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I enjoy cooking, the great outdoors, horror movies, bourbon, T'ai Chi, and all the other liberal usual suspects. I'm an atheist, but if I had to choose a religion, it would be Bast worship. "I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man." -- Mahatma Gandhi


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OCTOBER 12, 2010 10:14PM

The Ethical Dilemma of Being a Vegetarian with Cats

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Like anyone else, people who are vegetarian primarily for ethical reasons have pets.  In fact, it is fair to say that ethical vegetarians and animal rights advocates in general are likely to save as many animals from the shelters or streets as they can, whether taking them into their own homes or placing them in other homes.  It is as much a part of the philosophy of helping animals in need as is refraining from eating them.   This is true in the circle of my vegetarian friends, and the much larger circle of my vegetarian acquaintances.  It is definitely true of my wife and me.

I estimate that in the last decade, we have rescued several hundred cats and kittens, placing most in good homes, and adopting a few to live with us.  It is a privilege and a joy to share our lives with these beautiful and intelligent creatures.  We provide them with food and shelter, toys and medical care, attention and affection.  In exchange, our cats comfort us, soothe us, amuse us, and teach us love.  They also ensure that we will never oversleep, and they keep us humble and down to Earth.  Sire, a thousand pardons that your litter box is not pristine.  I will attend to it immediately!   It’s nothing, honey. I just stepped on another hairball.  That’s why God invented paper towels.  Alone at last!  Just thee and me in our candlelit boudoir,  Coltrane for Lovers playing in the background, and the sound of a cat puking under our bed.  Ah, cats.

As vegans, we neither purchase nor consume any animal products.  For us, this is an ethical choice, but it also plays an important role in our physical well-being.  However, cats are not vegan or even vegetarian by nature, and it would be immoral to force this kind of diet on them.  Cats are obligate carnivores.  Despite the fact that they will jump onto our kitchen table and try to help themselves to whatever they desire from our meals (cats understand every single word in the English language except “No”), our cats must eat meat to stay healthy.  After all, cats are astonishingly good hunters for a reason, even if the typical indoor cat, such as ours, limits himself or herself to dismembering the occasional bug and pouncing on our toes while we try to sleep.

 We realize that feeding our cats meat contradicts our own refusal to support the meat industry.  We understand that other animals are killed in order for our cats to live, and that we are paying for it to happen.  Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil that we must commit.  Millions of cats and kittens are euthanized in shelters every year.  Millions more perish in the streets from starvation, exposure, disease, and predation by other animals and sadistic humans. And even in the face of these heartbreaking figures, kitten mills and amateur breeders and pet stores continue to breed ever more kittens; this is in addition to the many people who neglect to spay or neuter their cats and then, when the inevitable happens, dump the kittens in a shelter – or worse.  All of this needlessly compounds an already tragic situation.  My wife and I thereby consider it a worthy undertaking to do what we can to rescue kittens and cats from a terrible fate forced upon them by human greed and ignorance.  Naturally, rescued cats need to be fed.

The fact of the matter is that a large majority of Americans eat meat, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  The meat industry is not going to go away for a very long time, if ever, though from our perspective, that is the hope. While advances in the artificial production of meat – meat grown from cells, without the need to raise and slaughter the actual animal – are no longer the stuff of science fiction and may turn out to be the solution that lets humanity eat meat without the ethical, environmental, and health problems created by factory farms, that is still a long way off.  Given this ongoing industry, then, we choose the lesser evil of partaking in a small part of the meat trade in order to achieve the greater good of feeding the cats we have rescued from death.

And yet, what if our dreams were realized, and one day all of humanity went vegetarian?  Unlikely, but anything is possible, especially given the impact of the environmentally destructive cheap meat industry on a planet whose resources are fast being irreversibly lost.  What would people of that future vegetarian society feed their cats?  Put another way, how could people of that meat-free future ever justify continuing to keep cats, and if they could not, would we want to live in a world without cats as companions in our lives?  Are we willing to give up cats as pets?

So goes an argument occasionally lobbed at me and other animal rights advocates.  My answer is this:  if humanity ever gets to the point where it decides for ethical reasons to stop eating animals, then obviously, humanity will have reached a fundamental shift in how we interact with nonhuman animals.  Our relationship to them will be entirely new and different:  it will no longer be owner-property, or oppressor-oppressed, or superior-inferior.  It would mean that we have, at long last, come to treat and respect nonhuman animals as our equals.  Not the same, either physically or mentally, but equal in their right to live their lives free of human control and exploitation.  Should we ever reach that point, then the question of having pets will resolve itself, one way or the other.  Until then, it is only speculation.  For now, two realities are self-evident:  people have pets, and people eat meat.

 Accepting these two realities (and what choice do we have but to accept reality?), we buy meat for our cats despite our ethical opposition to the meat industry.  But this is not the only such compromise we make in our lives.  We drive cars, though we know that doing so contributes to global warming and further enriches the despicable oil industry.  We buy goods made in China, though we know doing so helps keep in power a totalitarian dictatorship that brutally oppresses its citizens.  We go out to eat in nice restaurants or take exotic vacations, knowing that the money could be used to help the poor and suffering.  It is the difference between making our messy way as best we can in the world as it is, versus living an ideal life in the world as we would like it.  Until reality meets ideality, our guiding principle will continue to be, do what we can to minimize the amount of suffering we cause in this world, and work towards a better future.  It is not the perfect solution, but what is?




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vegetarian, vegan, cats

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Somewhere I have a ridiculous book called Dogs and Cats Go Vegetarian. I think I bought it when my dog avatar was having major skin problems. I actually made some soybean-carrot loaf for a while. Yeah, no. As for cats...ha.

There are many such dilemmas in life I brood over, but I've given up on this one. Rated.
I'm a vegetarian, formerly a vegan. We have two dogs. I've tried to interest them in veggies, but it just isn't there. Deer season is around the corner when they will find deer bones in the woods and bring them home for the owners to be impressed.
I applaud you for your decision to give you cats meat since you understand that is what they need to eat.
From when I was an x-ray tech long ago, I remember a couple attending their toddler in the ICU. She was dying. She was dying because her vegetarian parents had controlled her diet so that she did not get enough protein for her small body to develop vital organs. There was nothing to be done. I hope that everyone who has kids has the sense to look into their nutritional needs as you did your pets.
I have been cooking for my pets for several years now and the cats get more meat than the dog because they need it.
@O'Stephanie: People raise healthy vegetarian and vegan children from birth. But like anything else, if ignorant parents do not provide properly for their children, regardless of choice of diet, the children will suffer.
I'll share this. I got a new puppy.
It's a half beagle and half lab.
Lilac & Ring-o had puppies.
They are called hybrid pups.
They are`Beaver or Bee Goes.
I ate Swiss Chard for breakfast.
I am needing more vim and vigor.
I ain't a young puppy. Feed greens.
I am glad that you are not trying to impose an unnatural regimen on a dependent animal. Personally, I think that keeping cats indoors is unnatural, but that's another post. I am mostly a vegetarian because my metabolism can't handle large amounts of meat. I have a friend who needs meat with every meal or she will get anemic. Humans vary in their nutritive needs. To assume that we can all live on a vegetarian diet is a foolish pipe dream, and it can be fatal to some, as stephanie said. If you are allowing cats to have their needs met, you obviously are aware that science has something to say about ours. Why stick to a philosophical stand if a child is suffering for it? That is also unnatural.
sorry, I just noticed that you answered stephanie with a very open-minded response. My mistake.
Isn't most cat and other pet food made from, for lack of a better term, the 'waste' meat that's left over from meat processing?

That byproduct is going to exist anyway, so in some sense you might as well use it to feed cats and dogs.
@cobaltic: You wrote, "Isn't most cat and other pet food made from, for lack of a better term, the 'waste' meat that's left over from meat processing?

That byproduct is going to exist anyway, so in some sense you might as well use it to feed cats and dogs."

Correct. Most of the cheap pet food sold in supermarkets is made from those unhealthy waste products, which is why no one should ever feed their pets that garbage. Fortunately, there are many high quality pet foods available, usually in pet stores but also better supermarkets. And of course, you can alway make your own pet food. That's often the least expensive and best way to feed your pets a healthy diet.
I think this is a highly reasoned & articulate approach to what is a complex ethical issue for many pet caretakers who are also concerned about the choices they make in their own lives and communities.

Well put.

Moreover, the guiding principle and advice you pose at the end of the blog really rings true for me. All people have choices to make in life. Taking the time to reflect--and to be consciously self-reflective--in those decisions may not change the world in one fell swoop, but I do believe it can and will make a difference.
I used to know a vegan who only fed vegan food to her dog and was always paying enormous hospital bills. Thank you for making this decision.
I think it's hilarious that I give my dog cooked meat and bones and I am told by well-meaning friends/family that these scraps will ruin my dogs health... or my cats'... when dogs and cats eat meat. I don't feed my animals fried foods or sweets, etc.

I think it's interesting that pet food commercials equate the link between health and eating.... between longer years and happier animals and playful pets and eating... yet, we feed ourselves and our children garbage! I just went to find soemthing in the school cafe where I teach and blah... hot dogs... chicken nuggets.... french fries.... and for some reason students get tired, can't focus, and don't test or read well.... hmmmmmmm

Thank you for being a compassionate and intelligent human being helping our world!
The quote taped to my keyboard is George Eliot's "The most solid comfort one can fall back upon is the thought that the business of one's life is to help in some small way to reduce the sum of ignorance, degradation and misery on the face of this beautiful earth.”

If enough of us find our small ways, then perhaps it adds up to a big change.
I hadn't thought a lot about this issue before, I think. It is an interesting dilemma. But, more generally: Do vegetarians not acknowledge the fact of the food chain and the cycle of life? Will they have no rest until we have vegetarian tigers, wolves, and orcas? What about vultures, which only eat dead meat—must they go vegetarian, too? And back no nature's predators: If the function of predators is to keep populations in check so that they don't overextend themselves and spoil the nest, killing off an entire society, then is it more or less friendly to that society to allow predation? If predators of people arose intent on keeping us from overpopulating, since we don't seem to find overpopulation a concern and are about to kill off our world through overconsumption, would that species preying on us be an ethical one? Just curious.
@Kent Pittman: You wrote, "Do vegetarians not acknowledge the fact of the food chain and the cycle of life? Will they have no rest until we have vegetarian tigers, wolves, and orcas? What about vultures, which only eat dead meat—must they go vegetarian, too?"

With all due respect, I've been hearing variations on that question ever since I became a animal rights advocate back in 1985. Here is the answer, speaking for myself and, I am confident, most vegetarians and vegans:

Yes, we acknowledge the food chain and the cycle of life. We acknowledge that nature is often cruel (from our human perspective) and that some animals kill other animals to survive, often in brutal ways.

My concern is not what other animals do, but what people do. People have a moral choice as to whether or not they will kill and eat animals, and if so, which animals, and by which methods? Will they only eat fish? If so, will they bludgeon the fish after they land it, or let it suffocate to death? Will they eat cows and pigs? If so, will they raise them in fresh air with plenty of room, or confine them in factory farms? The same sorts of questions apply to other animals, and products like eggs and milk. It is up to the individual to answer these questions for himself or herself, and I try to do my part by informing others of what actually happens to animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and advocating for a diet that, in my opinion, is the most compassionate choice.

You raise other questions that I have pondered:

"If the function of predators is to keep populations in check so that they don't overextend themselves and spoil the nest, killing off an entire society, then is it more or less friendly to that society to allow predation?"

Predators and prey have their place in the world, and each serve vital functions in the web of life. We ought to let them live as nature intended.

"If predators of people arose intent on keeping us from overpopulating . . . would that species preying on us be an ethical one? Just curious."

Let me answer that with a larger question: If space aliens arrived on our planet, and were as relatively powerful and intelligent to us, as humans are to animals, how would we want those aliens to treat us?
I have a friend whose "Master" guru in India forbids them from having a pet who eats meat. Her cat is vegan. It is the craziest animal I know. Very paranoid. Also, at the age of 60, she is forbidden from having sex with anyone outside of the path. Very strange.
While it may be a little unsettling, you could always feed your cats live mice purchased from a pet store. Or even better breed them yourselves...
The reason you feed meat to a cat is because a cat is a carnivore and, in the wild, is a predator. Basically, that's the end of the story.
" It is the difference between making our messy way as best we can in the world as it is, versus living an ideal life in the world as we would like it. "

In a world where people seem to spend too much of their time telling other people how to live their lives and not enough time considering their own imperfect path, that line in particular is wonderfully put and very refreshing.
i've been a ova-lacto vegitarian for forty years. the issue you raise is a regular part of discussion between me and people that realise that my three cats are certainly killers. my responce is that my choice is possible because i can be healthy without meat they don't have that choice nor do i imagine do they have they ability to form the question muchless answer it.

i tried to feed a red fox a strawberry once. the look i got rewarded me with one of the best and most memorable laughs i've had.
Taurine is an amino acid found in red meat that cats will die without - they are true carnivores.
Of course if you can teach them to eat Buckwheat (the only other source) you could possibly convert them.
Let us know how that works out.
I've been a vegetarian for 40 years, my kids are vegetarians, my grandkids are vegetarians. AND for a few years we fostered cats. We still have eleven. Sooo...I really appreciate this excellent post! having thought about this issue a lot myself, as cats are like serial-killer-level carnivores. But really, my FAVORITE part of the post was the description of a romantic night with Coltrane For Lovers playing & the cat puking under the bed! Ah -- been there. Humor AND wisdom make for great reading! Thanks!
Consider this: Cats consenting to be domesticated allowed humans to grow and store grains more effectively, so they allowed us to be less meat-consuming.