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Can pets go vegetarian?

One of my favorite things about visiting other people's homes is visiting with their pets.  Last week I attended a dinner party with some old college friends.  Good friends, good food, and adorable pets running around to entertain us. The evening would have been perfect for me, except for a tiny twinge of guilt.  All evening long I watched as two adorable golden retrievers and a beautiful Maine Coon cat got treated, along with the dinner guests, to a variety of meats and cheeses.  Why did I feel guilty?  Because, due to my vegetarianism, my pets never get such meal time treats.  As I drove home, some old questions about animals and meat were swimming through my mind.

With the rise of the organic movement and the increase in popularity of vegetarianism, we have become more and more aware of the issues surrounding meat production.  Aside from any ethical issues or personal feelings on the matter, there are concerns about sustainability and the environment, about the need to feed a growing global population, about the dangers of modern mass farming techniques such as the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.  For many people the answer has been to go vegetarian or vegan or limit meat to only fish.  Often parents may wish to introduce their kids to such a diet as well, and can do so safely and healthfully. But what about pets?  Is that going too far?

Fifty years ago our pets diets, like ours, were far more conscribed than they are today.  There were a few commercial pet food manufacturers to choose from, or there was the option of trying to prepare food for your pets yourself.  However, times have changed, and there is now a vast array of pet foods available.  Everything from fancy independent cat and dog foods offered from small label companies and independent farms, to fresh refrigerated food for cats and dogs, to recipes and cookbooks to teach you to prepare your pet's food yourself.  With the fears and issues surrounding the meat industry and so many options, many people may want to try a vegetarian lifestyle for their cats and dogs.  After all, it's healthy for us, don't we want the best for them too?  


As a lover of animals, my pet's health, happiness and well-being is of the utmost importance to me.  And I am certain I am not alone in this feeling.  The billions of dollars spent every year on the pet care industry speaks to our love of our furry companions.  But navigating a healthy diet for them can be just as complex as it is for people, and very, very different.  So before you apply any sweeping changes to your pet's diets, it's important to consider how they are different from us.  It's important to understand not just what our pets need, but how we should feel about this.  We need to consider how we can position ourselves emotionally and in terms of our understanding of the issues to make the best choices for our pets amidst what may be very strong feelings and concerns.

Cats:  How are cats different from humans in terms of diet? 

Cats are carnivores.  Unfortunately, though we all know what that means, the full importance of that word, what it really depicts in a biological sense, may be a bit skewed based on how the word has become adapted in common parlance.  Many people who really enjoy meat, who feel they could never become vegetarian will say "I'm a carnivore".  In fact, they are not.  A carnivore is an animal whose sustenance depends on meat, on the flesh of another animal, be it a mammal, bird or fish.  

Humans are omnivores.  The difference is not trivial either, or a matter of taste.  Examining the teeth, digestive systems, nutritional requirements for life, and metabolic processes of a carnivore reveals that eating meat to live is not optional.  Such is the case with a cat.  Cats are "obligate" carnivores.  Specifically this means that they are obligated by their nature to consume meat to live. Therefore, to introduce a vegetarian diet to a cat is a very dangerous endeavor, and will very likely harm the health of your pet.  No matter how rich in plant proteins and fortified with vitamins or supplements, cats must consume meat in order to live.  Whether this is a main ingredient in dry or wet cat food, or is fresh meat you purchase and prepare, or is an animal they hunt and eat themselves, meat is a requirement for our feline friends.  Vegetarianism for cats is not an option.

But my cat eats vegetables sometimes.

You'll note that many commercial cat foods feature grains or vegetables in the ingredients.  Further, cats often chew grass in the wild and some cats can develop a real taste for nibbling on certain veggies.  I once had a cat who would gladly jump to the dinner table and gobble up everyone's spinach if we weren't careful and quick.  While all  this may be true, the fact remains that such foods cannot provide the necessary sustenance for a cat, even for a short period.  Though the fiber in plant products can be helpful in their digestive system, and they may be able to derive some caloric intake from grains, and they can get some vitamins and minerals from vegetables, without a meat-based diet cats experience severe health issues very quickly, including liver and kidney failure, blindness and even death.  There are a large number of amino acids and elements such as taurine that only exist in meat, and without which, no cat can survive.  

Dogs:  Omnivore or Carnivore? 

There is some debate about this, because dogs are unique in some ways.  Many people argue that dogs are omnivores, and there are even commercial dog foods that are based exclusively on vegetarian options as a result.  However, an examination of a dog's biological make up and behavior in nature reveals that they have all the key features of a carnivore, just like cats.  The key difference, however, is that dogs are what is termed "facultative" carnivores.  This means that though they naturally are built to eat meat as a primary source of nutrition, they do not rely on meat alone for all of their nutritional needs.  The debate about dogs as omnivores comes about because dogs are very different from cats in this way, and will gladly eat grain products and vegetables.  

However, before you put your dog on a vegetarian diet, consider the evidence carefully.  Yes, there are those who claim that their dogs are doing fine on a vegetarian diet, but the jury is still out because this is a very new development.  Those who are trying such plans must do so incredibly carefully, as there is no room for error.  It is a difficult balance.  Many of these diets still heavily feature animal products such as eggs and dairy protein.  Though it is an option some may wish to try, most veterinarians advise extreme caution.  

Obviously dog owners considering this option love their dogs, and want the best for them.  But doesn't it seem that an option so fraught with warnings, that is so difficult to sort out and maintain and that must be handled with immense caution is, perhaps, something that we should think twice about?  Shouldn't we examine all the facts and all our motivations?  This diet seems, in so many ways, to be not in accordance with much of what a dog's intrinsic make up tells us.  It is worth asking yourself if this might be an issue that has become a bit clouded by the feelings of the owners rather than simply and exclusively what is best for the dog. 

Why do people make the argument that dogs are omnivores?  A true omnivore can survive quite well on a vegetarian diet, without such intense caution, and their biological construction is geared to give them that option.  An examination of dogs from an physiological and behavior point of view points to carnivore - the teeth, digestive system, claws, instincts and behavior in nature reveal a facultative carnivore.   Further, though a dog may be perfectly happy to eat kale fried with bacon, dogs do not by nature ever rely exclusively on vegetarian options.  To do so would lead to serious health issues.   Perhaps the reason  some make this argument has more to do with our wishes than the facts.  

Making the right choice for dogs:

We should also be a bit wary of stretching to define dogs this way.  By classing dogs as omnivores, it opens the door to pet foods manufactured based on far less expensive ingredients but not actually nutritionally appropriate for a long term diet for a dog.  Is this really in the best interest of your dog?  The fact that dog owners seeking this option love their dogs and want the best for them is not in question.  We may have some personal issues with eating meat, concerns about the meat industry, and feel that vegetarian is a safer option for us personally.  But we run into trouble when we blur the lines of our species, and begin to apply our very human feelings, human needs and desires, human biology and human nature to our pets.  They may be your best friend, but the fact remains that your dog is very different from you.  The safest option, and the healthiest, is a diet based on your dog's special canine nature, which is that of a facultative carnivore - a carnivore who can also supplement his diet with some non-animal-based foods.

So why do we want this option?

So why is this a problem for pet owners?  For most it is not.  But I have to confess, as a lifelong vegetarian, I have had my moments where I wished my kitty and my pup could eat like I do, that I could share my meals with them, that they could go veggie too.  For a vegan or vegetarian dog or cat owner, this subject can be a an emotional one.  It's important we sort through the conflicting feelings and ideas to reach the right decisions for our pets, and ultimately for ourselves and our own peace of mind.

 First of all, we love our pets and want the very best for them.  If we feel strongly about a particular type of diet, then of course we will want our pets to benefit too.  But again, we have to remember that our pets are not furry little humans.  They are very different from us.  It is that difference that can make our relationship with them so wonderful, a way of relating to nature, and to what is beautiful in living creatures, more closely than we can through our fellow humans alone.  In order to honor that relationship, we need to respect and value those differences.  Though they are a part of our families, we should not think of our pets as little people, no matter how clever they are.

Making peace with animal nature and providing the best possible diet:

For many vegetarians, dealing with this issue can be more than just diet choices, and it is important to face the feelings that drive us as we approach these decisions.  Often vegetarianism is the chosen option because they death of an animal is simply too personally troubling.  Concerns about the meat industry and the environment may factor in as well.  Therefore, for such vegetarians, serving meat to a pet can be a very troubling thing.  

But to love animals and to love nature is to accept it for what it is.  We are so very lucky, as humans, to have the kinds of choices we have.  But though we can choose to live our lives without eating meat, and can express our choices in this way, we also must accept nature and accept that the animals we so love do not all have such choices, that their biological nature prevents such options.  To love an animal is to accept how nature made it.  Yes, it can feel sad or difficult.  But we cannot change it, and it is the circle of life, and the fundamental nature of many lovable animals in the world with us.  So part of loving your pet means having the strength to accept this hard fact. 

For those who really cannot accept feeding meat to a pet, the best option may be to get a pet that is by nature herbivorous (doesn't need meat to live), such as a bunny, a parrot, or a guinea pig.  Otherwise, you can also look for pet foods that are humanely manufactured and use the safest, least artificial and chemically altered ingredients, just as you do for yourself.   But if you choose a cat or dog, then you need to make your peace with their nature.  Just as you are careful about what you put in your own body and know the importance of a balanced diet, you should always do the same for your pet.  

Whatever you choose to feed your cat or dog, make sure that this diet is in keeping with what its body and its fundamental nature needs to stay healthy and strong.  Sensitive vegetarian pet owners should take some comfort and not feel guilty - Remember, you didn't make these rules, and neither did your pet.  Choosing wisely, carefully and humanely for all creatures involved, and feeding your pet the diet that its nature requires is another way that you show your love, acceptance and appreciation of animals and the nature that made them.  

By Jeanette at Grace


By: Victor B
On: 05/13/2015 09:04:47
Love this article. Thank you.
By: Anna
On: 05/13/2015 09:09:18
Great article! Really helpful too. I know a lot of vegetarians and they can sometimes be a little too enthusiastic about their life choices, especially new converts. I've got no problem with that, and no problem hearing them out. I often think I'd maybe like to try being vegetarian. But I do think it carries too far when youstart including dogs and cats. Thanks for explaining why.

Cute cat by the way!
By: Catherine Jenkins
On: 05/13/2015 09:16:36
Agree! Dogs and cats need meat to live. If you love your pets, get over it and feed them what they need.

Yes - that is a beautiful cat. Very lovely markings. Cute dog too, though not so sure giving him beer is a great idea... Ha ha ha.
By: John
On: 05/13/2015 11:33:58
Well well well... It seems to me anyone thinking they can skip the meat with a cat or dog is a bit loopy. This is a good story though, because we have so many feelings about food these days, and it can leak into our lives in ways that are not healthy. And it features some very adorable animal pictures.
By: Adam
On: 06/15/2015 09:25:38
I think whats good about this is people who give up meat sometimes have good intentions but can get emotional about it. Another comment said they are nuts but it isn't that. I think because a lot of hype in the media about all kinds of food dangers, and fad diets can make people a little too into that kind of stuff and then they think the dog or can can do it too. So it's good that this is talked about in light of the shift more and more to new kinds of diet trends
By: Eric
On: 06/15/2015 09:32:46
That dog is cute and so is the cat but dogs can't have beer you know. My dad sometimes drinks that and i had a little taste of it one time and it wasn't good and i dont think my dog would like that and anyways she cant have that. I have a jack russel terier called Mildred and i have a cat too and he is all white with a black spot on his back and also has a spot on his chest and he is named Spot too because my mom thout it was funny to call him spot. they eat meat out of cans made for them especially and i don't eat that but once I tasted the dogs food and it was not very good but she likes it a lot. I won't give them beer or vegetables and i love my pets.
By: John
On: 06/22/2015 02:16:18
It kind of seems like it would be obvious. But when you think about it, I can see how it isn't. These days there are so many diets, and it seems like endless information about nutrition, health environment and how food connects to that. People can get really passionate about it, and I guess sometimes the boundaries can get blurred. I liked how this article addressed the emotional side of it - which is a big part of how we view eating these days and leaks into so manyparts of our lives. It's important we have some perspective, and keep nature, biology, realty in check and find ways to reconcile that to our feelings. Thanks for the good ideas, info and advice
On: 07/17/2015 01:19:43
Very good post. I am facing a few of these issues as well..

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