Did you know that vegetarians and vegans make up approximately ten percent of the Canadian population? With more than three million plant-based eaters in this country, there is certainly no shortage of demand for plant-based food options for people. Whether its for ethical, environmental, or nutritional reasons, Canada is clearly experiencing a culture shift when it comes to the foods we consume.

There are an estimated eight-million cats and six-million dogs in Canada, so naturally, there is a broad spectrum of personal preferences and values that play roles in how we feed our pets. 

One of the fastest growing trends among dogs and cats in North America are plant-based, meat-free food options. Whether this rise in demand is due to health concerns, environmental impact, or personal values, there is much concern as to whether plant-based diets for dogs and cats are appropriate, healthy, and sustainable.

As omnivores, dogs can certainly live healthy and happy lives on a well-balanced, plant-based diet. The canine body has the ability to obtain all the amino acids it needs without consuming animal-based ingredients. The real stipulation here is ensuring a vegetarian dog is eating a steady diet consisting of nutritiously dense, high-protein, wholesome ingredients like whole grains, beans, lentils, and vegetables. Even the oldest living dog on record, according to the Guinness Book of World Records – Bramble, a twenty seven year old Border Collie, was exclusively fed a plant-based diet. 

Can Cats Eat A Vegan Diet?

Cats, on the other hand, have a much different set of biological dietary requirements. Cats are deemed obligate carnivores, meaning they cannot achieve their nutritional needs from plants alone. For cats, eating meat is more of a necessity than a preference. Unlike dogs, cats lack the ability to synthesize certain essential amino acids, like taurine. Without enough taurine, cats are at high risk of developing serious health problems, like blindness, and a potentially fatal form of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy. Taurine cannot be found in plant sources; it can only be naturally derived from meat or milk. 

Other key nutrients cats cannot obtain through plants include vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Insufficient amounts of these vitamins may result in heart and liver problems, hearing loss, skin irritations, digestive problems, and reproductive issues.

With that said, it is possible for a cat to survive on an exclusively plant-based diet, providing they have the right amount of carefully planned supplementation. Regular monitoring and testing is highly advised in these situations. Continual testing for urinary PH is recommended, as plant-based proteins make for a more alkaline PH, which may result in the development of struvite crystals. Conversely, meat-based proteins, which cats have evolved to eat, are acidic in nature. It is also advised to perform regular blood tests to check for signs of illness. 

Is A Plant Based Diet Safe For Cats?

It is important to understand, however, that while cats can survive on a plant-based diet, that does not mean they will thrive on one. The metabolism of cats, and their gastrointestinal tract are optimized for low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets. Carnivores have a much shorter intestine than herbivores or omnivores, as they typically consume a diet consisting of tissue and meat akin to their own. This results in a very short and simple digestive process. They also do not contain salivary enzymes; something present in omnivores and herbivores. 

Carnivores digest plant-matter poorly, and have difficulty digesting carbohydrate-rich foods. The majority of digestion dependent enzymes are found in the small intestines of a carnivore, rather than in the mouth, stomach, and intestines of omnivores and herbivores. Consequently, this is what makes it difficult for our feline companions to obtain adequate nutrition from plant-based sources, regardless of the nutrient density of the plant matter they consume. 

Plant-based foods are more difficult to break down than meat and tissue, thus the digestive system of a herbivore is much different. In order to effectively break down plant-based foods, herbivores utilize the digestive process of fermentation. By using certain microflora, plant material is broken down in a manner which releases nutrients to be readily absorbed by the body. Carnivores are incapable of fermenting foods for digestion, a process fundamental to fully digesting plant matter. 

So, what does science tell us about vegan diets for cats? When it comes to funding for research on plant-based diets for cats, it is minuscule compared to the ongoing research for their meat-based counterparts. There seems to be a lack of reputable studies evaluating the long-term effects on cats eating a manufactured, highly-supplemented vegetarian or vegan diet. Much of the information online regarding plant-based cat lifestyles is largely anecdotal. 

Do Vegan Cat Foods Exist?

There are a small number of commercially-made vegan/vegetarian cat foods on the market, however the quality of these products leave much to be desired, as they are mainly formulated with less desirable ingredients like corn and rice. These ingredients are rarely found in high-quality pet foods, especially those formulated for obligate carnivores. While these brands do their best to ensure nutritional completeness, these are highly processed products enhanced with synthetic additives. The real question is whether synthetic nutrients are an adequate long-term substitute for those of naturally-occurring, unprocessed sources? Is substituting biologically appropriate ingredients for low-quality filler and synthetic nutritional additives a sustainable means of supporting a cat’s core dietary requirements? 

There is one food, however, that we would recommend for cats. Nature’s Hug, made in Canada, is a plant-based cat food with a twist; it uses mycoprotein, a form of nutritional yeast, that has an almost identical amino acid protein profile to chicken. It uses a unique set of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics that are the most biologically appropriate for cats, to ensure optimal digestion in the intestines. This is the only plant-based cat food brand we would recommend.

About Brandon Forder

Brandon holds multiple certifications in pet nutrition and canine psychology. He has more than twenty-five years experience specializing in pet nutrition, behaviour, and healthy pet lifestyles. Brandon has a lifelong passion for helping people become great pet parents. He has written hundreds of informative pet-related articles for newspapers, magazines, web, and radio.

7 Responses

  1. “Because of the fungi-like bacteria used to create this protein, some may not consider it to be vegan.”

    What are you even talking about? Vegans are all for eating fermented food and eating fungi. That’s such a strange comment to make.

    1. Hello, Vincent. Thank you for bringing this up. The original intent of that comment was to align with the manufacturer’s stance on their interpretation of vegan. Upon reflection, I agree with your comments and have removed that sentence.

      Thank you for the assist!

  2. Thx you my cat has developed allergies to meat! And has a thyroid and beginning stages of chronic kidney disease. We are trying to figure out what she can eat to support her health

    1. Hello, Jennifer. Thank you for your post.

      I’m sorry to hear about your cat’s health challenges. Managing a cat with both allergies and chronic conditions like thyroid and kidney disease requires a careful approach to nutrition. Here’s a general guideline to help support her health:

      Meat Allergies: Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their diet requires nutrients found primarily in animal products. If your cat is allergic to specific meats, it’s crucial to identify which meats cause reactions and avoid them. There are commercial cat foods formulated with novel proteins (such as duck, venison, or rabbit) that your cat may not have been exposed to and therefore might not be allergic to. Hydrolyzed protein diets, where the protein is broken down so the immune system doesn’t recognize it as an allergen, might also be an option.

      Thyroid Issues: Cats with thyroid problems often require a controlled diet. Depending on whether your cat is hyperthyroid or hypothyroid (commonly hyperthyroid in cats), the dietary needs can vary. For hyperthyroid cats, a controlled iodine diet may sometimes be recommended, but this should be discussed with your veterinarian as it’s not suitable for all cases.

      Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD): CKD requires a diet low in phosphorus to help manage the disease progression. Many prescription renal diets are formulated to support cats with CKD, offering reduced protein levels, lower phosphorus, and increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids to help improve kidney function. There are also non-prescription brands like Forza10 Renal Cat which is a very popular option as it is significantly higher in quality compared to veterinary brands at a better price.

      Based on the limited information provided, I would advise:

      Consult with a Veterinarian: Before making any dietary changes, it’s vital to consult with a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist. They can provide recommendations based on your cat’s specific needs and may suggest blood work or other tests to tailor the diet appropriately.
      Hydration: Ensuring your cat remains well-hydrated is crucial, especially with CKD. Wet food diets or adding water or broth to food can help with hydration.
      Regular Monitoring: Regular check-ups with your vet to monitor your cat’s condition and adjust the diet as needed are essential for managing chronic conditions.

      It’s a challenging situation, but with careful management and ongoing veterinary care, it’s possible to support your cat’s health and quality of life. Please feel free to reach out if you have any more questions or need further assistance.

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