As a vegetarian myself I struggle with the idea of feeding meat to the animals here. We don't have any obligate carnivores here (eg cats and ferrets) for that reason and many of the other animals (rabbits, hamsters, chinchillas, degus) are naturally vegetarian anyway.
The difficult ones were the dogs and rats. So, after much thought and research, we made the decision to feed the dogs and rats on a vegetarian diet. This is always controversial and we've had all sorts of reactions from curiosity to out and out condemnation. Now, if you've read the rest of this website I sincerely hope the one thing you have picked up is that we love our animals. The fact that this website centres around them with barely any mention of us should give you the idea that they really are the most important things in our lives. I hope therefore that it would go without saying that any decision we make about the care of our animals will be one which is carefully thought out and taken with their welfare at heart. So please bear that in mind and read on with an open mind.
I have chosen to concentrate more on the question of feeding dogs a vegetarian diet in this article since there has been considerably more research done in this area. However I do believe that the principles transfer over to the feeding of rats and mice. I have discussed this issue with a leading rat nutritionist who is of the view that a vegetarian diet is sufficient for adult maintenance although possibly not for pregnant or lactating does or growing kittens. For this reason we add extra protein in the form of free range organic eggs to the diets of rats requiring extra protein. The results are clear to see in the good record we have in raising healthy rats. My own rat, Abbi, arrived here the day she was conceived so was fed a vegetarian diet throughout her existence. She was above average size for a female rat and led a very healthy life, outliving her three sisters who went on to home where they were fed meat.
So, why vegetarian?
At the heart of this decision is my philosophy that a life is a life. We have a large range of animals here and, to me, they are all equal. I have cared for all manner of animals in my life from cattle to wild mice. Obviously it is easier to form a relationship with some than others but I firmly believe that a life is a life and is of equal value whatever its outer shell happens to be. So, to me, it would seem a contradiction to put so much of my time, money and effort into saving one type of animal, only to commission the deaths of another type of animal to feed them. What is the point of saving one dog if that then means that a couple of hundred chickens die to feed him? That is essentially saying that a dog is 200 times more worthwhile or valuable than a chicken. Not only does that go against my philosophy but, having kept chickens and rabbits and hand reared lambs and calves, these animals are as real and precious to me as a dog.
In order to eat meat ourselves (or use products tested on animals, wear fur etc) we practice speciesism – the idea that one (our own) species has a greater value than others. Whilst I don't subscribe to this idea myself it is to some degree understandable when comparing ourselves with non human animals. We are biologically programmed to value our own species above others in order to ensure its survival and such a basic compulsion can be hard to break free from. What is less understandable to me is the practice of speciesism when comparing different non human animals. We seem to quickly fall into a trap of believing that the animals we keep as pets and form relationships with are of greater value to those that we don't. This, to me, is an incomprehensible notion and demonstrates one of the most frustrating elements of human nature - the tendency to just accept standard, accepted ways of thinking without actually analysing them for ones self. It is widely accepted that pigs have the same intelligence level as a dog for example and I know from personal experience that hand reared sheep can recognise and form bonds with their carers, even wagging their tails when they see them. Yet society tells us that sheep and pigs are food and dogs are pets so we think it fine to inflict treatment on the former which we would be reporting to the RSPCA if we witnessed happening to the other.
There is no logical reason for this – both creatures feel the same level of pain. To quote the philosopher Jeremy Bentham “"The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?". It seems an incredible arrogance that leads us to think that we can judge what treatment an animal is worthy of based on it's relationship or value to us. To me the pain and suffering caused by the farming and slaughter of animals for meat greatly outweighs the benefits to the omniverous companion animal of being fed meat.
A secondary reason is the health of the animal. Studies in humans have shown that a vegetarian diet is healthier and reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease and various cancers. Less research has been done when it comes to dogs but there is still evidence to suggest that a vegetarian diet is healthier. Particularly when you consider that much of the meat used in pet foods are the leftovers deemed not fit for human consumption. To date there have been approximately 90 cases of BSE in domestic cats reported in the UK. There are over 20,000 different drugs, including steroids, antibiotics, growth hormones and other veterinary drugs that are given to livestock animals. These drugs are consumed when animal foods are consumed. The dangers of secondary consumption of antibiotics are well documented but who knows what other effects this might be having. What interactions with prescribed medicines may occur for example?
As a further reason, there is the impact that the rearing of animals for meat has on the environment. Producing grain to feed animals to produce meat is very inefficient and uses far more resource than simply eating the crops directly. This extra processing causes more pollution and rainforests are destroyed in part to make way for more grazing land.
Frequent Arguments against feeding dogs a vegetarian diet
I've had the discussion numerous times of various forums and these are the common objections people seem to have to the idea of feeding dogs on a vegetarian diet
1) Dogs are carnivores, they are supposed to eat meat!
Actually, dogs are omnivorous, meaning they naturally eat both meat and vegetables. Cats, for example, are obligate carnivores and their diet revolves almost exclusively around meat. Dogs, however, are naturally designed to eat non meat products as well. Yes they are part of the order “Carnivora” but this is some what misleading and does not mean that they are carnivores as such. Panda's, for example, belong to the order carnivora but are naturally vegetarian. Like humans, who are also omnivores, dogs do not need meat in order to have their dietary needs met.
2) But a vegetarian diet just isn't natural
Walking a dog on a lead is not natural, keeping them in a house, playing with frisbees, indeed keeping them as pets at all is not natural. Dogs are an animal we have created from wolves for our own purposes so they themselves aren't technically natural. The entire domesticated animal situation can really be considered unnatural. These companion animals are fed food out of a bag or can by humans rather than hunting or otherwise procuring it themselves. There is also very little natural about a commercial meat based dog food seeing as in their natural state dogs would not eat much in the way of cow, sheep and horse! Most dogs these days are fed dry kibble which is also far from natural.
More impotantly, it's not natural for a chicken to spend its whole life in a cage or crammed into a barn with so many thousands of others it literally cannot move. It's not natural for them to be pumped full of hormones to make them grow quicker so they can be eaten when they're just a few weeks old by which point their bodies have grown so big their legs have buckled. It's not natural for them to die hanging upside down while their throats are slit and they slowly bleed to death.
If we were truly concerned with what is natural for our dogs we would just set them free! We have long since abandoned what is natural in our treatment of our pets so surely what really matters is what is the right thing, not what is the natural thing. As Jed Gillen, author of “Obligate Carnivore”, points out it's not about what is natural but what is ethical; “what should be rather than what has historically been."
3) But denying them meat is denying them a normal behaviour
Walking a dog on a lead, keeping them in a house, not allowing them to roam free or hunt, and having them neutered are all ways in which we deny them normal behaviours. These things are necessary for them to fit in to human society. When deciding which of their natural behaviours to allow a pet to indulge in we balance the benefit to them against the impact allowing them these behaviours would have on others and whether constraining that behaviour would be cruel or damage the quality of their lives to an unacceptable level. For example, we don't let our dogs roam free as the benefit to them would be outweighed by the negative impact on our neighbours. We neuter our dogs as the benefit to them of being allowed to indulge their natural urges in this regard would be outweighed by the negative impact this would have on their species and our own through overpopulation. Similarly I think we have to consider whether the benefits to the individual dog of enjoying the taste of meat are sufficient to outweigh the impact in terms of the suffering of other animals. I do not believe they do.
4) You shouldn't enforce your beliefs on your dog
We do this every day with every decision about their diet and lifestyle. Everytime we do something for/with our dogs, we're making decisions for them. We do this when we walk them on a lead, when we neuter them, even when we decide where in the house they will sleep. Perhaps more important than the question of whether we should impose our morality on our pets is whether we should impose our morality on the millions of animals who suffer in factory farms and slaughter houses every year. To do so causes immense suffering, whilst "imposing" my vegetarian ethic on my dogs causes them no suffering whatsoever.
5) You cannot possibly meet a dogs nutritional needs with vegetables!
No, of course not, but there is far more to a good vegetarian diet than just giving your dog a bowl of carrots. Very few dog owners are nutritionists and I think it's very easy to not meet their dietary needs effectively with a homemade diet whether or not that contains meat. It is possible to find several studies on the internet which list health problems or dietary insufficiencies in dogs fed a vegetarian diet, but these are studies which have concentrated on dogs fed a homemade diet. For that reason we use a specially formulated vegetarian diet which we know meets their every nutritional need.
How do we know this? In the USA, the quality of animal feeds is studied and monitored by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. They developed the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles, which detail the known nutritional requirements for these species. In order for a dog food in the US to be labelled as 'complete and balanced' it must conform to these profiles. There are several brands of vegetarian dog food in the US which have passed their tests and been shown to meet dogs nutritional needs. The food we feed here (V dog Vegetarian Nuggets) is one of them.
If you look on the net you can find plenty of vegetarian sites which will tell you a vegetarian diet is fine and plenty of research, often funded by dog food companies, which says it isn't. In my research I've tried to concentrate on what appear to me to be neutral objective sources, the AAFCO being one such source. Also in the USA, the National Research Council states that dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet as long as it contains sufficient protein and other nutrients. In the UK, the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition states: "the dog has evolved such that it is able to adapt to a vegetarian diet”. And then there is Bramble the vegan collie who, in 2002, was the oldest living dog at aged 27 years. Something must have been right about the diet which took her to the equivalent of 189 in human years!
6) But it's cruel to deprive your dog of meat and make them eat food they don't enjoy
Well first of all I think anyone who is concerned with cruelty to animals should take a proper look at the treatment of animals being reared and slaughtered for food. How anyone could compare that sort of suffering to a minor alteration in a dogs diet is beyond me. It's very easy to be concerned with the welfare of the cute animal who shares your life. The more challenging and, to me, worthier adaptation to make is to become concerned with the faceless beings who are affected in profound ways by the decisions we make about our lifestyle, including how we feed our pets. But I challenge anyone who thinks that dogs can't enjoy a vegetarian diet to come and meet my dogs. They love their food and empty their bowls every night. They also have a range of vegetarian treats which they go mad for and take with as much enthusiasm as any meat treat.
As way of proof of how happy my dogs are with their diet please view these two videos. The first shows them enjoying their vegetarian dog treats and the second shows them "helping" me to mix up the vegetarian rat food and getting very enthusiastic about cereals and pasta!! I truly believe that, just as it did for me, having a vegetarian diet has opened them up to eating lots of different things and introduced them to a vastly more varied and interesting diet. As a result, they enjoy all sorts of food including fruit, vegetables, rice, grains, pulses and cereals.
We should also look at whether the pleasure derived from eating meat could not be replaced with other pleasures. I can clearly see that my dogs get as much pleasure from their vegetarian food and treats as they would from meat products and the quality of their lives is in no way reduced by the absence of one food group from their diets. Feeding meat is just one of the many things dogs can enjoy and is very easily replaced by other tastes and other activities.
In summary, we feed our dogs a vegetarian diet as there is independent evidence to show that in doing so we can meet their nutritional needs without causing suffering to other animals. We don't need any independent evidence however, to make us certain that our dogs are happy, they enjoy their food and are in no way negatively affected by this decision.
If you have read this and have any questions, comments, issues you think we have overlooked do please email me with your thoughts.