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Nutrition Nuggets
Your cat's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your cat, how much food to feed, and the differences in cat foods, so your cat gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Can Cats be Vegetarians?

September 07, 2012 / (9) comments

Here’s the deal. I’m a vegetarian for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. My dog’s a vegetarian because the only food that controls his inflammatory bowel disease has no animal-derived ingredients. My horse is a vegetarian because … he’s a horse. But my cat? She eats meat and lots of it, and while that doesn’t jibe with my ethical and environmental point-of-view, it’s what I have to do to meet her nutritional needs, so I do it.

Unlike dogs and people, who are omnivores, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that some of the nutrients they require to stay healthy are found in animal tissue, not plants. Chief among these are the amino acids taurine and niacin, the essential fatty acid arachidonic acid, and vitamins A, B1, and B12. Cats also need a higher percentage of protein in their diet in comparison to dogs and people, and these levels can be hard to reach with a vegetarian or, particularly, vegan diet. Cats that don’t get adequate amounts of taurine, niacin, arachidonic acid, vitamins A, B1, and B12, and protein in their diets are at risk for eye disease, skin and coat problems, blood clotting disorders, immune system dysfunction, poor growth, weight loss, inflamed gums, diarrhea, and neurologic disorders.

Yes, vegetarian and vegan cat foods are available and are even promoted by some (but certainly not most) animal welfare organizations or groups that endorse a vegetarian lifestyle for people. However, a study published in the †Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) in 2004 looked at the nutritional adequacy of two vegan cat foods and found them both to have significant nutritional deficiencies. Granted, this is hardly a comprehensive look at all the products that are now on the market, but I find it worrisome nonetheless.

Formulating a vegetarian or vegan cat food that is nutritionally complete and balanced is probably feasible via the heavy use of nutritional supplements. Maybe it’s already been done and the product is available on pet food shelves nationwide, but I’m not out there looking for it. For me, it boils down to this question: "Why?"

Why have an obligate carnivore as a pet if you are not willing to feed him or her meat? Dogs can thrive on a vegetarian diet, bunnies are vegans, how about bringing one of them home instead?

Do you feed your cat a vegetarian or vegan diet? If so why, and what sort of extra precautions do you take to make sure his or her nutritional needs are being met?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: ArtKolo / via Shutterstock

†Gray, C.M.; Sellon, R.K..; & Freeman, L.M. (2004). "Nutritional Adequacy of Two Vegan Diets for Cats." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225(11): 1670-1675.

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Comments  9

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  • Vegetarian Cats
    09/07/2012 06:58am

    Even if a vegetarian diet for cats could be accomplished with supplements, isn't it healthier for the critter to get nutrients from food as opposed to supplements?

  • 09/07/2012 10:36am

    Yes. Research in people more often than not points to whole foods being more beneficial than nutritional supplements.

  • 09/08/2012 09:33am

    Of course we don't have such research in dogs because the pet food conglomerates which fund the researchers would not allow it.

  • Food for thought
    09/08/2012 09:20am

    So what about this more recent study?
    Wakefield, LA; Shofer, FS & Michel, KE (2006). "Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers". Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, JAVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association, AVMA) 229 (1): 70–3.
    The results are very different from the 2004 article.

  • 09/08/2012 09:43am

    That 2006 study has this insightful conclusion: "Vegetarian diets are fed to cats primarily for ethical considerations."

    This may explain the irrational justifications given by veterinarians for recommending that dogs be dried up fed non-meat proteins, like corn and wheat, and "by-products", over real meat. We need to focus on these vets who think they have "ethical reasons" for abusing dogs and cats digestive systems. These vets obviously have some serious personal problems that they are projecting onto their companion animal patients.

  • 09/08/2012 09:45am

    Correction to the typo in the sentence above: "This may explain the irrational justifications given by veterinarians for recommending that dogs be fed dried up non-meat proteins, like corn and wheat, and "by-products", over real meat."

  • 09/10/2012 01:41pm

    I don't see the conclusions as being all that different, but I'll talk more about it in next week's post.

  • Ethics and carnivores
    09/08/2012 09:30am

    If you are a vegetarian "for ethical ... reasons", then you are making up your own "ethics", because there is no Biblical basis for it, and God is from where our true sense of ethics comes. Otherwise, amoeba would have ethics, too.

    And, you are so wrong about dogs being omnivores, instead of carnivores, that you probably would qualify to be board certified in the oxymoronic "veterinary nutrition". "Dogs can thrive on a vegetarian diet" is the Big Lie of veterinary nutrition, fostered by the pet food conglomerates and their board certified toadies.

  • 10/19/2013 06:37pm

    I love the word toadies.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.