Vegetarian and vegan diets are favored by some people: they offer health benefits, a greater sense of control over what goes into your body and the knowledge that you aren’t killing an innocent being for your next meal.
It can be really tempting to want to share those benefits with your cat, but unfortunately, biology just isn’t in favor of that. The news is filled with horror story after horror story of well-meaning owners who try to feed their cat a diet exclusively of vegetable protein, only to later be charged with animal cruelty or neglect when the cat dies of malnutrition.
Just because Fluffy requires animal-based protein doesn’t mean you have to be unethical about serving it to her, though. It’s entirely possible to be a vegetarian or vegan and give your cat the nutrition she needs without compromising your ethics.
Why Cats Need Meat
Obligate carnivores are the exact opposite of vegans: they could exist perfectly fine without a vegetable or speck of grain in their diets. And biologically speaking, it’s about more than just dentition. Not only has feline biology evolved to use meat as its primary fuel source, but it’s also phased out many of the processes that allow humans and even dogs to extract vitamins, minerals and essential nutrition from plant-based sources.
Cat biology is complex enough that it could warrant an article all on its own but simply put: cats have evolved over eons to function best when on a high meat-based protein diet. Their bodies require none of the essential nutrients found in plants (like vitamin C) because they manufacture all of them internally.
By contrast, there are essential amino acids found only in meat that a cat cannot manufacture and must consume to stay healthy. Taurine, for instance, is absolutely crucial in a cat’s diet. Taurine isn’t found in plant cells – without it, cats can quickly succumb to blindness, weakness, and death.
So Why Can’t I Just Supplement a Plant-Based Diet for My Cat?
Putting it plainly: Feeding your cat a plant-based diet is dangerous for your cat. They’ll eat it, but they can’t process it well and it lacks many, many compounds found only in meat that are essential to not just their health, but their lives.
Feeding a plant-based diet and offering supplementation of essential nutrients found only in meat offers up a couple different problems, the least of which is that those supplements are still made from animal-derived ingredients, thus defeating one of the main purposes of attempting to feed your cat a veggie diet to begin with.
Supplementation is meant to be “in addition to” rather than “instead of” getting nutrition from dietary sources. Think about how you’d feel living on just water and vitamins: you might survive, but you would feel pretty weak and you wouldn’t be too happy about it. Getting the dosage correct also requires some hefty math and nutritional needs change based on age, weight, activity level, sex, and reproductive status. You’d constantly be changing your cat’s supplements to meet their needs.
Finally, it’s costly. Even though a good, protein-packed cat food can run you upwards of $30 a month, you’d be spending more on supplements than you ever would on a nutritionally sound, ethically-sourced cat food.
Feeding Your Cat Ethically
Since your cat needs meat, make peace with that fact and try to find a way to support him or her in a way that that best benefits your pet. Your dining preferences are not theirs. One way to do that is to buy ethically sourced pet food. It’s more expensive than national brands, but doing your research pays off. There are pet food brands that don’t use factory farmed animals, avoid needless antibiotics and even have organic certification.
Beyond the sourcing of the meat in the cat food itself, ethically sourced pet foods don’t conduct animal testing on captive animals: they only conduct palatability tests on pets in their own homes. The Ethical Consumer maintains a list of approved cat foods Consulting such a list is a great start, but it’s always prudent to do your own research, too.
Feeding Your Cat Homemade Cat Food
A second option that is about on the same price point as feeding your cat an ethical, mass-produced pet food is to create your own cat food using raw ingredients. Known as raw feeding in pet care circles, this method involves sourcing the necessary ingredients yourself and processing them in your own home.
This method, while somewhat hands-on, isn’t for everyone as it involves processing and handling raw meat. But if you want to know exactly what you’re feeding your cat and where it came from and how it lived, you’ll benefit from feeding your cat a raw food diet. Raw food requires a lot of research to get the ingredients and ratios right – and to put it bluntly, you may struggle at first. Don’t fret: there are plenty of resources on raw feeding your cat. Your veterinarian can provide further guidance should you need it.
The Hard Truth
Don’t feed your cat a vegan diet: It’s animal cruelty, the exact thing you’re probably seeking to avoid as a compassionate, caring steward of the natural world. Your cat needs meat to survive. She won’t die instantly on a plant-based diet, but her systems will suffer and eventually, her vital processes will slow down in a long, drawn-out, painful death. It could take months or it could take years, but your cat will be miserable and ill the entire time.
Ethically sourced cat foods are costly and occasionally tough to source, but they do exist and are an option for vegetarians and vegans wanting to feed their cat as responsibly as possible without adding to animal cruelty issues or engaging in shady business practices.
Finally, if you just can’t stomach the fact that your cat needs meat, there are plenty of other ways to avoid compromising your ethics and still get your pet-loving fix. Volunteering at a shelter will allow you to spend quality time with cats without actually having to feed them.