Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
By nature, cats and dogs are meat eaters. However, that knowledge hasn’t kept a surprising number of pet owners from wanting to switch their meat-eating companions to a strict vegetarian or vegan diet.
A survey of dog and cat owners in six countries including the United States found 1.6 percent of dogs and 0.7 percent of cats were being fed a strictly plant-based (vegan) diet. However, another 35 percent of surveyed pet owners reported they would be interested in feeding a plant-based diet to their pets if one were available that met certain criteria — specifically, that the vegan pet food would need to adequately meet pets’ nutritional needs.
Feeding a vegan diet to cats is a hotly contested topic in some circles. Since we have a vested interest in pet nutrition, we believe the subject of strictly plant-based diets for cats is one we need to address.
Cats are obligate carnivores
As a species, cats are obligate, or strict, carnivores. In simple terms, this means cats are meat eaters by necessity. They have very specific nutrient needs, like all other species, and some of those can’t be satisfied by plants or plant products only.
For cats, taurine is an essential amino acid, meaning that it must be provided in the diet. Unlike other mammals who can make enough taurine to meet their needs, cats cannot; they must get taurine from food. Taurine is critical for reproduction in queens (female cats) and proper fat digestion, normal heart muscle function and vision in all cats.
High Protein Requirement
Compared to other species, cats have a high dietary requirement for protein. One reason for the high requirement is that cats use a greater percentage of protein to maintain body tissues than other species. A second reason is that the liver enzymes responsible for protein breakdown are always “on” and run at a high rate. To maintain adequate body protein and keep pace with this natural enzyme activity, cats need to consistently eat a high-protein diet.
Most commercially prepared pet foods contain protein from a combination of animal and plant sources. One reason for using a combination of protein-providing ingredients is that no single protein ingredient provides all of the amino acids in the proper proportions that cats need. Since the amino acid content of different ingredients varies, protein sources are frequently combined so the amino acids in one protein ingredient complement the amino acids in another.
Cats require more arginine than other species. This essential amino acid is used during normal protein production and is essential for the conversion of ammonia (from amino acid breakdown) to urea for elimination in urine. Cats are very sensitive to a lack of arginine in their diet, which can result in a potentially life-threatening issue. The good news is that arginine is readily supplied by most of the animal proteins, and some plant-based ingredients, used to make cat foods.
Preformed Vitamin A
Unlike dogs and people, cats can’t make active vitamin A (retinol) from plant precursors such as beta-carotene. Cats must obtain preformed vitamin A from their diet, which is found in animal and fish tissues such as liver and in eggs and milk products. A synthetic vitamin A supplement also can be added to pet foods during manufacture.
Dietary Arachidonic Acid
Cats require dietary arachidonic acid, a long-chain omega-6 fatty acid, because they lack the enzyme needed to convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is found typically in animal fat, with little to no arachidonic acid present in plant oils and seeds.
Cats’ unique requirements for preformed taurine, vitamin A and arachidonic acid, along with greater protein and arginine content, are best met by including meat in their diet.
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