Though most vegetarians feed their pets meat or fish without flinching, some vegetarians abhor the idea of their animals eating other animals.
“A vegetarian diet for your companion animal is ethically consistent with animal rights philosophy,” says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Though forcing pets to live by their owners’ philosophy is unprecedented in the 15,000 years humans have been caring for pets, some vegetarians want even their pets’ nutritional supplements to be plant-based.
“If vegetarians can feed their animal a healthy diet that is vegetarian, they feel more comfortable,” says Kathy Guillermo, vice president of laboratory investigations at PETA.
But at the heart of PETA’s support of vegetarian pet diets is its objection to meat-based pet food companies conducting research on animals. Vegetarian pet food does not involve animal testing, Guillermo said. “PETA’s primary concern regarding food for companion animals is the many currently available products which are needlessly tested on animals,” she said.
But that very lack of testing is a sticking point with some veterinary experts, who argue that without such testing, the diets cannot be properly evaluated. Makers of vegetarian pet food should be willing to submit to the Association of American Feed Control Officials feeding trials for evaluation, they say.
Though vegetarian diets for dogs can be nutritionally complete, animal welfare advocates, and even some vegetarian groups, say feeding vegetarian diets to cats cannot be done correctly.
“At first, cats may appear to be doing satisfactorily on vegetarian or vegan diets,” says the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “But over time nutritional deficiencies may occur. When it comes to felines, it really is best to provide a diet that includes meat.”
But James Peden, a leading proponent of vegetarian pet diets, and author of Vegetarian Cats & Dogs, says nutrients missing from vegetables can be added through dietary supplements — his, for instance.
Peden’s company, Harbingers of a New Age, sells Vegepet supplements. Their nutrients are derived from plants to compensate for the nutrients plants lack. Its Vegecat KibbleMix uses vegetarian sources for the essential nutrient taurine found in mollusks, as well as for the vitamin A and arachidonic acid found in liver and fish oils.
Though cats are unable to convert the beta-carotene in plants into vitamin A, they can from Vegepet supplements, according to Harbingers. “The vitamin A that we use is the synthetic acetate form is easily assimilated,” Peden said.
Research into whether cats can thrive on vegetarian diets has been contradictory.
A 2009 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association study found that all the cats fed a vegetarian diet had adequate Vitamin B12 concentrations, and most had adequate taurine levels.
And yet another study published in the journal two years earlier found that both Vegecat KibbleMix and another vegetarian pet food had multiple nutritional inadequacies, particularly taurine.
Harbingers attributed the test results to manufacturing error during mixing as well as to an inaccurate nutrient profile of a food yeast, and corrected the problem.
“We’ve never had a recurrence of that incident, which most likely only affected 14 pounds of supplement, caused by operator error,” Peden said.
The oldest vegetarian organization in the world, The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, advises caution when feeding dogs a vegetarian diet, and downright warns against feeding vegetarian diets to cats.
The high fiber content of vegetarian cat food can be filling but not adequately nutritious, the society says. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in the vegetable oils can cause a vitamin E deficiency related illness, as well, it says.
“Consider carefully before changing your cat to a vegetarian diet, says The Vegetarian Society. “Cats require certain nutrients that cannot be obtained in sufficient amounts from plants.”
When it comes to feeding pets — especially cats — a vegetarian diet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration puts it more plainly: “They simply are not intended to eat only plants.”
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