Can vegans have pets? It’s morally preferable to keep pets as respected companions versus the deadly risks of sending them back into the wild, euthanasia or keeping them in shelters. For these reasons, the consensus is it’s okay for vegans to have pets.
However, there’s a lot more debate surrounding this question. Some people draw a line and think it’s not vegan to keep animals as companions, while others believe that the pet-human relationship can be beneficial for both parties.
In this post, I’ll explore both sides of the argument and attempt to provide a clear answer. I’ll start by looking at our relationship with animals in general and then discuss specific issues like pet food and unwanted domestic animals.
But first, the basics.
What is a pet?
Pets are animals that people keep for companionship and pleasure. Humans have kept them for at least ten thousand years, with evidence suggesting pets existed in Paleolithic times.
Dogs, the most well-known pet, are not only companions but also workers such as therapy dogs, service dogs and police dogs; sports mascots; military mascots; hunting partners and performers in shows like the circus.
Pets provide emotional support and love to those who live alone, act as guardians of infants or the elderly, help people recover from illness or injury after surgery or accidents, provide comfort during wartime and provide a reason to exercise and get out of the house.
Because pets are part of a family, their owners tend to treat them like children. They buy products such as food, toys and clothing; they bring them with them in cars or on vacations; they take pet insurance policies so that veterinary care is available when needed and put them in pet daycare when owners are away.
When pets die, their owners may hold funeral ceremonies and build memorials of remembrance to honour them. They also mourn the loss of a beloved pet and sometimes have trouble coping with grief caused by death.
The term “pet” is most often used to describe small animals such as dogs, cats and birds but can also include larger animals like horses, llamas and even fish.
Pet ownership and companionship are words used interchangeably to describe the domestic animal and human relationship — despite having different meanings.
Pet ownership implies that the animal is someone’s property, an asset with a specific purpose, such as working or providing security.
Companionship suggests that both parties enjoy each other’s company and are equals in the relationship.
Even the terminology can create moral tension for vegans. I know I’ve wrestled with the idea of calling myself a dog owner, as I consider myself to be more of a dog parent or pack leader (or at least I like to believe).
At a deeper level, the idea of owning an individual has a dark history embedded in slavery and exploitation. And therein lies the ethical issue with having pets.
Why the human and pet relationship can be exploitative
A few issues with pet ownership, even as a companion, have been labelled exploitative in terms of consent, pleasure, abuse, captivity, and abandonment. Let’s look at each one separately.
A pet that is purchased, sold, and introduced into a setting without permission is technically enslaved, and the nature of this transaction is inhumane.
Pets are also often bred in captivity without consent from the mother and father (or any other animal involved). This creates a situation where animals are enslaved and abused at birth.
It’s no secret that many people derive pleasure from owning pets. From dressing them up in costumes to taking pictures of them to snuggling up on the couch, the pleasure derived from owning pets is physical and mental.
I remember a former colleague was telling me that her 2 Shetland Sheepdogs were very independent, and it bothered her. She was hoping to have more affectionate and “needy” dogs. This is an example of our expected return on investment from our companion animals.
Many pets are bred in captivity without consent, which means a much higher chance of abuse. Abuse can take many forms, such as beating an animal, neglecting their needs, or not providing proper veterinary care.
I’ve had neighbours who leave their dogs outside overnight, barking and scratching for years on end. I’ve also never seen the dogs walked…ever. I’m sure you can relate.
Pets are often kept in cages or small spaces, which can be considered imprisonment. This is especially true for exotic animals like fish and birds, usually held in small tanks and cages.
It can be argued that it is cruel and unfair to keep animals in captivity when they would naturally roam free.
I think we’d all agree that abandoning a child at any stage of their lives is abusive. Yet, this is what we do all the time to our pets.
Many cats and dogs are abandoned in the street, left to fend for themselves — or dumped at shelters only to be later euthanised after isolation and repeated rejection. This is not only unfair but also cruel.
There is no doubt that the relationship between humans and their pets can be viewed as exploitative. It’s also not always a two-way street, where many people believe they are doing more for their pet than vice versa.
Why the human and pet relationship isn’t exploitative
Many people consider their pets as family. And let’s face it, some folks, i.e. my wife, treat their pets better than their friends and family. Home-cooked meals, multiple playing sessions a day, sleeping in the bed, unlimited hugs and kisses, you name it.
Pets are living the life. So how can anyone argue that this type of relationship is exploitative? Treating pets with love, care and compassion aligns with the vegan ethos.
On top of that, studies show that having a pet increases humans empathy toward animals. Through intimate experiences with pets, many people become vegetarian or vegan, as they’re able to draw parallels with their beloved pets with the farmed animals they previously consumed.
However, the pet industry has made billions of dollars in profit after decades of exploiting humans’ love for animals and desire to have something cute and cuddly around.
But, I believe that the tide is turning. More and more people realise that animals are not here for our entertainment or use, but rather to be loved and respected.
Beyond that, having a pet sure as hell beats out the alternative options for these animals, which is why vegans can justify keeping pets.
The bleak alternatives to pet ownership
The overabundance of domesticated animals as a result of deliberate breeding, as well as the lack of animals spayed and neutered, have led to an excess of pets — which is fantastic news if you’re seeking a pet, but not so great if you’re concerned about population growth and animal welfare.
With a massive excess of unwanted animals, many vegans believe keeping pets is preferable to euthanising, letting them loose in the wild or keeping them in shelters. Let’s break this down.
Option 1 – putting domesticated pets back in the wild
The first option is to let domestic pets run free in the wild. But while it may be a nice thought, most domestic animals are not equipped to survive in the wild. They lack the skills and instincts necessary to find food and shelter, fend off predators, and navigate unfamiliar terrain.
That said, some pets are better suited to life in the wild than others and can even thrive. For instance, cats and dogs have strong survival instincts, and many have natural scavenging traits that help them find food.
Additionally, breeds like Huskies and Malamutes were bred to withstand harsh conditions, making them more likely to survive if they were stranded in the wilderness. Ultimately, though, the chances of a domestic pet surviving in the wild are slim.
Option 2 – euthanising unwanted pets
The second option is euthanasia — the painful and terrifying death that thousands of animals face every year in shelters when they’re not adopted after a certain period or can’t be rehomed because of behavioural issues. It’s easy to see why this isn’t an attractive option.
Option 3 – keeping animals in shelters
The third option is to keep domesticated animals in shelters, but this also has its drawbacks. Shelters are often overcrowded and underfunded, leading to a high euthanasia rate. What’s more, many animals who end up in shelters have behavioural issues that make them difficult to rehome.
The best option: keeping domesticated pets as companions
So, what’s the solution? The answer is simple — and it’s something that many of us are already doing: keep domestic animals as companions.
This may not be an ideal solution from an animal welfare standpoint, but it’s the best we can do until we figure out how to solve the overpopulation problem.
Now, if there were no longer any orphaned animals, we should open up the conversation about the ethics of pet ownership. I can easily see a system where strict requirements need to be met by prospective owners to ensure the pet’s needs will be met, and they wouldn’t be abandoned.
Is it vegan to feed your pets other animals?
The other consideration on top of many of our minds is what the heck does a vegan feed their pet, especially if they’re an obligate carnivore? And if you give meat to your pet, can you really be vegan?
The answer to this question isn’t a simple yes or no. As it relates to diet, the definition of veganism excludes all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. This would include using animals for feed, whether in agriculture, aquaculture or zoos.
But what if you have a pet snake who’s an obligate carnivore?
As you can see, it gets complicated. And the answer to this very question is a subject of much debate and disagreement within the vegan community. The only thing that’s clear on this topic is there are no absolutes. But if you do have an obligate carnivore pet, here are some things to consider:
- Try to partner with local restaurants to see if you can use their leftover meat.
- You could cook for your pet, making sure to include plenty of protein and essential nutrients in their diet. This might be more challenging, but it’s doable.
- It’s a stretch, but you could look into sourcing accidental meat from roadkill. Apparently some chefs and animal activists believe this is the most ethical meat.
Ultimately, the decision on what to feed your pet is up to you. There are no black or white answers in this context, only what works best for you and your animal companion.
It’s probably evident at this point, but if you don’t have a pet yet, think about adopting an animal that isn’t an obligate carnivore to avoid these highly compromised situations.
Can vegans keep pets? The verdict
So, can vegans have pets? The answer is yes – but it’s not as simple as just adopting any animal you want.
There are several things to consider, such as what kind of pet would be best suited for your lifestyle and whether or not you’re comfortable with the idea of feeding them an animal-based diet.
And the most important aspect of choosing an animal companion? Make sure that you’re ready and willing to commit to caring for them throughout their entire lives, no matter what happens. It’s not easy being responsible for another living creature, but it is definitely worth it!
What do you think – are vegans who keep pets doing anything wrong? Let me know in the comments below!