What if We Farmed Chickens and Pigs Like We Raise Dogs and Cats?
The book title said it all: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.
Human cultures give each creature a different classification. Some are food; others may be too unclean to eat or be beloved as pets. Psychologist Melanie Joy reflected on this in her book. Carnism was the term she coined for the beliefs behind our inconsistent treatment of animals.
As a child, I first loved dogs and cats, sacred in my U.S. American culture. From there I developed an adoration for ants, pigs, donkeys, and moose. After a 6th grade squid dissection made me queasy, suddenly I couldn’t look at meat the same.
It got me thinking… what if my culture felt the same towards cows, fishes, turkeys, and more like we do about dogs and cats?
Would this force us to reduce the scale of harm? Would this raise our standards for compassion?
Let the thought experiment begin!
We’ll imagine how it would look if farmed animals were treated like pets in 4 areas: breeding, living situation, medical care, and death. I hope this adds to our discussions of what it means to love and respect animals.
1. Breeding: We’re against puppy mills, so maybe it’s time to call out “piggy mills”
How are pets conceived? When cats and dogs don’t reproduce on their own, it’s expected that human breeders should NOT put profit before animal welfare.
The Humane Society of the U.S. defines a puppy mill as “an inhumane high-volume dog breeding facility that churns out puppies for profit, ignoring the needs of the pups and their mothers.”
Sadly, the situation is similar for kitties in cat mills. Mills produce a majority of online and pet store pets, so one must investigate to avoid them. Plus, we have many healthy animals without homes. Do we really need to breed more?
A second controversy regarding pet breeding? Whether the animals mate on their own, or whether we use artificial insemination (AI).
According to a BBC article, artificial breeding prevents travel stress. The pets don’t have to go meet. Instead, human hands “obtain” sperm from the male, keep refrigerated, and inject into the female.
One veterinarian said artificial breeding “stops people holding [a female dog] down to be mated by a [male] dog, which I think is very offensive, and has gone on for decades. AI is less traumatic for everybody.”
Forcing an animal to be mounted by another animal clearly isn’t good. However, some would feel equally averse to humans playing with dogs’ or cats’ private parts for no medically necessary purpose…
In summary, breeding creatures raises animal rights eyebrows; however, much of society accepts it.
To give farmed animals the same respect as pets, we would have to protest “piggy mills” and “hell hatcheries.” We’d boycott farms that breed animals in bad conditions that are not fit for a cared-about pet.
World Animal Protection tells “the heartbreaking story behind intensive pig breeding.” Some female pigs live in cages the size of a fridge and can’t turn around.
Let’s also condemn it if farmers create animal breeds with increased health problems — like how the creator of labradoodle dogs later regretted his work.
According to a Humane League 2016 report, chickens were bred to grow 2x as heavy and twice as fast as 50 years ago. What has this done to their health? The chickens have leg problems and trouble walking, water belly and other metabolic diseases.
Yet, the National Chicken Council claims the birds are healthier than ever. They say breeders began choosing the strongest-legged chickens and it made the problems less prevalent over the last 2 decades.
Compare that with Red junglefowl, who chickens split off with 8,000 years ago. In studies of the birds still living in Asia, they laid 18 eggs at most. (And only during the warm season. Artificial light makes today’s chickens constantly lay as if summer never stops.)
The genetic selection of chickens to lay so many eggs has made them prone to weak bones and osteoporosis, reports the RSPCA.
For better welfare, we arguably could pick slower-growing farm breeds. And ones who secrete more modest amounts of product.
Mother pigs would be taken out to walk every day, instead of languishing nonstop in gestation crates.
The downside? Breeding animals more humanely requires more resources. It ups the sustainability concerns that already exist with meat. Although in an interview with The Washington Post, Temple Grandin did suggest that cows who pump less milk could last longer.
2. Living situation: Imagine if you could walk into a factory farm and volunteer as a pig walker
Cats and dogs need basic freedom of movement. If they can roam a house or backyard, that’s good. If dogs get walked daily or visit the dog park, even better!
We transport pets in carrying crates, use leashes, and quarantine them in separate closets. Confinement is necessary for us to cohabitate, but at least we strive to make them comfortable. We provide enrichments like toys, dog beds, cat towers, and oodles of affection.
Rescue shelters check to see if a potential adopter’s home is suitable. While shelters themselves are more confining, they work hard to find better futures for each animal. Many of them manage to regularly walk the dogs.
For grass-fed cows, the personal space situation is even better than for pets. However, we run into issues with the 99% of U.S. farmed creatures in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms.”
The figures from the USDA Census of Agriculture indicate:
- 70.4% of cows
- 98.2% of chickens raised for eggs
- 98.3% of pigs
- 99.8% of turkeys
- 99.9% of chickens raised for meat
- virtually all farmed fishes are also factory-farmed (but less data is available)
This situation would never fly if it were cats and dogs. Somebody call the SPCA!
The Humane League report referenced earlier was for their 88 Percent Campaign. 88% of U.S. farmed animals are the confined chickens raised for meat. That’s why this nonprofit pooled their efforts into phasing out the chicken industry’s worst abuses.
They’re getting corporations to guarantee better breeding, living conditions, and slaughter conditions.
Alas, modest improvements to CAFOs (which take years to go into effect) don’t compare with the quality care we aspire to give our family pets.
Can you imagine if factory farms looked more like animal shelters? If you could walk in and volunteer to be a pig walker or give loving personal attention to a turkey?
3. Medical care: For starters, animals need painkiller when farmers cut off their parts
As a teenage vegetarian, I was ready to swear off eggs after I learned chicks are “de-beaked” to prevent them pecking each other. Cows are branded and de-horned; pigs are tail-docked.
Last but not least, neutering. It’s a given that pets shouldn’t feel a thing when testicles are torn off. Farmed animals? They haven’t been so lucky. It’s routine to perform such procedures on young livestock without pain relief.
A National Hog Farmer article describes Denmark’s progress. As is the standard, the country castrates piglets to eschew “boar taint” so the meat tastes better. Fortunately, in 2018 a painkiller became available.
As of January 2019, a general industry agreement requires that piglets are anaesthetized prior to the procedure.
While laws are gradually going into effective worldwide to reduce cruelty, it’s crazy to think… how many animals across the globe today had parts of their bodies painfully ripped away for farming purposes.
Another thing farmed animals miss is regular vet check-ups.
Last year Experience magazine said the U.S. has 113,000 veterinarians. Only 4,300 specialize in farmed animals. That’s 4%. Yet farmed animals make up the vast majority of our domesticated animals. Over 9 billion are killed here yearly. If you include fishes and shellfishes, the numbers get ridiculous.
So to give farmed animals equal medical care as pets would require an explosion of new vet school graduates.
Or, we could go in the plant-based direction. We can invest in cultivated meat (grown from animals’ cells). These options eliminate the need for us to breed billions upon billions of chickens who suffer badly and get no medical care.
On a more heartwarming note, Esther the Wonder Pig recovered from breast cancer in 2018. The Instagram-famous pink beauty was not allowed chemotherapy due to being a “food animal.” Fortunately, the tumor was removable without chemo. Esther the family pig was declared cancer-free!
4. Killing: If only we could euthanize animals and have the meat remain edible
We euthanize pets when they get old, sick, or suffer beyond hope. They painlessly go to sleep, overdosing on a seizure med that stops the heart and brain in 1–2 minutes.
It’s controversial when shelters put healthy animals to sleep. The justification is that some have behavior problems and are unadoptable. Space is limited, with many homeless.
When it comes to creatures like turkeys and sheep, perceptions are vastly different. Farmed animals’ kill rate is almost 100%, and death is no painless slumber.
What about farmed fishes? I learned some from What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe. The book cites the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 euthanasia guidelines. Based on studies of fishes’ brains and behavior:
Finfish [fish that are not shellfish] should be accorded the same considerations as terrestrial vertebrates in regard to relief from pain. (Page 83. Great book!)
Land animals are stunned to make them less conscious before slaughter. Sadly, traditional fish slaughter—whether by CO2, freezing, bleeding, or suffocation out of water — did nothing to soften the pain the fish feel.
Better news: It’s getting more common to use electrified water that stuns the fishes first.
In 2013 The Washington Post estimated that each year, my country accidentally boils and drowns alive 825,000 chickens. Even as stunning systems have improved, they’re not perfect. Given how many animals get slaughtered, the agony we end up inflicting is enormous.
Also not euthanized are the egg industry’s newly hatched male chicks. Of no use for egg-laying, they are “culled.”
I won’t describe the kill methods because honestly, dear reader, you’ve heard a lot. Thank you for bearing with this long and emotionally challenging read!
Loving our factory farmed neighbors like pets might be a bit… impractical.
Climate change activists wouldn’t be too happy. Animal product prices would soar. Veterinarians would have to replace retail salespeople as the most common profession.
Things get trickier when you consider manner of death. Until we develop a magical euthanasia that doesn’t indelibly poison animals’ tissues, we don’t have a slaughter method that compares to a painless sleep.
When you consider farmed creatures from the standards of how we treat companion animals, welfare improvements feel like a matter of “less inhumane.” Cats and dogs aren’t objectified for their milk, meat, or reproductive matter. It’s easier to treat them as individuals who deserve kindness and nonviolence.
Dogs and cats teach us how easy it is to love an animal when they cuddle in your lap every day. Let’s show animals that our human benevolence is not so conditional. We can treat birds, fishes, pigs, cows, and other species with greater compassion too.
That will probably involve drastically reducing our animal product consumption, and mastering plant-based health as much as we can.
And shout-out to the cellular agriculturalists who’ve been growing meat from cells. Mission Barns recently did a restaurant taste test of their cultivated bacon. I can’t wait for the first products to hit the market. Like plant-based meat, cultured meat appears to be substantially better for the environment. Someday, these scientists’ work may eliminate the need to treat animals as food objects.
Thank you for caring.