With increasing numbers of people turning to a vegetarian and vegan diet, the question often arises as to whether pet owners who have given up meat can make the same choices for their pet cats.
The question used to be answered by an unequivocal no. Cats are what are known as obligate carnivores, which simply means they need meat to form a major part of their diet.
The reason has nothing to do with choice, but evolution and biology. Cats evolved in desert terrains, where their major sources of food were small animals, whether rodents or birds.
Over the course of their evolution, their digestive systems have adapted to this diet to enable them to extract all of the vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy.
Essential amino acids can only be sourced from the diet. Some of these, such as taurine can only be found in animal-based proteins, i.e. those from meat and fish.
Taurine is essential for eyesight, heart function, growth and immune system. Unlike cats, humans and dogs can synthesise taurine from other dietary sources.
Other nutrients, such as vitamin A, arginine, and arachidonic acid also derive from meat. And while these can sometimes be gained from other sources, it is much harder to extract the nutrients.
Cats have evolved to process a diet high in fat and protein. It means they have a relatively short digestive tract compared to a dog’s that can happily process more fibrous material.
It also means they lack the enzymes to produce many essential nutrients themselves.
One such enzyme is amylase, which is vital for breaking down the carbohydrates that are more prevalent in plant-based diets.
Cats have less amylase than humans and dogs which makes it harder for them to extract nutrients from diets that are predominantly or high in plants.
What would happen if a cat stopped eating meat?
A cat’s health will start to deteriorate without meat as various parts of the body struggle to function.
It can take from two months to five years for the effects of taurine deficiency to show. For example, photoreceptor cells in the retina of the eye require taurine to work correctly.
As a result, prolonged taurine deficiency will lead to blindness. Cat heart muscles also require taurine for optimum functioning, affecting blood flow and leading to heart disease.
A taurine deficiency can also lead to developmental problems and suppression of the immune system.
As such, all cat food manufacturers registered with the Pet Food Manufacturers Association will ensure the required levels of taurine are present in their foods.
Are there any circumstances to go vegan?
Despite the advice of the veterinary world a small percentage of cats do choose to feed their cats a vegan diet.
A study published in BMC Veterinary Research, conducted by Ontario Veterinary College, at the University of Guelph in Canada (as reported by VetTimes), suggested that cats fed a plant-based diet were actually in better health and less likely to suffer from obesity than their meat-fed peers.
However, the study was based on feedback from pet owners and so is not entirely scientific in nature.
A number of vegan cat foods are entering the market, most of which are fortified with a synthetic taurine and other essential nutrients.
The onus is very much on the pet owner if they choose a vegan diet to ensure the food and any supplements they are giving their cat has all of the nutrients needed for their cat to remain healthy.
It is also important that cats are not fed food in human form because they will not be able to process it.
If in any doubt whatsoever, always consult your vet who will be able to advise you on the best foods and supplements for your cat, to ensure they live happy and healthy lives.
I’m vegan, am I compromising my beliefs to feed my cat meat?
In short, no. Cats have no choice in what you feed them. But they do have biological needs that need to be met to maintain health.
You are not compromising your own vegan beliefs by feeding your cat the diet its body needs. Instead, you are doing what every pet owner should aspire to, that is, ensuring your pet is healthy