by Jana Canavan
Abstract: Situated in a broader anthropocentric and speciesist structure, carnism serves to perpetuate the objectification and exploitation of other animals. In this paper, carnistic thinking is examined in the context of how it is commonly applied to dogs, who are framed as lovable, yet subordinate to humans. Through critically discussing the social system of domestication, and by relating carnistic ideology and practice to common anthropocentric conceptions of dogs as carnivores, the objective of this essay is to scrutinize online discussions of raw flesh-based dog feeding practices. The analysis shows how underlying ethical rationales used to motivate feeding dogs other animals intersect with wider anthropocentric ideology and aid in reiterating the exploitation and domination of other animals.
Our behavior towards, and ideas about, domesticated animals are framed by anthropocentric beliefs which structure our relations with them. The focus of this paper is to critically discuss the issue of feeding dogs with the bodies of farmed animals. In 2012, the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) marked a turnover of €13.8 billion in pet food sales, with an annual growth rate on 2.0% (FEDIAF 2012). Distributors strongly advertise commercial food products as containing everything a dog needs to be healthy, marketed for niches such as dogs of a certain breed, size, age, activity, or health problems. The availability of foods with veterinary formula sold in veterinary practices and clinics indicates the vast influence of the pet food industry. Critics call attention to deceptive business strategies, scandals, and health hazards due to faulty labeling, substandard or hazardous ingredients, additives, and preservatives (Grimm 2007). To secure high profit margins, animals already diseased, dying, or dead on arrival at the slaughterhouse are turned into pet food, as well as (in the context of the USA) dog and cat carcasses from animal shelters, using the bodies of animals who sometimes still wear toxic flea collars or have been euthanized (Knight 2008, 74). To make dogs eat these “industrial dumping grounds,” flavor enhancers are added containing a mixture of intestines, enzymes, and acids (Knight 2008, 75). The perceived untrustworthiness of the pet food industry led to the emergence of various alternative feeding methods aiming for “natural” raw feeding practices. The emphasis lies on “natural” ingredients in the form of raw flesh, bones, intestines, and other body parts as the main component of a dog’s diet.
The objective of this essay is to scrutinize online discussions on such raw meat-based dog feeding practices to illustrate how underlying ethical rationales motivating such a choice are reflective of anthropocentric ideologies that reiterate the exploitation and domination of other animals. Through critically examining human-canine relations as placed in the social system of domestication, this paper shows how the meaning and value of the dog as related to other animals is influenced by carnistic beliefs. Investigating the relations between carnism and dog feeding practices thus renders visible some of the paradoxes of how the use of animals as resources is constructed and normalized within human societies.
My main argument is that human conceptions of dogs as carnivores are situated in, and informed by, carnistic ideology and culture, which are used to justify flesh-based dog feeding practices. Melanie Joy’s concept of “carnism” refers to the dominant, yet largely invisible speciesist belief system that killing and eating other animals is viewed as “normal, necessary, and natural” (Joy 2010). Joy further identified three sets of carnistic justifications which she refers to as “neocarnisms,” describing dominant justifications she identified in public discourse which all seek to invalidate veganism (Joy 2012). To formulate my argument, neocarnisms are used as conceptual tools that were used to justify feeding dogs with other animals. Used neocarnistic concepts are “compassionate carnism”, “ecocarnism”, and “biocarnism” (ibid.). Compassionate carnism proposes that eating other animals is normal and views it as ethical when adhering to animal welfare measures. Ecocarnism is based on beliefs in a natural predisposition to consume animals, and proposes ideas of “sustainable” animal use and only critiquing large-scale industrialized animal agriculture (ibid.). Biocarnism also argues for the necessity of meat eating for one’s survival and health, therefore viewing ethical considerations about if animals should be eaten at all as superfluous (ibid.). As is the case with carnistic beliefs serving to justify the meat consumption of humans, the here examined accounts will thus illustrate how dog owners use carnistic reasoning to deal with the moral dilemma of feeding the animals they empathize with and view as companions with the bodies of other animals.
The pet food sector provides an important outlet for byproducts of the meat industry, reiterating the validity of concerns about the ethical and environmental implications of meat consumption, regardless of whether the meat is consumed by humans or dogs. Seen on a broader and systemic scale, meat production and consumption promotes unsustainable agriculture, environmental degradation, and malnutrition (Joy 2010, Noske 1997). Farmed animals around the world are fed with crops which could be used directly as foodstuff, and the environmental impact of animal agriculture is devastating. Instead of stopping to abuse and kill billions of beings or to establish fair and sustainable methods of food production and distribution, it is more lucrative for corporations to produce pet food and cheap meat to be sold in affluent countries (Noske 1997, 30). Thinking about the choice of dog food has thus become a matter of personal politics similarly to one’s own choice of diet. Considering the difference of how some relate to domesticated animals used as food resources shows how made differentiations are situated in anthropocentric and speciesist social hierarchies. Rethinking our relations to other animals and acknowledging them as agents of common social life is part of a larger project of moving toward a world in which nonviolence and empathy, respect, and social responsibility are valued over personal gain and privilege. Constructing dogs as carnivores when, as I will argue later in the paper, they are more properly understood as omnivores, legitimizes carnism and other forms of human control by utilizing an image of the dog to justify the exploitation of other domesticated animals.
The paper is organized as follows: After presenting methodological considerations underpinning this essay, meat-based raw dog feeding practices are situated in carnistic ideology and practice. To illustrate the ways in which the dog is conceptualized as meat eater, I discuss examples of how domesticated dogs are framed as carnivores. The next section deals with further arguments given to justify the feeding of meat through rationalizing the means of how meat products are produced. Because carnistic ideas about meat-based dog food imply and uphold a social order which reinforces human exceptionalism in general but also ranks domesticated animals differently in different cultural settings, the following section of the essay deals with some of the implications that carnistic ideas have on the power relations between humans and domesticated animals. While the domination of farmed animals is clearly violent and involves suffering and death for the affected individuals, the subordination of domesticated dogs plays out differently. In the final section, I therefore offer some thoughts on how we can change our relations to domesticated dogs so as to challenge some of these rigid power relations to allow for a greater level of canine agency and without having to inflict suffering on yet other animals.
Utilized empirical material stems from two online forums, the German DogForum and the Swedish forum Barf i Fokus, both selected due to their featured discussion spaces focusing on feeding practices using raw animal flesh. DogForum holds 78,600 members (DogForum 2015) and the Swedish forum Barf i Fokus has around 1200 members (BARF i Fokus 2015). I decided to focus on feeding methods in which raw animal parts are fed to dogs because these methods require the direct handling of animals’ body parts, which may make it more visible to the consumer that an animal has been killed to provide these “products”. Also, since it appears to be more common to rely on commercial dry kibble or canned food, opting for these, arguably, more involved and laborious alternative feeding practices can be seen as a conscious choice made by the dog owner that is likely to be justified through conceptions about both the dog and the animals turned into food.
The selection of empirical examples occurred purposefully to be placed within predetermined categories relating to the discussed concepts, such as carnism, neocarnisms, animal farming, and “conceptions of the dog”. The here quoted forum posts are then used to show some prevailing accounts of how meaning is constructed to legitimize carnism. Discussed examples are glimpses of a wider phenomenon and speak for the context they are situated in. The context of carnistic and anthropocentric culture, however, is so normative that presented accounts can be seen as recurring dominant stances on the justification of feeding animal flesh to dogs.
The possibility to freely express one’s opinions in online spaces while remaining anonymous allowed collecting valid data that was composed under far more unobtrusive circumstances than interviewing or survey research (Hine 2011). The identity of the authors’ writing on the forum websites is protected and their anonymity is secured through signing up on the websites to be represented under a nickname. Since material used from both forums is openly accessible without having to register to the forum, the content can be viewed as public domain and contributing to the discussion threads as deliberate public acts since individuals posting on these message boards are aware of, and expect that their contributions are being observed openly (Rodham and Gavin 2006, 94). According to the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), the participants of such message boards are to be understood as “authors whose texts/artifacts are intended as public” (Charles Ess and the AoIR 2002, 7). Due to the maintenance of confidentiality and the protection of the authors’ anonymity, it is not necessary to seek the consent of the contributors because ethical boundaries are not violated (Rodham and Gavin 2006, 94).
Since the primary material is originally written in German and Swedish, I provide my own translation in the text and include the original text in notes. Focusing on Swedish and German examples of flesh-based feeding practices seeks to include two different contexts in which feeding dogs with raw flesh is a common practice. Both countries are highly industrialized and affluent societies in which “pet keeping” is practiced as a luxury or free-time activity.
Situating dog food discourses in carnistic ideology and practice
Before the rise of the pet food industry, dogs were fed with household leftovers or byproducts of food production, with considerably less importance attached to the matter (Weeth 2013, 1). Today, there is a wide range of different options for deciding on the “best” diet for a dog, and the issue is discussed at length in online platforms.
The here examined raw-feeding practices take shape in various methods of feeding raw animal products, representing different dietary models. One of them is called Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (commonly referred to as BARF), and is discussed in German and Swedish online forums by dog owners who use this method of mixing food components themselves (requiring the process of information gathering, meal planning, and calculating the nutritional value of recipes as well as the dietary requirement of each individual dog). Another method especially discussed in the Swedish forums is to buy so-called färskfoder, meaning “fresh feed,” consisting of frozen flesh and various by-products already artificially supplemented. Yet other practices plead for feeding whole animal bodies, according to the Prey Model. Concerns for animal welfare during industrial farming processes and slaughter are sometimes discussed, and are met by backyard practices such as breeding and killing animals for food oneself to oversee their welfare.
Being aware of this wide range of raw dog feeding practices, it becomes apparent how much thought and effort some invest in the matter. The question of how to ethically feed one’s dog is difficult. Many humans living with dogs likely perceive themselves as animal lovers, leading to a moral dilemma when feeling as though one has to contribute to the suffering of farmed animals to provide adequate nutrition to one’s dog (Milburn 2017, Rothgerber 2013). Carnistic beliefs framing certain animals as edible “food animals,” paired with the carnistic belief that dogs need to eat meat because it is “natural, necessary, and normal” (Joy 2010), thus aid in justifying their consumption of meat.
Animals depicted as appropriate “dog-food animals” vary according to the cultural context but overall conform to those animals seen as edible for humans. In the here discussed context of Germany and Sweden, animals constructed as resources for dog food are mostly bovines, pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, fishes, national “wildlife,” and horses, as well as other animals referred to as “exotic,” such as kangaroo, springbok, and llama, the latter of which are often fed due to a dog’s allergy against animal flesh that is commonly available. The meat that is then used to feed dogs thus often consists of byproducts of the industries producing meat for human consumption, but stems from animals that free-roaming dogs would for the most part never catch themselves if they were free to do so (Grimm 2007, Knight 2008, 74). The latter point thus illustrates how entangled dog’s dependency to be fed by humans is with overall carnistic ideas about which animals are eatable and killable. The underlying issue of those power relations as a result of domestication, and how they intersect with carnistic rationales, is an issue that will be discussed throughout the paper.
In order to illustrate how carnism is applied to human conceptions about the dog, I now turn to discuss how the identified narratives rationalize raw flesh-based dog food. Examples are elaborated upon in regard to meanings, reasons, and motivations given to justify such approaches and to show their reflection of carnistic ideology inasmuch as they view the consumption of certain animals as “normal, necessary, and natural” (Joy 2010). Even though the meat is eaten by the dog, the human providing it is still the initial consumer who buys or otherwise obtains the “product,” and thus partakes in carnistic practices. That said, the most apparent reason to choose raw meat-based dog food amounts to the dog owners’ firm belief that the dog is a carnivore.
The dog as meat eater
While descending from carnivorous wolves, 33,000 years of human-controlled domestication led dogs to physiologically evolve omnivorous traits early on, as the adaptation to a more varied diet constituted a crucial step in dog’s evolutionary success as inhabitants of human society (Axelsson et al. 2012, Brown et al. 2009, Hilton 1987, Knight & Leitsberger 2016, Semp 2014, Zentek 1997). Dogs can live a healthy life on vegan or plant-based diets if the food is properly formulated with all required nutrients (Brown et al. 2009, Knight 2008, Knight & Leitsberger 2016, Hilton 1987, 535, VegePets.info 2015). However, due to carnism being a dominant belief system, providing a vegan diet to dogs is often seen as unnatural, unhealthy, or seen as forced upon the dog. In what follows, I will illustrate how some of the arguments made in the online forums frame dogs as carnivores and how such anthropocentric conceptions reinforce carnism and ideas of human dominance in general.
The here discussed practices of feeding dogs with raw flesh and bones are implicitly justified with carnistic rationales, and therewith seek to invalidate plant-based dog feeding practices. Common claims that animal products are the only real sources of protein and that animal parts contain important amino acids, which are seen as necessary and natural dog food, reflecting biocarnistic beliefs (Joy 2012). Proposed health benefits frame flesh as necessary for human (and canine) survival, effectively overriding the survival of other animals. At this point, the love for one’s dog paired with picturing them as carnivorous leads to speciesist distinguishing of the dog as different and as hierarchically higher from those animals killed for food, leading to justifications such as:
I honestly don’t understand why someone would get a dog if one is not ready to, or finds it morally unjustifiable, to feed [the dog] at least nearly adequate for his species. Nobody would find it okay to feed a herbivore with animal products, so why should it be okay to feed a carnivore without meat? (DogForum 2014a)
Such argumentation is based on the commonsensical claim that a carnivore needs flesh to survive, reflecting the same biocarnistic rationale that is used to justify humans’ meat consumption. Interesting is how the author connects the act of “getting a dog” with the moral imperative of feeding meat to the dog. They seek to make a valid point here in saying that the humans’ decision to keep a dog as a companion animal requires that one takes responsibility to adequately care for the dog, who is dependent on the human. However, since biocarnistic beliefs about dogs needing meat to survive and be healthy are so strong, the argument implies that the harm inflicted on the animals turned into meat is a necessary and unavoidable harm. It is crucial to also highlight that the quote above also manifests human control over those animals who are seen as food on a different level by missing that, due to economic profitability, many herbivores such as bovines are in fact fed with the bodies of conspecifics and other animals. Feeding herbivores with animal products is widely practiced in intensive animal farming, which can lead to detrimental consequences to the animals’ health, triggering outbreaks of epidemics that can also affect those who consume such animals.
The quote thus shows that ideas about dogs as carnivores and about farmed animals as resources are situated in carnistic ideology. In regard to the implied social hierarchy between dogs and farmed animals, it is clear that carnism can in this case be identified as providing a baseline structure for human ideas about a speciesist social order. What remains unquestioned here is whether our human conceptualization about the dog as meat eater and our normalized practices of killing other animals as food are legitimate. Biocarnism is thus serving to rationalize the killing of other animals for food and undermines the possibility of feeding dogs with plant-based diets, which is generally denied, unaccepted, and refused in Western contexts in which the dog is seen as companion animal:
The dog belongs to the genera of carnivores. Purely vegan or vegetarian food is hence a case of animal cruelty. What someone does in the case of one’s own nutrition is one’s decision. What someone does with one’s commissioned dogs and cats has at times something of raping a being that is not free to make own choices (which does not only apply to nutrition). (DogForum 2014b)
Marking the feeding of dogs with plant-based diets as a case of animal cruelty is not uncommon in online discussions and could be identified as a recurring line of argument. It can be understood as a dignity-based argument against companion veganism (Milburn 2017), as it implies that feeding plant-based food would violate dogs’ biological predisposition to eat meat and would therefore interfere in dogs’ welfare and their assumed nature of being a meat eater. Doing so would hence be the result of oppressive human-dog relations, in which human beliefs are valued over the nutritional needs of the dog.
Even though dogs are highly domesticated, the feeding of raw flesh especially seems to be marked as “natural” dog food, which appears to repel any fundamental questioning of its suitability. The here purported ideas about dogs’ naturalness defined through their primordial eating behaviors are connected to picturing free and undomesticated animals, which can be seen as way of dealing with the power dynamics domestication entails. While the decision to rely on raw meat-based dog food represents the dog owner’s efforts to somehow deal with the issue of human-controlled domestication, the use of “food animals” to attain these efforts is not granted the same consideration. Dogs may be more biologically pre-disposed to hunt and eat other animals than humans are, since dogs are able to chase, catch, kill, and eat their prey themselves, without any kind of tool or industrial machinery. In an American study, more than 85% of the participants proclaimed their inability of killing an animal to obtain food, but still more than 90% of the US population eats other animals if someone else does the killing and processes the bodies for them (Joy, 2010). Ideas about dogs as meat eaters seem to fit better with picturing ourselves as needing to eat meat and integrating “our” companion dogs into human carnistic culture. Having degenerated dogs to loyal servants of human interests, their role as companions also created the perceived reliance on the pet-food industry.
For instance, dogs able to chase, catch, and kill their prey are not supposed to do so in order not to interfere with human “wildlife management”. This is not to say that it would be more ethical to let dogs roam free to chase and possibly kill free-roaming animals, as it would obviously inflict stress and suffering to them. My point is that dogs’ created dependency on humans proclaims them from roaming free because our anthropocentric definition of the dog as the loyal and subordinate companion does not allow room for that kind of canine agency. Those dogs legitimately used for hunting are assigned tasks to find, startle, or retrieve animals who are killed by humans. Letting dogs roam free in the way that some cats are able to do, for instance, is not an option as it does not fit the common conception of dogs. Moreover, in Germany and Sweden, as in many other countries, it is illegal to let dogs roam free without human supervision. Such conceptions about domesticated dogs make them legitimate recipients of meat products that are, first and foremost, produced for human consumption. Carnistic ideology certainly plays a role for developing the inconsistent practices and beliefs which perpetuate the farming of animals for food, since the consumption of animal products is highly normalized in human-controlled society and thus left unquestioned at a more general level. This then allows the elevation of beliefs about dogs’ dietary requirements over the cruelty inflicted upon those who are objectified and killed to be consumed as products. Such claims are potent for silencing gruesome realities of farming practices and help leaving such violence unquestioned.
Justifying the feeding of meat
Due to the taken-for-granted biocarnistic “truth” of dogs being carnivores, killing other animals for dog food is a moral dilemma openly discussed online, here in a Swedish forum, titled “BARF and ethics”. As one dog owner states:
“A little problem with all carnivorous pets is the aspect that they need to eat other animals to live and feel good. And to acquire “ethical food” (where the food animal had a good life) is not always easy” (BARF i Fokus 2010).
Implicit in this argument is the rationale that killing could be done in an ethical way, as long as the killed animals “had a good life”. This claim reflects beliefs of compassionate carnism and can be seen as a key rationale to deal with the ethical dilemma of feeding other animals to one’s dog. Since obtaining “happy meat” from commercial sources is said to be tricky at times, keeping and slaughtering animals oneself can appear as a valid option for some dog owners who seek to provide raw flesh to their dogs:
“Everybody is responsible for their own actions…And just like I think one should be proud to give one’s animals a good life when feeding them BARF, one should be proud not to do that at the cost of another animals’ welfare. I personally think it is important that we are taking part in working for all animals’ welfare, regardless if they are for companionship or food. […] She [the dog] gets mostly game, my own bred lamb, and meat from local slaughterhouses. If I buy in stores, I buy only Swedish [meat]” (BARF i Fokus 2011).
The two quotes above show that, to the writers of the online forum discussions, justifications in line with compassionate carnism proposing some form of “happy exploitation” in animal farming appear to them to be a valid solution for the ethical dilemma at hand. It also shows that implicit ideas about a hierarchy between the various domesticated animals is being internalized through the carnistic ideas of the dog being a carnivore and farmed animals existing to be eaten. The purpose attached to different animals thus implies a clear anthropocentric and speciesist structure.
Another rationale to justify the production and consumption of meat for dog food is the purported value of buying of locally produced meat products, which was a reoccurring theme in both the Swedish and German context. Such ecocarnistic rationales argue for more ecologically responsible and sustainable means of production:
“One can only be 100% certain if one keeps food animals oneself and also slaughters [them]. […] If people would not be greedy for cheap meat (also for one’s own consumption) [animals] would not have to be fed with cheap soy and meat would not contain pharmaceutical traces, etc. But in order to change something, one would have to start by oneself — and that is inconvenient and uncomfortable. […] In my mind, everyone has to find their own way in feeding practices and nutrition — but not at the cost of others!” (DogForum 2014b)
In the last two comments, the authors reflect on their responsibility for their actions and of the inconvenience and uncomfortableness of acting accordingly. Their way of dealing with the ethical dilemma at hand is to directly participate in the rearing and killing of animals for food themselves, or to purchase locally produced meat so as to ensure the animals are reared and killed “sustainably” and “compassionately”. It is important to note here that their incentive to do so is motivated by well-meaning and caring attitudes toward other animals. This does not mean, however, that this way of dealing with the dilemma at hand is ethical, but illustrates how some deal with the inconsistencies and dilemmas of carnistic beliefs. Since the authors seem to firmly believe that dogs need to eat meat to be healthy, compassionate and ecocarnistic claims are presented as ethically sound solutions to justify the “necessary harm” of killing other animals through reiterating the naturalized and normalized idea about domesticated farmed animals’ existence as “food animals”.
Prioritizing dogs and our ideas of their needs over those of other animals expose the multifaceted workings of carnistic and speciesist ideas, resulting in the idea that dogs’ well-being as understood by humans is legitimately founded on the suffering of animals who are considered less important. This process of prioritizing and classifying is what marks us as oppressors and highlights that the perpetuation of oppressive relations is a matter of choice (Selby 1995, 18). Welfarist ideas about animal use and ecocarnistic rationales of consuming locally produced meat constitute neocarnistic and fundamentally speciesist ideologies by suggesting that simply “caring” for animals to a certain extent is as good as it can get (Joy 2012). Such welfare measures are of little help or might even worsen the situation of farmed animals because they lead to further internalization and justification of carnism and do not question if animals should be farmed and eaten.
The crack in the matrix
Most humans live by ethical values of respect and kindness that are rigorously violated when engaging in carnism and other forms of human domination over other animals, including many aspects of pet keeping. Joy refers to this conflict as the so-called “crack in the carnistic matrix,” resulting in inconsistency and hypocrisy (Joy 2010, 133). Since carnism and other dominant belief systems appear as normal and are therefore not apparent in their function as violent ideology, exposing carnism as a deceptive system can be the first step of dismantling it (ibid).
What this paper has thus far shown is that carnism applies to conceptions of dogs as carnivores to justify raw meat-based feeding practices. Since this type of carnistic practice involves domesticated animals not only as products to consume but also as receivers of those consumed animals, carnistic belief systems are situated within anthropocentric human-animal relations. The structures of power inherent to our relation to domesticated animals can be understood as hindrance to exposing deceptive carnistic “truths”. This is because the very idea of domestication implies that other animals are forced to live by our cultural norms (Gruen 2014, 130).
The following quotes account for online debates discussing feeding methods and means of food production more critically. While the authors are very aware of the power imbalance between humans and domesticated dogs and at times even show awareness of carnism in a more general sense, conceptions about dogs being meat eaters are prevailing. Examples derive from a discussion in which the question “Is BARF up to date?” is asked. The inquirer calls for critical engagement with the issue of BARF and the feeding of raw meat as the supposedly most suitable feeding method for dogs, while also recognizing that the life of domesticated companion dogs today looks very different from that of their free ancestors (DogForum 2014a). Many answers reflect a critical assessment of the raw feeding trend by interlinking it with modern capitalist methods of farming animals:
“I find BARF up to date because it fits our lifestyle of intensive livestock farming, cheap meat, and the obsession to control” (DogForum 2014c).
The systematic exploitation of the animal industry is further problematized through exposing paradoxes of using industrialized methods to strive for naturalness:
“Seen from that perspective, BARF is certainly “up to date” in some points. It thrives from the artificial surplus of meat, allowing that one can afford the luxury of relegating carbohydrates [from one’s diet]. It serves the human’s desire for naturalness [and] nativeness — and reinforces the disillusionment over industrial foods” (DogForum 2014d).
The exposed paradox directs its critique against the industrial production of meat, as levels of production are artificially high to serve the suggested purpose of fulfilling human’s “desire for naturalness and nativeness,” implying that meat-eating are facets thereof. Meat delegated as a resource for dogs is meant to fulfill the same purpose, namely, to serve dogs’ natural disposition as carnivore. The connection between meat consumption and naturalness can be reinforced through integrating companion dogs as “natural” meat eaters, lining up with anthropocentric ideas about animality. The supposed nature of the dog as carnivore is so deep-rooted that even some dog owners abstaining from eating meat believe in it:
I am also vegetarian, with the tendency to vegan […] and my world would be perfect if my dogs would be convinced “veggies”…but they are not. And hence, I let them have the joy of munching a nice piece of meat — such scenes of ardor cannot be evoked by any carrot in the world. […] So mostly they get fresh [meat]. From regionally slaughtered animals. […] One does not have to become weird from all the ethics” (DogForum 2014a).
It has been shown that one’s own reasons to be vegetarian or vegan matter to the choice of what to feed companion animals, demonstrating that ethically motivated meat abstainers are more likely to respond behaviorally to the dilemma of causing suffering to certain animals to provide food to one’s animal companion (Rothgerber 2013). The here cited author however names the joy of her dogs eating meat as reason to feed them with other animals. Not eating meat herself and claiming to buy regionally produced meat indicates some awareness of the negative aspects of meat production. While defining herself as a vegetarian, she follows a carnistic and speciesist ethic when deciding on the food for her dogs. The implication of “becoming weird from all the ethics” suggests that her vegetarian beliefs are political, but her carnistic beliefs are supposedly of a more neutral character. Applying one’s vegetarian ethics on one’s dogs would, therefore, be strange, while leaving them in the socially accepted realm of carnism is normal. The pointing to her obligation to feed her dog meat to be happy contrasted by her own abstention from such practices suggests that she is aware that meat eating is a choice and indicates awareness of the ethical dilemma of using other animals as dog food.
Considering the different aspects of carnism and neocarnistic rationales trying to legitimize the exploitation of other animals shows that people care about those animals. In the case of raw meat-based dog food, especially biocarnistic ideas are problematic as they are very potent in upholding beliefs that consuming other animals is necessary for dogs’ survival and health. The inconsistency and hypocrisy Joy problematizes as the “crack in the carnistic matrix” can be addressed once carnistic ideology is exposed, questioned, and acted upon. The process of “bearing witness” and empathizing is a process of altering one’s perspective about how to interact with other animals. This following section initiates some critical thought about how we can rethink human-canine relations as they are placed in the social system of domestication.
Rethinking our relations to domesticated animals
What my analysis of carnistic dog feeding practices highlights is that our relationships with domesticated dogs are clearly shaped by human interests and anthropocentric ideas about domesticated animals, constructing farmed animals as legitimate food resource and dogs as loyal and subordinate companions. In relation to the here discussed issue of carnistic dog feeding practices, the process of empathizing with Others is relevant to two groups of domesticated animals; those farmed for food production, and to the dogs we view as companions. Since both of these groups of domesticated animals are subordinated to humans through the larger setting of human control over other animals, rethinking our relations to domesticated animals will require us to reassess the power relations at play. To initiate processes critically questioning and opposing anthropocentrism and carnistic ideologies, we need to empathize with those animals who fall victim to its violent logics (Joy 2010). Such new ways of relating to other animals require acknowledging that they are individuals worthy of respect and the freedom to live their lives without being viewed and treated as things.
In regard to animals farmed in food production, opting instead for vegan diets can aid in the process Joy refers to as “bearing witness,” in which one empathizes with oppressed individuals (Joy 2010, 138). In regard to human-canine relations, this process would entail not using the bodies of other animals as dog food because if species-appropriate nutrition is understood as providing all required nutrients to the dog, then that can be done without feeding flesh (Milburn 2017). The fact that dogs are domesticated makes them dependent on us, inadvertently leading to hierarchical relations and paternalism. Feeding dogs is therefore inevitable and it is our responsibility to secure that they receive an adequate nutrition. However, while the human is in the dominant position, this does not eliminate the dog’s agency. We can engage in the process of “expecting agency, looking for agency, and enabling agency” (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, 110).
By offering a range of plant foods, dogs can have the agency to decide what to eat and can let us know what food they prefer over others (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). So-called “free feeding,” in which food is present around the clock, is another alternative to allow the dog to choose when to eat or to find out about their preferred eating times. While overeating should be avoided for health concerns, most dogs understand such routines quickly and eat whenever they are hungry. Changing one’s perception about dogs and acknowledging them as communicating and active participants of social life allow us to integrate processes of collaboration in which letting the dog decide their own eating habits or what route to take on a walk are examples of “dependent agency” (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, 109).
Carnism is situated in the social structures of anthropocentrism and domestication, and together these belief systems reinforce and normalize practices and ideas that justify the subordination of other animals. This critical discussion of online narratives on feeding raw meat to dogs highlights how such practices are informed by, and further strengthen, anthropocentric and carnistic beliefs and thus, inevitably promote and justify the killing of animals for human consumption. Invigorating the outdated classification of the dog as carnivore to justify violence against other animals is thus not much different from other anthropocentric and speciesist accounts following the logic of things being “just the way they are”. Flesh-based dog feeding practices, therefore, aid in reinforcing human’s power position over those beings who are less privileged.
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