People ask me on occasion to recommend a vegan or vegetarian diet for Mr. Dog or Mrs. Cat.
My answer is simple: I don’t recommend them. You put your dog at risk for nutritional deficiencies without a meat-based diet. You put your cat at extreme risk if you eliminate meat from a feline diet.
The vast majority of nutritional pet experts believe that cats are obligate carnivores while dogs are more like us — omnivores.
Cats Really Are Unique
You know the adage “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Well, cats can’t live on veggies alone.
As an obligate carnivore, cats not only require protein in their diets, but also they require protein from meat to thrive and survive. They are unable to make amino acids and essential fatty acids — building blocks essential for life — without meat.
Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved from being largely carnivorous to being omnivores. Although their protein and other nutritional needs are met more easily and safely with meat in their diet, a dog can survive on a carefully formulated supplemented vegetarian or possibly vegan diet.
Cats, as any feline lover knows, are not small dogs. Besides being a unique and fabulous species in so many ways, they also can’t make taurine or arachidonic acid, nutrients essential for life. And you just can’t add these to a vegan diet.
Cats not only require a higher protein level than other species, but also they also need specific amino acids to make life-sustaining proteins as well as arachidonic acid, and vitamins D and A, elements that are found in meat proteins, not plant proteins.
The Allure of Commercial Vegan Diets
Good, respected pet food companies make vegan diets for pets. Read the small print, however, on the commercial vegan diets. Wysong describes its vegan dry dog and cat food as “excellent for elimination protocols and as a base to a fresh meat source.” Translation: This is not a diet to be fed exclusively.
Commercial vegan diets are nevertheless superior to a home-formulated vegan diet. The respected pet food companies offering a vegan diet pay special attention to protein levels and mineral content, and recommend fresh meat be served in addition.
Vegan Diets Are on the Rise
Attitudes toward pets and food have changed dramatically in the last few decades. Pets are considered members of the family more than ever before. This is called the humanization of pets.
Add to that a huge rise in veganism in the pet-owning population, specifically the millennials, who are now the largest cohort of pet caretakers in the United States. My millennial clients are acquiring more pets and less children. They eat less or no meat, have more ethical and health concerns about food and products, and treat their pets like starter babies.
If someone finds the idea of feeding a meat-based diet to a pet offensive, cats are not the right choice of pet for that household. If there is no ethical way for someone to find a properly sourced food that meets the nutritional requirements of a furry feline, get a rabbit.
Beware Claims of Healthy Vegan Cats
You will find folks out there who swear they have a healthy cat on a vegan diet. Most veterinarians disagree. Dr. Cailin Heinze, VMD, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts, has written on this subject. “For cats,” Heinze states, “it’s really inappropriate.”
Dr. Lew Olson, Ph.D., is the author of Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs. “Trying to feed a cat a vegan diet,” he states, “would be like me feeding my horses meat. You’re taking a whole species of animal and trying to force it to eat something that it isn’t designed to handle.”
Nutritional Deficiencies Are Sneaky
The nutritional deficiencies and organ damage that result from a vegan diet in cats may take years to materialize. While a vegan cat may look healthy for years, cardiac, eye, neurologic and other developmental deteriorations are developing under the radar.
Taurine deficiencies, for example, lead to a fatal cardiac condition in cats called dilated cardiomyopathy. These kitties do not show symptoms until their heart is already failing. We used to see cases of this terrible heart disease frequently in cats who were fed dog food, home-cooked diets or taurine-deficient cat foods. Adding a bit of taurine to a vegan diet is not going to be enough to meet the cat’s unique requirement for taurine.
Listen to why this vegan feeds her cat meat:
Clearly, most people trying to feed a vegan pet diet are doing this out of love for their pet and strong beliefs about animal welfare, environmental concerns, etc. These people are often vegans or vegetarians themselves and have a strong belief system in their food choices. But it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to explain the potential dangers listed above.
Some of my most dedicated vegans clients have gone to extremes. They let their cats out, hoping that natural rodent or bird kill would supply the meat portion of the diet.
Not a good idea. Besides the potential dangers of outside life for your house cat, the amount of “meat” killed and eaten is completely random. There is no scientific way you could quantify whether or not the free-roaming lifestyle gives your cat the proper nutritionally balanced experience. And we all know about our pampered cats who catch and kill an unsuspecting mouse, then leave the entire body to rot while they go back to their easy-to-find bottomless food bowl.
I respect everyone’s beliefs, but my job is to speak for the pets. Vegan and vegetarian diets put your cat — and dog, to a lesser degree — in danger. If you choose to feed a limited diet for any period of time, have the diet analyzed by a board-certified nutritionist.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed April 25, 2018.