Can Cats and Dogs Survive – and Thrive – On a Vegan Diet?
For most of us the decision to go vegan stems from a lifelong love of animals — so swapping chicken for chickpeas is an easy choice.
But things get a little hairy when thinking about vegan pets.
The idea of feeding our beloved furballs a non-vegan diet feels a little…well, contradictory.
But if you were to cut out buying meat-based pet foods and start feeding dogs and cats a vegan diet, wouldn’t this go against their nature? After all, they’re carnivores, right?
Well… yes, and no. Here’s the low-down on feeding cats and dogs a plant-based diet.
The Carnivore Question: Can Dogs Truly Be Vegan?
So, the common thinking with dogs is: “well, their ancestors are wolves, so of course they’re carnivorous.” This isn’t exactly true.
We’ve come a long way from wild wolf packs to the pugs and maltipoos of the modern world.
There’s some debate among veterinarians whether or not dogs are carnivores or omnivores, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it’s the latter.
Wolves are carnivores, and dogs technically share this distinction.
But over the past 33,000 years that we’ve shared our lives with dogs, they’ve adapted to eating more like us—and have the equipment to prove it.
Here’s a quick look (reading glasses on, please):
• Ability to Convert Plants into Essential Nutrients: Dogs can create essential nutrients like vitamins A and C, as well as a range of amino acids inside the body. Dogs don’t necessarily need meat to obtain the nutrients required to keep them going—the right plants can be plenty.
• Digestion: Dogs have the intestinal capacity to break down high protein foods like meat, as well as grains, vegetables, and fruits. Unlike cats, dogs have a longer intestinal tract, which enables them to digest carbohydrates, allowing for a more varied diet.
• Teeth: Dogs come equipped with canines, eye teeth used for ripping and tearing flesh. A well-established fact, given the name. But, they also possess a robust set of molars that work to grind up fibrous plant material, suggesting they’ve evolved to eat a wide range of foods.
Through proper planning and plenty of research—and ideally, the recommendation of your vet—a dog can do quite well on a vegan diet.
What about Cats? Is Vegan Cat Food a Viable Option?
Dogs are pretty darn flexible. Meat, veggies, unidentified scraps, they’ll adapt to just about anything.
Cats, on the other hand? Well, that’s a whole different story.
Cats fall into this category known as obligate carnivores. This means they eat meat out of nutritional necessity.
For thousands of years cats have been eating a meat-rich diet, subsisting primarily on mice and rats. The acids in a cat’s stomach are even strong enough to dissolve bones.
Cats are also incredibly efficient at extracting water from animal sources which make them well adapted for surviving in dry environments. Even their urine will change concentration to reserve water to help their body retain water longer.
However many of the digestive functions you’ll see in dogs and humans just don’t exist for cats as their metabolisms weren’t built to process carbohydrates and dietary fiber.
The vast majority of reported instances of vegan cats suggest they don’t do so well on a plant-based diet.
Obligate Carnivores and Digestion
Well, for one, the digestive system of cats has evolved to eat raw flesh. Cats have a short gastrointestinal tract, which prevents them from getting sick from raw meats like humans.
Herbivores and omnivores can break down carbohydrates, whereas obligate carnivores, like the house cat, simply cannot. You don’t need specific enzymes if your body doesn’t consume things like vegetables or grains.
Omnivores and herbivores can make some nutrients like amino acids and vitamins inside the body. Cats can’t do this. Their diets require a whole lot of taurine and arginine, and they can only get these nutrients naturally from eating other animals.
If you see vegan cat food, most likely they have synthetic taurine mixed in. This has been produced artificially since the 1930s.
Additionally, there are some major risks associated with feeding your cat a steady diet of lentils, carrots, and corn. A vegan diet may cause some major health concerns, some as serious as urinary stones or general malnutrition (urinary tract infections are the most common).
Know What Vegan Foods Your Dog Can Eat
So, you’ve decided to start feeding your dog a vegan diet. Congrats.
Now, before you start whipping up a blend of veggies from whatever’s leftover in the fridge, know that dogs and cats can’t exactly handle the diverse range of flora we vegans consume with gusto.
Some foods, like chocolate or onions, are widely known to be dangerous for pets, but the list of no-go food items is surprisingly long.
Here is a look at some food items you should never, ever feed your dog:
• caffeinated beverages
• grapes and raisins
• onions, garlic & chives
• sugar alcohols like xylitol (OK, you weren’t probably going to do that one)
Buying vs. Making Vegan Dog Food
According to The Vegan Dog Nutrition Association, dog food should be made from a base of hearty ingredients like sweet potatoes, rice, soy, or lentils. Vegan dog food needs to be balanced and complete.
And if you think this diet will at all affect their health or lifespan, look at this beautiful face.
Bramble from the UK was a blue merle Collie who made the Guinness Book of records for being the oldest living dog at the time. She lived to the ripe age of 27 – that’s 189 translated from ‘dog years’ to human years!
The secret? One meal a day of lentils, rice and organic vegetables and lots of exercise.
If you’re making your own dog food, here are some ingredients that stand to provide some big benefits to your canine bestie.
• Carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and other veggies
• Squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes
• Apples, banana, and blueberries
• Pinto beans, chickpeas, lima beans, and black-eyed peas
• Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale
Mix and match the above, and you’ll get the bulk of the nutrients needed to give your dog a satisfying, nutrient-rich diet.
It’s easy if you think of it this way: pair a grain like rice or quinoa with lentils, sweet potato, plus some shredded carrots and greens. Or, swap the lentils for edamame or tofu to change things up. Basically, you are mixing and matching to create a complete protein.
It’s also a good idea to steam and chop vegetables or puree them (i.e., cooked sweet potatoes) before feeding them to your dog. While it seems sort of arbitrary, breaking down the vegetables maximizes the dog’s ability to absorb nutrients.
On the other hand, if all this sounds like a little too much work—there are plenty of vegan dog food brands that feature all the elements of a complete meal.
So, What’s the Verdict? What Do Vegans Feed Their Pets?
Many people firmly believe dogs and cats really shouldn’t be vegan at all. It’s not a choice they are free to make, after all.
With cats, it’s not a great idea to mess with biology. Cats need meat to be healthy, and denying those deeply ingrained physiological needs can result in some adverse effects, which frankly seems a little unfair.
So, while vegan cat food exists, we’re not sure it’s on us to facilitate the next step in feline evolution.
One thing is pretty clear, however. A lot of the meat constituents in pet food comes from one of the four D’s – dead, dying, diseased or disabled animal sources. Basically, not legally fit for human consumption but ‘okay’ for many of the states in the USA to sell on to pet food manufacturers who recycle this for our pets.
If you can’t change the diet of your cat into a complete vegan diet, at least make sure the animal proteins they consume is of a good quality.
Dogs, on the other hand, can thrive on a diverse blend of grains, veggies, and fruits.
So, as long as you fully understand the nutritional requirements, there’s no real need to bring meat into the kitchen just to please Fido.