Helen Bee Greener explores the ethical minefield for a vegan of deciding whether to have an animal companion and how to feed them…
Tell someone you’re vegan and you will most assuredly be asked the same set of questions. It is unnecessary to list them here; everyone knows what they are, and most people will have their own comfortable way of responding to them. Sometimes there’s a curveball. It’s pretty tedious. But hey, it keeps us sharp.
There will, of course, be things on the list you secretly hate being asked. How would I react if I were being attacked by a wild boar? Seriously. Not a clue. But a surprising number of people want to know.
One of the toughest issues is that of how I care for my companion animal. I’ve been held to ransom over it dozens of times. From how I feel about subjugating an animal, to the effect of letting her have her wicked way with British wildlife, to – most pertinently – how I choose to feed her.
Oddly enough, having committed to an absolutist view, taking on the care of an animal comes with its challenges. You might expect the opposite to be true, but it can feel like a cannonball run. Pointing uphill.
Can veterinary medicine be trusted? Is this flea treatment tested on animals? Is it bad for the environment to let cats outdoors? Is it cruel to put a collar on the dog? Am I evil for spraying the neighbour’s cat with water because she was fighting my cat?
And then there’s the food. It’s just food, right? So none of the usual concerns apply. As pet food aims to provide pleasure and quality of life, animal testing on dog and cat food would seem the ultimate cruel irony.
We give them as close as possible to an historic diet, and get experts to make sure it’s nutritionally healthy on some vitamin chart or other. Then let us see what our furry friends enjoys through trial and error. There is no way to know what all pets want. There are no cat scientists doing polls door to door to find out if a new biscuit’s any good.
What there is though, is humans doing unnecessary tests on specially-bred, purposely over or under-fed laboratory animals. A concentration camp version of handing out samples in a supermarket. And we, the marketing targets, pick choices from the resulting pigeonholes. Cats, who generally hate water, mostly like fish. My cat ate a mackerel the other day. I didn’t even know she could sail.
Lazy domestic dogs who chase their own tail get an array of bones but, despite cats being historically larger and more aggressive predators than dogs, it has been decreed that they only need one kidney, so they’ve invented Dreamies. You can put cheese in cat food, but dogs prefer a bit of carrot in theirs. And all of them – not one a natural grain-eater – seemingly love a spot of rice.
Which set of brilliant tests came up with this system? If the animal’s true dietary preferences were even remotely involved in the process, then cat food would largely consist of puréed shrew.
Kept in kennels
Yet the pigeonholes keep being built, and behind the scenes dogs and cats are born and live their whole lives in kennel and laboratory environments for the sole purpose of providing the tools – taking part in cycle after cycle of tests. Many never see daylight.
It is true that some kennels have re-homing programmes. Many animals, particularly dogs, are matched with homes on retirement. However, reports show that large numbers live out their years in the same kennels in which they were born.
Surprisingly, many of the mainstream pet food companies still have not extricated themselves from ties to animal testing practices. And, as endless tins of food are churned out and stacked on supermarket shelves, the other glaring issue for most vegans considering how to feed their animals rears its head.
Is it wrong to deny another creature part of its evolutionary diet because you do not believe in killing and eating other animals? How can this ethical dilemma be mitigated and balanced? It is a dilemma I have heard time and again, not just from vegans, but from vegetarians and pescatarians who all have very basic welfare concerns regarding the origin of the meat used for pet food; and about the ethical choice regarding purchasing meat of an unknown source, thereby possibly perpetuating a cycle of suffering, and feeding it to a pet whom they rescued in good faith from a life of suffering.
Feeding cats and dogs
Dogs are perhaps the simplest place to start, because dogs have evolved to be omnivorous. From their wolfish origins they, like us, are now able to thrive on either a plant or meat-based diet. Balanced properly, dogs can live and be healthy without meat. It is a controversial topic but, ultimately, it is one that people who live with and care for dogs must research and make decisions on themselves, bearing in mind the background and current health needs of their canine friend. Vegetarian dog food is available, ideally to be fed in addition to some freshly-cooked additional meals, via www.veggiepets.com
Cats, however, present more of a stumbling block, because they really do need meat. Not in the same way as those who say they couldn’t live without bacon butties during a hangover need meat: cats genuinely need meat to live. They are obligate carnivores. Though they can digest plant-based foods, and will eat them (bear in mind their propensity for hunting out a spot of side-salad in the garden from time to time), they must receive a supply of specific amino acids, essential fatty acids and vitamins that are found in meat and, without them, they with become seriously ill.
Some do choose to feed their cats a vegan diet, but opt to supply an artificially-manufactured plant-sourced supplement. For example Ami, a respected vegan pet food company, manufactures a vegan cat food with just such a supplement included: www.veggiepets.com/cats/vegetarian-vegan-cat-food/ami-vegan-cat-food-7-5kg as well as TheVeganKind who have created vegan friendly treats and food at www.thevegankindsupermarket.com/collections/pets.
Cats will be cats
This choice of diet has had both mixed reviews and mixed results. The cat may or may not respond to this lifestyle, and to be fully committed would have to be kept indoors for the duration of its life. A middle ground could, however, involve releasing the cat into the garden from time to time, and thereby allow him or her to indulge in their natural behaviour.
Of course, no vegan supports or feels comfortable with the rearing and killing of animals for consumption and therein will always lie the problem. But the love and welfare of our pet – our family member – is of primary importance, and for those simply wishing to find some ethical, everyday balance, so once again the cannonball run rears its head.
Make the best choices
The bottom line is that vegans constantly find themselves ethical renegades. Even as we make positive changes we find roadblocks and navigate the best middle ground available. And so it is that in this instance we must make the best choices we can, and not feel ourselves failures.
The dogs and cats we help and love have to be fed. That is the very basic truth. They are our family. It is our job to tread the most compassionate middle ground possible, keep them safe, while at the same time letting them be happy and be themselves.
Free-range and/or ethically-sourced pet foods can be found at all of the following:
- Open Farm – Certified Humane
- The Honest Kitchen
- V-Dog – Vegan
- Almo Nature – 020 3332 0087
- Ami – 02392 45 33 55
- Antos Ltd – 0844 800 9201
- Applaws Natural Cat & Dog Food – 08707 508606
- Benevo – 02392 45 33 55 or at www.thevegankindsupermarket.com
- Burns Pet Nutrition Ltd – 01554 890482
- The Co-operative Food
- Eden Holistic Pet Foods Ltd – 01782 322409
- Encore – 0870 750 8606
- Europa Pet Foods – 0845 658 0987
- Healthy Paws – 0151 931 3336
- Lily’s Kitchen – 0845 680 5459
- Nature’s Diet – 01362 822320
- Organipets – 0845 3880935
- Pero Pet Foods – 0800 917 9697
- Pets’ Kitchen – 01285 711151
- Trophy Pet Foods – 01367 240333
- V-Dog – 02392 45 33 55
- Yarrah Organic Petfood – (www.yarrah.com/en or www.vegankindsupermarket.com)
About the author
Helen has worked as a journalist and writer for more than 15 years. She has also written case studies and funding bids for charities, raising considerable sums for a variety of causes. Helen lives in Kent with her partner and rescue cat, and has been vegan for 19 years.