Want to know if vegans can keep pets and if having a cat, dog or other animal is okay if you’re a vegan? The answer to the title question Do Vegans Keep Pets? is actually really simple. Some vegans do keep pets (though they often don’t use that word), whilst some do not.
That simple answer is quite instructive because, ultimately, like many things within the vegan world, whether one thinks having a pet is okay or not is a personal issue. Obviously some things, like eating meat or buying a leather jacket are non-negotiable when it comes to veganism; but many other issues vegans face are far more complex and nuanced. The Vegan Society offers vegan accreditation to palm oil but is palm oil really vegan when its growth is so destructive to the habitat of animals? Should a vegan use medicines that have been tested on animals? And, there’s even an argument to suggest organic veg isn’t vegan.
It is not our style here at Vegan Friendly to speak in moral absolutes or pass judgement on anyone for the way they apply their vegan beliefs. Even a chegan (that’s a “cheating vegan” by the way!) is doing more to help animals and the world in general than someone who eats plenty of meat. Equally, someone trying Veganuary for the first time may well be on the road to becoming a fully-fledged vegan, so should be encouraged, not belittled.
So, if you are a vegan wanting to know whether you are “allowed” to keep a pet, we would say do what your heart feels is right. That said, here are the key things to consider and the main arguments for and against vegans keeping pets, so maybe have a good read first and let your heart follow your head’s lead on the issue!
Before we look at the rights and wrongs and moral arguments of keeping pets, let us first consider the terminology. In vegan circles, what the mainstream world calls pets are almost always referred to as “companion animals”. Ultimately, there is no difference between a pet and a companion animal – they are simply different phrases for the same thing.
By using the phrase “companion animals”, those that keep them are trying to emphasise the reciprocal nature of the relationship. The animal is not owned like a piece of property but lives as a companion. The word companion comes from the Latin and ancient French for breaking bread, meaning someone with whom you would eat and share.
Ultimately, the specific name we give to something does not alter what that thing actually is, nor does it alter its moral status. Whilst some people may prefer the phrase companion animal, we will use that and the word pet interchangeably within this article.
Is Keeping Animals Vegan?
As with many of the issues we look at, a good starting point is the widely accepted definition of veganism. This states (sorry, if you’re getting bored of us mentioning this!) that Veganism is:
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Pets as “Property”
There are a number of issues that have to be looked at but let us first consider the words “exploitation” and “cruelty”. The crux of the anti-pet argument is that those humans who keep them are effectively treating these sentient beings as property. A dog, cat or any other pet is bought and sold and is technically enslaved. It is unable to give its consent and is forced to live according to its owner’s whims.
Such treatment is inherently cruel, even if no direct suffering is caused and, moreover, the animal is exploited, being used for the owner’s pleasure without ever being able agree to the relationship. These are animals and whilst they may be wild no more, the habitat they now live in is very far removed from what their natural surrounds would have been.
The extent to which this latter point is true will vary from pet to pet and according to the situation. Clearly, a large dog being kept in a small city centre flat is worse off than a cat with a rural home and fields to explore but both are certainly experiencing a very different life to their ancient ancestors.
Pets as “Family Members”
Those vegans and indeed non-vegans who keep pets would disagree with much of this though. Whilst they may technically “own” their pet, many animal lovers view their household pet, or in this case, companion really is perhaps a better word, as a fully-fledged member of the family.
They treat their companion with compassion, love and dignity and those are three words that are very much associated with the ethos of veganism.
Pets Cannot Give Consent
Of course, a cat, dog or rabbit cannot confirm that they consent to being kept as a companion, nor that they find the relationship agreeable. But what is the alternative? There are millions of animals around the world who would simply not survive in the wild. Is it not better that an animal is kept in a safe, loving environment and provided food and shelter, rather than being “free” – but also free to die and suffer in the wild at the hands of predators and other dangers?
Rescue Animals Versus Purposeful Breeding
Most vegans draw a line between keeping pets as the lesser of two evils in a modern reality and the purposeful breeding and proliferation of animals for that purpose. Perhaps strangely, this means that a vegan might simultaneously want an end to people keeping companion animals and yet still keep one themselves.
The fact is that in our world there are already millions of animals for whom life as a pet is their best hope of a relatively happy, safe and long life. Many vegans feel that given the existence of domesticated cats, dogs and other animals, keeping them as respected and cared for companions is preferable to any other option.
The Vegan Society state, “As vegans, we should be working towards a world in which no animal is held in captivity” and this clearly includes pets. However, whilst eliminating animal captivity is the aim, we have to be realistic and practical. Given current attitudes that may never happen and, moreover, even if it one day does, it will take a long time to get to that point.
The alternatives in the meantime are euthanasia, allowing animals to be set free, keeping them in rescue centres or people keeping pets. The latter of those is seen by most vegans as the best course of action from a group of unsatisfactory options.
That is why vegans might both keep companions and be opposed to the concept but this means that most vegans will only ever take pets from rescues centres. Pet shops, breeders and “unintentional” breeders who have allowed their animal to reproduce all exacerbate and perpetuate the problem. Giving rescue animals a loving home is, for many vegans, the most compassionate response to an intractable problem.
Does the Concept of Pets Cause Suffering?
Many people who look after animals with compassion and care – and let’s face it, some humans treat their animals better than they treat their husbands, wives or children! – may feel they aren’t causing a problem and are giving only love to their pets. But such people cannot be viewed in isolation.
The fact is that there are millions of animals within the pet “industry” who experience terrible suffering. Even if we leave aside any more philosophical arguments about keeping pets and an animal’s right to liberty, this suffering means many vegans feel the idea of keeping pets is one that needs to be abandoned.
Exotic Animal Pet Trade
The suffering comes in many, many guises. A report in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science showed that 80% of the animals at a major international wildlife wholesaler were either dead, injured or sick (with the rest all being at less than perfect levels of health). Based on further evidence within this report, PETA states that “Seventy-two percent of exotic animals in the ‘pet’ trade die before they even reach stores”.
Ignorant Owners & Puppy Farming
On top of that, pets may suffer from cruel or ignorant owners, with abandonment commonplace. They may be left for long periods in unsuitable conditions in pet shops. So-called “puppy mills” or puppy farms breed dogs on an industrial scale, usually in a way that is hugely stressful and damaging to the young dogs.
Profit is the number one consideration and this intensive “farming” of animals is a direct result of the demand for pets. Having said that, there are moves to crack down on this practice through UK law.
What we are then ultimately left with is a huge excess of unwanted animals. PETA state, “In US animal shelters alone, up to 4 million dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens are euthanized each year, simply because there aren’t enough homes for them”. Again, this animal death on a war-like scale is the direct result of the human desire to keep pets.
What the Vegan Society & PETA Say About Pets
The Vegan Society and PETA seem to represent the vegan consensus on this issue and we have to agree with them. Whether they have shaped the consensus or simply echo the natural thoughts of many vegans is hard to know. In short, we feel that:
- Keeping a companion animal is basically fine* for vegans (*If the animal is sourced from a rescue home, sanctuary or animal charity)
- Vegans should not buy from breeders, puppy farms or pet shops
- Vegans should not support pet shops that sell animals – buy food and other essentials from other shops where possible
- Vegans should not buy rare or exotic animals, including birds and fish
- Vegans should always have their pets spayed or neutered
- The long term aim for vegans is to end the practice of keeping captive animals
Naturally, it goes without saying that one should only take on the huge responsibility of a companion animal if capable of meeting its needs. Animals need the right environment, amount of exercise, space and food, as well as a good deal of time, love and affection. Anyone considering taking on this commitment should think very carefully about it and fully understand what is needed.
Spaying & Neutering is Vital
Neutering is the term given to the sterilisation of an animal so it can no longer reproduce. Neutering is often used to refer to castration, which is to say the sterilisation of a male animal, with spayed being specific to females.
Whilst this “de-sexing”, as it is sometimes known, or “fixing” (choose whatever euphemism you prefer to take your mind of what’s being done!) may sound cruel, in fact, it is very much a case of being cruel to be kind. Firstly, the animals feel little pain. Secondly, and most importantly, this process stops more animals from suffering further down the line.
PETA have run numerous celebrity-endorsed adverts stressing the importance of having pets spayed or neutered. Stars, such as iconic adult entertainment star, Jenna Jameson (ad tagline “Sometimes too much sex can be a bad thing”), Morrissey, Mickey Rourke (“Have the cojones to fix your dog”) and musician, Naughty Boy, have featured.
This process is key to the long term aim of the vegan movement with regards pets. Every time a cat or dog produces a litter, the result is simply more animals coming into the world. The options for these creatures are, as stated above, euthanasia (a fate that awaits around half of animals going into shelters as there aren’t enough good homes), a life of abandonment or cruelty or, at best, a loving home but the continuation of the practice of keeping pets.
Are Guide Dogs Considered Vegan-Friendly?
The issue of guide dogs is yet another complex one. For blind and visually-impaired people, they provide an invaluable service. As well as the love and security they can bring to people with seeing difficulties, they can greatly improve the individual’s quality of life and degree of independence.
That said, guide dogs are almost always specifically bred for the purpose, meaning that a guide dog is another animal brought into the world for the sole purpose of human benefit. It is difficult to argue that this isn’t exploitative, whilst it also clearly perpetuates the existence of captive animals.
The oft-quoted (at least on our site!) definition of veganism includes the phrase “as far as is possible and practicable” and many vegans who support the use of guide dogs would point to this. Whether or not it is practical and possible for a blind person to live without a dog is open to debate at the very least for the simple reason that lots and lots of people do live without one.
In the future, we would hope to see lots of alternatives to guide dogs being used and various possibilities explored. As well as the optimistic dream of eradicating blindness and visual impairment, human companions and advancements in robotics may well be solutions that remove the need for such dogs.
What Should a Vegan Feed Their Pet?
The issue of what to feed a companion animal is a whole new subject. Handily, we’ve got that covered too: check out our article on vegan pet food!