In this article I examine the relative impact on the environment and animal suffering of having one pet compared to eating an average omnivorous diet instead of a vegan diet. Note that this analysis is relative, with the final results in terms of animals consumed in both cases to allow for a rough comparison. I time-limited this research to 1 hour on purpose and so the study is not as in-depth as it could be, and I assume that I have not missed any major unforeseen factors in my work. If I have, I want to know, so please tell me in the comments.
My family has two cats and one dog, all of whom eat canned pet food every day, which is mostly meat. After going vegan for ethical reasons, it occurred to me that my pets were also consuming animal flesh, which presumably led to some non-zero amount of suffering. Therefore, by having a pet, I was still contributing a good deal to suffering. I wanted to determine just how much suffering.
Let us first assume that each pet consumes one can of pet food per day for the sake of argument. I am using a 400g can of Whiskas cat food for this example. The can states that the ingredients are ‘Meat including chicken, beef and/or lamb and/or pork and turkey; gelling agents; vegetable oil; colouring agents; flavours; vitamins and minerals; taurine; plant extracts’. It does not state which meats are used, nor in what quantity to the non-meat components. I will conservatively assume that only half the can is meat (i.e. 200g of meat per pet per day) and examine two cases; all beef and all chicken.
An important question here is whether the meat is factory farmed or not, as this makes a significant difference to the amount of suffering experienced by the food animals. According to Ethical Consumer, Whiskas pet food contains factory farmed meat, dairy and eggs. I believe that it is safe to assume that most pet food is factory farmed. Another important question is whether the meat is primarily ‘waste product’. If it is, reducing the demand for it may not have as strong an effect on suffering as if ‘human grade’ meat is used, though I expect the effects to be similar.
Edit (08/06/18) – One of the biggest critiques of this post was indeed that animal-based pet food is mostly waste product. According to Ryan Bethencourt, this might have been the case 10 years ago, but not anymore. As much as 1/3rd of the meat consumed in the US is consumed by pets.
The average chicken has a 2.26 kg market weight after 5 weeks, which I have interpreted to mean the amount of usable meat at time of sale. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 chicken in just over 11 days, or 33 chickens per year.
This article estimates that 490 pounds (222.26 kg) of usable meat is retrieved from a cow. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 cow in around 1,111 days, or 0.33 cows per year.
Average omnivorous diet
According to the Vegan Calculator, the average American eats 11 cows and 2,400 chickens over their life (as well as 27 pigs, 80 turkeys, 30 sheep and 4,500 fish). Using the average US citizen life expectancy of 79 years, this amounts to around 0.14 cows and 30.38 chickens per year. Comparing this to the average number of cows or chickens consumed by a pet in a year, we can see that, for one type of animal at least, the impact of having a pet is comparable to the impact of eating an omnivorous diet over a vegetarian (or vegan) diet. Thus I argue that having a pet that consumes meat is about as unethical as consuming meat yourself.
Some argue that there is a difference as some pets need to consume meat to live, while humans don’t. This is true, however an alternative is to simply not get a meat eating pet in the first place. This argument also places the wellbeing of a single pet animal as being orders of magnitude higher than that of a food animal, which is speciesist. On the topic of rescuing animals from shelters, perhaps it is better to let the animal die so that hundreds of others may live.
Some people claim to need animals for reasons of mental wellbeing, and I make no comment on whether or not this is true. However there are many pets that don’t require meat to live a healthy life, and I would strongly recommend having such a pet, like a pig, over one that does require meat. I also make no comment as to whether certain pets like cats can live on a meat free diet. I have heard that this is possible, but do not recommend it without further research.
A video version of this is available here.