Can Cats Be Vegan? Here’s Some Food For Thought

Category: cat food, Sustainabilty
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Can cats be vegan? A new study by researchers at the University of Guelph says they can. But it’s not time to ditch your cats’ meat-based diet just yet. “The study sets the foundation for further research on this growing feeding trend,” one of the researchers said.

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Can cats be vegan? New research says they can.

Is this cat eating plant-based food?

If you cringe every time you open a can of turkey, chicken, or beef for your cats, here’s some food for thought. Can cats be vegan? Recently published research says they can. 

A new study by researchers at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College says cats can do well on a plant-based diet. But they add some caveats to their findings.

In an online survey, the researchers asked 1,325 people in Canada and the U.S about their cats’ health. Just over 18 per cent said they feed a plant-based diet, and their cats are doing well.

But there can be problems with survey-based studies, Ph.D. candidate and lead researcher Sarah Dodd said in the University of Guelph News. People tend to see their cats’ health and happiness as they want to see them. And “there can be biases that come hand in hand with survey-based studies.”  

How Cats Are Designed To Eat

Can cats be vegan? Apparently, they can. But their bodies are perfectly engineered to eat meat, not plants.

Like their desert wild cat ancestors, our cats are built to hunt, catch and eat small prey animals. Their canine teeth are designed to grip prey, and their tooth crowns are made for cutting and slicing, not grinding plants.

Their intestinal tracts are also shorter than herbivores are and have different digestive enzymes and intestinal flora.

But can cats be vegan anyway? Andrew Knight, a veterinarian and founding director of the University of Winchester’s Centre for Animal Welfare says they can.

Our house cats have come a long way from their desert wild cat ancestors, he points out. Many are forced to live inside, and instead of hunting for food and eating what they can when they can, they’re fed from the cans, pouches and bags we open for them at predictable times. 

About the only natural instinct we honor is feeding them meat. And that meat is cooked at such high temperatures all the nutrients it had when it was raw, like taurine, have to added back in.

“Cats require specific nutrients, not specific ingredients,” Knight says. “There is—at least in theory—no reason why diets comprised entirely of plants, minerals, and synthetically-based ingredients (i.e., vegan diets) cannot meet the necessary palatability, bioavailability, and nutritional requirements of cats and dogs.”

The Issues: Sustainability And The Welfare Of Farm Animals

Forget the cute names like Paw Lickin’ Chicken, Sweet Cheeks and Babycakes and Chicken Florentine. What consumers care about these days are sustainability and farm animal welfare. In a survey by C.O.nxt and Menu Matters, 80 percent of the 750 people interviewed said sustainability is important in their food choices. Many were also concerned about the welfare of farm animals.

There’s a reason for this. Our animal companions and the food they eat are among the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. In 2017, pet food manufacturers bought over 16.5 billion pounds of meat, poultry, fish and grains to feed our cats and dogs.

And here’s something else to chew on. Thirty per cent of intensively farmed animals are raised to become cat and dog food.

But it’s not just consumers who are concerned about sustainability. Some pet food manufacturers, too, are beginning to turn their noses up at white meat chicken and fresh-caught salmon for cats. Organ meats, or byproducts, might sound disgusting to us. But they’re an excellent source of protein, and cats don’t care what body part they’re eating as long as it smells and tastes good.

And then there are the alternatives to meat. Catit, which is part of the Montreal-based Hagen group, sells dry food that uses black soldier fly larvae as a protein source. And Purina’s Rootlab is selling cricket-based dog food. Purina is also rolling out insect-based dog food in Europe. The bad news for people who want to eliminate animal protein from their cats’ diet is that these products all contain meat or fish.

But here’s something to think about for the not-too-distant future. Bond Pet Foods and Because Animals are both working on cell-cultured cat food. Cell-cultured meat uses the cells of live animals to grow meat in a lab. 

Can Cats Be Vegan? It's Up To Them

As anyone who has tried to feed a cat knows, they’re notoriously –and sometimes infuriatingly — careful eaters. Just because you want him to be vegan doesn’t mean he’ll do so willingly, if at all. If he insists on meat-based food, you might have to let him have because he needs to eat. And it’s not true that when they get hungry enough, cats will eat anything. They’d rather starve than eat something that doesn’t smell of taste familiar and like it’s safe to eat.

In the University of Guelph study, cats on a plant-based diet lived as long as cats who ate meat did. And they seemed better able to maintain a healthy weight and had fewer GI problems. It can also help cats with food allergies.

But when it comes to food selection, none of these enter into a cat’s decision. As one member of a vegan Facebook said, “We have taken so many choices away from our furry family members in our efforts to ‘help them help themselves.’ If given a choice, would a cat eat? Probably meat. And veggies. And snacks. And the occasional mouse or bird if they were fast enough.It doesn’t make a person “less vegan” to feed their cat meat, a food that, by any research, is ideal for a cat’s metabolism—and which the cat itself would absolutely choose. “Ethically speaking, wouldn’t the ‘most vegan’ things be to weigh carefully any choices we have usurped from our animal family members and try to do the best we can to honor their own wishes as much as possible?”

That, too, is food for thought. Of the 125 people who replied to my Facebook post, just two have vegan cats. If you’d like to give it a try, they recommend AMI.

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