Should dogs or cats be vegetarians?
I could answer that in one short word, ‘No’. There’s a difference between ‘should’ verses ‘could’. It’s possible to do this, especially for dogs, but it’s not without real risks and isn’t something to be undertaken lightly or haphazardly. Inflicting human cultural decisions on our companion animals (who have no say in the matter) is probably a bit questionable no matter how well intended.
Although dogs and cats are both classified as carnivores, their nutrient requirements are not the same. Dogs’ metabolisms approach those of omnivores, whereas the metabolism of cats is that of a strict (or ‘obligate’) carnivore, and both animals utilise nutrients differently from humans.
Vitamins A and D: Dogs and cats can’t make Vitamin D in their skin like us, so it needs to be in their diet. And it needs to be D3 which is found in animal sources, not D2. People and dogs can use D2 to some extent, but cats really need D3. Cats need preformed Vitamin A (from animal sources) in their diet as well, since they can’t synthesise it from beta-carotene.
Taurine: Dogs can make adequate taurine from dietary protein building blocks. Cats are unable to make sufficient taurine from building blocks and must get it from animal sources (ie it’s an essential amino acid in this species). Taurine deficiency leads to heart failure amongst other things.
Arachidonic Acid: This essential fatty acid for cats is found in animal tissue in natural diets. Cats are unable to synthesise it. Deficiencies cause fertility and blood clotting problems.
Other issues include inadequate or poor quality protein, which can affect the synthesis and uptake of other vitamins and minerals such as niacin and thiamine (deficiencies in which cause severe neurological issues in cats).
Most vegetarian diets for pets will be home made to a greater or lesser extent. It’s worthwhile considering that studies of home-made meat-based diets have revealed about 85-90% of them as nutritionally inadequate, including those formulated by non-dietary-specialist vets. So the chances of significant deficiencies in vegetarian diets for dogs, and especially cats, is great.
Here are a few pointers in case you feel compelled to give a vego diet a crack.
• Never feed vegetarian diets to kittens, puppies or breeding animals.
• Consult with a specialist Veterinary Dietitian.
• Arrange at least 2 wellness exams a year, including blood tests.
• Make sure any commercial diets claiming to be vegetarian are certified by accredited veterinary regulators.
There are ways to get around feeding inappropriate vegetarian diets to dogs and cats. This involves giving supplements to compensate for the deficiencies that would otherwise occur. Supplementation is complex and easily mismanaged, and the risk of serious health problems is high. In short, if you want to feed your pet a vegetarian diet, get a rabbit or a goat!