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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.

Vegan Diet Almost Kills Kitten

August 30, 2013 / (12) comments

Did you hear about the case of the Australian kitten that nearly died from being forced to eat a vegan diet? According to an article in the Herald Sun, its owners fed it potatoes, rice milk, and pasta. Unsurprisingly, the cat became very sick:

"It was extremely weak and collapsed when it came in. It was almost non-responsive," Dr Pinfold [the cat’s veterinarian] said.

The kitten was given fluids via a drip, placed on a heat pad and fed meat.

It remained in hospital for three days after which the kitten's owners were given meat to feed their pet at home, she said.

I just don’t get it. Cats are carnivores — they’re from the same biological family as lions, tigers, jaguars, and mountain lions. There’s nary a vegan in the bunch!

Don’t get me wrong. I greatly respect a person’s choice to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Done well, veganism promotes good human health, the environment, and animal welfare. I am not a vegan myself, but I am a vegetarian who tries to limit what animal products I do purchase to those that have the least negative impact on my health and the world around me.

I don’t eat meat but my cat does.

Cats require nutrients that come from animal tissue. 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 to eat more protein than do dogs or people, and these levels can be hard to reach with a vegetarian diet, or particularly a vegan diet. Cats that don’t get adequate amounts of protein, taurine, niacin, arachidonic acid, and vitamins A, B1, and B12 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, neurologic disorders, and death.

Is it technically possible to design a vegetarian or vegan cat food that won’t make a cat sick? Yes, it probably is. A veterinary nutritionist could come up with a recipe that combines just the right proportions of protein and fat from plant-based sources with amino acid, fatty acid, and vitamin supplements (although it can be hard to find some of these that don’t have animal origins), but I have my doubts as to whether or not this type of diet would be ideal for cats. Good nutrition is more than just the sum of all its parts. To think we can concoct in the lab what nature has perfected over tens of thousands of years borders on hubris.

Don’t bring a cat into your home if feeding it meat is going to be an issue. You have a choice. Get a rabbit, bird, rat, chinchilla, goat, or other natural vegan instead … or even a dog. No, dogs aren’t vegetarians or vegans either, but at least they are not the obligate carnivores that cats are. I’ve met many a “veggie” dog that is thriving. I can’t say the same for cats.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  12

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  • Vegan Cats? Nope!
    08/30/2013 10:34pm

    I agree. I completely respect those who adopt a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for themselves. After a bit of research, it appears one must be knowledgeable about balancing the foods so you remain healthy. It all sounds pretty complicated to me.

    A diet of nothing but potatoes, rice milk and pasta wouldn't be a good diet for any living creature, would it? (Hopefully they don't have children that are trying to survive on that diet!) They're really lucky the kitten didn't pass away.

    But, in my opinion, you're absolutely right about cats needing meat. Even my vegan/vegetarian friends feed regular cat food with meat to their cats.

  • Problem is pyschological!
    08/31/2013 02:41pm

    In a 2006 article in the JAVMA -- "Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers" -- the researchers concluded: "Vegetarian diets are fed to cats primarily for ethical considerations."

    In other words, the owners (or more likely, their veterinarians) think feeding meat to cats is unethical. Even cats' Science Diet kibble, until this year, did not contain any meat! So, presumably feeding cats a vegetarian diet has been approved by veterinary nutritionists, at least those on Hill's payroll.

    Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers. (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:70–73) http://www.vegepets.info/resources/Publications/Veg-cats-Wakefield-et-al-JAVMA-2006.pdf

  • 08/31/2013 09:05pm

    I read the article you referenced and when all was said and done, the data was based upon 15 cats, and of those 15 cats, 3 of them had borderline taurine levels. The conclusion of the study indicated that more research needed to be done and did not indicate that feeding a cat a vegetarian diet-even with dietary supplements-was "okay."

    A study of 15 cats is not a statistically valid sample. All the cats in the study were also adults reportedly in good health and not in the kitten or geriatric range.

    The jury is still out on this one, as is the evolutionary history of cats. As the veterinarian wrote, there are plenty of animals for pets that love to eat a vegetarian diet; why not get one of those?

    Feline Lover of Tosca, Rakiroo and SleepyDoo

  • 09/01/2013 12:15am

    Susan, I don't know if, when you state "the article you referenced", you are referring to the article I cited or not. As for "15 cats", the article I cited studied the caregivers of 52 cats. But the number of cats is irrelevant to the study, which examined the the mental state of the caregivers and found "People who fed vegetarian diets to their cats did so largely for ethical considerations and were more likely than people who fed conventional diets to believe that there are health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet and that conventional commercial cat foods are unwholesome."

    In other words, carnivorous cats tend to be fed vegetarian diets because their caregivers (and presumably their vets) believe the feeding meat is unethical.

  • 09/01/2013 03:18am

    I'm sorry; I guess I got a little carried away because I feel strongly about this. There seems to be scant evidence to show that a vegan/vegetarian diet is okay for cats and I latched on to the data in the study that really didn't show that it was. Your point is valid about why owners feed such a diet, but I also think the data was important.

    Thanks for the response.

  • 04/05/2014 08:32pm

    Where did you find the following information? "Even cats' Science Diet kibble, until this year, did not contain any meat!" It is inaccurate.

  • 04/05/2014 08:35pm

    Where did you find the following information? Even cats' Science Diet kibble, until this year, did not contain any meat!

  • 04/06/2014 04:34am

    I got it from the ingredients list on the Hill's website.

  • 04/06/2014 11:23pm

    Can you list the ingredients as you found them on their website? If you are saying that they didn't contain meat because it lists chicken or turkey or salmon meal, then you are mistaken in saying they didn't contain meat until this year. Yes, there is a difference between chicken and chicken meal.

    The definition for chicken, according to AAFCO,is a clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of chickens thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.

    Chicken meal, according to AAFCO, is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with and without accompanying bone, derived from whole carcasses of chicken thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails. Chicken essentially is taking a roaster and grinding it up, mixing everything together including muscle, skin and bones. The water content averages around 70%, along with 18% protein and 5% fat. If you take this ground chicken and dry it to a moisture level of 10%. The protein content is now 65% and the fat level is 12%. This product is chicken meal.

  • 04/06/2014 11:57pm

    I cannot list the ingredients, as Hills changed them and removed the old list from the website last year. The ingredients did not include any chicken meat. It had chicken by-product, which is not meat.

  • 04/07/2014 02:07am

    I have the 2012 ingredient list for Science Diet Feline Adult Original: Chicken by-product meal, corn, brewers rice, poultry fat, potato starch, tomato pomace, herring meal, natural chicken flavor. Named by-products as an ingredient are preferable to no named by-products, meaning not 'meat by-products but a named source--chicken, beef, turkey etc. By-products are items such as livers and organs, and are just as much a 'meat' protein as breasts or thighs, they are just not flesh. While in the US, we might not prefer to eat livers or intestines, that is not so in other countries or cultures. But to say that the food didn't contain meat is a broad stretch of the truth in my mind.

    Also, a dry cat food with chicken listed as its first ingredient may only have 20% of this ingredient in the final product providing 3.6% protein. Chicken meal at 20% of the food provides 13% protein.

  • 04/07/2014 12:55pm

    The bottom line is that Hill's Science Diet ingredient list for its adult cat food, prior to 2013, had no meat in it, only by-products (which by the industry's own definition, does not include meat). It was inexcusable on the part of Hill's, but not the least bit surprising. What is surprising is the fact that so many veterinarians, including board certified veterinary nutritionists, think that Hill's is the best. Of course, their self-interests include the financial benefits Hill's so readily provides. But it means that, unlike other veterinary specialties, nutritionists cannot be trusted to have the best interests of the dogs and cats in mind, when they advocate carbohydrate-full, meatless kibble.