If you’re reading this article, you probably love animals. And as an animal lover, you probably don’t like the idea of causing an animal harm. There is a growing trend of animal lovers like you feeding their pets vegetarian and vegan diets in the hopes of trying to cut down on the killing of animals for meat. The reality is that you could be harming your own animal if you’re not properly informed of the risks.
There are a number of reasons why a person may choose to become vegetarian or vegan. Whether it’s an ethical reason or a health reason, people who choose this lifestyle typically want their loved ones to follow the same belief system and reap the benefits, including their pets.
As the human population of vegetarians and vegans rise, the need for research on vegetarian animal food rises as well. The discussion about vegetarian pets is ongoing, with more and more research being done each day. Because of this, the long-term effects of a vegetarian diet for pets is relatively unknown. What scientists and nutritionists do know, however, is the physiological makeup of cats and dogs, and what it is that they require to survive.
Let’s focus on the two most common pets belonging to the Carnivora family: cats and dogs.
Cats: Obligate Carnivores
With their sharp claws and pointed teeth, it’s no surprise that our domestic cats have evolved from wildcats some 10,000 years ago. One quality that originated in those wildcats that our domestic cats have inherited is that they are “obligate carnivores”. Obligate means “by necessity”, and it infers that cats need to eat meat in order to survive and thrive.
Herbivores and omnivores have flat teeth that move side to side to grind plants, cats have sharp teeth that move in a vertical motion and are used to puncture the flesh of animals. Their visual acuity is higher even than that of a dog, and their sense of hearing is highly developed, allowing them to stalk their prey in the wild.
That’s all well and good, but most domestic cats no longer need to hunt, because their food is provided by us. So, do they still need to eat meat, or has their body evolved to exclude it?
To figure this out we need to look at the inside of a cat to learn how it processes food:
- The digestive system of cats has adapted to eat raw flesh. They have the shortest digestive tract compared to body size of almost any mammal. This is because the long gut and fermenting bacteria of plant-eating animals aren’t essential based on their meat-heavy diet. So, while there is protein in a number of plant-based sources, cat’s digestive tracts are unable to break it down.
- With a prey-based diet that’s low in carbs, cats are not able to produce the enzyme Salivary Amylase, which helps to digest carbohydrates.
- A cat’s ability to excrete hydrochloric acid, which is used to break down protein and kill bacteria found in decaying meat, is exceptional.
- Cats have a high protein requirement as well as an increased requirement for amino acids found in animal protein.
Lew Olsen, Ph.D., and author of Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs has this to say on the matter: “Trying to feed a cat a vegan diet 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.”
So, What About Dogs?
While dogs possess similar predatory features as cat’s, like claws, sharp meat-tearing teeth, and heightened senses, they have one defining feature that sets them apart from other carnivores. Dogs were domesticated almost 20,000 years before cats, giving them ample time to biologically adapt to their surroundings.
Perhaps as long ago as 33,000 years dogs separated from wolves, and they began to rely on human food scraps on the outskirts of villages. Because of this, dogs developed genes used for breaking down starches that wolves don’t have.
To test this, a research team led by Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, conducted a study, and found that there are 36 regions of the genome that separate dogs from wolves, and 10 of those help dogs to digest starches by splitting them into sugars so that they’re easy to digest.
So, while dogs originate from wolves who are primarily meat-eaters, dogs have evolved alongside humans in order to survive, and are able to live on an omnivorous diet. That being said, when switching the diet of any dog it’s important to be very cautious.
Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine offers this piece of guidance: “For dogs, certainly vegetarian and vegan diets can be done, but they need to be done very, very carefully. There is a lot of room for error, and these diets probably are not as appropriate as diets that contain at least some animal protein”.
Ultimately, due to the fact that vegetarianism and veganism in pets is a new concept, there hasn’t been enough scientific studies that monitor the long-term effect of these diets on the animals. Therefore, if you’re choosing to switch your dog to a vegetarian diet, it’s important to closely monitor any changes, and visit the vet often to be sure that your dog is getting all of the essential nutrients.
Options for Your Pet to Live Cruelty-Free
Free Range Animals
When feeding your pet a meat-based diet, choose the highest quality level that you can find. Choose dog food companies that use free-range meats, to ensure that the animals that are going into your dog’s food lived a life in the outdoors. Research the brand that you are using to ensure that ethical practices are used in addition to the appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals.
Vegan Dog Food
While your cat cannot be a vegan, there are some vegan food options for your dog. There are some companies that are on the leading edge of vegan dog food. Before trying any of these products on your dog it’s important to talk with your vet, and monitor your dog closely for any changes in energy level and health.
Companies Offering Vegan Pet Food:
Ami Pet Food
F & O Alternative Pet Products
Harbingers of a New Age
Whatever your reasons are for considering a vegetarian or vegan diet for your pet, it’s important to consider their well-being first. With the little amount of research that’s available, that means keeping a steady eye on the development of your pet. Regardless of your choice, we should all pay a little bit more attention to the food that is going into the body of our pets.
 Ann Wortinger. (August 1, 2010). Cats: Obligate Carnivore (Proceedings). Retrieved on October 6, 2017 from http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/cats-obligate-carnivore-proceedings?id=&sk=&date=&%0A%09%09%09&pageID=3
 Andrew Knight, Madelaine Leitsberger. (September 21, 2016). Vegetarian Versus Meat-Based Diets for Companion Animals. Retrieved on October 6, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5035952/
 Roxanne Hawn. Should Your Pet Go On A Vegetarian Diet? Retrieved on October 6, 2017 from https://pets.webmd.com/features/vegetarian-diet-dogs-cats#1
 Erik Axelsson, Abhirami Ratnakumar, Maja-Louise Arendt, Khurram Maqbool, Matthew T. Webster, Michele Perloski, Olof Liberg, Jon M. Arnemo, Åke Hedhammar, Kerstin Lindblad-Toh. (January 23, 2013). The Genomic Signature of Dog Domestication Reveals Adaptation to a Starch-Rich Diet. Retrieved on October 6, 2017 from
 PETA. Vegetarian Cats and Dogs. Retrieved on October 6, 2017 from https://www.peta.org/living/companion-animals/vegetarian-cats-dogs/
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