Vegan Cats Do Not Exist

Photo by Paola Andrea

Cats may get health benefits from vegan diet, study suggests. So says a recent column by a science correspondent at the Guardian, describing new research comparing how cats fare when eating “vegan versus meat-based cat food.”

In that research, published through PLOS One, authors Andrew Knight, Alexander Bauer, and Hazel Brown regularly refer to the respondents in their study as cats’ guardians. Not a legally accurate term, but the article speaks to its most interested readers—vegans—with the voice of allyship.

I’m a 40-Year Vegan and a Cat Rescuer. And I Object.

Veganism isn’t just about what’s on a plate. Veganism is an ideology of anti-domination. We can apply the vegan principle to our diets. Cats can’t.

And then there’s the question of biological risk. Regardless of the disclaimer telling readers to check with their vets before changing their cats’ diets, this was a treacherous piece for the Guardian to run. Human veganism is not an eating disorder. Feline veganism might be, though—by proxy.

Moreover, if proponents of feline veganism don’t stop pushing, their energies will lead to lab testing on institutionalized cats. For unless cats are kept in a controlled environment—as Knight et al. acknowledge in their article—comparative health indicators are questionable.

Already, the stage has been set. “There is increasing interest among pet owners around alternative diets for pets,” a representative of the British Veterinary Association said, according to the Guardian. The Association’s current position holds that cats are obligate carnivores, and that supplements do not substitute for the nutrients they need. But now, the Association is “reviewing its advice.”

Another troublesome factor with the “vegan cat” study is the significant number of respondents’ cats who meandered outdoors—although Knight downplayed it to the Guardian. As no cats were described as always indoors, we can assume some outsourcing from the local rodent, avian, and insect populations turned up in all these cats’ meals. The fate of voles, snails, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and songbirds in harm’s way got no mention in the study—or by the science correspondent at the Guardian. Not only do cats chase other animals when roaming outside; their presence also imperils the planet’s few remaining wildcats—because intercourse with roaming housecats changes wildcat genetics.

In short, there’s a lot in this research that should raise red flags.

So, What’s a Vegan to Do About Cats?

Ask those who launched veganism. Defining their mission in 1951, they expressly took humans to task for meddling in other animals’ evolutionary paths. This rules out the selective breeding of Felis silvestris lybica and any other animals for our purposes. The early vegans made a point of saying veganism is “not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable” as to abolish humanity’s exploitation of animal life.

Isn’t it bad enough that humans have made housecats out of wildcats? Don’t attempts to veganize them perpetuate the assault on their evolution, rather than challenge it? Moreover, charitable organizations have a responsibility to stick to their missions. In this case:

* Let the wildcats live free and flourish if they can. Defend their habitat.

* Call out pet breeding at any scale. We need not consider it too entrenched to challenge. It might be a multi-billion-dollar industry today, but in the 1800s, petkeeping was only an aristocrat’s hobby.

Those are the vegan’s key mission-related messages.

But today’s vegan messaging has veered off-course. The Vegan Society in Britain platforms Andrew Knight’s take. Knight’s new study itself got funding from ProVeg International, led by former Vegan Society CEO Jasmijn de Boo. Meanwhile, the American Vegan Society spotlights a US-based vegan vet and others who are feeding their “vegan cats.”

It frustrates the bejeebers out of me to disagree with groups in which I hold membership, groups run by my co-workers in the movement. But I believe the best reading of veganism is always worth defending. Now more than ever, the world desperately needs veganism at its best. Everywhere, the planet’s animal life is in the throes of biodiversity and climate breakdown.

Rather than try to make cats into vegans, we can all defend the lives and freedom of Earth’s untamed wildcats and bobcats, wolves and coyotes. Bring cats inside to support the indigenous animal life in our midst. Support local trap-neuter-return groups that do their best to care for, while phasing out, roaming cats.

“In a vegan world the creatures would be reintegrated within the balance and sanity of nature,” says Veganism Defined. “A great and historic wrong, whose effect upon the course of evolution must have been stupendous, would be righted.” Some people say this principled challenge could ultimately lead to a society without “companion” animals. But why should we prop up the $320 billion pet products industry—a sector of the economy bent on distorting and exploiting the human urge to love and be loved? Can’t we rejoice in other animals’ presence on the planet without having and holding them? Wouldn’t that be the best way to model true empathy, and the psychological maturity that leadership in an ethics-based movement requires?

In contrast, petkeeping is based on a cynically manipulative industry. Any article that fails to say this misses the essence of veganism.

One Last Word, on Practicalities.

If we take animals in, we must provide appropriate care rather than force them to scavenge. We should also question the custom of having pets, as it keeps us tethered to the very animal agribusinesses we aim to renounce.

And for the animals’ own sake. In the United States, pets are surrendered by the millions annually to agencies and hundreds of thousands are “put down.” Even those who live in caring households have been forever cut off from the evolutionary path of their ancestors. The custom that confines them is part of that great and historic wrong

The call to imagine a society without pets may seem jarring now. It challenges us to transcend our need to be in charge of other beings. Impractically idealistic? Well, veganism never was the easy route. Social justice is elusive in human relations; but we strive for it. We need to strive, too, to be fair members of the community of life on Earth.

Thanks to Catriona Gold and to Carol Meerschaert for feedback and discussions on earlier versions.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.