“Can my pet be vegan?”

This is a highly controversial topic, though it tends to be a more sensitive topic for people who aren’t vegan than those who are. Relatively few vegans feed their pets a vegan diet, but those who do are often accused of animal abuse and are the subject of a lot of derision. Since many vegans do disagree on this, I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all vegans or even on behalf of mainstream veganism, all I can offer is my own, unqualified perspective on the matter.

Firstly, it is important to understand the context in which discussions on plant based diets for pets take place. Many, I’d in fact argue most, meat based pet foods are made from low quality meats which are often leftovers from slaughterhouses, or parts of animals which humans don’t generally eat. Some of this is not only incredibly low quality and nutritionally poor, but dangerous and unsanitary. Pet food recalls due to the use of dangerous meats or “ingredients of undeclared origin” are still very common,.In this context some will argue that whole foods, plant based diets for omnivorous animals are in fact less risky for their health than meat based commercial foods are.

The most pressing concern for vegans however, is an ethical one, mainly regarding how the food they are feeding their companion animals is contributing towards the meat industry. Though many of the meats used in commercial pet foods are leftovers from slaughterhouses, purchasing this meat nonetheless does help make the rearing and slaughtering of animals a profitable concern. Vegans want to boycott the meat industry, so some will extend that to everything they purchase, including purchases made on behalf of their pets. The environmental concerns behind feeding the vast number of domesticated pets meat based diets is also considerable, and this will factor into many pet owner’s decisions on what they choose to feed their animals.

In terms of the suitability of these diets, the least controversial animals are those who are already primarily herbivorous and those who are completely carnivorous. In the case of herbivorous animals, or those who can and do survive herbivorously in the wild, feeding your pet a plant based diet will cause no issues for their health. I would caution doing your research before acquiring an animal you think is herbivorous, as there are some misconceptions around the diets of certain animals, especially in the case of reptiles.

For carnivorous animals, mostly commonly cats, we do not currently have sufficient research to demonstrate that a plant-based diet is safe for them across all stages of life. There is promising research being done on this topic, and I’d recommend looking into the studies on this site if you want to review them yourself, but I don’t believe that the available research is enough for me to be able to responsibly recommend plant-based diets for cats or other carnivorous animals.

More controversial is the case of omnivorous animals, such as dogs. It is important to acknowledge that whatever views you have on dogs being fed a plant based diet, some dogs do subsist on diets like this and they are by all appearances and blood work, healthy animals. Vegans who look after vegan dogs who have been healthy for many years are not just lying, nor are the vets who monitor these animals. The claim that it is impossible for an omnivorous animal to survive on a plant based diet is therefore a falsehood.

Vets can and do recommend plant based diets for certain health conditions, and there are fully tested and nutritionally balanced plant based dog foods available online and in many stores, a short list of the best selling brands can be found here. If your vet has approved or even suggested a plant based diet for your dog and you are making sure that they are having frequent checkups and blood work  then there should be no cause for concern.

However, whether they can eat plant based and whether they should are different questions entirely. Some research, anecdotal evidence and testimonials from vets shows us that at least some dogs can be healthy on plant based diets, but again, there does not yet exist a significant body of research to suggest that there is no risk involved in this, or that it will be appropriate for all breeds of dogs at all life stages. That it has worked for some dogs is no guarantee that it will work for yours, or that there will be no risk of causing them real harm or discomfort. In the absence of a scientific consensus on this there absolutely is still a risk involved in any significant alteration of your pet’s diet, which is why I cannot recommend that it be done unless under the advisement of a veterinary professional.

I just want to take the time to emphasise that significant changes in diet must be discussed with your vet before you begin the process, not just to make sure there has been no harm caused after the shift has already taken place. If your vet advises against doing it, then please listen to them, they are likely far more qualified in animal nutrition than you are, they know the condition and needs of your specific animal and you should trust their advice. If you are set on doing this and have gotten the support of your vet, then take care to follow these guidelines set out by Pets WebMD:

  1. Never feed vegetarian or vegan diets to puppies and kittens or to dogs and cats you plan to breed. (Though as a vegan you shouldn’t be breeding any kind of animal regardless).
  2. Only consider or feed commercial diets that have gone through feeding trials and meets the requirements for AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) compliance.
  3. Consult with a veterinary nutritionist who can analyze your commercial or homemade vegetarian pet diet and make recommendations for additional health safeguards.
  4. Schedule more frequent wellness exams, including blood work, with your family veterinarian — at least twice a year, even for young pets eating vegetarian diets.

As pet owners, our primary concern must be the welfare of the animals in our care. We have a moral responsibility to look after their best interests, which includes providing them with a balanced, nutritionally adequate diet, irrespective of our feelings on the matter. If you are already feeding your dog a plant based diet, they are clearly healthy and are being monitored closely by your vet then you are properly looking after their welfare.

Choosing a diet which is in the best interests of your companion animal is ultimately your responsibility and your decision to make. If however, you are in some way uncomfortable with feeding your companion animals meat and have no intentions of doing so regardless of what your vet might advise, then my suggestion would be to adopt or rescue a herbivorous animal instead, so that there is no chance of your moral objection to animal products compromising the health of an animal in your care.

“Is it ethical to have a pet?”

Where pets fall in our moral framework is a question which often comes up when discussing the topic of animal rights, especially when we talk about animals having the right to life and self-determination. What happens to pets in a “vegan world” is often raised as a genuine topic of interest, but likewise the idea that vegans want to “take your pets from you” is often spread around as an attack on vegans and vegan ethics in general.

The fact of the matter is that there exists no unequivocally agreed upon vegan “stance” on pets. Vegans oppose all exploitation of and cruelty to animals, so for vegans to oppose the keeping of pets it would need to fall into one of these criteria. It cannot be reasonably doubted that humans do inflict great cruelty on our pets, even if only on a collective basis rather than an individual one.

As a species we have taken animals like cats and dogs, we have bred serious and often painful health defects into them for the purposes of aesthetics, we abandon millions of them when we no longer want them, and we buy, sell and breed more animals despite to having the resources or the will to look after the animals we already have.  On top of that, many humans inflict severe cruelties on the animals in their care, whether out of neglect, ignorance, anger or simple sadism.

As for exploitation, that pets primarily exist for the benefit of humans should be self-evident. We breed animals according to what they can do for us, whether that be as working animals, research projects or just companionship. Some of these goals are more admirable than others, but it remains the case that our ownership of animals primarily stems from the fact that, whatever the reason for it, we enjoy having them around. Breeding and keeping a being for your own sake is the very definition of exploitation, but while this is true of us as a species, it doesn’t apply in every case.

There are many people who adopt animals primarily because they want to give them a good life and because the animals need to be rescued, rather than anything we can gain from them. Some people choose the animals least likely to be adopted and work their hardest to make them happy, this is of course an admirable thing, and the only way to keep pets in an ethical way.

These have so far been ideological questions, but they have to be viewed within the context we currently find ourselves in. In the US alone, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter shelters every year. Of these, 2.7 million are killed due to not being adopted, most of whom are perfectly healthy animals with no significant behavioural issues. These statistics do not account for the number of abandoned and stray animals who are killed in road traffic accidents, or succumb to sickness, starvation, dehydration or cold.

These are staggering figures and a global total is not available as most countries do not even record these figures due to the sheer volume of culling that is done. Given these facts, even though we as a species have exploited companion animals by claiming ownership over them, we have a moral responsibility to look after the animals who already exist. This means that despite the fact that the institution of pet keeping is exploitative, we still need to be doing our best to house and feed animals, and rescuing unwanted animals, so long as we have the time and means to provide them with a happy life. It also means that we cannot allow these animals to breed, since doing so would be exacerbating the existing problem of pet overpopulation.

Beyond this, the difficulty comes when we try to figure out what the future of pets is in a world where animals are granted their fundamental rights. If animals were no longer property but had legal personhood and the rights to along with it, then this would have profound implications for our relationships with companion animals.  A judgement would need to be made about what place animals like dogs and cats have in a society which no longer treats animals as objects, existing solely for human benefit. If animals are allowed the right to self-determine, how can we justify keeping them in our homes, when many would escape if they could?

In the short term at least, this can be viewed in a similar way as how we view dependent humans now. Children and dependent adults have a right to self-determine by virtue of being human, but since they lack the capacity to do so, they are looked after by other humans and have some of their rights placed into the hands of their carers. We can imagine a similar situation for companion animals, where they have status as legal persons, while having their limitations understood and accounted for.

If animals had rights, we would also have to grapple with what these animals are to eat. The answer may be obvious, that these are natural omnivores or even obligate carnivores in the case of cats, and so they should be allowed to exercise that natural inclination and to eat other animals. However, pet food does help keep the meat industry profitable, and even if humans stopped eating meat we would still need to kill millions of farmed animals if we still planned on feeding them to pets. The issue is that in this future where animals do have rights, it would not be legal to slaughter animals, since those farmed animals would have the same or similar rights to our dogs and cats.

It is possible that lab grown meat may provide an acceptable solution in this case, but the technology is not quite there yet, and there will be no answers to that question until synthetic alternatives have been better developed and studied. We have already made significant advances in this field, and the hope would be that as we moved towards a world willing to accept the rights of animals, we would naturally focus our attention on trying to develop nutritionally identical, synthetic alternatives.

More fundamental still, is the question of whether or not dogs and cats should exist at all, given the fact that we bred them into existence so that they could serve our own needs, and most could not survive in the wild. The animals we already have would of course have to be housed and fed as best we can, but if we were to stop breeding them then over time they would not exist. This is the same problem we would face with farmed animals, whether or not them not existing would be the best thing in the longterm, and this is a subject of some disagreement within the vegan community.

This is less of an issue with animals like horses, who in the longterm could live in the wild once again, but most dogs and cats would not have that option. Personally, I am of the opinion that just because we have bred these animals to be what they are does not mean they forfeit their right to exist once we have decided that we no longer want them to serve our needs. The ideal situation would be that dogs and cats be allowed to exist in sanctuaries as a conservation project, where they could live happy, health and natural lives in family groups will still being preserved and cared for by humans.

This proposition of cats and dogs living separate from most of us might make many people sad, especially for those of us who love our pets and value our relationships with them. However, the fact that we get a lot out of our relationship with animals is not a good reason to continue breeding and exploiting them for our own purposes. Animals are used to living with humans and they no doubt enjoy our company, but it is hard to argue that they are better off living in artificial settings with humans, trained to obey our rules and to function in our spaces, rather than living in their own social and family groups, acting according to their own desires, preferences and interests.

We love our pets, but that does not give us the right to keep their rights from them just because we would rather have them close to us. No one is advocating for your pets to be taken from you, but we are saying that we should stop buying, selling and breeding them for our benefit. We must look at pets the way we do any other domesticated animal, and come to terms with the fact that however much we like having them around, they would likely be better off without us.

“Is it ethical to buy from resposible breeders?”

The idea that we should adopt animals instead of buying them is a surprisingly controversial one, considering the fact that the over-breeding of animals and the lack of availability of places in shelters have reached crisis levels all over the world. The truth of the matter is that when places in that context, there is just no such thing as a responsible breeder.

In the US alone, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter shelters every year. Of these, 2.7 million are killed due to not being adopted, most of whom are perfectly healthy animals with no significant behavioural issues. These statistics do not account for the number of abandoned and stray animals who are killed in road traffic accidents, or succumb to sickness, starvation, dehydration or cold. These are staggering statistics, and a global total is not available as most countries do not even record these figures due to the sheer volume of culling that is done. Given the extent of these issues, adding even more animals to the population, regardless of whether they end up with responsible owners or not, just cannot be justified.

No matter how careful the breeder is with who they select, they cannot guarantee their animals will not be abandoned, and even if they can, the issue is that even in the best possible case scenario, where a breeder will take back an animal an owner no longer wants even years later, which is rare, an animal has still been purchased instead of adopted. That breeder, no matter how “responsible,” will go on to to add dozens or possibly hundreds of new animals to an already grossly inflated population which we do not have the resources to adequately care for. For every animal who is purchased from a breeder, that is one more animal who will not be adopted, and will very probably be killed as a result.

No kill shelters are often cited as a solution for this problem, but most of these rely on charitable donations and have nowhere near enough places to adequately cover the number of unwanted animals even in their local areas. Keeping an animal alive for years, including all their feed, care and medical treatment, is exorbitantly expensive and is just not doable for a charity for anything approaching the volume of animals which would be necessary. As harsh as this truth is, if animals were not being killed in shelters then their population would explode even further than it already has. That is not in any way a justification for killing an unwanted animal, but it is a truth which we must acknowledge and it is the reason that kill shelters exist.

Many people buy from breeders as they believe that they can know more about the health and behaviour of an animal if they buy from the person who bred them rather than from a shelter, since they know their genetic history and have had them since they were a puppy. The issue with this line of thinking is that genetics have a very small impact on animal behaviour when compared with how they were raised, just because you know that an animal’s parents were docile and healthy does not mean you can assume the same about their offspring.

That is assuming a breeder would even be honest with you about their lineage and behaviour as a young animal, since breeders have a fairly obvious incentive to midlead you so that you will purchase an animal from them. Rescue workers on the other hand, have no such incentive, and since they have usually spent quite a lot of time around an animal and they are experts, they can tell you a great deal more about their specific needs, health and behaviours than any breeder can, and they are much more likely to be honest with you about it.

The primary reason most people buy from breeders however, is that they want a specific breed. When it comes down to it though, there is no reason why anyone would ever require a specific breed from a breeder, with the possible exception of working animals. Besides, there are breed specific shelters and rescues all over the world for pretty much every breed imaginable, and the desire for a specific breed does not justify supporting breeders, whether they are small-scale businesses or intensive breeding operations. The reason people most often want a specific breed is purely vanity or for their own pleasure, and if you have the best interests of animals in mind then that will never be enough.

The fundamental question that you need to honestly ask yourself when you are considering where you will source an animal from, is why it is that you want to acquire them in the first place. If your primary intention is to give a good home to an animal who needs it, then you will never have a good reason to buy from a breeder rather than adopting from a reputable shelter or rescue. Animals are not commodities, to be bought, sold, chosen and discarded based on aesthetics, breed or novelty, they are living beings who we have bought into this world and now have a responsibility to take care of. It is first and foremost our moral obligation to care for those animals who already exist and need a home, rather than bringing even more animals into a world which does not have the resources nor the will to look after them properly.

“Is it ethical to kill pests?”

This is one of those areas where the lines can become a little bit blurred for some vegans. Whether it’s through fear, convenience, or just not knowing what else to do people can often contradict their values and act in ways which aren’t consistent with vegan ethics. There are several different opinions on this within the vegan community, all I can really offer here is my own and try to justify as best I can, but I am by no means speaking on behalf of all vegans.

Firstly, I think it’s necessary to distinguish between pests who are deemed so because they pose a genuine risk to human health, and those we call pests simply because we don’t like having them around. Having a rat or mite infestation in your house is a pest problem, because they can post a genuine risk to humans, will make life uncomfortable, could destroy your property and will make living conditions unhygienic. A spider who has wandered into your house to get out of the cold or to hunt is not a pest, and unless they are venomous they pose no genuine safety risk to you or your family.

Even if an animal genuinely is a pest, that is not a good reason to inflict unnecessary cruelty on them. Where a humane alternative exists, which it usually does, there can be no moral justification for choosing to kill an animal when it isn’t necessary to do so. That an animal occupies the same space as you is not a reasonable reason to kill them unless there is literally no other reasonable option available to you.  You might be disgusted by an animal in your home, or genuinely frightened of them, but how you feel about a specific animal doesn’t have any impact on whether they deserve to be treated humanely, including allowing them to live where it is possible to do so.

The most humane option for dealing any pest is preventive measures to ensure they don’t enter your home in the first place, including storing food in proper containers, cleaning any food waste regularly, sealing cracks in walls and blocking space under doors, or any other potential points of entry. When a pest problem emerges in a home, it is usually because these steps have not been taken adequately. For specific animals you might have a problem with, there are usually natural deterrents which are very effective, ranging from fruit juices, specific herbs or flowers, and chemical deterrents depending on the animal in question. There will almost always be a way to deter an animal from entering your house in the first place if you know there is a risk of them doing so.

Once a pest has already established itself in your house, deterrent may no longer be an option for you. If capture and release is possible, which it usually is, this should be the first thing you attempt. Humane traps for rats and mice are widely available and are cheap and effective. When using catch and release traps, these should only be active when you are in the house and can check the traps at least every two hours.

Animals become extremely agitated when trapped like this, and can go into shock or harm themselves trying to escape if not released in good time. A local park is the best place to release, do so gently by opening the trap and setting them in the grass, giving them plenty of time to leave of their own accord rather than forcing them to. For insects and arachnids, humane bug catchers are very effective and don’t require you to get close to the animal in question if you’d rather not do that.

If you are dealing with a true infestation and there is no chance of dealing with the issue in a non-lethal manner, then that may be your last resort. If an animal poses a genuine risk to your health or that of your family, then self-defence can be a reasonable cause for killing, when all other options have been exhausted. This is never a good thing and it’s deeply unfortunate, but it can be necessary in some scenarios, particularly when dealing with insect infestations or animals which pose a real risk of infection, like mosquitoes and cockroaches.

Keep in mind that veganism is about avoiding unnecessary harm to animals, but we have to acknowledge that not all harm is unnecessary in all circumstances. It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to tolerate an infestation in their home out of a strict adherence to veganism,  since all moral frameworks have to be practical or they will become useless and unobtainable.

When it comes to dealing with pests, we need to make sure we don’t leave our veganism at the door and act out of instinct, fear or discomfort, no matter how tempting that might be. That we don’t always like the animals who share our homes with us is no excuse for treating them unkindly, and our personal feelings towards them should have no impact on whether or not they deserve to be alive. We should apply the same logic to rats, mice, insects and arachnids as we do to all animals, that we should avoid harming them wherever possible, and treat them as individuals whose rights and lives must be respected.

No matter how small, how scary or how different they are to us, all animals have the right to life a life free from unnecessary suffering, and we should grant them that right whenever it is in our power to do so.

“Is it ethical to use service animals?”

The question of service animals is a subject of some disagreement even within the vegan community, what I present here is one perspective among many. When considering service animals there a number of factors to consider. There is the question of whether the animal is being harmed, whether they are being exploited, whether they would have been better off not being a service animal or if their use if justified despite the answers to any of these questions.

Firstly, it should be obvious to most observers that many working animals are being harmed. Police canine units and military animals are often intentionally cruelly treated as part of the training process, deprived of normal social interaction, affection and discouraged from displaying their normal behaviours. The use of prong collars, severe punishments and intentional exposure to stressors remain common practice, and the nature of the work they perform means that encouraging targeted aggression is part of the training process. These animals are placed in very real danger as a result of their role, injuries are not uncommon and can prove fatal.

The same can be said of just about any military or police animal, these animals are clearly being exploited for the purposes of combat or law enforcement, and it cannot be reasonably argued that doing so is in the best interests of the animal in question. While many handlers undoubtedly do care for their animals and treat them as well as they can, the work itself is by it’s very nature harmful and exploitative, regardless of how well they are looked after or how carefully they are retired once their “useful” working life has ended.

The question of exploitation and harm is more nuanced when it comes to service animals used to assist those with disabilities, such as emotional support animals or guide dogs for the blind. These animals are not usually subjected to stressors which any ordinary companion animal wouldn’t be, and it is clear that those who rely on them usually care deeply for them and form an emotional connection the way most people do with their pets.

Technically, these animals are still being exploited for human gain, they are bred, raised and trained solely for human benefit. That said, given the fact that there is often no viable alternative for many people with disabilities or severe emotional issues, it can be argued that this is justified. Without any viable alternative, it is unreasonable to expect a disabled person to go without the animal they rely on, or to blame them in any way for their use of a service animals.

As for whether or not these animals would be better off were they not service animals, this is something of a moot point, since these animals are bred specifically for the purpose of being service animals. If they were not service animals they would not exist, with the exception of those animals who fail assessment and are then given up for adoption.

The issue of breeding is an important one, since it is irresponsible to bring more animals into the world given the staggering numbers being killed in shelters. Service animals are currently very rarely drawn from rescue populations, but this seems like an obvious way to solve a lot of the ethical issues involved with using service animals. If the alternative for a shelter animal is that they are killed due to not being found a home, being a service animal and living a happy life while doing so is obviously a better alternative.

Technically this is still exploitation, but it would be hard to justify allowing these animals to die and disabled people to go without support purely for the sake of ideological purity. There are groups mounting pressure to only train rescued animals, contrary to popular belief, many breeds of animals are capable of being guide dogs or emotional support animals, and since many dogs in shelters are still young there is little reason to resort to irresponsible breeding practices to fulfil the demand for service animals. It must be noted though, that even this would not be possible in all cases, since in order to perform some service roles, animals often need to be trained from their earliest infancy.

The basic argument then, is that while the use of animals in service to humans is exploitative, using service animals can be justified in some circumstances, given some conditions are met. These should include:

1) The animal must be treated as a companion rather than a worker, and as such must be properly retired with a loving family once they can no longer work.

2) Animals should not be placed under any stress or put in danger.

3) There should be no viable alternative for the use of service animals.

4) The animal should, where possible, be sourced from a rescue centre.

An example of this might be a therapy dog who has come from a rescue centre as a young dog, and would probably otherwise have been killed. The animal is not under any significant amount of stress due to their work, they have a place in someone’s home as a companion and will live out their life with the same individual or family. They are not being asked to display unnatural behaviour, are not subject to danger or stress and are being given a loving home.  Similarly, a former race horse or failed racing foal who would otherwise be killed instead being used for used for hippo-therapy for people with cerebral palsy, the work is not stressful and the animal is much better off being used for this purpose than being killed. 

We do not have to deny that animal use is exploitation in order to justify service animals in some scenarios. Yes, service animals are being taken advantage of. Practically speaking though, we live in a society which doesn’t really value animals in and of themselves. In a society where supposed companion animals are being killed by their millions because they are over-bred, I think it is pragmatic to allow for things like service animals in cases where the alternative for that specific animal would be worse and there are no viable alternatives for the person who requires the service or therapy animal. We are seeing some advancements in robotics which look promising as a replacement for service animals, but we are a long way from these being widely available and accessible.

Some vegans may disagree with this stance, but I would argue that while service animals may never be morally good, they can often be morally justified. Regardless of your viewpoint on this, no negative judgement should ever be placed upon the people who require the use of service animals in order to function, it is not their fault that this is the option that has been given to them, and no one who relies on a service animal should be made to feel bad because of it.

Just as those who require animal tested medicine are not at fault because pharmaceutical companies choose to test on animals, those who need support are not at fault because institutions rely on irresponsible breeding and are not actively developing alternatives.

“The victims of the system are kept out of sight and thus conveniently out of public consciousness. The dismembered bodies of slaughtered beings are everywhere we turn, and yet we virtually never see these animals alive.”

Melanie Joy, Psychologist