Do we have to feed animals to other animals?

Do we have to feed animals to other animals?
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We can avoid doing so and as a society, we invariably will.

The Los Angeles Board of Animal Services is considering a proposal to give the dogs “vegan kibble in all six of the city’s animal shelters.” The proposal was met with derision in some circles. It shouldn’t have. “I had no idea this would end up being as big a deal as it has,” said Roger Wolfson, the Los Angeles Commissioner who proposed the diet change. “I just thought it made sense.” It does. Assuming the role of caretaker for dogs requires us to feed them and, in most homes, other animals are paying the price. But killing animals to feed them to dogs isn’t necessary. We can avoid doing so and as a society, we invariably will.

As Wolfson makes clear, dogs can be fed one of the many nutritionally complete plant-based dog foods already on the market. A recent study found that dogs not only do well on a vegan diet, they thrive. Moreover, he says that some of the companies are willing to match the price the shelter system currently pays for dog food.

What about cats?

The proposal excludes cats, however, because cats are deemed “obligate carnivores.” As it turns out, the reason people use the phrase "obligate carnivore" in relation to cats is not because they absolutely need meat, but because they need nutrients only naturally found in meat. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but its not.

It is true that cats are carnivores by nature, requiring—among other nutrients—the important amino acid taurine in order to remain healthy. Cats who are deprived of this essential nutrient can go blind and even die. But feeding cats a vegan diet, while challenging, is not insurmountable. There are, for example, vegan sources for taurine, and when mixed—along with the other synthetic and plant-based forms of nutrients essential for optimal feline health—into a protein medium that cats will actually eat, they can be consumed by cats as an alternative to animal-based food.

In a 2006 study of indoor-only cats who were exclusively fed a vegan diet, “Blood taurine concentrations were within reference range for most of the cats tested.” More impressively, the study took place before the creation of commercially available, nutritionally complete vegan foods that meet national guidelines for critical nutrients. The foods the cats in the study were being fed were made by “small companies that make individual batches as needed,” and which a prior study had found to have “concentrations of taurine” that “were less than the [Association of American Feed Control Officials] AAFCO minimum for taurine.” Despite this, none of the cats had critically low levels of needed nutrients. Today, by contrast, there are several brands of nutritionally complete vegan cat foods currently on the market.

Admittedly, regulation of the pet food industry at this time is woefully inadequate. Frequent pet food recalls have not only sickened dogs and cats; in some cases such recalled food has killed them. While this makes any claims about the health of commercial pet foods by the AAFCO suspect, there is no reason to assume that if nutritional requirements and production standards for such foods were revised and strengthened that vegan pet foods could not meet those benchmarks, too. In fact, we already have studies by those unaffiliated with AAFCO verifying that dogs and cats fed a vegan diet met baseline standards for essential nutrients set by veterinary, rather than commercial, entities.

Unfortunately, the response to these tragedies has often been to counterproductively and counterfactually conflate two separate and distinct issues when it comes to the safety of pet food. Frequently, critics of the commercial pet food industry argue that whether or not a pet food is “safe” is predicated upon whether or not it is “natural.” But legislating that commercial pet foods are made with ingredients that meet the same standards for ensuring the health and safety as those required for human foods does not preclude the use of synthetic nutrients such as vitamin D3 and taurine.

Whether derived from an animal or synthesized in a laboratory, the final product is molecularly identical. As such, there is no scientific basis for the claim that deriving that nutrient from what is perceived to be a “natural” source such as a dead animal is in any way superior to synthesizing it in a lab. In fact, the opposite can be true as synthetic sources are cleaner and less subject to contamination and other food-borne illnesses. Moreover, not only is the claim that “natural” is better in the absence of any supporting evidence a logical fallacy, a mere “appeal to nature,” it ignores the immediate and very real harm that befalls the animals who are killed to make the food that is hailed to be “natural.” We can protect both the animals we feed and those we have historically fed to them. The two goals are neither in conflict, nor mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, reported success with commercially produced vegan cat foods has been mixed. While many cats eat them, other cats refuse. There are also supplements containing taurine and other essential nutrients—such as synthetic D3—now available that can be added to homemade cat food, but reported success with these recipes has also been inconsistent. The reason for the lackluster results is two-fold. First, the medium to which these supplements are added does not adequately mimic meat from the cat’s perspective, with many recipes calling for tofu, oats, and vegetables, foods that do not naturally appeal to the feline palate. Second, an inadequate effort is made to flavor the food in a way that will appeal to cats; a problem, it turns out, that makers of commercial meat-based cat foods have likewise faced and overcome.

In describing the historical shift from canned to dry food for dogs and cats, one food researcher noted that “mainstream pet-food manufacturers blend animal fats and meals with soy and wheat grains and add vitamins and minerals. This yields a cheap, nutritious pellet that no one wants to eat.” But cats do eat it. Why? Palatants. Flavorings are added to the bland pellets to make them enticing to cats. Without palatants that are currently added to most animal-based pet food, these foods are not appealing to cats (and dogs) and they wouldn’t otherwise eat them. In other words, it’s not the meat in the food that motivates them to eat it since, after processing, it no longer resembles or tastes like meat at all. It all comes down to the flavorings that are added.

Palatants can be used on a vegan cat food as well, whether on kibble that might otherwise not entice the average feline or on a vegan protein medium that mimics the exact texture of meat. Given the research on flavorings and the state of meat analogs, the means to create a vegan cat food that will invariably fool the most finicky of taste buds—that of the cat—is already possible. It just hasn’t been produced yet.

A Moral Imperative

People critical of feeding animal companions a vegan diet often state that people “have no right to force their lifestyle upon dogs and cats.” There are several problems with this view, not the least of which is that dogs or cats fed a plant-based diet have no conception that they are. As long as they are receiving all the nutrients they need and their food tastes delicious, they do not suffer because of it. Because dogs and cats do not know that the food they eat is made from a chicken or cow (most do not know what a chicken or cow is and even if they did, would be unable to connect them to the kibble in their bowl), it is no imposition for them not to eat them. By contrast, the animals raised to be killed to feed dogs and cats do suffer and die prematurely.

From the moment they are born to the moment their necks are slit, the vast majority of animals raised and killed for food will experience lives of unremitting torment. They will not know contentment, respite, safety, happiness, or kindness. Instead, they will live a short life characterized by inescapable discomfort, social deprivation, the thwarting of every natural instinct and constant stress, all punctuated by moments of agonizing pain, terror, and the deliberate infliction upon them of harm, cruelty and eventually, a brutal and untimely death.

What makes this an acceptable choice for feeding dogs and cats is complacency fostered by cultural conditioning. If the “food” was made from dogs or cats, instead of chickens or cows, would people argue that vegans were “forcing their lifestyle” onto their dog because they refused to feed them a food made of cats? Arguing that one animal is entitled to have humans commit atrocities against other animals on their behalf is ethically unjustifiable, especially if those needs can be met without abusing and killing others.

Moreover, this argument ignores that dogs and cats have been living with humans for over 10,000 years and have adapted to a variety of cultural diets. There is no “natural” diet for animal companions. There is also nothing “natural” about commercial pet food.

Finally, the argument is turned on its head. People who eat animals or feed animals to dogs and cats are the ones infringing on the rights of chickens, cows, fish, pigs, and others.

Throughout history, “You don’t have the right to inflict your lifestyle onto others” has been the rallying cry of the oppressor in response to those working to safeguard the rights of the oppressed. Had the people who have fought to make our world a better place laid down their cause in obedience to this admonition, we would still have slavery, women wouldn’t have the vote, children would still be working in factories, disabled people wouldn’t have access to public buildings, and it would still be legal in the United States to eat dogs and cats.

A Technological Solution

All these issues, however, will soon be rendered moot by a technical solution to this ethical dilemma: cultured meat. The ability to produce real meat without harming animals has already been achieved. Cultured meat is made from a one time draw of stem cells. The stem cells are then replicated in a laboratory and grown in an animal-free medium to produce real meat from animals without killing. In addition to lab-grown meat from cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other animals, there are also companies making lab-grown dairy, eggs, silk fibers, and even leather. Technology isn’t just revolutionizing our lives; it will revolutionize—and spare—the lives of billions of animals each and every year.

That’s the challenge Bond Pets, a Colorado-based start-up, has taken on. Rich Kelleman, Bond’s CEO, is “confident in our ability to work through our tech and scaling requirements, but we anticipate the regulatory process to take some time and we want to ensure that our products deliver on our nutritional promise in spades. With that, our goal right now is to have our first product on shelf in 2020.”

Driving this is not only a desire to provide animal companions with high quality, nutritionally complete “clean” meat that isn’t subject to periodic recalls, but eliminating the ethical compromises. “I’m an animal lover in the broadest sense,” says Kelleman, “and struggle with the tension around harming one animal (cows, pigs, chickens) to help another… Rethinking how animal protein is harvested—leveraging new technologies—can take this tension off the table. Other potential benefits of foods made from cultured or fermented proteins—potentially requiring fewer resources, smaller environmental footprints, reduced pathogen risk—make pet foods made using cell[ular] ag[riculture] very attractive.”

In the coming years, as economies of scope and scale are achieved to lower cost and meet market demand, people and, for the purposes of our discussion, dogs and cats, will be able to eat exactly as most do now, but without the slaughterhouses or fishing nets.

For those who love all animals, as for the animals themselves, that day cannot come soon enough.

Jennifer Winograd contributed to this article, part of which was excerpted from Welcome Home: An Animal Rights Perspective on Living with Dogs and Cats.

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