The truth about vegan cats
When people commit to a vegan diet, it is often for health-related reasons, or out of compassion for animal welfare and the environment. Vegan pet owners often ask if it’s alright to feed their beloved dogs or cats a similar vegetarian diet. For dogs, who have proven to remain in perfect health even on 100% carefully-planned vegan diets, the answer is yes. But, frankly, a vegan cat wouldn’t thrive and would be at risk for various medical conditions.
But if it is possible to feed dogs a vegan diet, why not cats?
Unlike our canine friends who are omnivores (meaning they feed on both plants and meat), felines are obligate carnivores. Being an obligate carnivore means that they get their sustenance from meat alone. There are two principal points here. First, a cat’s digestive system is designed to break down meat. And second, some of the nutrients essential to feline health are found only in animal tissue, not plants.
A purely plant-sourced vegan cat diet would pose several nutritional challenges. The difference in the digestion of meat and plant alone is like using diesel on a gasoline engine. Or making a cow eat meat – isn’t that quite alarming!
Besides the differences in carnivorous, omnivorous and herbivorous animal digestive systems, the nutritional content of food from plant and animal source are different too. A vegan cat would be deficient in several essential nutrients.
Taurine is an amino acid which cats need in their diet. This is found only in animal sources such as meat and milk. (Note that many cats are lactose intolerant. Though fine in small quantities for cats that have the enzymes to properly digest it, milk is not an ideal source of taurine. ) While dogs can naturally produce it, given they have a complete diet, cats can not. They must get taurine through a carnivorous diet.
A cat deficient in taurine is at risk of developing a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The heart muscles become thin and weak, resulting in ineffective pumping of the heart. The body, various tissues and organs suffer a reduced oxygen and blood supply which could be fatal if not corrected early on.
Also, a taurine deficiency can cause severe eye problems and blindness.
Cats have a higher need for protein, than dogs. Plants generally have lower levels of high-quality and highly-digestible protein. Balancing the nutrient content per volume of vegan cat food is a challenge. For owners, this means paying for more protein supplementation, and we can all relate how difficult and finicky cats can be!
This fatty acid affects the body’s immune response, including allergic reactions; in some cases making sure the body doesn’t overreact. Like taurine, dogs synthesize this while cats don’t. This too is obtained from animal sources, animal fat to be specific.
The inadequacy of this fatty acid may cause immune system dysfunction especially if linoleic acid is insufficient as well. A 2009 study by Hau D. Le on the essentiality of arachidonic acid revealed that arachidonic acid has the potential to replace omega-6 fatty acids. It also aids in the regulation of normal skin growth and repair, blood clotting, and functions of the gastrointestinal system.
Cats lack the enzyme which converts beta-carotene to the active form of Vitamin A. Thus, they need preformed vitamin A in their diet, and this too is present only in food of animal origin. Poor levels of Vitamin A are rarely encountered in the field, but medical problems related to this inadequacy include night blindness, retarded growth, and poor skin and hair coat quality.
Vitamin B1 or Thiamine is necessary for healthy carbohydrate metabolism. When it is deficient, neurological disorders such as seizures and physical incoordination will ensue. Vitamin B12 or Cyanocobalamin is indispensable in blood formation and generation of DNA. Lack of B12 brings about anemia. Cats have high requirements for B vitamins. These are usually met in commercial cat foods by the addition of visceral organs which are a good source of both vitamins.
For a vegan diet to meet a cat’s need of B vitamins, they would have to be supplemented. In conclusion, cats thrive on a meat-based diet. They are at their healthiest when given an animal-sourced selection of food.
Vegan Cat Almost Dies!
Back in 2013, a newspaper in Melbourne ran a story with the headline: ‘Vegan’ kitten nearly dies.
The story concerned a small kitten who had been fed a diet of potatoes, rice milk and pasta. By the time it was brought in to Lort Smith Animal Hospital it was close to death.
Nowadays, owners that feed their cats a vegan diet have a more sophisticated choice. There are several brands of cat food that proclaim to be vegan like Wysong Vegan Feline and Ami Vegan Cat Food. These are marketed as a complete and healthy diet for cats despite containing no animal protein.
Having several cats of my own, I know how troublesome it would be to convince them that vegan cat food is yummy – let alone edible. Convincing them to eat enough supplemented vegan cat food to keep them healthy would be challenging. They would disown me within the day, ha!
But all joking aside, your cats’ health is your responsibility. They rely on you to make the correct decisions on their diet and welfare.
Until vegan cat food formulation provides all the essentials to their diet in a form that a cat can digest: No, your cat cannot be vegan!