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  • Allison van Tilborgh

Purchasing Pets is Not Vegan (But it is Vegetarian)


Photo by Crazy Cake on Unsplash

My husband and I do not want a pet. This surprises many people because we are vegan. We love animals (dogs and cats included), but we do not want to own an animal.

Sure, travel is part of the problem. With family all over the USA and the Netherlands, the dog-sitting logistics do seem like it would be a headache. And yes, the cost of dog food and veterinary bills can be a lot. But that’s not the main reason we do not want to own a pet.

All in all, we have come to the conclusion that being vegan and owning a carnivorous animal would challenge our ethical system too much — from purchasing meat kibble to having to make medical decisions for another animal such as vaccines, insulin, and ultimately the inevitable decision to euthanize or not euthanize an animal. It’s just too much.

But that’s not what this article is about. This article is specifically about the act of purchasing a pet from a breeder, whether that be a dog store or a local mom-and-pop operation. My argument is that purchasing pets from animal breeders is not vegan, but it is vegetarian. The reasoning outlined in this article is rooted in its commercialization of animal reproductive systems but also animal eugenics.

VEGANISM AND VEGETARIANISM The difference between vegetarianism and veganism, generally speaking, comes down to products related to female reproductive organs. When someone is vegetarian, they choose to obtain consuming from animal flesh but find dairy (and other goods considered ‘byproducts’) morally permissible. Dairy can only come from female animals. The desire for dairy products has created a frightening industrial animal agriculture industry that not only sexually enslaves female mammals by impregnating them repeatedly so they can produce milk and children but also leads to the forceful removal of children from their mothers. (Note that the egg industry operates in a similar way, but the dynamic of taking children away from them differs.)

CASH COWS The pet breeding industry is not much different. Animals that are purchased to be bred are forcibly impregnated (usually by a male animal, whereas female cows are often artificially inseminated) so that the business owner can thereby sell the “product”: a baby animal. The breeding industry is dependent on this sexual commercialization of mother animals AND the forcible removal of their youngling from their mother in the name of profit.

Puppy mills are probably the worse case of this dynamic, where the relationship between animal reproduction and money is the most obvious. These younglings are often sent to pet stores where they are put in plastic boxes waiting for a human to select them. New York recently announced plans of banning such stores in the state. The industry that rips young away from their parents also exists with local breeders. The #1 reason individuals engage in house breeding is that they can make quite a bit of money doing so — especially if their animals have a good pedigree (more on that later). Taking young animals from their mothers and selling them to eager humans at eight weeks does not mean you don’t care for these pets. But it does mean you care about them less than your financial imperative.

VEGETARIAN PUPPY MILLS All this said I would argue that the breeding industry is fully vegetarian. You can absolutely be vegetarian and purchase from a breeder without moral convictions. If we are to treat a mother cow’s reproductive system and their ‘byproduct’ (aka milk and subsequent calf) as permissible, then the same logic should be applied to the breeding industry. Vegetarians aren’t truly against the factory farming industry, so pet breeding is a little different (except in the factory farming industry animals die explicitly, but in the breeding industry they don’t). It’s not that vegetarians don’t care about breeding animals and their young offspring (they clearly do), but they care less about them than their desire to receive a dog or cat.

As an aside, dog food too, then, is vegetarian even though it contains meat. Most commercial dog foods are made with the cuts of carcasses we dare not consume ourselves making them a ‘byproduct’ of factory farming akin to leather jackets or down comforters (which most vegetarians find permissible). Most vegans oppose the entire factory farming industry, and thus, oppose the processing of the ‘byproduct’ of meat being utilized in dog food.

DOG EUGENICS The industry of breeding animals also has become popularized with the invention of “pedigree” dog and cat breeds. There’s a reason why stray animals that end up in animal shelters are often mixed breeds instead of “designer”. Although domestication of animals (particularly dogs) is a process spanning several thousand years, Kennel clubs only began forming in the 19th century. Through these clubs, animals were bred for certain traits, many aesthetic but not functional. For example, the Shar Pei has been bred to become more and more ‘wrinklier’ despite this not being a functional trait. Another example is short-nosed dog breeds such as the Pug, whose breeding has resulted in breathing issues in exchange for human interest.

Because of the timeline in which these Kennel Clubs become most popular, I would also argue that the process of breeding pets in this fashion (industrially and locally) promotes eugenic ideas. Merriam-Webster defines eugenics as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition”. This is exactly what we do with the formalized breeding industry, we deem that some lives are worth more than others because of superficial aesthetics.

DEATH ROW For every “pedigree” animal purchased, one at an animal shelter is euthanized (symbolically speaking). There are too many being “manufactured” without households with the capacity to care for them. As with all industries, the breeding industry is predicated on ‘growth’. They need to produce more ‘product’ to sustain themselves. But this increase in breeding does not account for animals that are already in existence — especially the ones that are not “purebred”. Animals in shelters need homes because we live in a world where we do not permit them to exist anywhere else. We’d rather kill them than allow them back into the wild or on the streets. We’d rather pay thousands of dollars for a puppy taken from its mother than take in an older animal on death row (for free).

THE FUTURE OF PETS As a vegan, I don’t think I could ever reconcile the breeding industry with the desire for a pet. If I oppose dairy because I oppose the system that subjugates other female animals for their reproductive abilities, then I cannot support the breeding industry. It is yet another commercial endeavor that posits women (in this case mother dogs, cats, etc) as a product, not only because of their flesh but because of their creative (aka reproductive) abilities. Male animals are rewarded for their bodies (their bodies as slabs of steak or cuts of pork). But female animals must first break their bodies through reproductive slavery before finding the same fate (by producing milk, eggs, or babies). These dynamics are present in the animal breeding industry too.

I believe this sector of conversation will only grow in the coming years — if “big pet” doesn’t shut it down before we get the chance to converse. The desire for companionship is an ancient one that has evolved throughout history. Rejecting the breeding industry is not the end of human-cat/dog relations but the start of a new era where we get to shape the world we want.

There are many more discussions to be had about the animal industry in general. How can we feed pets in a ‘vegan’ way when most animal food is sourced from factory-farmed meat? Is it ethical to confine another living being to house arrest? Should medications for animals be cheaper than medications for humans? How might a vegan still have a pet if they want or need one (emotional or general support animals)? Boycotting pet stores that sell animals or local breeders does not mean it is impossible to have a pet. Adopting an animal, in our current condition, is akin to saving a life. One could argue it is a way to repair the world (tikkun olam).


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