By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 14 January 2011)
A small but growing group of vegans advocate switching pets to plant-based diets. For
many animal lovers, the most pressing reason for considering a vegan diet for their pets is the fact that most commercial cat foods and dog foods use meat, poultry, and eggs from factory farm sources, which subject animals to shocking cruelties. However, concerns about companion animal health and environmental sustainability also play a role.
Most Commercial Meat-Based Pet Foods are Unhealthy
Many advocates of a vegan diet argue that cheap meat-based kibble and canned foods are unhealthy for the following reasons:
- High level of processing
- Risk of contamination
- Poor or unreliable nutrient composition
- Use of by-products, meat meal, and derivatives (which may include meat from animals that are diseased, disabled, dying, or dead on arrival at the slaughterhouse, and un-digestible elements such as feathers, fur, and hooves)
Vegan advocates note that although cats and dogs need certain nutrients that are normally found only in meat, producers of quality vegan foods add these as supplements. However, there is a lack of quality control, as evidenced by the fact that Gray et al. (2004) found two popular vegetarian cat food brands to be nutritionally deficient.
Although there are no long-term studies attesting to the health of vegan pets, there are numerous anecdotal reports. The cats and dogs at a vegan animal shelter called Home At Last in Kentucky have been given a clean bill of health thus far (Knight, 18 July 2008). Senior ASPCA director Mindy Bough suggests that healthy vegan cats “may be supplementing their meat-free diets on their own” by hunting (Heussner & Berman, 2009), but co-founder of Home At Last Stan Petrey asserts that the shelter cats are kept indoors.
Anecdotal reports of possible health benefits associated with vegan diets include allergy control, weight control, improved coat, diabetes regression, increased vitality, and reduced arthritis symptoms, though there have been no controlled studies to confirm these effects (Knight, 18 July 2008). However, many veterinarians assert that it’s not the meat but the poor quality, highly processed ingredients in many commercial cat foods that cause health problems in the first place (Wallace, 2008).
Most pet food makers get their meat and eggs from factory farms, and research has shown factory farm products to be inferior. For example, numerous studies have confirmed that eggs from battery cage chickens are less nutritious than those from free-range, organic chickens, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (2006), upon reviewing a large body of research, has stated that meat from pasture-raised cattle is nutritionally superior to that from cattle raised in feedlots.
Pet Food Production is Environmentally Unsustainable
Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker (2002) list the myriad environmental problems caused by current factory farming practices, including:
- Air and water pollution
- Diminishing biodiversity
- Fish die-offs
- Excessive energy usage
- Unsustainable water consumption
Thus, a strong argument can be made for the necessity of reducing the environmental footprint of our companion animals.
It is Possible to Formulate Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Cats and Dogs
Although opponents of non-meat diets for companion animals assert that meatless diets are unnatural, vegan advocates counter that modern pet foods, with their synthetic ingredients, random mix of animal by-products, and storage in metal tins don’t remotely resemble a wild animal’s diet either.
Dogs are omnivores, so it’s far easier for them to go vegetarian, particularly if their diets include some animal-based products, such as eggs. The situation is trickier for cats, as they are obligate carnivores with higher protein and fat requirements. While many vegetarian diets allow for some animal products such as eggs and dairy, vegan diets contain only plant-based foods. Thus, it is more difficult (though not impossible) to provide nutritionally complete vegan diets for dogs, but far riskier for cats.
Although I sympathize with the vegan cause, I don’t recommend vegetarian or vegan diets for cats at this time, given the lack of research into their long-term health outcomes, but I understand that some people feel very strongly about this issue. If considering a vegan diet for your cat, keep in mind that many amino acids and vitamins that are normally only found in meat are critical for cats, and without sufficient amounts, a cat can go blind or develop a life-threatening illness. Don’t attempt to implement a vegan diet unless you are willing to do all the research required to prevent nutritional deficiencies, work with a veterinarian who is knowledgeable on the subject, and monitor your cat’s health closely.
For those who are contemplating adopting a pet but hate the thought of feeding meat, there are plenty of naturally herbivorous animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, tortoises, mice, and hamsters that can be obtained from various shelters or rescue groups. For those who already own cats, there are ways to reduce the level of cruelty and environmental destruction that go into the production of meat-based commercial pet foods:
- Choose foods made from organic, free-range meats so that farm animals have the opportunity to live more natural, healthy lives.
- Visit farms to see how they treat their animals, purchase meat from the most animal-friendly farm you can find, and make your own pet food.
See Veterinarians on Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Cats and Health Risks Associated with Vegan Diets for Cats for more information.
- Born Free USA. (2011). “Selecting a Commercial Pet Food.” BornFreeUSA.org.
- Heussner, K.M., & Berman, J. (8 April 2009). “Can My Pet be a Vegan Like Me?” ABCNews.go.com.
- Horrigan, L.; Lawrence, R.S.; Walker, P. (2002). “ How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5).
- Knight, A. (May 2008). “Fishy Business? Vegan Pet Food [PDF].” Vegepets.Info.
- Knight, A. (13 July 2008). “Vegetarian Feline Diets.” Vegepets.Info.
- Union of Concerned Scientists. (2006). Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating [PDF].” UCSUSA.org.
- Wallace, H. (2008). “Veg Pets?” Vegetarian Times, 356(March). Academic Search Elite database.