26 November 2004

From the Mailbag

Hello Professor Burgess-Jackson,

In your blog, you wrote: "There is no doubt in my mind that [Sophie and Shelbie] would be significantly less happy, maybe even unhappy, if I fed them a vegetarian diet."

I'm not sure that you are right. If dogs are anything like people, then switching the dogs to a vegetarian diet would—at worst—make them unhappy for a relatively short while. Psychologists who study happiness in humans find that people generally have a specific "set point," and their level of happiness does not usually deviate much from that set point. Changes in life circumstances have only a transient effect on happiness. For example, lottery winners become much happier shortly after they win the lottery, and paraplegics become much less happy in the months after their accident. But within about a year, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are back to their previous, baseline-level of happiness. Here's the specific reference: Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and R. Janoff-Bulman, "Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (August 1978): 917-27.

Other studies also support this principle. Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman (based at the University of Pennsylvania) discusses some of this research in his recent book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Anyway, back to your Sophie and Shelbie: I suspect that they probably wouldn't enjoy being vegetarians at first, but they'd adjust fairly quickly and would be none the worse for wear (assuming, of course, that the vegetarian diet had the necessary nutritional and caloric content).

Incidentally, I'm a vegan, but my cat is not. So I suppose I'm a hypocrite.

Kindest regards,
Alex Chernavsky

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