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So
a question has been bedeviling me for a couple of weeks, but since I
don’t want to alienate or offend my veggie friends, I figured you might
be able to get some answers on my behalf.  The question:  How do
herbivorous humans concerned about animal cruelty and industrial farm
practices justify keeping carnivorous pets (erm, “companion animals”)
like cats?  After all, even a “premium” brand like Iams is owned by an
evil multinational (Proctor and Gamble) that grinds up waste from meat
processing plants.  And if you’re more of an environmentalist veg than
an animal rights or anti-corporate veg, apparently a housecat’s carbon
footprint is larger than that of a small car.  Are people forcing their
cats to go vegan?  Are they spending massive amounts of money on
humanely raised, locally sourced pet food?  Or are they judging me for
eating a beef tongue taco while Fluffy dines on Fancy Feast?

Signed,

Rabbits Are Cute, Lovable and Delicious

Steve Simitzis, a self proclaimed “cat loving vegan” from vegansaurus, sent me a great email with his thoughts on this topic.

For you TL;DR folks: Steve says the best, “least harm” approach for vegan cat
owners is to spay and neuter cats, keep cats indoors, choose cat food
brands that kill the least number of new animals, and take care of the
cat population while working to reduce it in a humane manner. Or, get a
dog/rabbit/veggie loving pet.

See below for Steve’s full response (definitely worth reading!):

I’ll
be perfectly straight on this – living with cats as a vegan is complex.
Unlike animals like dogs or rabbits, cats are not omnivores. Dogs are
quite comfy on a vegetarian diet, and if you live with a rabbit, well,
they eat rabbit food. Cats are wired differently inside and need meat,
or at least, they need everything that meat provides. There’s not much
disagreement on this, and vegans have had very mixed luck with
switching their cats to a vegan diet. Some cats seem to do okay, while
others develop serious health problems or even die. We don’t really
know enough about it, nor is there much of a track record of clinical
trials to learn from. Think about how confused we are about human
nutritional science. Well we know even less about animal nutrition
beyond the basics. Heart and kidney problems are common, and even vegan
cat food vendors recommend that you frequently check the pH of your
cat’s urine. Yeesh.

If your goal is to decrease the amount of animal suffering in the
world, spay and neuter programs are the most humane and effective way
to reduce the cat population, which has the important side effect of
reducing the number of animals eaten by cats. It’s also important, as a
cat owner, to keep your cats indoors so they don’t hunt and kill native
wildlife.

So that helps reduce, but not eliminate, harm. This is where
researching the food you buy becomes important. Cat food based on meat
parts that humans won’t use and would otherwise discard is a better
choice. And this doesn’t limit you to horrible brands like Iams (which
are the furthest thing from “premium”). There are plenty of high
quality brands from smaller companies that you might buy at somewhere
like Rainbow that are (a) affordable and (b) aren’t necessarily killing
new animals for your Fluffy. (And I’m punting here because I have a
bunch of research to do that involves due diligence on cat food brands
- stay tuned for results.) I feed my cat on less than a dollar a day
with decent quality food that doesn’t come from a big evil corporation.

Short of rounding up all cats and gassing them (a blatantly
horrific and cruel option), this is probably the best you’re going to
get. I could choose to not own a cat, but then someone else would have
adopted my cat in my place. Net animals saved? Zero. Or I could have
intentionally adopted the cat then sent her to a kill-shelter, which
would be a cruel option. Or I could experiment with a vegan diet on my
cat, and possibly harm or kill her in the process. This option also
creates animal suffering.
As for the carbon footprint of pets being greater than that of cars, that’s been debunked

An eight pound cat that eats a fraction of a can of cat food per
day does not emit more greenhouse gas than a car. To be on the safe
side, don’t buy beef!

Another twist? Within the next few years,
lab grown meat is going to hit the market. When that happens, we’ll see
it first in food products where people are least likely to care. That
means McDonalds hamburgers and pet food. At that point we have no
problem. The meat will be made of cloned tissue that never came from a
living animal of any kind.

Think
of “Ask the Appeal” as your own personal genie: no Bay-related question
is too big or too small. Whether you’re concerned with a municipal
question, a consumer advocacy issue or simply with consuming alcohol,
email us your questions at ask@sfappeal.com (or, find answers to past questions here).
We’ll either do the dirty work and talk to the folks in charge, contact
an expert in the field, or – if your question is particularly
intriguing or juicy – develop it into a full-blown investigative
article.

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  • LiveVegan

    Many cats can live healthy lives on a vegan diet. If there are cats who absolutely need to consume animal products, this is a good commentary by Prof. Gary L Francione (Rutgers Uni NJ) that offers some ideas http://bit.ly/JA5VU
    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/follow-up-to-pets-commentary-non-vegan-cats/

    Dogs absolutely thrive on a vegan diet. They live long healthy lives.

  • LiveVegan

    Many cats can live healthy lives on a vegan diet. If there are cats who absolutely need to consume animal products, this is a good commentary by Prof. Gary L Francione (Rutgers Uni NJ) that offers some ideas http://bit.ly/JA5VU
    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/follow-up-to-pets-commentary-non-vegan-cats/

    Dogs absolutely thrive on a vegan diet. They live long healthy lives.

  • tony burrito

    I appreciate the thoughtful answer you posted from Steve, but I am confused by the “least harm” approach. Does “least harm” apply to all human choices equally or only to meat?

    For example, if soybean farming consumes more resources (i.e. the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting, cooking, consuming) than rice farming, then isn’t rice a better “least harm” food than soybeans? In other words, I am wondering if the “least harm” rationale is something that Steve would follow until he is ONLY eating from the very bottom of the food chain? I also wonder if the “least harm” rationale extends to all other energy consumption choices such as clothing, transportation, use of technology, and so on. I suspect that this is not the case and that Steve makes “least harm” a goal, not an absolute, since the email he sent depended on technology that probably used fossil fuels, employed the services of meat eating people, and required hardware, the production of which was very polluting to the environment.

    If indeed “least harm” is something you strive for within reason, then the line between meat and non-meat consumption becomes arbitrary. I can try to eat less meat. I can try to avoid soybeans grown on rainforest-destroying farms. I can try to ride my bike. I can do many things that cause less harm. Would Steve agree that “less harm” is the goal while “least harm” is impractical?

  • tony burrito

    I appreciate the thoughtful answer you posted from Steve, but I am confused by the “least harm” approach. Does “least harm” apply to all human choices equally or only to meat?

    For example, if soybean farming consumes more resources (i.e. the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting, cooking, consuming) than rice farming, then isn’t rice a better “least harm” food than soybeans? In other words, I am wondering if the “least harm” rationale is something that Steve would follow until he is ONLY eating from the very bottom of the food chain? I also wonder if the “least harm” rationale extends to all other energy consumption choices such as clothing, transportation, use of technology, and so on. I suspect that this is not the case and that Steve makes “least harm” a goal, not an absolute, since the email he sent depended on technology that probably used fossil fuels, employed the services of meat eating people, and required hardware, the production of which was very polluting to the environment.

    If indeed “least harm” is something you strive for within reason, then the line between meat and non-meat consumption becomes arbitrary. I can try to eat less meat. I can try to avoid soybeans grown on rainforest-destroying farms. I can try to ride my bike. I can do many things that cause less harm. Would Steve agree that “less harm” is the goal while “least harm” is impractical?

  • Nina

    Seems to me that if a vegan is distressed about having a carnivore for a pet, they should opt for a dog because they do fine on a vegetarian diet, though I’m sure they’d prefer meat.

    I saw an episode of Animal Cops (“Dangerous Diet” – Season 2 Episode 13) where a lady was feeding her cats a vegetarian diet. Most of the cats were blind and the rest were in pretty bad shape. Cats need the amino acid taurine, which occurs naturally in meat, to keep healthy. All the cats on the show had big black discs for eyes. Very sad. There’s no way to reverse the blindness. Cats are hunters not gatherers and should be treated as such.

    From Wikipedia:
    Taurine is an essential dietary requirement for feline health, since cats cannot synthesize the compound. The absence of taurine causes a cat’s retina to slowly degenerate, causing eye problems and (eventually) irreversible blindness a condition known as central retinal degeneration (CRD),[58][59] as well as hair loss and tooth decay. It was discovered in 1987 that taurine deficiency can also cause feline dilated cardiomyopathy.[60] Unlike CRD, the condition is reversible with supplementation. Taurine is now a requirement of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and any dry or wet food product labeled approved by the AAFCO should have a minimum of 0.1% taurine in dry food and 0.2% in wet food.[61]

  • Nina

    Seems to me that if a vegan is distressed about having a carnivore for a pet, they should opt for a dog because they do fine on a vegetarian diet, though I’m sure they’d prefer meat.

    I saw an episode of Animal Cops (“Dangerous Diet” – Season 2 Episode 13) where a lady was feeding her cats a vegetarian diet. Most of the cats were blind and the rest were in pretty bad shape. Cats need the amino acid taurine, which occurs naturally in meat, to keep healthy. All the cats on the show had big black discs for eyes. Very sad. There’s no way to reverse the blindness. Cats are hunters not gatherers and should be treated as such.

    From Wikipedia:
    Taurine is an essential dietary requirement for feline health, since cats cannot synthesize the compound. The absence of taurine causes a cat’s retina to slowly degenerate, causing eye problems and (eventually) irreversible blindness a condition known as central retinal degeneration (CRD),[58][59] as well as hair loss and tooth decay. It was discovered in 1987 that taurine deficiency can also cause feline dilated cardiomyopathy.[60] Unlike CRD, the condition is reversible with supplementation. Taurine is now a requirement of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and any dry or wet food product labeled approved by the AAFCO should have a minimum of 0.1% taurine in dry food and 0.2% in wet food.[61]