Between 5-10% of the US population follow either a vegetarian or vegan diet, for a range of health-related, ideological or religious reasons. It’s understandable that some vegetarians and vegans may feel uncomfortable feeding animal products to their pets, as it goes against their personal beliefs. However, it’s important to be aware of the risks these diets present for cats and dogs, and their potential to not meet your pet’s nutritional needs.
What are the Risks of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Cats & Dogs?
Pets do not process nutrients in exactly the same way that humans do. Whilst humans are able to get all of the nutrients required to live healthily from plant-based sources, our pets cannot.
For example, taurine is an amino acid essential for our health and heart function. Humans can either get taurine directly from the protein sources we eat, or we can produce it ourselves from other amino acids. Cats, however, cannot make their own taurine; they can only get it from their diet. The best sources of taurine are animal proteins, including fish, meat and eggs. While small amounts of taurine may be found in other, non-animal sources, they generally don’t provide enough taurine on their own.
Over time, taurine deficiency in our pets can lead to a dangerous condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy (where the heart becomes enlarged and isn’t able to pump as effectively), which can even be fatal. Lack of taurine can also lead to growth, eyesight and reproductive issues.
Another example is vitamin D. While humans can make vitamin D in their skin when they’re exposed to the sunshine, both cats and dogs cannot. They must get vitamin D from their diet, and benefit most from vitamin D3, which is found predominantly in animal sources.
Vitamin D helps to regulate calcium levels in the body, and deficiency can lead to weakened bones, poor muscle activity, heart disease and a number of other dangerous conditions.
Besides taurine and vitamin D deficiencies, the other main risks of feeding a vegetarian or vegan diet include:
- Inadequate total protein intake
- Imbalance of certain amino acids or essential fatty acids
- Deficiency in other vitamins and minerals that are optimally obtained from meat or other animal products
Over time, deficiency in any essential nutrient can lead to all sorts of health issues and will generally result in a decrease in your pet’s quality of life.
While humans can get all of the nutrients required to live healthily from plant-based sources, our pets cannot.
Can I Feed My Dog a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?
Taking all of the above information into account, it is possible to feed dogs a vegetarian or vegan diet, however, they require careful consideration. It’s much more difficult to ensure your dog gets all of the nutrients they require from solely plant-based sources, so owners must be extremely diligent in selecting a dog food that’s safe.
We strongly recommend choosing a dog food that has a statement from the AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials). This statement is an indicator of nutritional adequacy – it means your pet’s diet is balanced and complete.
Two good vegetarian options that are AAFCO approved include Royal Canin Vegetarian and Purina ProPlan HA Vegetarian. At Small Door, we recommend these options over other commercial vegetarian dog foods because they undergo rigorous quality control and have been scientifically tested to ensure they provide the required nutrient mix, whilst certain other brands provide a lower amino acid composition than is required.
If you’re looking to feed your dog a home-made vegetarian or vegan diet, we strongly recommend that you consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help design a diet suitable for your pet that includes all of the nutrients they need to thrive. They will more than likely require nutritional supplements in addition to their homemade food, and the nutritionist can help to provide precise ingredient lists and supplement dosage information to help keep them healthy. Your primary veterinarian can organize a referral consultation for this either in-person or via telehealth, depending on the nutritionist.
It’s also worth noting that for some dogs, especially those that have certain underlying health conditions, a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle simply may not suit them. Puppies should also not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet, as animal-based sources of protein provide them with the best nutrient mix required for their rapid growth.
Always talk things through with your veterinarian before moving your dog onto a vegetarian or vegan diet, and bear in mind that they may require more frequent wellness exams and blood work (at least twice a year), to keep an eye on their overall health and nutrient levels.
Can I Feed My Cat a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?
Cats cannot be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet. They are obligate carnivores, which means they simply cannot get the nutrients they need (like taurine) from plants, and so they must eat meat or fish and not too many carbohydrates.
We strongly recommend that you do not try to eliminate animal products from your cat’s diet. The best diet for your cat is one that contains animal products, has more protein than fat (a protein content of at least 45% is ideal) and a carbohydrate content of less than 10%. Home-cooked diets need to be very carefully considered, and planned with the guidance of your veterinarian. Again, purchasing cat food with an AAFCO statement is your best option to ensure they’re getting all of the nutrients they need.
A Note on Non-Meat-Based Prescription Diets
Very rarely, pets may suffer from allergies or other health conditions that require them to eat a prescription diet formulated from non-meat protein sources (including things like eggs or soy).
However, it’s important to note that these types of diets are not necessarily suitable for healthy dogs. Prescription diets are only prescribed by veterinarians to treat a specific health concern, and they are always administered under extremely close supervision of the pet’s health, and often in conjunction with medications and/or supplements to ensure that the pet is still getting all of the nutrients they need. It can be very risky to feed prescription pet food to a pet who does not medically require it, and so we strongly recommend against it.
Speak to your Veterinarian for Further Advice
If you’re considering feeding your dog a vegetarian or vegan diet, we recommend booking a consultation with your veterinarian to get their advice on how to best satisfy your pet’s nutritional requirements.
At Small Door, we offer nutritional consultations where we can answer any questions you have about your pet’s nutrition, and work together with you to find a diet that works for both you and your pet.