An interesting topic has come up a lot more in recent years that involves drastically changing the diet of a feline. Some claim that cats can be put on a vegan or vegetarian diet and remain healthy. Why someone would choose to do this to their cat is questionable, but is it even safe to put a cat on a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Cats Are Obligate Carnivores
When it comes to cat nutrition, it dates back 100,00 years or so ago. When studying the diet of the Middle Eastern wildcat, you would find that this feline got most of its nutrition from smaller prey like birds, rodents, and lizards. These are considered “simple proteins” and was easily digested. Water supply was low in the deserts of Israel and Saudi Arabia so they relied on their meals to give them proper hydration. The carbohydrates found in this cat’s diet were picked up from the small pray it fed on making these felines have a low-carb diet. Throughout history and human-cat companionship, cats began to eat other proteins like fish, chicken, turkey, and duck. The way they digest protein has not all that much changed. They still require a high simple animal protein, low-carb diet (with carbs making up less than 12% of their overall diet).
Cats Become Lactose Intolerant
When it comes to cats, being lactose intolerant is normal. As cats age, they lose the ability to properly digest lactose, which is a milk sugar. The enzyme known as lactase is needed when kittens are young to be able to absorb their mother’s milk. This is similar to humans and just the same, as we age, we too create less of this enzyme and may eventually become lactose intolerant to some degree. The issue with cats is that when they take in lactose, it is not broken down or digested when passing through the intestinal tract. The result is that this milk sugar draws in water and begins to ferment within the colon which can lead to minor or major health complications.
Can Cats Be Vegetarian or Vegan?
Primary sources of protein in a vegetarian diet come from dairy, nuts, and protein-rich carbs. Since most dairy cannot be given to a cat in excess or given to some cats at all, this cuts out a lot of animal-based proteins which are necessary for a cat’s body to function properly. Because cats are naturally low-carb eaters, this also cuts out much of the protein human vegetarians get. Most nuts are considered toxic to cats as well. What does that leave them with for a protein source? Not much at all and for cats, their diets need to be high in protein.
When it comes to a vegan diet, it is even more complex. Cats require certain amino acids only found in animal source proteins like meat and dairy. These include methionine, arginine, cysteine, and taurine; the most important one being taurine. Without the right levels of natural taurine, a cat becomes at high risk for heart disease, vision loss, and other serious medical conditions.
There are also a number of vitamins that can’t be obtained outside of eating meat for cats and that includes vitamin A, vitamin D, and arachidonic acid.
There are two types of vitamin A; one that is found in animal protein and dairy known as retinol, and one that is found in certain vegetables known as beta-carotene. Unlike other animals, cats cannot take the active form of vitamin A (beta-carotene) and process it into retinol (which is vital for their health).
Unlike humans, cats do not create vitamin D through absorption of sunlight through the skin. They require their pray to have vitamin D levels in them. This vitamin is also rarely found in vegetation unless it was fortified with synthetic vitamin D.
As for arachidonic acid, this is needed by your cat’s body in order to produce an inflammatory response which is important for things like allergies, blood clotting, and general reproductive health. It enables the cat’s body to protect itself like a band-aid.
Bottom Line: No, a cat cannot and should not be vegan or vegetarian, they simply were not designed for it and forcing them to go on a diet that will make them ill is inhumane.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian and cannot tolerate feeding your cat meat, I urge you to find someone who will care for them properly and you should stick to pets like birds, rabbits, and small rodents for companionship.