dinner dilemma: vegan diets and pets

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vegan food for dogs and cats
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Nov 04 2013

Updated February 28, 2019

The human diet has evolved quite a bit since the dawn of our time on Earth, and there is no shortage when it comes to the variety of choices we have in not only food items, but also in specific diets.

Fad diets come and go, and whether you’re on a Paleo diet, keto diet, gluten free, dairy free, or meat free, you may be wondering: what the best option is for your four-legged friends? 

Are vegan diets safe for pets?

Let’s start by addressing the nutritional needs of our pets. You probably think of dogs as carnivores, but really they’re omnivores. They can survive on a plant-based diet, but they do seem to prefer animal-based diets. So let’s just call them carnivores by preference (but don’t be surprised when they graze on grass or snack on your veggie tray when your back is turned).

Cats, on the other hand, are carnivores. In fact, you can think of them as super carnivores, because they are what is called obligate carnivores. Their nutritional needs are only met by eating a meat-based diet because many of their required nutrients are only found in meat.

Cats are obligate carnivores in part because of their ancestral diets, which consisted of a meat-only diet. Over time, cats lost the ability to make some amino acids and vitamins the way dogs and humans do (this is also why cats should not eat dog food, since they cannot get adequate nutrition from it).

Taurine for cats

Feral and outdoor cats eat diets that closely resemble their ancestors’ diets. Frequent small meals through the day and night sustain a cat’s need for ongoing protein intake. Most feral cats eat a diet of small rodents, small rabbits, birds and insects. This kind of diet is meat based, serving as a high protein/low carbohydrate diet and providing nutrients that cats cannot make on their own.

Taurine is just one such nutrient. It is an essential amino acid, meaning that cats must consume it in their diet. Taurine is vital for vision and proper function of the nervous system, but it also plays a key role in the function of the heart muscles.

Non-meat based diets provide inadequate taurine, leading to retinal degeneration and a serious heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, which cost pet parents $1,862 on average per pet in 2017 according to Petplan pet insurance claims data.

There are other nutrients that are of animal origin that the cat needs, such as vitamins A and D, methionine, and arachidonic acid. Without them, cats are at risk of developing skin lesions, poor vision, and bone disease. Plant-based diets will likely also produce an alkaline urine, and for many cats with urinary tract disease, this could spell trouble.

Vegetarian diets for dogs

It is difficult to develop a nutritionally-adequate vegetarian diet for dogs, but it can be done. I think it is safe to say that while vegan diets exist for both dogs and cats, it is the opinion of most veterinarians that vegan diets are not appropriate for our companion animals, but especially not for our cats. It is also important to note that many commercially available vegan diets have been found to be nutritionally inadequate for cats’ needs.

Many people are vegan for ethical reasons, and as a vegetarian, I understand the quandary vegan and vegetarian pet owners face when they are choosing their pet’s food. However, cats are carnivores and a meat-free diet is not a good choice for them.

Perhaps a good compromise (and one that will keep your cat healthy) is to obtain meat locally from farms that you know and trust to raise and use their animals humanely. If you choose to home cook your pet’s diet, however, be sure to have it analyzed by a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that it is complete and balanced.

If you absolutely insist on having a vegan pet, perhaps a rabbit will do instead!