Our puppy, Oliver, is 8 months old and our cat, Rainee, is about 15 years old (this post was written in April of 2016). Nicole and I are both long-time vegans so it stands to reason our pets would be vegan, too. Many vegans, because of their personal philosophical choice, anthropomorphize their values on their pets. We are not those types of vegans.
I like to think of myself (perhaps a bit narcissistically) as an “intellectual” vegan. I made my choice based on my personal moral values and a lot of learning about food, nutrition, and the science of being healthy. After I went vegan, I started to wonder if pet food was roughly equivalent in nutrition and chemical adulteration as highly processed human food. Turns out it is. I make conscious choices about what my pets eat now, too. The difference is, that I do not make philosophical choices for my pets. I do not think it is right to assume the values of my pets inherently reflect my own. Oliver and Rainee are (and I’m not trying to be insulting here) simply too dumb to understand the complicated choices we make on their behalf. Oliver, for example, happily eats carpet and has no problem licking the butt of any dog he just met. I am just saying maybe he is not the brightest star in the sky when it comes to complex decision-making.
Obviously, some important decisions about Oliver’s well-being and safety in a world dominated by the human species is best left to humans (because we know how to read labels and use can openers, for example). Outside of practical decisions, though, I would no more try to impose my philosophy of living on Oliver than I would try to teach a two-year old human baby the virtues of Capitalism. It is outside their scope of knowledge.
Some words in this post you might not be familiar with, loosely defined:
Carnivore: must eat meat to have proper nutrition (a tiger, for example).
Herbivore: must eat fruits and vegetables for proper nutrition (an elephant, for example).
Omnivore: can eat either meat or vegetables, or both, and be nutritionally sound (a human, for example).
Vegan: someone who chooses NOT to consume or wear anything that is, or comes from, an animal.
Narcissist: someone who is in love with himself or herself, to a fault.
Anthropomorphize: projecting human thoughts and feelings onto another animal (like Bugs Bunny or your dog).
Adulteration: adding bad stuff (like chemicals) to good stuff (like fruit) to make something unfit for consumption (like Froot Loops, which are delicious, nonetheless).
A dog can certainly survive on a vegan diet, but should your dog be vegan because you are?
This is a debatable topic in the vegan community but I am not sure why. On the surface, it is debatable if dogs are omnivores at all, though many veg-friendly sites claim dogs are omnivores “by nature”. There is conflicting evidence about that, but there is no debate that most species within the dog family (Canis Familiaris and their wolf ancestors, Canis Lupus) subsist mostly through hunting and eating other animals. Personally, I think there is a clear, obvious, and striking difference between most omnivores or herbivores and dogs–look at their teeth and eating patterns. Dogs eat competitively and in packs, suggesting the hunting and bringing home of prey rather than individually scavenging for fruits and vegetables.
There is no legitimate scientific debate around cats, as far as I can tell. They are considered strictly carnivores and scientists generally agree cats are unable to thrive without meat in their diet, despite weak anecdotal support from some pet owners.
So, I will dismiss Rainee from the debate altogether. Regardless if Oliver can survive on a vegan diet (again, debatable), let alone thrive on one (also debatable but certainly possible with strict attention to dietary supplements and fortified foods), I need do no more than look at his teeth to see it is a bad choice to make him vegan.
Canine teeth are clearly designed for ripping, tearing, shredding, and gnashing (like a tiger, wolf, or vampire from Fright Night). Human teeth, by contrast, are flatter and better suited for grinding and chewing (like a cow or horse). Even if dogs are technically omnivores, they have clearly evolved mostly as carnivores, unlike humans, and if left to their own choices, dogs will not deviate from a carnivorous diet (Oliver, for example, will not pass an opportunity to slurp up a lizard if he catches one, much to Nicole’s dismay). In other words, there might be a debate among humans whether dogs are, or should be, considered strictly carnivores, but there is certainly no ambiguity among dogs–if given the opportunity, they will not hesitate to eat meat.
To me, it is a minor act of cruelty to make your pets vegan. As far as we humans can tell, it is not what dogs want or need, and it very likely robs them of key nutrients unless you are a vegan supernerd food scientist who knows vegan dog nutrition inside and out. I don’t even know human food and nutrition inside and out, let alone the nutritional requirements of another species. Forcing my dog to be vegan would likely, and unnecessarily, shorten his lifespan in the name of my moral ignorance.
All that being said, Nicole is grossed out by pet food and treats and will avoid touching it if possible. That leaves the dirty business of feeding them to me. I won’t lie. As a vegan, it is tough some days to smell and handle canned meat, or dog bones, or treats, or to clean up Rainee’s salmon-laced hairballs. It is a moral conundrum, as well, because of course, I don’t like buying meat or having non-vegan items in the house. I understand why vegans make ill choices for their pets, but my primary responsibility to the pet, as I see it, is to the pet’s health and well-being before my own personal politics come into play.
When it comes to choosing vegan for your dog, consider two things…
- Maybe you shouldn’t have a dog. Borrow your friend’s dog, or volunteer at a shelter to fill that need, or get a rabbit.
- Does the dog want to be vegan? Is it the best choice for the dog or just the best choice to satisfy your conscience?
Nothing about pet ownership is easy and our responsibility does not stop at rescuing or purchasing an animal companion. I am glad the debate over ethical choices for pets is happening (including the debate over pet ownership itself), but when it comes to diet, I think the right thing to do for my dog is not necessarily always the thing that leaves the best taste in my mouth.
Feel differently? Agree wholeheartedly? Have questions? Let us know in the comments below!