Can Pets Be Vegetarians, Too?
If you've been thinking about putting your pet on a plant-based diet, consider these facts first.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed byJennifer Garcia, DVM
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If you’re a vegetarian, you may naturally wonder whether a meat-free meal plan is a good idea for everyone in your household — including your pets.
Pet health depends on good nutrition. For dogs and cats, that usually means limited (or no) people food, and specially balanced commercial dry or canned pet food. But how far could you — or should you — go to make that diet plant-based?
The debate rages nationally, with many veterinarians opposing vegetarian diets even as the Humane Society of the United States recently entered the fray with their own commercially available vegan adult dog food. Vegan means that the food doesn’t contain meat or any animal byproducts, such as dairy or eggs.
The first thing you need to know is that, yes, your dog or cat can probably digest an entirely plant-based diet. Dogs in particular are — like humans — omnivores, which means they (technically) can eat almost anything.
The Pros and Cons of a Vegetarian Diet for Pets
Protein is a concern when creating a vegetarian pet food diet. Some manufacturers use soy products (such as tofu) or beans (such as lentils) to add protein.
The benefits of a vegetarian diet for pets, therefore, are mostly about your principles. Choosing vegetarian pet food means:
- You might have greater knowledge about how the food was processed than friends who are not researching alternative food products.
- You might have greater knowledge about the food’s ingredients.
- You can choose not to support a manufacturing process that involves killing other animals to feed your animal.
However, there are some drawbacks to a vegetarian diet for dogs and cats, including:
- The pet food might not taste as good to your pet.
- A vegetarian diet might be lacking in certain essential fatty acids and nutrients if it is not carefully constructed.
- It could be more expensive for you to try to create a healthy vegetarian pet food plan. Specialty pet food products simply cost more.
“I do not generally recommend vegetarian diets for dogs and do not recommend them for cats,” says veterinarian Robert C. Backus, MS, DVM, PhD, director of the Nestle Purina Endowed Small Animal Nutrition Program in the department of veterinary medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbia. Even more than dogs, cats require animal sources of certain vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. For example, cats are physically unable to obtain vitamin A from plant sources.
It’s hard to know how well a vegetarian diet would work for dogs or cats because there have been no long-term studies of these diets, Dr. Backus says.
“No matter how good a diet looks on paper, vegetarian or otherwise, I would like to know if it has been fed without health consequence for all life stages,” he says. Always make sure any commercially available pet food that you purchase went through an Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) feeding trial.
Which Pet is Best for a Vegetarian Diet?
The less domesticated relatives of cats and dogs do not ordinarily choose a vegetarian diet, so there is no point of comparison offered in the wild, either.
If you feel strongly that your vegetarian values should extend to all beings in your household, the safest and easiest course would be to choose a pet that naturally eats a plant-based diet.
These pets include:
Whether you decide to enforce a vegetarian diet for your dogs and cats is ultimately up to you. If you decide to go ahead with plant-based pet food, touch base with your veterinarian to find out whether your animal companion will need a supplement.
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