My wife Alayne and I are dog lovers. We have 35 of them at Rolling Dog Farm, our nonprofit sanctuary for disabled animals in New Hampshire. We care deeply about their health, their happiness and their overall well-being. Then, several years ago, we began asking ourselves a difficult question: What about the animals we feed our dogs? What kind of life do they deserve?
When we first started our nonprofit in 2000, we focused on the quality of the food we were feeding our disabled dogs. We learned how to distinguish between high quality and low quality by reading ingredient labels and ignoring packaging and marketing hype.
Then we began to think about its source — about the animals who ended up in the dog food. Alayne calls it “animal in a bag” and “animal in a can,” though most of us never think of it that way. It’s a lot easier not to think about it. Just open the bag or can and serve.
When the subject of dog food comes up, it seems that nearly everyone has an opinion. Some argue passionately that a raw diet is the only way to go; others insist on feeding organic food; some will feed their dogs only one specific brand, while others promote the benefits of home-cooked meals. But when was the last time you heard someone say, “I only feed humanely raised food to my dog”?
Today in the pet food marketplace, you’ll see a bewildering number of claims when it comes to the benefits and features of every type and brand. One thing you won’t see on a pet food label is “humanely raised.” While many people are concerned about their own food sources — a concern that has manifested itself in third-party certifications like “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” — this attribute is conspicuously missing when it comes to the food we feed our companion animals.
Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s book on America’s food system, made me realize that those of us who work in the animal welfare movement face our own dilemma. We focus intently on the well-being of the animals in our care, but rarely give any thought to the cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys (and more) who wind up in their food bowls.
Best Friends Animal Society, which operates the nation’s largest animal sanctuary, has a wonderful slogan: “A better world through kindness to animals.” All of us in the animal welfare movement believe in the spirit of that statement. But how far are we willing to take it?
That was the dilemma Alayne and I wrestled with over the years. How can we have one set of standards for companion animals and turn a blind eye to the welfare of those who go into pet food?
Much of our interest in this issue was driven by the fact that I was a vegan for nearly a decade and a vegetarian for several years before that. I struggled to reconcile my own beliefs about what I ate with what we fed our dogs. At one point, we even tried feeding them a vegetarian diet — with many unhappy results. Whether the meals were commercial or homemade, we’d never had so many dogs walk away from food before. A few ate anything we put in front of them, but most made it very clear that they were not happy with the new menu. We quickly abandoned the effort.
How Others See It
Other groups in the animal welfare movement, like Farm Sanctuary and HSUS, have focused much-needed attention on the cruelties of factory farming, in which thousands of animals are crowded in filthy and stressful “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) and then slaughtered in highspeed, assembly-line fashion at the rate of several hundred a day.
These nonprofits promote a vegan lifestyle as the antidote to factory farming. Given this point of view, they aren’t quick to acknowledge that humane livestock farming may be a genuine and reasonable alternative to the misery of factory farms. Their answer to the animal welfare dilemma is a simple one: eat plants, not animals. (Whatever you may think of this position, it fails to address the fact that some species, felines for example, must have animalbased proteins in their diet.)