Can Your Cat Be A Vegetarian?

Lisa Selvaggio
by Lisa Selvaggio
Is taking meat out of your cat’s diet healthy or will vegetable-based food do more harm than good?

Most vegetarians and vegans hold to their ethics strongly. They genuinely love animals, especially if they chose to change their lifestyle after seeing the abhorrent cruelty that can occur on farms and slaughterhouses. But if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan and you own cats, is it right to also put them on a meatless diet?

Considering Your Cat’s Physiology

Felines are obligate carnivores, which mean they need animal protein in order to survive. While dogs can be transitioned onto a vegetarian diet more easily, cats have different physiological needs that require the consumption of animal products. Even just viewing a cat in the wild will tell you that they’ll avoid plants and opt for mice and birds instead.

Cats have short digestive tracts that are meant to move food quickly through the system. This comes in handy when consuming raw meats that might contain pathogens that would be harmful if left in the system for too long. And their bodies are unable to break down plant cellulose, which is why fruits and vegetables that are added to your cat’s food need to be cooked or ground up first to make them digestible. They also get their energy requirements from fat and protein, rather than from carbohydrates, which is why many feline nutritionists advise against feeding cats grains.

Related: The Benefits Of A Raw Food Diet For Cats

Nutrients Derived from Animal Sources

Unfortunately, cats fed vegan diets are much more susceptible to deficiencies of key nutrients that are derived from animal sources.

Vegan cat foods will include vitamin D2, which comes from plants. But what felines really need is vitamin D3, which comes from animal sources, as their bodies cannot properly absorb and use D2.

Beta-carotene is a carotenoid that’s converted to vitamin A in the liver of some animals, but cats cannot make this conversion. Instead, they need preformed vitamin A in the foods they consume in order to reap the benefits of this important antioxidant. Deficiency in this vitamin can result from a diet that’s not properly balanced. Other problems that can result from a plant-based diet include deficiencies in B vitamins, iron, calcium, and phosphorous.

Cats also lack the ability to create taurine, an essential amino acid associated with vision and cardiovascular health. The main source for taurine is meat, so cats who are fed a plant-based diet are at a greater risk of becoming deficient in this key nutrient. A plant-based diet can also put a cat at risk of other amino acid deficiencies or imbalances, particularly when it comes to L-carnitine.

Essential fatty acids are important to the health of your cat’s skin and coat, as well as his brain and cardiovascular health, but a plant-based diet would put your cat at a higher risk of becoming deficient in arachidonic acid, in particular.

Related: 5 Foods You Should Never Feed Your Cat

Taking a Look at Vegan Cat Diets

Vegan cat foods on the market today contain a heavy amount of grains and starches that are meant to provide all of the essential protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that a cat needs to be healthy. But the problem is that a cat really needs animal proteins, not plant proteins, to thrive. And too many carbohydrates will lead to high levels of glucose in the body that can lead to a variety of health ailments, including obesity and diabetes. Diets high in plants and grains can also throw off the pH of the urine, causing stones and infections.

Studies and Claims

While some small studies of felines on vegetarian diets may show that the cats weren’t deficient in key nutrients like taurine and B12, it doesn’t mean these cats were getting optimal levels of these nutrients. There are quite a few cat parents, however, who have spoken out in favor of a plant-based diet for cats, claiming that their pets are healthy after eating this way for years.

Making Your Decision

When it comes to choosing whether or not you want to put your cat on a plant-based diet, first consider who you’re really doing it for: you or your cat. Think about how a cat would normally eat in the wild and how ethical it would be to subject your cat to an unnatural diet, much like feeding a cow a meat-based diet.

If you do choose to go ahead with a plant-based feline diet, however, don’t rely solely upon the products that are on the market. Instead, discuss this important topic with a veterinarian who has experience in this area. Bringing your cat to the vet for regular checkups and blood tests is imperative if you choose to take this route, and you may even want to bring your cat twice per year just to be sure you stay on top of his nutrient levels and overall health.

Lisa Selvaggio
Lisa Selvaggio

Lisa Selvaggio is a freelance writer and editor, and our resident cats-pert, with certifications in pet nutrition and pet first aid. She enjoys producing content that helps people understand animals better so they can give their pets a safe and happy home.

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