Did you know: Cuttlebones are not actually “bones.” And the animal they come from—cuttlefish—are not actually “fish”… Very deceitful names, right? Well, you don’t have to be deceived any longer. In this post, I’m sharing the truth of how cuttlebones are harvested.
Cuttlebones are harvested from dead cuttlefish (a type of cephalopod). Cuttlefish are commercially fished and sold as food, mainly in Europe and East Asia, and their cuttlebones are a by-product of this industry. Cuttlebone alternatives, such as mineral blocks, are available if you want a vegan option for your pet.
Below, I’ll explain what cuttlebones really are, where they come from, and how cuttlefish live and die. I’ll also take a look at cuttlefish overfishing issues, whether cuttlebones count as “vegan,” and the top cuttlebone alternatives that are animal-free!
What Is Cuttlebone, Really?
Cuttlebone is an “internal shell” taken from a sea animal called a cuttlefish. The cuttlebones are made of about 85% calcium, containing air inside that helps with buoyancy.
Cuttlefish are cephalopods, related to octopus and squid. Remarkably, cuttlefish are thought to be one of the most intelligent invertebrate animals.
Cuttlebones have been used by humans for many purposes over the years. Today, they are mostly used as a calcium supplement for birds, reptiles, chinchillas, and other pet animals. They also function as a beak conditioner for birds.
But cuttlebones used to be ground up and added to toothpaste, believe it or not. Their powder was also used as an antacid, and as a polishing powder used by goldsmiths.
Cuttlebones are also sometimes used as molds for jewelry since they can be easily carved and heated to high temperatures.
Where Does Cuttlebone Come From?
So when you buy cuttlebone, where did it originally come from? How did the cuttlefish die, and what kind of life did it live? Are cuttlefish farmed—or fished—or what?
On many beaches around the world, it’s possible to find plenty of cuttlebones that can be collected. But when you buy cuttlebone in the store, that’s not likely how it was harvested.
Around the world, cuttlefish are mainly killed to be eaten as food—and cuttlebones are a by-product of this industry.
In Europe and East Asia, cuttlefish is quite popular as food. Many Mediterranean dishes contain both cuttlefish flesh and cuttlefish ink. Some Japanese dishes also use cuttlefish ink.
Based on the best information I could find, it seems that cuttlebones are simply a byproduct of the cuttlefish-as-food business.
So cuttlefish are not separately killed just for their cuttlebones. They are killed to be eaten, and then their cuttlebones are sold to be used for pet birds, reptiles, and so on.
Are Cuttlefish Fished or Farmed?
I tried to get more specific information for this post about how cuttlefish are killed. It seems that most die from commercial fishing. (source)
I did find a couple of references to “cuttlefish farms” online—this article seems to describe cuttlefish being held and farmed for their ink. This article from the FAO says cuttlefish agriculture has “been tried experimentally.”
However, this does not seem to be common. Cuttlefish are mainly fished, not farmed.
For some of us vegans and environmentalists, there’s another concern along with the actual killing of individual cuttlefish: Overfishing of cuttlefish as a species.
Cuttlefish are primarily caught by trawlers. Trawling is one of the commercial fishing methods known for involving high amounts of bycatch. Bycatch is all the other fish and sea life that gets caught in the nets unintentionally.
The Cornwall Good Seafood Guide has warned of unsustainable fishing practices around cuttlefish in the UK specifically:
“Cuttlefish are caught in the English channel by trawlers, netters and in a directed trap fishery. Their populations are poorly studied but indications are that this species is being fished to its maximum capacity [….] Trawlers target deep water aggregations of overwintering cuttles and remove cuttlefish before they are fully grown and have had a chance to reproduce. [….] Pot caught cuttles are the best choice available in terms of sustainability but due to the far larger trawl fishery for this species even pot caught cannot be considered sustainable at this time as cuttle stocks are unmanaged and over fished.” [March 2020 Update]
Indeed, there has also been some recent concern in Australia about the overfishing of Giant Australian Cuttlefish.
Is Cuttlebone Vegan?
Cuttlebone is not considered vegan in most cases. It is the product of an animal, and when you buy cuttlebone in a store, the animal was almost certainly killed to be sold. Therefore, cuttlebones are products of animal exploitation.
However, if you just find cuttlebone on a beach somewhere, most people would consider that to be vegan. In that case, the cuttlefish was able to live its life naturally and (probably) die of natural causes. You’re just finding and making use of their body afterward.
Again, however, most cuttlebone comes from an industry that kills cuttlefish explicitly to sell their flesh, ink, and cuttlebones. So this is animal exploitation, and it’s not considered vegan to support that.
If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or you just don’t want to buy a cuttlebone for your pet… what options do you have for fake cuttlebones or cuttlebone alternatives?
Well, it depends a little bit on which animal you have, and which functions of a cuttlebone you’re looking to replace.
Cuttlebones are not just used for birds, but also for turtles, snails, and other reptiles. Sometimes you may use cuttlebone solely as a source of calcium. Other times, it’s used as a “beak conditioner” for a bird, or to raise the pH of water in an aquarium.
Cuttlebone Alternative For Birds
To replace cuttlebone for birds, you’re typically not just looking for a calcium supplement—you’re looking for something your bird can sharpen and polish their beak on. Here are some of the top products you can consider:
- Mineral Block: Keep in mind, many mineral blocks (like this one and this one) contain oyster shell. Since oysters are animals, most people would not consider this strictly vegan. However, since oysters have no central nervous system, some vegans are okay with this.
- Mineral Perch: Here is a calcium perch that has awesome ratings. And here is an another option if the other one doesn’t seem right for your bird.
- Lava Stone Beak Conditioners: Check out this lava stone beak conditioner for parakeets, cockatiels, finches, and other birds. Or here is another interesting lava stone chewing toy that is quite different, meant for parrots, parakeets, chinchillas, rabbits, and more.
Cuttlebone Alternative for Turtles, Snails, and Other Animals
When replacing cuttlebone for animals besides birds, you’re typically looking mainly for a calcium supplement. The exact formulation of minerals for your animal may vary. But here are some popular options:
And you might also just look at calcium supplements meant for humans. I’ve seen a few people recommend this. However, I don’t know enough about calcium supplements or specific animals’ nutritional needs to advise you on choosing one.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.