I'm just an animal looking for a home

Ethics of catfood


(The topic of this blog post is something I’ve been asked about numerous times in the past. In more than one email message I’ve written extensively on the subject.  Rather than let that go to waste, I am going to incorporate some of those past writings into this post.  So if you are one of the people with whom I was corresponding about this, you will likely recognize some of it.)

Often people are surprised to learn that I am a vegan and I feed my cats dead mice.  They find these two things to be contradictory and want me to explain.  In a previous post I’ve already talked about why I am vegan, so I won’t cover that again here.  And I’ve also written about feeding my cats dead mice: here, here, and here.  And I’ve written about their raw meat diet.  This post is just about the ethics of feeding mice and raw meat to the cats.  My glib answer to this is that I’m vegan, not my cats, but that answer belies the thought I’ve put into it.  So here goes:

Feeding the mice to my cats was definitely something that bothered me when I started doing it. And still bothers me, in truth. Although I don’t see any moral distinction between feeding them mice and feeding them any other form of meat-based catfood. The mice are worse in that it is obvious they are eating a dead animal, rather than a mass of ground-up pinkish stuff.  It does surprise me how many people find it weird that I am vegan but feed dead mice, whereas they don’t see the same conflict between being vegan and feeding “regular” catfood.  But I think this goes back to the fact that most meat eaters don’t really want to think about the fact that a living, feeling animal has to die (and usually suffer) in order to provide the meat they are eating.  So just as they can ignore this fact when eating a hamburger, maybe they figure I’m content to ignore the fact that catfood comes from dead animals, and it’s only weird to them that I’ll feed my cats mice since there’s no hiding the fact that they are dead animals.

Anyway, the mice vs catfood thing aside, I’ve always been conflicted about the fact that animals are killed to feed my cats, and it is something I continue to think about. I don’t have a concise summary of my logic or morals about this, but…

When humans eat meat or animal products, it is by choice, not necessity. Humans can be perfectly healthy on vegan or vegetarian diets, and it doesn’t even require taking supplements to make up for dietary deficiencies in those diets (assuming that we aren’t talking about someone who goes vegetarian and only eats salads — they’ll obviously need supplements. But someone who gives it thought can easily have a healthy, nutritious, supplement-free vegetarian or vegan diet). This is not the case for cats (or many carnivores). First, it is not a choice for them. While cats can be quite clever, and it’s fun for me to imagine what they are thinking, I don’t kid myself that they have the capability to really think about making that kind of dietary choice. Cats eat animals by instinct. And it is very difficult to keep a cat healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet. At the very least they would need supplements added. And even then, I haven’t seen enough evidence that we understand feline nutrition well enough to state that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy for a cat (although I do know people who dispute this). Of course, this entire paragraph really addresses the morality of cats eating meat in general, not the morality of me choosing to participate in the process and faciliate things by buying dead animals for them. But anyway, to be clear, I do not think there is anything immoral or wrong about a cat killing another creature in order to eat it. I don’t think morality applies to creatures who are incapable of making those kind of choices, or of contemplating morality itself.

Cats are not very humane killers. They toy with their prey, playing with the dying animal before finally eating it. Again, I don’t think this is immoral behavior, for the reasons outlined above. So one option open to me would be to just let my cats find their own food outside, letting “nature take its course” or whatever. BUT alternately, I can try to feed them meat from an animal which, while obviously was still killed, was hopefully not killed as cruelly as a cat would have done. And then given that *I* have this choice, is it morally preferable to try and prevent that additional suffering?

Of course, it’s not so simple as that. For one, while the animals I feed them may not have been spent their dying hours tormented by a cat, perhaps their lives leading up to that point were of much lower quality. At the very least, their lives were spent in some level of confinement, as opposed to out in the wild. So it’s not necessarily obvious that what I feed them is a more humane source.

And also, it’s not like my choice is: Feed them meat or turn them loose outside. As previously discussed, I could feed them a vegetarian or vegan diet. Even if it is less healthy for them, is that worse than another aniaml having to die? And does that depend on just how unhealthy they would be, or is it always the case that one animal being unhealthy is less morally repugnant than another animal being killed? I’m not sure. But it’s not even the case that my choice is: Feed them vegan/vegetarian, feed them meat, or let them find their own food outside. I could choose not to have cats in the first place, and thus remove myself from their moral equation entirely. Of course, cats would still be out there somewhere, eating food from some source. So would I just be foisting off the dilemma on someone else?

That last paragraph is what I spend most of my time thinking about these days. I haven’t refined my moral calculus to the level that I can easily answer those questions. But I don’t live in denial about the ethical murkiness of my choice here. I am hopeful that someday this can be resolved by there being a cruelty- and killing-free way to feed cats. It brings to my mind some research which is being done these days into artificially-grown meat. Specifically, scientists are working on growing meat up from the cellular level, so that no animal needs to really be involved beyond the initial cell harvesting (which would not require the animal to die or even really be harmed, unless one is a vegan who opposes the very idea that humans should benefit from animals in any way — and I am tempted to go into an aside on that subject, but for the sake of your sanity, I will not!). Last I’d read, they were able to grow meat that had the right taste, but the consistency and texture were off. They think that is because it never was really inside a living animal, and used in the way that it would be over the course of an animal’s life. But they’re optimistic that this is not an insurmountable problem. If they DO perfect this process, then not only would I switch my cats over to it, but I would probably add meat back into my own diet. I didn’t give up meat because I dislike the taste — quite the opposite. I don’t find it gross or unappealing, I just can’t stand the thought of the cruelty and killing necessary to provide it.

Anyway, that’s more or less where I am when it comes to my thinking on this subject.  As always, your thoughts are welcome!


Author: mitcharf

vegan, curmudgeon, animal lover, feminist, agnostic, cat whisperer, bookworm, hermit, Red Sox fan, Cthulhu enthusiast, softball player, man-about-town


  1. avatar

    i’m glad i have dogs, who can eat a varied diet. i say that, though my dog eats meat-based dog food. sid’s dog (differentiating based on the dogs we had beore we got married) has been vegetarian for pretty much her whole life – and she’s 15 now. sid moans that vets always crow about how healthy stella is, then ask what he feeds her. when he says that she eats a vegetarian diet, suddenly they’re all “no no no you can’t do that.” but she is indeed an incredibly bouncy, healthy 15 year old. frannie developed gut problems when we switched her food so we’ve kept her on on the meat.

  2. avatar

    I read that japan has created a human-poop-based steak.
    (I really wish I was kidding)

  3. Pingback: I'm just an animal looking for a home | Why I want a vegetarian/vegan partner!

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