sentient beings. If, through our actions, we cause harm to other sentient beings (by destroying the ecosystem that is a necessary condition of their living a minimally decent life) then we do them wrong.

      • Thanks for the quick response Steve. I agree that the pet owner has the obligation to prevent their animal from harming others, though few cat owners truely do, or are able to do so. By purchasing a cat, even the most well intentioned owner indirectly perpetuates the cycle of breeding these animals. This is where the moral justifications for owning cats (for example) breaks down.

        Few would question the ownership of a cat, despite the fact that the animal is a predator and should be expected to kill other animals. Some might argue that a cat may be kept indoors at all times, but I’d argue that is a mundane existence for the animal. This information is cast aside (unless the animal is rescued) in favour of the perceived benefits, be they emotional or social, to the human.

    • The whole question of “native” ecosystems is complicated because there’s no realistic prospect of turning back the clock to the pre-human situation simply because most of the mega-fauna are either extinct (mastodon, aurochs etc) or have gone down a route of adaptation to live within the human-engineered ecosystem (cattle, sheep etc.)

      At least part of the problem of the human/non-human interface in our existing ecology seems to be the human capacity to take almost anything to excess – for example the bizarre (to me) conflict between the John Muir wilderness protection society in Scotland and gamekeepers of neighbouring estates over reduction of deer populations.
      https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/highlands/804636/fresh-clash-in-knoydart-deer-cull-row/
      where the issue is the gamekeepers wanting high populations of deer in order to shoot them.

      I think I’d say that cats are a different proposition from dogs because cats largely breed in spite of human choices rather than because of them (they’re essentially a commensal species that lets us touch them rather than a genuinely domesticated one).

  4. If you can’t feed a carnivorous/omnivorous animal a non-vegan diet then you shouldn’t obtain one or should rehome any you already have if you become vegan after you obtain them simple as.

    There are plenty of herbivorous animals that are widely kept as pets, vegans/vegetarians should obtain one of those instead of forcing a vegan/vegetarian diet on a non-herbivore.

    For example, rabbit, guinea pig, iguana, uromastyx lizard, tortoise, other rodents, herbivorous bird species (the bird being free to fly around your home and come and go from its cage as it pleases of course or you could keep pet chickens), horses/ponies/donkeys, miniature cattle.

    • Thanks for the comment, but it’s not really an argument to merely assert a conclusion and then state “simple as”. Why would it be wrong if the animals are not harmed and their wellbeing not impacted?

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