Can Cats be Vegetarians?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Published: September 7, 2012
Can Cats be Vegetarians?

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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