Many pet parents have adopted vegan or vegetarian lifestyles for health, environmental, and ethical reasons. Naturally, some cat parents wonder if they should also be buying vegan cat food for their furry family member. So, can cats be vegan? The answer is no—find out why your cat requires meat in his or her diet.
Your cat is an obligate carnivore
A vegan or vegetarian diet simply cannot provide all of the nutrients that your cat needs. In fact, these specific nutrients can only be supplied through the ingestion of animal meat. Why?
Cats don’t produce enough taurine
Unlike many species (including humans and dogs), cats can’t synthesize the essential amino acid taurine. Without enough taurine in their diet, cats are likely to develop a heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy, experience vision problems, contract UTIs, and have other health issues. Cats must ingest taurine through their diet, which can only be found in animal sources—hence the term obligate carnivore. Plant sources simply do not provide this amino acid.
Not all proteins are created equal
Cats also require a high-protein diet. While human vegetarians are able to substitute protein sources such as beans and lentils for animal meat, this isn’t possible for felines. It again comes back to those amino acids, which differ depending on the type of protein. Besides taurine, other essential nutrients for cats include vitamin D, vitamin A, and arachidonic acid—all readily found in high-protein animal sources.
What is vegan cat food?
Now that we know how important animal protein is for your cat’s diet, you may be wondering what ingredients are substituted in vegan cat food. The truth is, most vegan or vegetarian cat food has not passed feeding trials by AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials. AAFCO works with the FDA (Center of Veterinary Medicine) and state governments to recognize the state laws that regulate commerce in animal feed and pet food.
Vegan cat food that is AAFCO-compliant primarily contains ingredients such as oats and plant proteins (often corn and peas), as well as synthetic versions of essential nutrients (taurine, vitamin D, etc.).
It’s important to note that because your cat is an obligate carnivore, he can’t digest plant material very well—his gastrointestinal tract and metabolism have adapted to eating meat.
The addition of synthetic ingredients may strike you as problematic, as it does many veterinarians. Another problematic aspect of vegetarian and vegan cat food? It’s often high in carbohydrates, which are generally unnecessary for cats and may cause digestive issues.
Work with your veterinarian
If you are dead set on buying vegan cat food, work with your vet to make sure your cat stays healthy. Dr. Armaiti May, DVM, CVA suggests having your vet track your cat’s overall health through blood work and urine content, as well as cardiac ultrasounds and retinal evaluations.
Can dogs be vegan?
Dogs are naturally omnivores, meaning they can get nutrients from both plants and meat. And unlike cats, dogs can synthesize their own taurine, which makes them a candidate for vegan or vegetarian diets. Although challenging, it is possible to transition your canine to a plant-based diet. Make sure you purchase AAFCO-compliant dog food, and work with your vet to track your dog’s health.
Animal welfare-certified pet food
It can be disappointing for pet parents to realize that vegan and vegetarian diets are not appropriate for their cats. However, you can still be mindful of animal welfare by purchasing cat food brands that bear welfare certification labels, which represent more humane and transparent farming practices.
Check out ASPCA’s list of welfare-certified pet food for more information.