The morality of having a meat-eating pet

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In this article I examine the relative impact on the environment and animal suffering of having one pet compared to eating an average omnivorous diet instead of a vegan diet. Note that this analysis is relative, with the final results in terms of animals consumed in both cases to allow for a rough comparison. I time-limited this research to 1 hour on purpose and so the study is not as in-depth as it could be, and I assume that I have not missed any major unforeseen factors in my work. If I have, I want to know, so please tell me in the comments.


My family has two cats and one dog, all of whom eat canned pet food every day, which is mostly meat. After going vegan for ethical reasons, it occurred to me that my pets were also consuming animal flesh, which presumably led to some non-zero amount of suffering. Therefore, by having a pet, I was still contributing a good deal to suffering. I wanted to determine just how much suffering.

Let us first assume that each pet consumes one can of pet food per day for the sake of argument. I am using a 400g can of Whiskas cat food for this example. The can states that the ingredients are ‘Meat including chicken, beef and/or lamb and/or pork and turkey; gelling agents; vegetable oil; colouring agents; flavours; vitamins and minerals; taurine; plant extracts’. It does not state which meats are used, nor in what quantity to the non-meat components. I will conservatively assume that only half the can is meat (i.e. 200g of meat per pet per day) and examine two cases; all beef and all chicken.

An important question here is whether the meat is factory farmed or not, as this makes a significant difference to the amount of suffering experienced by the food animals. According to Ethical Consumer, Whiskas pet food contains factory farmed meat, dairy and eggs. I believe that it is safe to assume that most pet food is factory farmed. Another important question is whether the meat is primarily ‘waste product’. If it is, reducing the demand for it may not have as strong an effect on suffering as if ‘human grade’ meat is used, though I expect the effects to be similar.

Chicken

The average chicken has a 2.26 kg market weight after 5 weeks, which I have interpreted to mean the amount of usable meat at time of sale. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 chicken in just over 11 days, or 33 chickens per year.

Beef (cow)

This article estimates that 490 pounds (222.26 kg) of usable meat is retrieved from a cow. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 cow in around 1,111 days, or 0.33 cows per year.

Average omnivorous diet

According to the Vegan Calculator, the average American eats 11 cows and 2,400 chickens over their life (as well as 27 pigs, 80 turkeys, 30 sheep and 4,500 fish). Using the average US citizen life expectancy of 79 years, this amounts to around 0.14 cows and 30.38 chickens per year. Comparing this to the average number of cows or chickens consumed by a pet in a year, we can see that, for one type of animal at least, the impact of having a pet is comparable to the impact of eating an omnivorous diet over a vegetarian (or vegan) diet. Thus I argue that having a pet that consumes meat is about as unethical as consuming meat yourself.

Some argue that there is a difference as some pets need to consume meat to live, while humans don’t. This is true, however an alternative is to simply not get a meat eating pet in the first place. This argument also places the wellbeing of a single pet animal as being orders of magnitude higher than that of a food animal, which is speciesist. On the topic of rescuing animals from shelters, perhaps it is better to let the animal die so that hundreds of others may live.

 

Some people claim to need animals for reasons of mental wellbeing, and I make no comment on whether or not this is true. However there are many pets that don’t require meat to live a healthy life, and I would strongly recommend having such a pet, like a pig, over one that does require meat. I also make no comment as to whether certain pets like cats can live on a meat free diet. I have heard that this is possible, but do not recommend it without further research.

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:43 PM
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I agree, but one other consideration: the average lifetime cost of a dog is apparently >£15,000/$20,000. I'm sure you can keep a pet much more cheaply, but still, healthcare costs, of pets, alone are notoriously expensive. It seems like the expense (which could buy a lot of bednets or save/prevent a lot of farmed animal lives (http://effective-altruism.com/ea/pj/at_what_cost_carnivory/)) would dwarf the moral importance of the pets consuming meat directly.

Very true David, but then the same could be said of being vegan to a lesser extent.

This article was targeted more towards the vegan community in general, not just EAs (though I cross posted it here because I thought it might be useful). Most non-EAs wouldn't think about donations that way, and probably wouldn't donate the $20,000 if they didn't get a pet.

I agree with David Moss.

Apart from that, the cat will eat those meat cans whether you own it or someone else own it. If you don't increase demand of pets by getting your cat from an animal shelter, this should be fine (besides the costs David mentioned). But you really shouldn't get them from a breeder.

If you don't get your pets from a 'no-kill shelter', that might not be the case. In that situation, if you don't get the pet, they might just be put down.

Does this argument imply some sort of "cat meat eating problem" that would suggest subtle or not so subtle ways to decrease pet populations?

Can I also suggest though that this tendency should be balanced by the potential positive impact of owning a pet. Jonathan Safran Foer quotes Oxford historian Sir Keith Thomas:

the spread of pet-keeping... created the psychological foundation for the view that some animals at least were entitled to moral consideration.

I've no idea about whether studies of this have been done, but it seems plausible at least that a child in a pet-owning family is more likely to develop some level of empathy for animals, and more likely to question the hypocrisy of treating cats and dogs so well and other animals so abysmally.

In pre- domestic pet societies such as most of the second and third worlds today, empathetic attitudes towards animals are often non-existent (except when there are religions focussed on alleviation of suffering such as in India). There's just little basis at all for caring about the experience of animals. Thus pets may help train moral consideration for animals, and may be worth the meat-consumption tradeoff that they require.

But that's a very tentative may... the likelihood of children in pet-owning families becoming vegetarian or making pro-animal interventions is probably so marginal that it doesn't counteract all the extra chickens that their cat or dog needs.

You're in luck, there is a study on this:

Results from 273 individuals responding to a survey on an internet platform revealed that participants with greater childhood attachment to a pet reported greater meat avoidance as adults, an effect that disappeared when controlling for animal empathy. Greater childhood pet attachment was also related to the use of indirect, apologetic justifications for meat consumption, and this effect too, was mediated by empathy toward animals. Child pet ownership itself predicted views toward animals but not dietary behavior or meat-eating justifications. The authors propose a sequence of events by which greater childhood pet attachment leads to increased meat avoidance, focusing on the central role played by empathy toward animals

http://vegstudies.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/p_foodethik/Rothgerber__Hank_2014._Childhood_pet_ownership__attachment_to_pets__and_subsequent_meat_avoidance.pdf

Here's another study from Rothgerber which could be relevant:

The present research examined pet ownership, current pet diet, and guilt associated with pet diet among a fairly large sample of non-meat-eaters (n = 515). It specifically focused on the conflict that pits feeding one’s pet an animal-based diet that may be perceived as best promoting their well-being with concerns over animal welfare and environmental degradation threatened by such diets, here labeled the vegetarian’s dilemma. Questionnaire responses indicated that ethically motivated meat abstainers were more likely to own pets and owned more of them than those motivated by health concerns or a combination of ethical and health concerns. Vegans and those resisting meat on ethical grounds were more likely to feed their pet a vegetarian diet and expressed the greatest concerns over feeding their pet an animal-based diet. For vegans and ethical meat abstainers, it is suggested that questions concerning what to feed their pet approaches a tragic tradeoff contrasting two sacred values: protecting the well-being of their pets and protecting the well-being of other animals and the environment. For meat abstainers motivated by health concerns, this constitutes a relatively easy moral problem because the primary concern for such individuals is the health of their pet with less or no regard for other ramifications of the decision, i.e., harming other animals or the environment.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666313001499

Thanks, that's a good find.

I'm unsure about the methodology of that experiment - it seems that the survey asked people to list details about their pet first, which could potentially 'pre-load' a fond mental image of a particular childhood pet and affect later answers, even though such a mental image would never arise when someone was going about their day-to-day meat shopping.

Nevertheless, the results are interesting and I think that more work needs to be done in this area.

If this is the justification for having a pet, it would seem that a pig would be the best choice (for someone living where pigs are allowed). They can be healthy without eating meat and they are likely more effective at promoting veganism.

It would be interesting to see a study on this, it certainly seems plausible - a survey asking for the number of family pets throughout childhood and their current dietary choices might be illuminating.

In any case, I would still argue that this should be done with a non-meat-eating pet over a meat-eating one.

Help control the pet population: have your pets spayed or neutered.

Sure, I think any way of reducing the population/proportion of meat eating pets would be, on the whole, a good thing.

I'd also predict a positive correlation between affluence and having a pet, which might mean that societies coming out of poverty results in more animal consumption than suggested by the 'poor meat eater problem'.

How about... just feeding the pet a vegetarian diet?

Dogs can thrive on such a diet - see http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/03/10/vegan.dog.diet/ for examples. One of the longest living dogs was even mostly a vegetarian (http://www.monicasegal.com/wordpress/?p=431 ).

Cats would be harder (as they need supplemental taurine), but some evidence already shows that cats fed a vegetarian diet aren't deficient in taurine (http://www.petmd.com/blogs/nutritionnuggets/cat/jcoates/2014/jan/can-cats-thrive-on-vegetarian-diet-31187 ).

There aren't many papers on this - this can be an area where further research/investigation is warranted (I wonder if they ask about diet on the Dog Aging Project, for example?)

https://www.reddit.com/r/veganpets/wiki/faq has a pretty good list of relevant papers. Having a vegan cat is definitely something that would need to be done carefully and close monitoring on urine pH and other things.

The meat may be non-human grade, basically waste products from factory farming that sold extremely cheaply. So I doubt it increases the number of animals killed as much as you say.

Very true - I wasn't sure what the difference would be between non-by-product and by-product consumption. I suspect it's somewhere between what I stated and no effect, so this estimate could be an upper bound.

At least the more expensive cat food can contain actual muscle, and I know someone who says it tastes pretty good. But dog food is many times grain-based with flavor added.

Seems that buying really cheap pet food might be an effective approach at reducing the farm animal suffering caused by pet ownership.

An alternative and inconsistent approach would be to buy pet food made from beef, which arguably causes the least amount of farm animal suffering and farm animals killed.

Interesting. I have a similar post about this issue where I make the suggestion that vegans with cats should make a type of "factory farming offset" by donating to Animal Charity Evaluators.

My math was a bit off as I used slaughter weight for broiler chickens and not market weight, so thanks for bringing up that distinction.

I'm not a proponent of ethical offsets, in part because of the reasons given by Claire Zabel here:

http://effective-altruism.com/ea/ry/ethical_offsetting_is_antithetical_to_ea/

Further, there's really no good evidence in support of Animal Charity Evaluator's cost effective estimates for vegan outreach. And in the case of corporate campaigns, it's not clear that the organizations effective in this area still have room for funding.