Some of you may think this an odd subject for a post on a pet health website –– or on any website, for that matter. Why would anyone want their pet to refrain from eating animal protein? But if the volume questions veterinarians and veterinary nutritionist receive on this issue is any guide, it’s not strange at all.
Questions on animal protein restriction for pets come mostly from concerned vegans and vegetarians looking to feed their pets along their same lines, but also from politically minded foodies and environmentalists looking for humane solutions to environmentally expensive animal protein for their pets.
All of which makes sense. After all, if you’re concerned enough to want to go vegan or vegetarian on political grounds, it stands to reason you might want the same for your pets. In fact, I respect that point of view. (Theoretically, anyhow.)
Yet despite my warm regards for these politically sound intentions, I can’t get behind the drive to take pets vegan… or even vegetarian.
Every single time I’ve written about this issue in the past, I’ve bought myself reams of indignant e-mails rife with heartfelt testimonials detailing the extreme longevity of vegan cats (inexplicable in the absence of household predators) along with the various and sundry health benefits these diets conferred.
And while I’ll heartily agree that dogs and cats can survive without animal protein, the question remains… for how long and how well?
So what’s my trouble with these diets?
Let’s tackle the obvious first:
Offering cats a vegan approach is about as biologically appropriate as feeding them granola bars. Okay, I may exaggerate a tad, but it’s not too far off. That’s because cats are obligate carnivores. Here’s how Cornell’s vet school describes this distinction:
“It means that cats are strict carnivores that rely on nutrients in animal tissue to meet their specific nutritional requirements. In their natural habitat, cats are hunters that consume prey high in protein with moderate amounts of fat and minimal amounts of carbohydrates.”
So feeding them otherwise – particularly because the nutrient content of meats is impossible to emulate in purely vegetable form – is tantamount to animal cruelty.
For dogs, our understanding is murkier: Studying their anatomy, physiology, and behavior undeniably tells us that they’re optimized for meat consumption. Meanwhile, knowing what domesticated lab-reared Beagles can digest tells us that dogs can digest and absorb vegetable protein better than their wild cousins can.
In fact, we even know of ten genes that appear to demonstrate our domesticated dogs’ 15,000 year-long adaptation to our starchier human diets.
That said, even the Beagle-bound commercial pet food nutritionists who champion the benefits of soy protein and corn gluten are nowhere near recommending animal protein-free diets for our dogs.
While most of these industrial veterinary nutritionists have concluded that dogs are solidly omnivorous, they will nonetheless allow an emphasis on the kinds of foods their dentition would indicate they’re built to consume. The cuspids they use for tearing and the molars they use for grinding, they conclude, are clearly built for a meat-based diet… with other stuff thrown in.
All of this is why you won’t find me pushing the dietary envelope with my canine patients, either. In fact, since Beagles are arguably the most digestively capable example of any organism (with the possible exception of flesh-eating bacteria), I think I’ll stick to what observing the natural world can teach us: Dogs and cats prefer meat for a good reason: they’re built to consume it. So why feed them otherwise? Are morality-based political reasons good enough? What if you’re religiously observant in ways that preclude meat consumption?
Hmmmm… here’s my answer: It is one thing to source kosher or halal foods for your pet. It’s quite another to expect our pets to subsist on a vegan diet because we have a personal or political issue with consuming animal proteins.
After all, if you’re politically and/or religiously motivated against feeding animal products, there’s no requirement that you keep a carnivorous pet. Indeed, if you must feed vegan or vegetarian, you can always raise a rabbit, get a goat, consider a horse, or adopt a guinea pig. (And I don’t say this lightly.)
Given that there are plenty of options for those who believe their religion and/or politics must extend to their pets, I believe there’s no need to inflict a biologically stressful condition on another species… simply because you desire its company.