There are lots of ethical issues about whether or not vegans should keep animals. Whether you call it a ‘pet’ or a ‘companion animal’, we are still talking about an animal being kept captive. We discuss whether vegans should keep animals in more depth elsewhere but for those who already have companion animals, the issue about what to feed them is another complex one.
We will focus on cats and dogs in this article as they are by far and away the most commonly kept animals in the UK, with an estimated 11.1 million cats and 8.9 million pet dogs in the UK. In addition, due to the moral arguments surrounding pets, they are perhaps the only naturally omnivorous companion animals that most vegans are likely to consider ethically acceptable.
Also, let us clarify now that we use the terms ‘pet’ and ‘companion animal’ interchangeably in this piece, although we are aware that some vegans do not like the former. We don’t think the animals care either way though.
Why Some Vegans Feed Their Pets Vegan Food
Many vegans apply their own dietary principles to their pets and thus feed the cats, dogs or other animals for whom they care a plant-based diet. We won’t go into the ethics of keeping animals too much but most vegans believe that only animals from sanctuaries and rescue homes should be kept. This means that we are mainly talking about cats and dogs here, with most other small mammals, such as rabbits, herbivores anyway.
Vegans who feed their cats and dogs a similar diet to their own do not feel comfortable causing the death and suffering of other animals in order to give their companions food. This seems perfectly logical to us. We will return to the sorts of vegan diets domestic cats and dogs can enjoy, as well as the excellent vegan cat and dog foods that are available.
We will then consider the nutrition of such feeds and how they meet the needs of the animal. First though, let us flip to the other side of the coin and consider the arguments against feeding companion animals a vegan diet.
Is it Unnatural to Feed Cats & Dogs a Vegan Diet?
One of the major arguments used by vegans who feed their animals a diet that includes meat and dairy is that this is natural. They argue that were these animals living freely in the wild they would be enjoying an omnivorous, or even carnivorous, diet and as such to force them to eat vegan animal food is both unnatural and cruel.
It is easy to see the appeal in this argument as dogs are certainly omnivores and it is widely accepted that cats are technically carnivores, although they may naturally also sometimes eat grasses. However, we feel the argument is far from watertight for a number of reasons.
Could a 5kg Cat Take Down a 450kg Tuna Fish?
First and most obviously, the sorts of food that many non-vegan cats and dogs eat is as far from their natural diet. The domestic cat, felis catus, to use its true but seemingly made up binary name, weighs around 5kg. A large Bluefin tuna, weighs around 450kg. Even leaving aside the lengthy swim little Felix would have to undertake to get out to the tuna’s waters, it seems something of a mismatch to suggest the domestic cat is going to take down a tuna fish.
It is also rather unlikely that a kitten or cat would find itself welcome at the teat of a cow, so those who claim it would be unnatural to restrict felines to non-dairy liquids may also need to revise their arguments.
Switching back to food, we also struggle to see how the “it is natural” argument applies to cats and dogs with regards to the flesh of cows, sheep, pigs and the other large mammals that go into most non-vegan cat and dog food. Chicken, duck and turkey are further common ingredients in cat and dog food, or at least, as with the larger animals, parts of them are.
Vegans who say it is natural for their companions to eat meat would not accept that argument applied to them, of course. Many of those who are negative about the concept of veganism point to it being “unnatural” and kindly show their canine teeth as if this was some sort of license to murder and butcher at will.
It’s Unnecessary to Kill One Animal to Feed Another
That humans have developed intellectually has allowed us to question many seemingly natural impulses and desires. Whilst cats and dogs themselves aren’t capable of such behaviour, it seems reasonable that vegans apply the same arguments to the animals they care for as to them themselves. And, the key argument here, of course, is that it isn’t necessary to kill one animal in order to feed another.
Whilst the ancestors of domestic cats and dogs may have once roamed freely some 10,000 years ago – or even as much as 100,000 years ago according to the latest genetic evidence – eating small birds, mammals and other animals, that doesn’t mean they have to today. Vegans believe in avoiding inflicting pain and suffering on animals as far as is practicable.
It seems reasonable to us that if pets can survive in a healthy manner on a plant-based diet it is very much practical, possible and sensible to save the lives of other animals. Whilst animals are rarely, if ever, raised specifically for animal food, the fact remains that by buying animal-based cat and dog food, vegans are contributing to the suffering and slaughter of animals and this can be avoided.
Do Cats & Dogs Need Meat to Be Healthy?
If we leave aside a slightly vague argument about what is natural and appropriate, is there a stronger case for cats and dogs to be fed meat on health grounds? Many humans are vegan for health reasons but equally, there are opponents of veganism who argue that humans need meat and animal products for optimum health.
Just like humans, cats and dogs evolved eating the flesh of other animals and so some argue that nutrients found in meat must be essential to animal health.
A Lack of Scientific Data
This is another area that is complex and where science doesn’t, at this moment in time, give us a definitive answer. The research that makes up the bulk of what we call “science” is often funded by those with a vested interest in the findings, and in truth, there isn’t a huge market demand to know if cats will be healthier on a vegan or a meat-based diet. Consequently, there isn’t a huge amount of research, relatively speaking, in this matter. There are no fully randomised, peer-reviewed, robust studies over long periods of time involving significant numbers of animals that assess the relative health of vegan versus non-vegan cats and dogs.
This means that we do not feel happy categorically saying either way that one diet is healthier than the other. In truth though, we do not really need to know if eating meat is healthier than not eating meat, simply that both cats and dogs can live a healthy and happy life on a plant-based diet. This too remains an area of much debate, especially when it comes to cats.
Are Cats Carnivores?
There is no clear line that marks the difference between an omnivore and a carnivore, with some animals referred to as carnivores also eating some plant-based foods. However, the term obligate carnivore refers to an animal that has to eat meat in order to obtain certain nutrients. Such animals are sometimes called true carnivores and, as well as needing to eat meat, they are usually ill-adapted to digest plant materials. Whilst they may consume some plants, this is often for non-nutritional purposes (either for assisting with bowel movements or as an emetic when contaminated food has been ingested). The diet of an obligate carnivore, therefore, is almost entirely made up of meat.
And, this is where things seemingly get tricky for vegan cat lovers who want to feed their animal a vegan diet. Felids (essentially the cat family), including domestic cats, are said to be obligate carnivores. So, if your pet cat needs meat, surely it is cruel to feed it a vegan diet?
Synthetic Versions of Nutrients
Well, thankfully, it would seem that isn’t the case. In the same way that there are vegan supplements to help vegans obtain some difficult to obtain nutrients, so too are there plant-based options for our feline friends. Whilst cats in the wild might have to eat other animals, thankfully, there are now vegan feeds available which provide synthetic versions of the nutrients felids need but usually get from animal proteins.
Carnitine & Taurine
Two amino acids in particular are crucial to a cat’s health, with carnitine and taurine essential for vision, the immune system and more. Carnitine is usually less of an issue but many cat lovers who want to switch their companion to a vegan diet often worry about protein levels in general and taurine in particular. Thankfully though, there are now various vegan cat foods that supply adequate levels of both.
Some earlier cat foods contained taurine made from molluscs or other animal sources but nowadays it is perfectly possible to create vegan-friendly taurine. Check out our article, Is Taurine Vegan?, for more information (we’ve also got an article on energy drinks which may be of interest).
Looking at protein more generally, cats need to get around 20% of their overall calories from protein. This high level reflects their “carnivore” status but there are lots of vegan cat foods that easily meet this requirement. Just as there are lots of vegan sources of protein for humans, so too are there ones that are suitable for cats (and dogs). Some feeds have almost 30% protein, with this coming from a range of sources.
Indeed, some companies are looking at culturing meat cells in the lab without the use of animal products, including a variation of synthetic mouse meat. Similar research (though not to create mouse meat!) is underway for human consumption too but the lower standards of testing and less stringent red tape mean that artificial (and fully vegan) “meat” for pets may come to market far sooner.
Dogs & Vegan Diets
Because dogs are not carnivores, feeding them a vegan diet is probably easier, whilst in general they are also less fussy with regards to what they eat too. The modern dog is a descendent of the grey wolf and has adapted over the years, the very many years, to be able to better digest starchy foods because they have amylase genes. Dogs are generally considered to be scavengers and omnivores and as such, can thrive on a plant-based diet.
Some people argue that they are towards the carnivore end of the omnivore spectrum (there is no fixed definition of either word in terms of the percentage of their diet that comes from animals or other sources). However, whilst there are certain proteins, including once again L-carnitine and taurine, as well as arginine, that a dog would normally obtain from animal sources, there is lots of evidence to suggest dogs can be very healthy on a vegan diet.
Not All Vegan Dog Foods Provide the Correct Nutrients
As with cats, simply feeding your dog the same food that you eat or picking a low quality vegan dog food isn’t wise. Many vegetarian and vegan feeds don’t supply all the nutrients a dog needs, with L-carnitine or taurine deficiency being potential issues. Protein is less likely to be an issue with dogs (than it is with cats) but vegan dogs can suffer from a lack of zinc and vitamin D (read about human vitamin D or zinc if you are concerned about yourself).
You need to plan things carefully and check, ideally with a vet or specialist in animal nutrition, that how you intend to feed your companion will work. A good vegan dog food will deliver this, whilst a mix of home-prepared food, commercial feed and supplements is also an option. Whether you keep a cat or a dog, how you move it to a vegan diet is also very important and that is what we will now consider.
Consult Your Veterinarian & Introduce New Food Gradually
Whilst some humans successfully make a quick and dramatic switch to a vegan diet, for many it is a slower transition. When it comes to pets we would certainly advise a gradual approach and one that ought to be discussed with your local veterinarian before you make any decisions on you own.
You need to allow the animal’s digestive system to adjust to its new foods and also let it become accustomed to the taste of its new vegan diet. Mixing some of its new feed in with the old is the best way to do this, gradually increasing the frequency of the part-vegan feeds, as well as the ratio of plant-based. Your veterinarian can advise you exactly how to do this.
It is important to monitor the health and wellbeing of your companion during this process. This will involve closer monitoring of its urine (see below) and faeces, just to observe any changes, as well as checking its energy levels, skin, coat, teeth, eyes and so on. Assuming all continues to go well, before too long your cat, dog or other best animal friend will be as vegan as you!
One final thing to be aware of is that even a well-balanced vegan diet can lead to more alkaline urine in your companion animal. This can put them at risk of urinary stones and other related health issues. Whilst this affects only a small proportion of animals, regularly testing your pet’s urine is wise, especially in the early days of the dietary change. Testing kits and information are available at specialist pet sites or ask your vet for more information.
Environmental Benefit of Feeding Cats & Dogs Vegan Diet
There are many environmental reasons for going vegan and these are broadly accepted as being valid. However, when it comes to vegan animal food, people are probably less aware of the impact pets have.
There are thought to be about 20m pet cats and dogs in the UK, with almost 9 million of those being dogs. In the US, it is believed there are more than 160 million pet cats and dogs and that really is a huge number. With the vast majority of those being fed at least some meat, it would be foolish to think that companion animals do not have an impact on the environment.
Environmental Impact of Dog & Cat Food
In an increasingly affluent world, more and more pampered cats and dogs are fed higher quality meat, as well. A US study found that food pet animals eat has a huge environmental footprint. It stated that: “Dog and cat animal product consumption is responsible for release of up to 64 ± 16 million tons CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, two powerful greenhouse gasses (GHGs).” It also argued that cats and dogs “through their diet, constitute about 25–30% of the environmental impacts from animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides”.
These are clearly substantial figures and with increasing concern over climate change it is hard to ignore them. Just as humans switching to a vegan diet has a large beneficial impact in this area, so too would reduce meat consumption by cats and dogs.
Conclusion: Companion Animals Can Join You in Veganism
Looking at the views of various experts and considering the various ethical, practical and health issues we feel that it is probably best for vegans to feed their companion animals a vegan diet. As with humans, a well-planned vegan diet, with supplements where necessary, can provide a cat, dog or other animal with a healthy diet.
Thoughts from a Veterinary Specialist
Andrew Knight, a veterinary specialist and professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Winchester, told the Vegan Society:
As a companion animal veterinarian with a particular interest in the health and nutritional issues surrounding vegan companion animal diets, I’ve trawled through the scientific literature for studies describing their [vegan diets’] adverse effects. Oddly perhaps, given the strength of ‘urban wisdom’ on this issue, I’ve struggled to locate any scientific evidence demonstrating that cats and dogs fed well-planned and nutritional vegan diets are less healthy than the norm. Yet, I have found evidence of one kind. I’ve accidentally located more than ten published studies documenting hazardous ingredients in commercial meat-based diets, or adverse health effects in cats and dogs maintained on them.
More info on those studies is available here. Knight goes on to discuss the potential toxins and negative impact of low quality meat on pets. He then states:
Unsurprisingly, therefore, numerous cases indicate that transitioning animals to healthy vegan diets can result in increased overall health and vitality, decreased incidences of cancer, infections, hypothyroidism (a hormonal disease), ectoparasites (fleas, ticks, lice and mites), improved coat condition, allergy control, weight control, decreased arthritis, diabetes regression and even cataract resolution.
He goes on to state that:
Animals need specific nutrients, not ingredients. There is no scientific reason why a diet comprised only of plant, mineral and synthetically-based ingredients cannot be formulated to meet all of the palatability, nutritional and bioavailability needs of the species for which it is intended. In fact, several commercially-available vegan diets for cats and dogs aim to do so, and have jointly supported thousands of healthy vegan cats, dogs.
The World’s Oldest Dog Was Vegan
As long as you look into the area fully and talk to your vet, it seems clear that dogs, cats and other companion animals can have their dietary needs met by a vegan diet. Using a mix of some of the great vegan pet foods available, home-cooked food and supplements, your animal can live a long and happy life. PETA cite the case of a 27 year old dog called Bramble “whose vegan diet of rice, lentils, and organic vegetables earned her consideration by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest living dog in 2002”.
If Bramble can make it to the grand old age of 27 (the same age as Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse – just saying!) then so too can your vegan friend! And, of course, by feeding your companion animal a vegan diet you are also helping the environment and lots of other animals too.