The idea of pet dogs and cats being used to feed other dogs and cats is disturbing to us. The mangled road kill, diseased cattle and pigs that died before making it to the slaughterhouse all seem like things that we wouldn’t want anywhere near our pets. But does the ick factor really make it wrong? It is difficult to imagine what else we would do with all of this dead biomass if it wasn’t being rendered, and it seems wasteful to feed high-quality meat to pets who can’t tell the difference. It is, in a sense, a laudable form of recycling.
Perhaps the real problem is with the other things that hitch a ride with the dead cats, dogs, zoo animals, and some of the livestock that were rejected for human consumption. Many of these animals died after being medicated for health problems that contributed to their deaths, and not all drugs are neutralized during the rendering process. Meat and bone meal can contain antibiotics, steroids, and even the sodium pentobarbital used to kill pets at shelters. By definition, a lot of the animals that ended up in the rendering vat had something wrong with them.
This mass of otherwise unwanted death is a measure of the animal suffering caused by human activity. Fifty percent of all chickens hatched out for the egg business are unneeded roosters that are discarded. Roughly 75 percent of all cats in shelters are euthanized. Because they were unprofitable, because they were inconvenient, because we made too many of them, they were killed.
The more that I learned about the pet-food business while writing this article, the less significant the cannibalism aspect seemed to me. My initial outrage at feeding dogs to dogs gave way to outrage at dogs being overproduced and dumped in shelters to be killed in the first place. One million deer are killed by vehicles each year. Even the plastic and Styrofoam from wasted grocery store meat that nobody even bothers to unpackage before rendering has come to seem a minor harm compared to the sins of a food system that devotes so much arable land to producing meat—in a world where people still starve to death—that we can’t even get around to eating it all before the expiration date hits.
It is easy to get up in arms over something that might affect the health of our pets. Indeed, the same system that doesn’t know whether its main ingredient is chicken beaks or dachshund really cannot guarantee adequate nutrition to the dogs that eat it. But perhaps we ought to be more angry about the parade of unwanted carcasses that fuel our need for a rendering industry in the first place.
Given the existence of a food system that produced this much waste, what else should we be doing with all of this excess animal protein? The alternative would probably be to toss this material in landfills. Turning it into pet food is at least a form of recycling.
Go ahead, feed this stuff to your dogs. I’m not kidding. They have to eat something, and this is what is available. Until we have a better answer for the millions of unwanted pets waiting in shelters for homes that aren’t there, and until we figure out a more efficient means of turning subsidized grain into steak, this stuff exists, and we’ve got to do something with it. Put Lassie on the label, since she’s on the menu anyway. If you don’t like it, adopt a shelter dog and make sure it’s neutered.