Does a Vegetarian Diet Work for Cats?
As vegetarian and vegan diets become more popular among people, more pet owners are considering converting their dogs and cats to similar diets. The question about the viability of a vegetarian diet for dogs is complicated and extensively debated; the question of whether a vegetarian diet works for cats is much more clear-cut.
The general consensus currently (and this could change) is that while it is possible for a cat to survive on a vegetarian diet with considerable synthetic supplement usage, it is not advisable to feed your cat a vegetarian diet.
Felines Are Obligate Carnivores
This means cats have to eat meat. Cats are designed to consume meat and that is generally biologically necessary for their survival.
The entire feline digestive tract, from the mouth to the end of the intestines and all the organs and enzymes and microflora in between, is designed to break down and derive nutrients from meat rather than plant-based foods. Cats get energy from the protein and fats in meat rather than from the carbohydrates in plant-based foods. The plant world does not provide all the nutrients cats must get through dietary intake because cats cannot naturally produce these nutrients on their own.
What Cats Need from Meat
Cats require numerous protein amino acids found in meat, which is a source of complete protein. While a variety of whole grains and legumes can be combined to provide complete protein, cats are not built to digest these foods and absorb the nutrients they provide. This approach of combining whole grains and legumes can work in omnivores—and even scavenging carnivores like canines—but it does not work in cats.
Additionally, cats must obtain through dietary intake, certain nutrients that are found primarily in animal-based foods. The amino acid taurine, vitamin D3 and vitamin B12 are not found in any significant amounts in plant-based foods. Others, like other B vitamins and arachidonic acid, a fatty acid, are also rarely found in any significant amounts in plant-based foods, and again, the feline digestive system is not generally capable of harvesting these nutrients from plant-based sources.
Cats with these and other nutritional deficiencies can suffer from a variety of ailments, many of which become life-threatening over time, and some of which are irreversible. Taurine deficiency is one of the more common complications of a vegetarian diet for cats. It can develop quickly and, among other things, can lead to an enlarged heart with impaired ability to circulate blood, a condition called taurine-related dilated cardiomyopathy.
Other common complications of nutritional deficiencies that can result in cats eating a vegetarian diet include eye disease, blindness, blood disorders, skin and coat problems, immune system dysfunction, inflammatory problems, digestive disorders, failure to thrive, neurological disorders and more.
What about Supplements?
While cats have a biological imperative to eat meat, it is, as mentioned above, theoretically possible for a cat to survive on a vegetarian diet which includes specific daily dietary supplements.
If you are considering this option for your cat, also consider whether you want to force your cat to exist on food she isn’t designed to eat, may not like, and may cause her to experience considerable digestive distress.
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