Vegan Cats: Paws for Thought?
Last year, 8 years after our last cat died, my partner and I adopted an adult male through the Cats Protection League, and called him Moby. He’s the best thing to happen to us in a long time: an endless source of joy and amusement.
The only downside: the daily dealings with death. I’d forgotten how disturbing it is to dish up smelly lumps of meat. But what choice do we have, when cats are obligate carnivores? Predators FFS! It would be cruel, even fatal, to wilfully deprive them of their natural birthright? Right?
Well, maybe. And, maybe not … Aside from the fact that we’re talking about domesticated animals and not cougars, things have moved on in the last 9 years. There’s now a vegan cat food industry, with several companies making nutritionally balanced meat-free formulas. Popular brands include Ami, Benevo, VegeCat, and VeGourmet. Many are widely available online.
Secondly, there’s a growing market for these products: a small but vocal minority of vegans who are committed to reducing their cats’ reliance on the abattoir. In some cases, managing to cut ties altogether.
At the time of writing, the Facebook group Vegan Cats has 2610 members. The description states: “This group is designed to promote the feeding of ethical diets to domesticated cats. Ethical in this instance refers to the fact that animals are not food. The group does not support using animals as food at all”.
Now this doesn’t mean there are 2,600 vegan cats out there, but it does show increasing interest. The subject, however, remains hotly contested. Vegans in the opposing camp have their own Facebook group Vegans & Cats, with 1367 members.
They say: “ We believe we show compassion by honoring our cats as obligate carnivores – as their biology and physiology deem appropriate. By contrast, we believe it shows lack of compassion to force feed vegan diets to our cats, and further, we believe a force-fed vegan diet may be detrimental to our cats’ health”.
The idea that meat is crucial for cats is the prevailing view, and it’s one I shared myself nine years ago. Now I’m not so sure. If anything, I’m more persuaded by the pro-vegan cat food lobby.
For one thing, the language of the ‘antis’ bugs me – particularly the f-word: “force”. I see it used time and time again in online debates. And frankly, it’s overkill.
The truth is we all ‘force’ a diet on our feline dependents. For the vast majority (95%), this means conventional cat food: mass-produced, highly processed junk from condemned carcasses and waste products. “Healthy”, “natural” and “nutritious” it is not. This is the meat industry, remember, one that cares as little for cats as the animals it slaughters: its pet products a ghastly laundering racket.
According to the Guardian: “Pet food is not covered by the same labelling requirements as food for humans. “EC permitted additives” covers a multitude of sins, including 4,000 chemicals and artificial colours banned for human consumption. “Meat and animal derivatives” can cover anything scraped off the slaughterhouse floor, while “derivatives of vegetable origin” is so broad as to include charcoal”
Even more interesting is the article’s revelation about taurine, a crucial feline nutrient found only in meat: “One of the biggest concerns for cats is the risk of taurine deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death if not treated. Most meaty cat food has taurine added back, because the processing of meats removes it”.
To be clear, this is saying that ‘normal’ meat-based cat food is so deficient in taurine that it has to be supplemented with a synthetic version. The same taurine used in plant-based brands. Hmm, maybe vegan cat food’s not so freaky after all?
And surely worth a shot, given the growing number of supportive vets. Dr Andrew Knight and Armaiti May are such two leaders in this field. Andrew has researched pet food extensively and created an informative website that’s well worth checking out: www.vegepets.info
He says: “It’s undeniably true that cats evolved as hunters, and have senses, locomotor systems, teeth and digestive systems optimised to help them catch and consume prey animals. And yet, like all species, cats need specific nutrients; not specific ingredients. There’s no reason why diets cannot be formulated to meet cats’ nutritional needs based entirely on vegetable, mineral and synthetic ingredients, and indeed, a number of such diets are now available. And as one would expect, provided cats receive all their nutritional needs, the existing evidence from population studies and case reports indicates they’re quite capable of thriving on these diets.”
It can certainly take courage to go where few have gone before. Especially when vets more typically write articles called ‘Don’t Force Your Pet to Be Vegan’ (spot the F-word), asserting that this “is tantamount to animal abuse”.
Accusations of animal abuse are heavy for anyone, and especially for vegans. Perhaps that’s why so few people with vegan cats volunteered to be interviewed for this piece. Benevo, who kindly shared my search for interviewees on their Facebook page, suspect that people “fear judgement”. Thankfully, two did step up.
Fran Derbyshire from Brighton fed her cat Oscar a vegan diet for the last 8 years of his life, until the ripe old age of 21. He was on Benevo dry and “took to it straight away”.
Positive changes included “Bright eyes, great coat”, and at check ups vets “were always impressed”. Fran urges interested parties to “Research extensively online from experts, but also cat owners too. Forums etc”. She also suggests writing to manufacturers “with any concerns you have, as they have more info than anyone”.
Ren Wilhelmi lives in Hamburg and has two cats. Tammy, who’s been vegan for 8 ½ years, and Kater, a male, for 6. Tammy had been overweight prior to starting a vegan diet, and is now a normal weight.
“Tammy was very easy to convert to a vegan diet”, says Ren. “I actually offered her meat-based and vegan kibble for the first couple of days, but she would only eat the vegan kibble. Kater had a transition period of 2 maybe 2 ½ years”.
In 2013, both cats took part in a study by a student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna called Vegan Nutrition of Dogs and Cats, which involved them being assessed by a vet. “The results showed two healthy cats, with nothing to worry about”.
Ren feeds Ami Cat and Benevo kibble. “First they liked Ami Cat more, but now they like both the same. They eat about 70 grams per day, each. Some, I offer soaked in water, Kater likes that a lot, but he also likes it dry. Tammy only eats kibble”.
She adds: “I see to it that both cats always drink enough water. This is very important to minimise the risk of crystals in the urinary tract. It can be quite a challenge to make a cat a good drinker, but if you watch them carefully, they are too glad to tell you how they like you to present them their water. Of course, this can vary from cat to cat, so this is really very individual”
Ren is spot on here. My own cat Moby likes drinking from the tap. I thought he was an oddball, until I saw some people saying they had water fountains.
On forums, many say their cats are thriving on a vegan diet. Some feed a nutritionally balanced formula, some make their own food and add VegeCat (a supplement), and others feed a mixture of both. I guess it depends on your cat’s preference, and the amount of time you can devote to their food.
The Vegan Society advises consulting a vet when switching cats to a vegan diet. I’d recommend getting blood and urine PH tests as well as a check up. Not just to reveal any underlying health issues, but to track positive changes too. Vets may be skeptical, but encouragingly, forum members report that many change their minds after seeing improvements.
Some cats, older ones for example, and those with pre-existing health issues may not be able to adapt to vegan diets. As with any companion animal, it’s important to monitor their health. But more so with cats, whose discomfort can be harder to spot. As Ren mentioned above, urinary tract crystals can be problem for domestic cats, vegan and non-vegan alike, especially males (older males being particularly vulnerable). This can be aggravated by dry food and alkaline diets.
It’s important to get the right ratio of dry/wet food, as there are pros and cons with both. Vet Andrew Knight advises “Wet is better for urinary system and weight loss, and dry better for teeth. For most cats a mix of the two, but vary accordingly if there are problems with any of these body systems”.
Critics say there’s no such thing as a “vegan cat”, since they will still kill/eat birds and mice. True, but “vegan” is really referring to the food we give them. In any case, the question of cats killing wildlife is a not a trivial one. In the UK it’s estimated that domestic cats kill 275 million animals a year: a staggering figure, with the average cat responsible for the deaths of 30-40 creatures. The Mammal Society, who commissioned this survey (2001), suggest cat lovers keep their pets indoors at night (cats’ preferred hunting time).
PETA go further, arguing that: “All cats should be indoor cats”. But this is on the grounds that the outside world is now too dangerous for cats, with busy roads, incurable viruses and ruthless traffickers.
That’s a step too far for me. I’m lucky to have a (safe) garden, and love seeing Moby enjoy it. But I’m certainly open to restricting the time he spends outside.
As for Moby’s diet, he’s currently on a mix of meat-based and vegan food, which includes Ami Cat formula. I hope to transition further, increasing the vegan ratio as we go, as long as he will eat it and stays healthy. So far, so good…
For now, I’m happier knowing that at least some of my money is going to vegan and eco-friendly companies who share my values. And less to an industry I want to put out of business.
References and resources:
Bite Size Vegan compelling 5 min video on pet food: video
Guardian article: online
PETA’s position: http://www.peta.org/living/companion-animals/vegetarian-cats-dogs/
Vegan blogger Colleen Patrick Goudreau: video
Cats impact on wildlife: Daily Mail article