In order for animal products to be obtained, terrible harms must be inflicted upon a great number of animals. No one would accept suffering those harms to themselves in exchange for enjoying the benefit of using those products. For this reason, animal exploitation to obtain those products is an injustice, which we would completely reject if we acted in a just and impartial way, and which is maintained only due to the prevalence of speciesism.
While it has been established that it is perfectly healthy for humans to consume a vegan diet at all stages of life, less is known about giving vegan food to animals such as dogs and cats. However, the same reasons that compel humans to give up animal products apply also to other animals, such as those we live with. A huge number of animals are currently exploited and killed to make food to give to other animals. This means that some are exploited and others are not, simply because others appear more likable, or because they are kept as “pets”. This is not justifiable if we consider the issue from an impartial viewpoint and reject speciesism and animal exploitation.
Feeding some animals with other animals
The situation that takes place if we adopt and feed one animal with food that contains other animals is analogous to another hypothetical situation of adopting, say, twenty animals (for instance twenty cats or twenty dogs), and killing 19 to feed just one of them.
Fortunately, however, this needn’t take place. There are several brands of fortified vegan foods available that cover all the nutritional needs of cats and dogs. Therefore, the option that is consistent with respecting all animals involved consists in feeding animals foods that contains no animal products. Refusing to do so when safe and nutritious vegan options are available amounts to a concern for some animals in particular and to a disregard for many others.
The argument in a nutshell
The argument for not feeding animals to other animals is, in the end, very simple. We can start by simply considering the following question: should we oppose exploiting animals, causing them needless suffering and killing them? If nonhuman animals are morally considerable beings who shouldn’t be discriminated against, the answer must be “Yes”. This is the reason why we should reject what happens in farms, fishing nets and slaughterhouses, where trillions of animals suffer terribly and are killed when they are very young. But then, we should reject this in all cases, when it’s done to produce meat for humans and also when it’s done to give meat to other animals. In none of these cases it it necessary, and none of them prevents some harm that is worse than the one it causes.
Well-planned vegan diets for nonhuman animals are healthy
It must be noted that, even though most of those who live with nonhuman animals live with dogs or cats, there are animals of many other species who can be adopted, such as rodents and rabbits, and who can be fed easily on a vegan diet. But, since there are so many people live with cats and dogs, we will focus here on the way these animals in particular can be fed.
Like us, cats and dogs need to consume certain nutrients, not some particular foods. For this reason, it’s not necessary that they eat animal products. Both cats and dogs can thrive on complete and reasonably balanced vegan diets, and they may also experience a range of health benefits such as improved coat condition, allergy control, weight control, increased overall health and vitality, arthritis regression, diabetes regression, cataract resolution, and decreased incidences of cancer, infections and hypothyroidism.
Even though cats, unlike dogs, are considered to be animals who must eat meat, plant-based products can also meet their nutrient requirements. Nutrients that were previously believed to be only animal-derived can already be easily obtained from other sources. Nutrients such as DHA/EPA, vitamins D and B12 and even essential animo acids for cats such as taurine are commonly added to cat food from non-animals sources. Safe cat vegan products undergo strict quality control and certification that they meet or exceed the required levels of all key nutrients while being fully digestible, palatable and bioavailable. A growing number of commercially-available cat products aim to meet these requirements, being recommended by many veterinary nutritionists.
The victims of the so called “pet food” industry
It has been estimated that several billion fishes, with a total weight of 2,478,520 tons, are killed every year with the purpose of preparing canned wet food for cats. The total weight of the fishes that are victims of this to feed dogs and cats is, in fact, higher, given that this figure doesn’t include the canned wet food for cats in China, nor the dog food, snacks or the fishes that are directly fed to many cats and dogs.1 This estimation is done in tons because of the difficulty of calculating the total number of fishes that are killed.
It has been estimated that up to 3 trillion fishes are killed every year, counting both those who are captured and those who are killed in fish factories. Estimates have not been made for the number of fishes that are killed to produce food for dogs and cats in particular, but the total number of tons can give us an idea of the huge figures we can be facing in this case as well.
In addition, fishes are not the only victims, since pigs, chicken, cows, calves and other animals are also killed to feed cats and dogs. We might think that this is not causing these animals to be exploited and die, or at least not always, because cats and dogs foods are often made with by-products from the meat industry, such as the remains of carcasses and animals who die before reaching the slaughterhouse. However, this would be misleading. Selling these products to feed dogs and cats makes the meat industry more profitable, just as selling leather does. This results in more animals being killed. In this way, the use of meat products to feed cats and dogs leads to several billion animals being killed each year.
How to provide vegan food for animals
There are several brands of vegan food, treats and supplements for dogs and cats on the market. There are several non-vegan brands with a selection of vegan products for dogs and cats too.
Thousands of people, as well as animal shelters, have used these foods successfully for at least 20 years, and dogs and cats fed vegan products are capable of maintaining good health and reaching old age.
Below are some brands of vegan food for cats and dogs. In most cases, their products can be ordered online:
If we do not have access to these brands in our country, it is possible to feed dogs without them, by preparing their food ourselves. Well-planned diets for dogs must include an adequate protein intake (more than 25 grams per 1,000 calories), a good balance of amino acids, and sufficient amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12 (not naturally found in plant foods). Any diet lacking these nutrients can lead to serious health problems; this can happen in vegan diets and in other types of diets as well. The following recipe is an example of preparation recommended for a 30 kg dog:
- 280 grams of white rice
- 170 grams of soy beans
- 100 grams of sweet potatoes
- 100 grams of lentils
- 80 grams of boiled oat flakes
- A slice of whole wheat bread
- A tablespoonful of line oil, or two spoons of ground line seeds
- Two tablespoonfuls of ground sesame seeds
- Half a human dose of multivitamin and multimineral supplements, or the recommended dose of a specific supplement for dogs.2
Responses to common objections to feeding animals vegan food
Does providing vegan food to cats and dogs imply making negative moral judgments about them?
Not at all. Not feeding cats and dogs certain foods that contain other animals or by preventing cats and dogs from attacking and killing other animals does not imply that predators are “evil” and prey animals are “good”. But it is a mistake to think so. These animals should not be blamed for the way they behave. However, in killing of animals to feed other animals who live with us, we are the ones who are harming the animals with which we feed dogs and cats. And, unlike most predators, we can reason and decide that it’s unfair.
In addition, it’s important to note that it’s a good thing to stop suffering and death from occurring even when we’re not the ones causing them and when someone is causing it without being to blame for it. We already recognize this in the case of humans, for example, when we intervene and stop a child from acting in a way that can bring about bad consequences to her or others.
Does preventing animals from eating other animals mean we are taking a sentimental interest in the animals who are killed, instead of being impartial between different animals?
If we have strong feelings about someone, that alone does not show that favoring her or him is correct if that’s unjust to others. This doesn’t mean that each and every feeling we have is wrong. But it does mean that we shouldn’t do what our feelings would drive us to do when they are selfish ones, or incline us to be unfair.
It would be unjust to cats and dogs to provide them vegan food if having a vegan diet were a greater harm to them than the harm caused to animals killed to serve as food. But this is not so.
Isn’t feeding cats and dogs vegan food unnatural?
Humans often microchip, vaccinate, de-worm, de-flea, spay and neuter cats and dogs, and keep them indoors because they rightly believe such steps help safeguard the animals’ wellbeing. All these correct measures show that we can do a lot of unnatural things for nonhuman animals that are very good for them.
“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean better or right. There are many examples of unnatural things that are good, as said in the previous paragraph. In addition, there are many examples of natural things that are bad, including disease, suffering, and all the harms we may undergo due to natural causes. There are also many behaviors that happen in nature that are considered largely unacceptable such as rape, murder, and infanticide. These behaviors show that what is natural does not necessarily coincide with what is fair, and we cannot conclude, from the fact that a certain behavior is natural, that it is justified. Claiming that “this is how things are, nature is like that”, doesn’t tell us anything about whether those things are good or not. Trying to state how things should be only by saying how things just happen to be is unwarranted. Of course “nature” as such is not an agent that can judge things as good or bad, but those who have the capacity to reflect about this can, instead, decide to act to make the world a better place, instead of a worse one. Avoiding animal exploitation is one way of doing this.
By offering vegan food to nonhuman animals, aren’t we imposing our lifestyle and anthropomorphizing animals?
In this objection, there is a confusion about the meaning of the term “anthropocentric”. Anthropocentrism is the view that human interests count for more than those of other sentient beings. Due to this, it’s misleading to dub as “anthropocentric” views or actions that don’t aim at this, just because it’s carried out by humans. If feeding animals vegan food was done to further human interests at the cost of harming nonhuman animals, there would be a good reason to reject it. But the fact that humans do something doesn’t mean it’s anthropocentric. If the fact that an action is performed by humans necessarily makes it wrong, we would have to conclude the absurdity that all possible human actions are wrong (irrespective of any other reasons that might be put forward in their favor).
According to this position, we would have to reject not only the position prescribing giving vegan food to animals: we would also have to reject the position that is contrary to it (since it would also come from humans too). This shows that the accusation of anthropocentrism does not make any sense here.
Proponents of this anthropocentric objection could argue that if a decision is made by humans, it will necessarily foster human interests and nothing else. This, however, is false. There are many different forms of human interventions that are already performed by individuals who are motivated by concern for the good of the animals.
All this is setting aside that even when the goal has an exclusive concern with humans, the action itself may be good for nonhuman animals too. When humans vaccinate nonhuman animals against rabies with the exclusive goal of protecting humans from becoming infected with the disease, such action has an exclusively anthropocentric goal. However, even in this case, the interests met are not exclusively human, since the vaccinated animals also benefit from not contracting rabies.
Providing a well-planned and well-balanced vegan diet to nonhuman animals can be beneficial to the animals who will enjoy healthy lives, and it’s even more beneficial to all other animals who will not be killed to feed other animals. This is the reason (especially the second one) to promote vegan food for animals, and has nothing to do with anthropocentrism.
Doesn’t ethics apply only to relations where humans are involved, and not to relationships between nonhuman animals?
This objection has several problems. First, it assumes that there is no relationship between us, the animals who eat other animals, and those who are killed and eaten by them. But whenever we have the possibility of affecting the course of events, then we have a responsibility concerning those events. It may seem that we are not implicated with other nonhuman individuals in such a situation, which does not originate from our actions. But since our omissions (not just our actions) are also the result of our choices, we have a relationship with those animals. Therefore, this is in fact an ethical question. What should be taken into account is to what extent certain individuals are harmed, and that being harmed is morally important.
It’s also a mistake to suppose that acts performed by individuals who are not moral agents do not create a responsibility in the moral agents who can intervene in a situation . As has already been pointed out, if this claim was true, humans would not have to intervene when two children threaten to kill each other with a weapon or when someone contracts a disease. “But children are humans, animals are not,” one could object. The problem is that this response is a speciesist one.
Bischoff, K. & Rumbeiha, W. K. (2012) “Pet food recalls and pet food contaminants in small animals”, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 42, pp. 237-250.
Brown, W.Y. (2009) “Nutritional and ethical issues regarding vegetarianism in the domestic dog”, Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition in Australia, 17, pp. 137-143 [accessed on 28 April 2017].
Eisman, G. (2003) A basic course in vegetarian and vegan nutrition, Burdett: DietEthics.
Gillen, J. (2008) Obligate carnivore: Cats, dogs and what it really means to be vegan, 3nd rev. exp. ed., Charleston: BookSurge.
Gray, C. M.; Sellon, R. K. & Freeman, L. M. (2004) “Nutritional adequacy of two vegan diets for cats”, Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 225, pp. 1670-1675.
Hill, R. C.; Choate, C. J.; Scott, K. C.; Molenberghs, G. (2009) “Comparison of the guaranteed analysis with the measured nutrient composition of commercial pet foods”, Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 234, pp. 347-351.
Kanakubo, K.; Fascetti, A. J. & Larsen, J. A. (2015) “Assessment of protein and amino acid concentrations and labeling adequacy of commercial vegetarian diets formulated for dogs and cats”, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 247, pp. 385-392.
Kanakubo, K.; Fascetti, A. J. & Larsen, J. A. (2017) “Determination of mammalian deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in commercial vegetarian and vegan diets for dogs and cats”, Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 101, pp. 70-74.
Kienzle, E. & Engelhard, R. A. (2001) “Field study on the nutrition of vegetarian dogs and cats in Europe”, Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian, 23, p. 81.
Knight, A. (2005a) “In defense of vegetarian cat food”, Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 226, pp. 512-513.
Knight, A. (2005b) “The author responds”, Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 226, pp. 1047-1048.
Knight, A. & Leitsberger, M. (2016) “Vegetarian versus meat-based diets for companion animals”, Animals, 6, 57 [accessed on 30 April 2017].
Larsen, J. A. & Villaverde, C. (2016) “Scope of the problem and perception by owners and veterinarians”, Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 46, pp. 761-772.
May, A. (ca. 2010) “Vegetarian diets can be healthy for dogs”, Vegan Health [accessed on 22 January 2017].
Peden, J. (1999) Vegetarian cats & dogs, 3rd ed., Troy: Harbingers of a New Age.
Petrey, S. (ca. 2012) “Absolutely no-kill: Maintaining a vegan sanctuary”, homeatlast.org [accessed on 6 January 2017].
Re-Bow, V. & Dune, J. (1998) Vegetarian dogs toward a world without exploitation, Halcyon: LiveArt.
Semp, P.-G. (2014) Vegan nutrition of dogs and cats, Diploma thesis, Wien: Veterinärmedizinischen Universität Wien.
Wakefield, L. A.; Shofer, F. S.; Michel, K. E. (2006) “Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers”, Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 229, pp. 70-73.
1 De Silva, S. S.; Turchini, G. M. (2008) “Towards understanding the impacts of the pet food industry on world fish and seafood supplies”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 21, pp. 462-463.
2 This recipe can be found in O’Heare, J. (2010) Vegan dogs: Compassionate nutrition, Ottawa: BehaveTech. You can find more recipes in: Rivera, M. (2009) The simple little vegan dog book, Summertown: Book Publishing; Coster, H. (2015) Plant based recipes for dogs, [s. l.]: Heather Coster; Jakson, G. S. (2015) Homemade vegetarian dog food & treat recipes, [s. l.]: Gwendolyn S. Jackson; Verma, A. A. (2015) “Plant-based diets for cats and dogs?”, The Dog Hugger, September 11 [accessed on 15 February 2017]. A video showing how to make vegan food for dogs can be seen on TrudyEdTeach (2010) “How to make vegan dog food”, YouTube, 1 Nov [accessed on 22 December 2016]. A good guide to vegan nutrition for dogs can be found at Gentle Word (2011) “Good nutrition for healthy vegan dogs”, Gentle World, July 30 [accessed on 14 November 2016].