Can Dogs and Cats Go Vegetarian? By Josie Rubio
BUYING MEAT-BASED commercial pet food for your dog or cat presents an ethical quandary for vegetarians and vegans. The good news? Some pets can adapt to a plantbased diet. “One of the main criticisms is that [a veg diet] isn’t natural,” says Armaiti May, DVM, a Los Angeles–based vegan vet. “However, there are many things we do to our animal companions that are not completely natural—including giving them regular meals and veterinary care, luxuries they would not have in the wild.” Before switching your fourlegged friend to a plant-based diet, it helps to understand two important facts:
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Dogs are omnivores “Dogs you can definitely make vegetarian,” says Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT, the CEO of VETgirl and author of It’s a Dog’s Life … but It’s Your Carpet. In fact, studies have indicated that as humans started to eat a starch-based diet with the advent of agriculture, dogs also adapted to foods like wheat, barley, and corn. “Having the ability to digest carbohydrates allowed dogs to become domesticated more easily,” says May. Adult dogs need about one gram of protein per pound of body weight daily, a requirement that legumes and whole grains can meet. However, Lee says, “Dogs prefer, for palatability, meatbased protein.”
Cats are obligate carnivores (they must have meat) Cats need certain amino acids and vitamins from consuming meat. “It can be life threatening when the diet is off-balance,” says Lee, adding that vitamin deficiencies are even at the root of some cat-food recalls. A deficiency in the amino acid taurine, for example, could cause dilated cardiomyopathy, a serious heart disease. A vegetarian diet is “a huge no-no for a cat,” says Lee. May, however, says that despite cats being carnivorous, in many cases they can adapt to a nutritionally appropriate vegan diet. One risk with this switch is that cats’ urine can become too alkaline, which can lead to the formation of bladder crystals and a potentially life-threatening (if not treated) urethral obstruction in male cats. However, says May, many cats thrive on well-balanced vegan formulas as long as their urinary tract is monitored. “It is important that their body weight be monitored, as well as the new appearance of bladder crystals or changes in the pH of the urine,” May says. If your kitty refuses a veggie diet, assuming he’ll eventually become hungry enough to eat is dangerous, Lee says. “After four to five days without eating, cats go into liver failure,” she says.
1. Follow your vet’s advice. First and foremost, talk to a veterinarian before making any dietary changes. 2. Introduce new food gradually. “Patience is often required,” May says. Mix the meat- and plant-based foods in varying proportions, increasing the vegetarian food until it’s the only food given. 3. Consider your pet’s age. “Regarding puppies, kittens, and senior animals, consult with a vet before abruptly changing the diet or feeding exclusively vegan food,” May says.
4. Ensure a balanced diet. Vets recommend pet food approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Want to make your own pet food? May and Lee recommend consulting a veterinary nutritionist, who can create a diet balanced in trace minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. 5. Supplement with supervision. “Some [supplements] may be inappropriate for certain animals, depending on their breed, life stage, and any underlying health conditions,” says May. Ask your vet before givng any supplments to your pet.
Josie Rubio is a cat lover and New York City–based writer.
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