Do People Want Their Companions To Be More Veg*n?
People who avoid consuming animal products are statistically more likely to live with companion animals. In practice, this means that many millions of companion animals are under the care and supervision of people who eschew animal products themselves. However, we have no idea how many of these people extend their dietary preferences to their companions. In this study, a group of researchers from Canada and New Zealand teamed up to estimate the numbers of meat-avoiding caregivers and companion animals fed a plant-based diet.
Typical commercial dog and cat foods are comprised of animal and plant by-products, often lower-quality remnants from the human food industry. Example ingredients include offal, blood and bone meal. This practice is actually considered to be “sustainable” by some, who view this as “using the whole animal,” and reducing waste. However, recent trends show that nowadays, many caretakers seek by-product-free and meat-centric foods, bringing the issue of competition with the human food chain into the spotlight. On the other hand, for people who aim to reduce their meat consumption, this is in direct conflict with their ideologies. In that case, the so-called “vegetarian’s dilemma” arises. Companion animal caregivers who avoid animal products themselves report experiencing feelings of guilt and internal conflict when feeding animal products to their non-human companions.
For the study, researchers distributed an online questionnaire and collected data from 3,673 English speaking dog and cat guardians. They recorded information regarding demographics, companion animal type, diet, and concerns regarding pet foods. Out of the respondents, the majority reported eating an omnivorous diet themselves, with only about 6% self-identifying as vegetarian and vegan, each. Vegetarianism was more popular in younger people and female respondents. These tendencies reflect other, population-wide, studies.
Based on the results of the questionnaire, half of all people expressed at least one concern regarding meat-based companion animal foods, most commonly referring to welfare issues for farmed animals. Meanwhile, almost all guardians indicated concerns when it came to plant-based companion animals foods. Most often, they cited a lack of evidence for nutritional sufficiency.
Of the animals who were in fact being fed strictly plant-based diets, the majority were fed a commercial plant-based diet and small amounts of homemade foods. Here, it’s important to note that only a third of the surveyed vegans reported feeding their companion animals a plant-based diet, although 78% indicated they would, if they could find food meeting their criteria. Since there is a relative lack of commercial plant-based options for cats, comparatively more cats were fed a homemade plant-based diet. This concerning finding might indicate cat welfare issues, as nutritionally complete and balanced homemade diets are challenging for guardians to make. On the other hand, sticking to commercial foods, be it plant- or meat-based, may not necessarily be any better. Multiple accounts of commercial food’s shortcomings have often published, ranging from failure to meet standards and industry recommended nutrient profiles, to containing ingredients other than those listed on the packaging.
One might think that as cats are obligate carnivores, people who themselves avoid meat would also avoid adopting cats. This was, however, not supported by the results in this study. Other studies claim that cat preference among vegetarians may be due to their living in smaller households, in cities. Urbanization has also been found to correlate with meat avoidance. The researchers highlight that concerns for the unnaturalness of plant-based diets is the most predictive factor against feeding a plant-based diet. Meanwhile, not being concerned about plant-based diets is most in support of the practice. Among vegans, predictive factors also included the cost of plant-based diets.
All in all, the majority of all respondents revealed that they would not feed their companion animal a plant-based diet, even if it met their nutritional needs, suggesting a negative affective response to the entire concept of plant-based diets. This did not take the researchers by surprise – after all, most respondents reported consuming an omnivorous diet themselves anyway. Despite this, a shift towards more plant-oriented animal foods is likely as population growth will force the animal food industry to become less dependent on such protein sources.
Animal advocates should take note of this study as it’s the first one showing that the expressed willingness to feed companion animals a plant-based diet is higher than the current prevalence of such a practice. Provided that nutritional adequacy can be assured by the manufacturers, the companion food industry might soon undergo a shift towards the inclusion of more plant-derived ingredients.