In June 2016, a Tumblr user named sfveganyogi posted a photo of the dinner she was about to give to Maggie, her pet Labrador, reported Stephen Dowling of BBC Future, a British news website dedicated to publishing content on every topic. She wrote that her dog would have pureed sweet potato, pureed brown rice, sprouted organic tofu, chia seeds, and digestive enzymes.
Many internet users pointed out that she was feeding Maggie pureed root vegetables and tofu instead of meat-based alternatives. The post went viral and the vegan Tumblr user left her account. Veganism and plant-based diets are trending among consumers, but is it safe for our fur buddies to completely give up on meat?
Study Sheds Light On Feeding Plant-Based Foods to Pets
Sarah A. S. Dodd and colleagues of Plos One, a peer-reviewed journal portal, said 3,673 questionnaires were complete enough to be included for statistical analysis. Participants consisted of dog owners (51%), cat owners (16%), owners of both dogs and cats (33%). 84% of pet owners reporting eating an omnivorous diet, with 5.8% identifying as vegan, 6.2% as vegetarian, and 4% as pescetarian. Vegetarianism was reported more in females (6%) than males (3%). Meanwhile, veganism was reported more in males (8.3%) than females (5.8%).
Overall, 51% of respondents said they had at least one concern regarding meat-based pet food. According to the authors, the figure totaled to 5,115 concerns reported about meat-based pet foods. Pet owners above 60 years reported fewer concerns (42%) than younger age groups. Concerns were frequently more cited by UK respondents (55%) than those in the US (42%). The most common concern cited by the respondents was the welfare of farmed animals (39% of pet owners).
97% of dogs and 99% of cats were fed with food that contained meat. Daily feeding of kibble was observed in 61% of dogs and 69% of cats. Daily feeding of conventional canned food was reported for 15% of dogs and 44% of cats. 10.4% of dogs and 3.3% of cats were intermittently fed a vegetarian diet or plant-based foods. However, exclusive feeding of plant-based diets was reported only by vegans and one vegetarian. Overall, 1.6% of dogs and 0.7% of cats were fed a strictly plant-based diet.
Of these, 91% of dogs and 73% of cats were fed a commercial plant-based diet along with some homemade foods. Meanwhile, 2% of dogs and 18% of cats fed with plant-based diets were given a homemade plant-based diet exclusively. 27% of vegans fed their pets a plant-based diet, however, 78% of vegan pet owners said they would feed a plant-based diet to their pet if one were available.
Overall, 35% of pet owners who did not already let their pet consume a plant-based diet said they were interested in doing so, with 55% saying further stipulations needed to be met before they let their pet consume a plant-based diet. Of these, 45% stated that they need further evidence of nutritional sufficiency, along with veterinary approval (20%) and greater availability (20%). 65% of pet owners admitted that they would allow their pet to consume a plant-based diet, even if one existed that met all of their criteria.
Nutritional sufficiency of most plant-based diets has yet to be shown, the authors noted. Few studies have also tackled the short or long-term effects of plant-based diets on pet health. The findings revealed that more research is needed regarding plant-based foods for dogs and cats.
Going Vegan and Plant-Based With Cats
Cats are obligate carnivores, so a vegetarian or a vegan diet is not advisable, stated Daniella Dos Santos, the president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA). Cats require certain amounts of amino acids to stay healthy. A lack of these amino acids can lead to health complications.
Cats cannot produce certain proteins like taurine by themselves. In fact, they have to get it from food such as chicken, fish, and beef. If they don’t have taurine, they are at risk of suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), according to the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a non-profit organization. “They can't digest plant material well, and they require essential nutrients that only meat can provide to them,” the ASPCA said.
Still, this does not stop companies such as Italian-based firm Ami from producing vegan cat food. Ami sells vegan cat food fortified with taurine and other essential proteins. However, veterinarians agree that cats are unlikely to thrive on a vegan or a plant-based diet.
The Theoretical Possibility of Feeding Dogs A Plant-Based Diet
In the wild, wolves consume meat, as well as eggs, berries, and grass if vitamins are lacking. Dogs may also have grown accustomed to a diet containing less meat and more plant starch. They have amylase genes, meaning they can digest plant starch, which might be due to dogs feeding on scraps left for them around campfires during prehistoric times.
This means dogs have the upper hand when transitioning them to a plant-based diet. However, Dos Santos warned that transitioning to a plant-based diet is not simple. She commented, “It is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right. You would have to do it under the supervision of a veterinary-trained nutritionist.”
Are Crickets the Alternative?
Haley Russell and Laura Colagrande founded pet food company Chipin, in which their pet foods contain crickets. While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, they found that crickets are rich in vitamins and minerals. Russell explained, “It gives you all 10 of the essential amino acids your dog needs – they’re the 10 building blocks your dog can’t make itself without.”
He added that dogs love the taste of crickets, saying the company wanted to produce healthy, but delicious pet food. Crickets could also be a potential source of food for cats, at least in the future, Russell stated. He said, “Insects can help with the challenges of cat food diets because they are a complete protein. But we are focused on dogs for now.”
Owners are not advised to feed their cats a plant-based diet due to their need for taurine. For dogs, it is possible to feed them a plant-based diet, but owners will need to consult a veterinarian first. Crickets can be an alternative to the plant-based food. However, research needs to be done to validate such assertions.