Can pets leave on beans?
Veganism is on the rise: there are now 542,000 people in Britain following a vegan diet, never consuming any animal products including meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs and honey. If vegetarians (i.e. those who refuse meat but eat milk and eggs) are included, the total moves up to 1.68 million people. These figures have been increasing year on year, and with a higher proportion of young people taking the “no meat” pledge, it's likely to be a long term trend.
Non-meat eaters are often also pet-owners, which presents an immediate source of cognitive dissonance: in a meat-free household, what do you feed animals that are habitually meat eaters?
Dogs can adapt to a no-meat diet
It's simple enough with dogs: despite their origins, dogs have evolved to be omnivores, naturally equipped to eat plant-based food. As long as their diet is complete and balanced, they can be vegetarian, or even vegan. The safest way to do this is to purchase a commercially manufactured complete vegetarian dog food that has gone through feeding trials. Such products are legally obliged to fulfil specific nutritional criteria, formulated by professional nutritionists. Dogs can do well on a non-meat diet: in one recent study, even hard-working, sprint-racing sled-pulling Huskies were able to thrive on a balanced meat-free diet.
"Dogs have evolved to be omnivores, naturally equipped to eat plant-based food"
It's risky to stop feeding meat to cats
Cats are much more complicated than dogs: they are “obligate carnivores”. The feline anatomy and metabolism have evolved specifically for processing meals derived from small prey. While their anatomy and digestive system can adapt (cats can eat and digest plant-based food), there are critical aspects of their metabolism that have an absolute need for nutrients that are only commonly found in meat.
If you are going to insist on feeding your cat a strict vegan diet, you need to accept that there is a risk to your cats' long term health
These nutrients include specific amino acids (the building blocks of protein), essential fatty acids, and vitamins that are primarily found in meat. If cats aren't given these essential nutrients in their diet, they will not thrive, and they're likely to become seriously ill, with a shortened life span. While it's possible to feed cats on a vegetarian or vegan diet, topping this up with artificially manufactured plant-sourced supplements to replace those normally found in meat, there are mixed reports of the consequences. By the way, vegan cats need to be kept indoors all the time: if they're allowed outside, they'll rapidly revert to their carnivorous ways by hunting down local rodents and birds.
What's the answer for vegan cat owners?
What do I say to strict vegan cat owners who want to force their cats to be vegan? First, you're sharing a home with obligate carnivores: do you really think it's fair to ask them to change their natural way of existence to fit in with your personal beliefs? And second, if you are going to insist, you need to accept that there is a risk to your cats' long term health. To minimise the risk, choose a commercial non-meat cat diet that has been proven by undergoing proper feeding trials that have been independently reviewed (and such a product may not be available at the moment). And liaise closely with your vet, with regular visits to check their weight and body condition, as well as doing urine and blood tests to monitor their metabolism.
As veganism moves more mainstream, it's likely that a wider, more acceptable range of meat-free pet diets will reach the market. But by then, it may be time to review that other conundrum of the vegan philosophy: is it right to force animals to be pets in the first place?
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