Vegetarianism -- the practice of abstaining from consuming meat -- is becoming more and more popular in our culture. A stroll around most grocery stores will reveal entire sections of meat alternatives, not to mention items that contain no animal byproducts at all (that’s vegan territory).
And for many people, vegetarianism is more than just a diet; it’s a way of life, an issue they are passionate about, and something they want to share with those around them -- including their pets. But is it appropriate to put your pet on a meat-free diet? It’s a controversial topic, and there are many varying opinions. Here we’ll look at some of the arguments for and against vegetarian pets.
The Potential Risks of a Vegetarian Pet Diet
Just like for people, vegetarian diets for pets need to be managed carefully in order to ensure that the animal is getting all of the nutrients they need. Pets, for example, require high levels of protein; the Association of American Feed Control Officials -- an industry that establishes pet food standards -- puts an adult dog’s protein needs at 18% and a cat’s at 26%.
And while vegetarians may argue that proteins can be found in the plant world, not all proteins are created equal. Different protein sources contain different levels of amino acids that are essential for overall health. Taurine, for example, is an important amino acid that dogs can synthesize if provided with the right dietary protein. Cats, however, cannot synthesize taurine, and thus must take it in through their diet (it is usually found in meat and fish). When a pet does not get enough taurine, they can suffer from taurine deficiency, which can result in heart disease and other serious medical issues.
In addition, a vegetarian diet may be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. While supplements are available, some vets dislike the idea of replacing naturally occurring nutrients with chemically synthesized ones.
Most opponents will at least agree, however, that a vegetarian diet is possible for dogs, just not ideal. Cats, on the other hand, are not as well cut out for it. This is because cats are obligate carnivores who have higher protein needs and require meat to take in key nutrients that they can’t synthesize on their own.
Of course, the debate rages on, and we’ll look at other opinions in the next section.
Why Some Are in Favor of a Vegetarian Pet Diet
Byproducts, fillers, antibiotics, hormones -- these are ingredients that most people (vegetarian or not) would be happy to avoid, and they often show up in pet foods. Some pet foods also contain other less-than-pleasant ingredients: namely, meats that have been deemed unfit for human consumption. These are known as the 4 Ds, for dead, dying, diseased, or disabled animals. By eliminating meat-based products from your pet’s diet, you eliminate the risk of encountering these questionable fillers.
In addition, some pet owners have reported great results from putting their pet on a vegetarian diet, including decreased aggression and shinier coat.
But what of the argument that pets won’t get enough protein and be at risk for amino acid deficiencies? Dr. Jennifer Coates writes that “the canine body has the ability to transform certain amino acids, the building blocks or protein, into others, meaning that dogs can get all the amino acids they need while avoiding meat.”
It’s trickier with cats, however, because they cannot themselves synthesize amino acids. The fix for this in the vegetarian pet food world? Add synthetic amino acids such as taurine (and key vitamins and minerals) to vegetarian recipes.
Before You Put Your Pet on a Vegetarian Diet
Every pet is different, and what may be appropriate for one pet may not be for another. Before changing your pet’s diet (whether it is to vegetarianism or something else), always consult your veterinarian. They will help you decide what and how to feed your pet, and let you know about any potential risks or benefits.
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