Vegetarian Cats?

December 16, 2011
By

By Jean Hofve, DVM

There are several companies and websites that promote vegetarian (no meat or fish) or even vegan (no animal products at all) diets for cats. These products appeal to people who have chosen a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons, and want to apply the same principles to their cats.

As a feline veterinarian, I absolutely do not recommend trying to turn your cat into a vegetarian or vegan, but if you are determined to do so, here is my best guidance for you.

Products

The three most commonly used products are: Wysong Vegan, Vege-Cat, and Evolution. A fourth entry, not yet available, may eventually be Humane Choice by the Humane Society of the United States. We will look at them all in turn.

Wysong Vegan clearly states that it is a supplement to be used with meat (either fresh or canned). It is not complete by itself. The website and packaging clearly state this, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t read the label very carefully. Please be aware that despite the name, this is not a vegan cat food! Using it alone will cause severe nutritional deficiencies.

Vege-Cat comes in a supplement that you can add to other foods, and in a kibble mix that you make at home. Because of the increased risk of urinary tract disease in vegetarian and vegan cats, Vegecat products contain a urinary acidifier (methionine) to help prevent urinary tract problems; and they also produce a separate supplement that amplifies this effect. James Peden and HOANA (Harbingers of a New Age) were the original pioneers of vegan pet products. Their products are thoughtfully produced and time-tested, but are not adequate for kittens, or for pregnant or nursing queens,. The book “Vegetarian Cats and Dogs” is an eye-opener.

Evolution makes canned and dry vegan foods for dogs and cats. While they take pride in the fact that they don’t use any slaughterhouse waste, they do use corn gluten meal and soybean meal. Many cats have difficulty digesting soy, which along with soy’s naturally high phytoestrogen content, makes this protein source inherently problematic for cats. Corn gluten meal contains about 60% protein, but also a large proportion of carbohydrates. Corn has a high glycemic index and is a key factor in the development of feline diabetes. In the U.S., 95% of soy and 85% of corn are genetically modified. Recent studies show that GMO products cause many health problems in rats, including cancer. The website claims their foods are nutritionally complete, but there is not enough protein in their canned cat food to meet the minimum guarantee for all life stages.

Evolution operates in an ethical gray area. Evolution’s owner illegally reproduced and distributed copyrighted literature belonging to a non-profit animal rights organization. Numerous requests (and later, demands) from the non-profit organization to stop using its materials were ignored until legal action was imminent. Even today, their website makes outrageous claims about extending pets’ lifespans that have no scientific basis in fact. Moreover, the website and label make a big deal over the use of “non-GMO oats,” but no such claim is made for the main proteins, corn and soy. Since 85% of U.S. corn and 95% of U.S. soy are GMO, it is virtually certain that there are GMO products in the cat food.

Humane Choice is a new line of organic, vegan pet foods to be marketed by HSUS, a large, non-profit animal advocacy group. Currently, only a dry dog food is available. Though use of the term “line” in its press release implies that there will be more than one product, HSUS currently states that they have no plans to introduce a cat food.

Cats and Non-Meat Diets

Cats, of course, were designed by nature to be exclusively carnivorous. The cat’s body has many specific evolutionary adaptations to its expected diet of prey consisting mostly of protein, fat and moisture. While cats have managed, in general, to adapt to grain-based commercial foods, it is clear from many scientific studies that carbohydrate-based diets are in no way optimal for the feline.

Cats have an absolute requirement for the nutrients taurine and arachadonic acid that are found naturally only in animal products, with one exception: a type of seaweed that contains arachadonate. Taurine can be chemically synthesized (although the process is so environmentally harsh that all synthetic taurine used in the U.S. is imported from China). These additives can be used to make a diet that is chemically complete. However, natural sources of taurine and arachadonic acid contain many other amino acids, enzymes, co-factors, and other complex nutrients that may also be important for the cat’s overall health. Science has shown us that whole-food derived nutrients are, in almost all cases, far superior and healthy than synthetic versions. For instance, ascorbic acid is the active ingredient in Vitamin C. However, natural Vitamin C contains many other components, including rutin, bioflavonoids, and other co-factors.

These diets all rely on chemical analysis to assess their nutritional adequacy. They follow the feline Nutrient Profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in 1990. However, these standards are out of date and will most likely be substantially revised based on the forthcoming National Research Council report on canine and feline nutritional requirements. Pet nutrition experts also agree that feeding tests are far superior to the Nutrient Profiles for assessing nutritional adequacy. Many pet foods that met these Profiles have proven to be dangerously inadequate when fed long term.

Cats consuming meat have a naturally low urinary pH; vegetables and grains cause the urine pH to be alkaline. While the food producers skim over this problem, the website Vegan Cats is at least honest about the risk. They recommend frequent testing of the cat’s urine pH to make sure it is remaining in the normal range (6.5 or less), and therefore less likely to create struvite crystals and stones in the bladder.

High carbohydrate diets (which vegetarian and vegan foods are by definition) are also considered to be the primary risk factor for feline diabetes.

The truth is that science just doesn’t know enough about the cat’s nutritional needs to ensure the long-term safety of vegetarian and vegan diets for cats. While there are many anecdotal tales of cats thriving on vegetarian and vegan foods, it is a path that requires great commitment and a willingness to be flexible on the part of the guardian.

The ethical dilemma

A a 20+ year vegetarian/vegan, and having worked as a full-time animal rights activist for two years, I understand the ethical reasons that lead people to avoid consuming many or all animal products. There’s no doubt that the intensive “factory” raising and slaughtering of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and fish is truly a hideous industry that causes a great deal of animal suffering.

If you are considering a vegetarian rather than vegan diet, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet has more flexibility by allowing dairy products and eggs as protein sources. However, you should know that in terms of suffering, animals raised to be food themselves are actually much better off than dairy cattle and egg-laying chickens, who live far longer and surely crueler lives as production machines, and still face death at the slaughterhouse when they are too worn out to be worth keeping.

The ethical dilemma comes home when we share our lives with pets who are by nature carnivorous, such as dogs, cats, ferrets, and reptiles. Of these, dogs are the most evolutionarily flexible. Dogs’ nutritional requirements are quite similar to ours, so it is not at all difficult to include them in our animal-friendly lifestyle.

There is also the moral question of whether we should slaughter one animal (chicken or cow) to feed another animal (cat or dog). As one veterinarian asked, “Can we justify using parts of many other severely deprived and prematurely killed nonhuman animals to maintain each individual cat’s well-being?”

Speaking strictly from a veterinary viewpoint, vegetarian and vegan diets for cats make me nervous. I have seen some very sick cats as a result of these diets. The consequences of a such diets can reasonably be expected to include diabetes, urinary tract disease, kidney disease, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, and more.

Personally, I believe that when we voluntarily adopt cats into our homes, we are ethically obligated to honor the feline spirit and feed it according to its basic nature. But everyone needs to answer that question from their own heart.

*Update: A rumor has gone around that Ellen DeGeneres, co-owner of Halo for Pets, is planning to make a vegan cat food. This rumor has been debunked.

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11 Responses to Vegetarian Cats?

  1. Ian McDonald on February 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you, Jean, for being on The Vegan Option episode about whether cats have, well, a vegan option.

    (For everyone else: it’s a 23-minute radio show. We hear from Jean as well as two vets with different opinions about whether cats be vegan, and if so, how.)

  2. CC on December 21, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Hi Dr. Hofve,

    Wish I had a dime for every time somebody (their pets) have benefitted from the information you continue to share. You, Drs, Pierson & Hodgkins and others are truly lifesavers.

    The only comment I wish to make in regard to this topic which has my blood boiling is that I wish the humans were forced to eat raw meat as their sole diet, as that is the proper diet for an obligate carnivore. (The carnivores in these cases have no choice

    Don’t want to feed a miniature lion what it’s meant to eat, then for cying out loud people, buy a hamnster.
    (What on Earth would they feed a snake if they wanted one for a pet?

    • jhofve77 on December 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

      Wish I had that dime, too! :) I agree with you on all points!

  3. melanie on December 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I like your open-mindedness on this issue. I would just like to add that the commercial pet food diets seem to be leading to a high rate of diabetes, urinary tract disease, kidney disease, etc. Also, Canadian author who has done research in Canada and the USA has demonstrated that euthanized animals are sold to rendering companies via brokers, and the rendered material is sold to petfood manufacturers (although in relatively small amounts to the dead, diseased, dying, and disabled animals not permitted in human food). However, the sodium pentobartbitol (euthanizing poison) does not break down at rendering temperatures.
    http://www.homevet.com/petcare/foodbook.html Ann Martin wrote 2 books on the subject of pet food safety, the first after 7 years of research, the second after another 5 years. I recommend pet owners read these books.

    • jhofve77 on December 14, 2011 at 9:33 am

      My early research came to the same conclusions as Ann’s; however, even though euthanized animals are rendered, that does not mean they go into pet food. There are many other uses for animal by-products of that nature, such as film, cosmetics, industrial products, etc. Ann is a lovely person and I have great respect for her, yet her editors have encouraged her to write from a very exaggerated and sensationalized point of view. Her books are very interesting; indeed, I have both on my shelf! The
      second is better than the first, IMO. You won’t find any argument from me on the fact that commercial pet food, particularly dry food, is very damaging to our pets’ health. Take a look around this website, you’ll find a wealth of articles on all these topics! Here’s one that discusses the many negative aspects of dry food:
      http://www.littlebigcat.com/health/why-cats-need-canned-food-2/

  4. Brendon on November 20, 2011 at 5:59 am

    I’ve been feeding my cats a vegan diet for a few years now and am also a human nutritionist and just felt that I should correct one of your statements above.

    There is absolutely, definitely a plant source of long-chain omega 3′s EPA and DHA.

    You and your cats do not need to rely on the inferior ALA and then conversion.

    EPA is readily found in many seaweed species and DHA is found in many algae species. The pet food companies producing these foods source their EPA/DHA this way.

    You can view one of the most common ones here for human consumption which I also supplement my cats diet with: http://www.opti3omega.com/

    It’s also worth noting that most current research indicates that the high levels of omega 3 EPA/DHA in a fish’s body are due to their intake of algae either directly or through the food chain as they don’t produce it themselves.

    • jhofve77 on November 20, 2011 at 8:47 am

      That’s very interesting, thanks for the link. I was aware that you could get DHA from algae but had not heard of an EPA algal oil. The ratio of EPA to DHA in this product is upside down (200 EPA and 400 DHA, it should be the other way around with more EPA). But it sounds like a good choice for vegans.

      Of course, I still don’t recommend trying to force an obligate carnivore to be a vegan. There are other nutrients that are deficient in a vegan diet that are specifically required for cats; and even though they may survive on such diets, can they really thrive? I used to joke that if people wanted a pet that didn’t need eat meat, they should get a goldfish. But then I found out–even goldfish are carnivorous! ;-)

    • TFKblog on July 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

      don’t forget that plant based nutrients are locked up in plant based foods. if the animal that eats it does not have the digestive enzymes or abilities to unlock those plant based foods the nutrients in them can not be utilized.

      Just because there are plant based sources of Omegas does not mean the cat benefits from them. From some of my reading I’ve learned that even humans have a harder time utilizing all of the Omegas in plants
      http://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/Essentia%20FattyAcids.htm

      • jhofve77 on July 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm

        Yes, the nutrients and enzymes in raw veggies or fruit are completely unavailable to carnivores, because they do not completely chew their food (a problem with a lot of people, too!). Plant foods must be cooked or thoroughly pureed for any nutritional benefit to the animal. Of course, cooking also destroys many vitamins and enzymes as well as fragile Omega-3s.

        There is only one plant-based Omega-3, alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Adult humans can only convert about 1.5% of ALA into EPA, and almost none to DHA. After weaning, dogs don’t do any better, and cats convert almost none. They need to be supplemented with EPA and DHA directly. See http://www.littlebigcat.com/nutrition/omega-3-update-more-info-more-choices/ for more information.

  5. Cathy on March 29, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I have been giving my 7 year old male cat Ami Cat Food for the past 3 years, following much soul searching regarding this matter. Have you had a chance to review it? My cat loves it.

    • jhofve77 on April 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Hi, thanks for the info! I know it is a hard choice…been there, done that! But as a veterinarian, knowing the many specialized adaptations to a prey-based diet that cats have evolved over millennia, for me that’s the only acceptable alternative.

      I have looked at all the info I could find about this food; here are the problems I see:
      – It’s a dry food, which can lead to obesity, urinary tract disease, and many other problems (see our Nutrition section, particularly “Why Cats Need Canned Food“). This food’s moisture content is only 8% — even more dehydrating than other dry foods (which typically contain 10% moisture).
      – It’s about 50% carbohydrates, a major risk factor for obesity, diabetes, and other problems.
      – Plant-based proteins are significantly less digestible than animal proteins. So even though the protein level is 33%, there may not be enough usable protein to support optimal health.
      - It contains synthetic ingredients.
      – Some of the online info is inaccurate if not wildly exaggerated.
      – There is no source of Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The food contains flaxseeds (linseeds), but cats cannot convert plant-based Omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) to EPA and DHA to any meaningful extent. (Humans can only convert about 1.5% of ALA; cats even less.) See “Omega 3s Are Essential for Your Cat!

      I couldn’t find a U.S. type label anywhere; none of the sources I found on the internet were in a legal format. (If you’d be willing to send, scan or fax a label, I’d love to see it!)

      I just worry that, a few years down the road, these vegan cats are going to develop serious health problems. We don’t know everything about feline nutrition; thousands of cats have suffered and died for the incomplete knowledge we do have. I also worry that by the time these health problems become obvious, it could be too late to reverse them. European cats may have done fine on this food, but most of them go outside, and can “self-supplement” with prey.

      Of course, it’s totally your choice, and I think it’s wonderful that you are doing such diligent research and asking questions. The keys will be to make sure your cat maintains a healthy weight, and keep a vigilant watch for problems.

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