This post will probably be one of the most controversial ones that I write and also the one where I share the most personal details about myself. I will state upfront that in my opinion, it is completely unsuitable to feed your cat a vegan diet. Cats are carnivores and eat meat. Vegan diets for cats are lacking in essential nutrients.
However, this is an issue that is bound to strike a chord with readers. Every environmentalist knows that the typical North American diet high is excessively high in animal protein and that the environmental impact of eating meat is much greater than eating a vegetarian diet. Add to this, the way most animals are raised and slaughtered, and it becomes not only an issue of earth-friendliness, but also one of animal cruelty. Concerns over these issues inspire people to become vegan or vegetarian themselves and then consider how they can also introduce this lifestyle to their cat.
So, following traditional journalistic ideals of looking at both sides of the argument, I’ve decided to learn more about vegan cat diets.
In this post, it’s relevant to mention my own background. From my late teens to mid-30s, I ate very little meat, perhaps about one serving every two to three weeks. During my late 20s, my diet was mostly vegan. I felt great and I thought I was really healthy because I didn’t eat an overly-processed diet. Everything I heard and read indicated that North Americans got way too much protein in their diet, so I assumed I was getting enough.
I was really active, I did endurance sports and could ride 70 miles on a bike at the drop of a hat. I never got sick and I would heal almost instantly if I injured myself. I thought my body was getting all of the nutrients it needed. When I hit a wall of exhaustion and dropped 5 pounds in the fall of each year, I assumed that this was just the “wall” that athletes normally hit in their training season and that I had simply peaked in the summer.
It wasn’t until I was 32 when my body seemed to give out on me. I was faced with a year of unbelievable stress in my professional and personal life and my good health fell apart like a house of cards. I blamed it on the stress, but in retrospect I realize that the stress was the catalyst. The underlying factor was that my body was not robust and lacked a reserve of vitality. Can I quantify that in western medical terms? No. So how do I know this? After the stress was removed, my health improved, but I never felt like I ever bounced back to how I used to feel. Some people might just chalk it up to aging, but I just knew that there was something else going on.
I’d always been interested in alternative healing so after leaving a high tech job, I decided to start doing a Masters in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). What I learned was an eye-opener and it provided a framework for understanding what was going on in my body. In general, TCM supports a balanced diet consisting of a little bit of most everything including animal protein. There are specific imbalance patterns with very clear symptoms that are related to a diet insufficient in protein. I was a dead ringer for “spleen qi vacuity” with other complications as a result. My digestion was a wreck, my hormones were out of balance, and I had insomnia for a year. However, from a western medical perspective, I was very healthy. To most people, I was in relatively good health, yet I knew I had felt better before. In an attempt to improve my health, I gradually reintroduced more meat into my diet, and ate animal protein about twice a week. I tried to eat organic meat only, buy free range and local wherever possible.
I noticed some slight improvements, but I still didn’t quite feel like I was fully recovering. Then, I got pregnant. Everyone told me to eat more protein, so I thought 3 times a week of actively eating protein was good enough. Around the second month, I started reading a book on the protein needs of pregnant women and it recommended 100g per day. Internet searches came up with numbers ranging from 50 to 70g. That seemed like a LOT to me. So, I started adding up the protein I was consuming in a day and realized that on average, I was eating about 15 to 20g on a good day. That made me realize that for the past 15 years, I’ve been getting by on 10 to 15 grams a day which is well below the recommended amount for non-pregnant women.
On top of that, I read an article about how the average consumption of meat had gone up in the Chinese population as the country became more prosperous. The article said people were now eating twice as much, about 100 pounds a year as opposed to 50 pounds. That floored me. In the highly touted Asian diet with modest amounts of meat, people were still eating 50 POUNDS a year. I was probably getting a pound a month.
I didn’t realize to hit the daily protein requirement called for conscious effort with every meal. My staple of rice, even brown rice, had virtually no protein in it whatsoever. In order to meet the recommended daily allowance for non-pregnant women, I had to actively eat protein (animal or plant-based) with EVERY meal and then eat some more. Waffles for breakfast wouldn’t cut it. One egg wasn’t enough, it only had 8 grams of protein.
When I modified my diet to meet the daily requirement, I found it was a lot of work to actually get enough. Even animal protein in the amounts I eat, doesn’t contain that much protein. On vegetarian days, I had to work twice as hard to get enough protein. However, on the first day I hit my goal, I felt amazing. I hadn’t felt such a sense of energy, strength and rebuilding in my body in years. I’ve been actively eating protein now for about two weeks and I truly feel for the first time, that my body is now repairing and recovering from the damage it went through over five years ago. I feel like I am bouncing back and that I’m giving my baby all the nutrients it needs.
This made me realize that even an extremely health-conscious person who is studying health and nutrition from a western and eastern perspective could easily fail in meeting basic nutrition needs. How many vegans simply cut out the animal products? How many can name the essential amino acids and which foods contain which amino acids and how to combine them? How many actively eat protein with every breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack? Why did every vegan I know look really pale? Was this a diet that could only be sustained for a decade or two in one’s youth?
If it’s possible to not even meet our own needs, how can we be sure that we can meet the nutritional needs of our pets?
So, with this as my framework, here’s what I’ve learned about vegan cat diets:
Arguments in support of vegan cat diets:
- Cats are classified as carnivores, but so is the panda which eats a mostly vegan diet. Therefore, it is extrapolated that cats also can eat mostly vegan diets.
- Cats need taurine which is supplied naturally only in meat products. However, vegan cat foods now contain synthetic taurine.
- People who argue that a vegan diet for cats is not natural, can be rebutted by the fact that feeding cats canned food and dry kibble is also not natural. Most cat food does not reflect what a cat might eat in the “wild”. Ever see a cat attack a cow?
- Homemade vegan meals prepared from natural ingredients are better than most of the commercial crap people feed their pets.
Arguments against vegan cat diets:
- Pandas are the only species classified as carnivores to eat a mostly vegan diet. The only reason they are classified as carnivores is because of the shape of their teeth, which indicate that pandas evolved from meat-eaters. Therefore just because pandas are healthy eating only bamboo, this doesn’t mean that cats can thrive without animal protein in their diets.
- Not only do cats need taurine, they also need arachidonic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin B12. All of these nutrients can not be obtained in sufficient amounts from plant-based diets.
- Getting nutrients from natural sources is likely healthier than consuming synthetically-produced nutrients. Think about it. Are you better off taking vitamin C capsules your whole life, or might some oranges be good for you?
I will agree with the last two points that are pro-vegan. Most commercial cat food does contain crap that your cats would not normally eat. So, it is conceivable to me that a homemade diet made from natural foods with added supplements would be better than giving your cat a 59 cent can of garbage made from ingredients considered unfit for human consumption.
And, I’d agree that beef, chicken, turkey, tuna, etc. would not be animals that a cat would normally hunt in nature. More “authentic” cat foods should probably contain mice, small birds and bugs. However, I found too much overwhelming evidence in support of a non-vegan diet for cats and not enough substance to advocate a vegan cat diet.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION
- Take a good look at what you are feeding your cat. Be objective about it and try to leave your own human bias out of deciding what is best for your cat.
- Take a good look at what you are feeding yourself.
- Educate yourself, talk to experts, seek dissenting opinions. Don’t just read this post. Do your own research and find out more.