@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.