Obligate Carnivore: Cats, Dogs, and What it Really Means to be Vegan
By Jed Gillen
SteinHoist Books, Seattle WA
2003, 103 pages, $10 (paper)
Review by Mat Thomas (originally published in VegNews, November/December 2004)
Like other carnivores, cats and dogs have sharp teeth, vice-like jaws, an abbreviated digestive tract, and stomach acids that can assimilate raw meat. Many people would conclude from these facts that cats and dogs need meat in order to survive. Hence the term: obligate carnivore. Not Jed Gillen, though, who says they can live healthily as vegans, and feeding them meat is as ethically indefensible as if you were to eat it yourself.
Appropriately, Gillen’s target audience is ethically motivated vegans with cats and/or dogs. (He focuses on cats, however, because of their complex nutritional requirements relative to dogs, who are omnivorous and therefore considered eligible vegans by most veterinarians.) He effectively appropriates the logic and rhetoric of animal rights philosophy to elucidate the ethical position for why cats should be vegan, reasoning that to subsidize the suffering and deaths of “food” animals to sustain the lives of companion animals is a form of speciesism: the arbitrary assignment of more value to one species than another with a similar capacity for suffering. Gillen maintains that the availability of vegan food “specially formulated to meet (cats’) nutritional needs” provides an obvious solution to this dilemma.
Gillen’s basic argument—that the prolonged torment of countless “food” animals outweighs any loss cats may experience on a vegan diet—is not only compelling but fundamentally sound. It’s the same reasoning most vegans would use to explain their own ethical viewpoint on human carnivorism. Yet most vegans remain skeptical when it comes to cats, citing health concerns and ideas of what is “natural” for them. In response, Gillen points out that it’s unnatural to give cats vaccinations, identification implants, and commercial cat food (which, among other unsavory ingredients, can contain the carcasses of cats and dogs purchased from shelters and processed with deadly euthanizing chemicals still in their bloodstreams). It is known that without sufficient amounts of taurine (an amino acid found naturally in animal flesh), cats go blind and die of heart enlargement. However, the high temperatures used to render cat food totally deplete the meat of taurine, requiring that it be added back. Ironically, manufacturers typically use the same synthetic taurine found in vegan cat foods.
Despite these observations, Gillen fails to convincingly address key dietary considerations, such as whether cats are able to effectively digest plant matter and extract from it essential nutrients. Apparently, credible scientific research on vegan cats hasn’t been done, so Gillen (co-owner of
vegancats.com) is able to cite only anecdotal “evidence” based on his customers’ feedback. In addition, Gillen’s confession that he himself subsists mainly on a diet of “coffee, vegan doughnuts, and beer” may shake the reader’s confidence in him as an expert in nutrition.
In Gillen’s view, being vegan is a process of continually redefining our values by incorporating new information and insights. While Obligate Carnivore doesn’t adequately resolve some of the critical nutritional uncertainties surrounding this controversial subject, it does raise important ethical issues that vegans need to consider seriously.