The popularity of eating a vegan or vegetarian diet has continued to grow slowly over the last decade. Worldwide, the number of vegetarians is estimated to be 375 million. In the US, the overall percentage of adults that choose a vegetarian diet is lower, with about 7 million people eating vegetarian.
People choose a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, for many it is cultural and the rate of vegetarianism in countries such as India or Japan is much higher. In the US, the main reasons for choosing that lifestyle are concern for animals or the environment, taste, health and even cost.
But few of us think about feeding a vegetarian diet to our dogs or cats. Both are carnivores and require the proteins found in meat, poultry and fish. So is it smart to consider a vegetarian diet for your pet?
The answer for cats is easy, for dogs, not so much.
Let’s start with cats. Yes, cats are carnivores; they are “obligate” carnivores which means they cannot properly digest plant-based foods and plant-based foods do not provide all of the nutrients cats need. Plants do not contain the amino acids essential for their health, specifically an amino acid called Taurine. A taurine deficiency can create serious health issues in your cat including heart disease and blindness. A daily supplement in the form of a multivitamin containing taurine is NOT sufficient, they need animal muscle meat. So cats, CANNOT be vegetarians.
Dogs on the other hand can survive on a vegetarian diet. Their digestive tract is able to break down plant-based foods to create all of the essential nutrients that they require. Having said that, there are some other factors to consider before switching Fido to veggies only.
A dog’s digestive tract is much shorter than a humans, so there is less time for their bodies to extract the proper nutrients from the things they eat. If you’ve ever given your dog a carrot, you know what I mean. It comes out almost whole on the other end. They don’t absorb much nutrients from foods that pass through their body so quickly.
Furthermore, dogs use fat as the primary source of energy (unlike humans who use carbohydrates). Plant based diets which are generally low in fat, may not provide the energy sources that are readily usable when Fido needs them.
Dogs may also flat out reject a plant-based diet. They are carnivores and can’t really make the moral choice to forego meat like humans can. They prefer meat. If you don’t believe me offer your pup a piece of steak and a brussel sprout and see which one they take.
In addition, dog nutritionists are divided on whether a dog can thrive on a plant-based diet. In theory they can survive (unlike cats), but there’s not a lot of science to support the long term benefits or studies that examine the possible repercussions of a plant-based diet. Signs of malnutrition or nutrient deficiency might take years to develop, and by then the dog may be suffering from other illnesses that mask these conditions.
If you do switch to a plant-based food, be sure and check that it meets American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines and nutritional levels. And be sure to discuss it with your vet to ensure that your dog is free of any conditions that may be exacerbated by a new meat-free diet.
Obviously, if your dog won’t eat the food without meat, then he’s making the choice himself and you need to put meat back in their diet. Also, watch for any signs of malnutrition or nutrient deficiency – weight loss, poor coat quality, diarrhea, excessive itching or lethargy and as always get regular check-ups with your vet.