Veganism has become a popular diet and lifestyle, with a variety of vegan products on grocery store shelves spilling over into the pet food aisle. But is it okay to feed your pet a vegan diet?
The short answer: no. The long answer: it’s possible to feed a dog (but not a cat) a vegan diet, however, you must take extra precautions to ensure your dog is getting what he or she needs as there is a general lack of knowledge on what an adequate vegan diet would be to maintain a dog’s health throughout his or her life, says Dr. Tiffany Margolin.
Despite all that we don’t know about vegan diets in pets, here’s what experts have to say about veganism in dogs and cats.
Feeding a Cat a Vegan Diet
Let’s start with the easier subject: cats cannot eat a vegan diet and are not set up in any way to survive as vegans, Margolin says.
“Cats are pretty much obligate carnivores, meaning that they have a gastro-intestinal tract and an oral cavity that is intended to consume meat, she says. “The the amino acids that they can’t make themselves are obtained through their whole-prey diet.”
And for cats, consuming specific amino acids through meat sources is imperative.
“The building blocks for proteins are amino acids [and] the amino acids in meat are very specific,” says Dr. Donna Raditic, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition who consults with vets on nutrition. “And cats, because they’re carnivores, have very high requirements for those building blocks.”
In short, a cat should never be put on a vegan diet. If you have concerns about your cat’s diet or nutritional requirements, speak with your veterinarian.
Feeding a Dog a Vegan Diet
Although feeding a dog a vegan diet is not recommended by either Margolin or Raditic, with enough planning it is possible.
First, book an appoint to see a veterinary nutritionist. Ask your veterinarian for a referral or visit the American College of Veterinary Nutritionist’s website to find a qualified one. A veterinary nutritionist will help formulate your dog’s diet to make sure all of the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are included and that his or her meals are appropriately balanced, says Raditic.
If you’ll be feeding your dog a commercial vegan pet food, Raditic recommends bringing it to your veterinarian’s office to make sure they give it the green light before you start feeding it to your pet. You’ll also want to confirm with the nutritionist or your veterinarian which supplements or additional foods you should give your dog.
“It’s almost impossible to meet all the vitamin and mineral requirements for a dog by just using a variety of fruits and vegetables,” says Raditic.
She says that protein-rich vegan foods you could feed your dog include legumes, pinto beans, chickpeas, navy beans and lentils. If your dog doesn’t have a robust digestive system, consider cooking the protein sources to make them easier to digest, says Raditic.
Both Raditic and Margolin say that puppies and pregnant or nursing dogs shouldn’t be fed vegan diets since they need more calories.
Issues with Vegan Diets
The biggest issue with vegan diet is that your dog might not get enough amino acids—a critical component of any dog’s diet.
Without an adequate intake of amino acids, dogs are unable to make protein in their bodies, which impacts their immune system, joint and structural health, Margolin says. And, for dogs, the best source of amino acids is in meat.
Mineral deficiencies are another risk of feeding a vegan diet.
“Minerals are almost never properly supplemented or satisfied in a vegan diet,” says Margolin. “The problem with mineral deficiencies is that they’re subtle. If you have a mineral deficiency, it could take years [to diagnose]. And all of the sudden you’ve got organs and joints that aren’t functioning properly. The body’s breaking down.”
Mineral deficiencies can cause a myriad of health problems including a puppy’s bones not fusing together properly, a poorly-functioning immune system, chronic gum disease, and tendons breaking down, Margolin says.
Two specific mineral deficiencies you might see when feeding a vegan diet are:
- Vitamin D deficiencies: vitamin D is essential in a dog’s diet and is necessary for bone formation and maintenance. Vitamin D also helps maintain the health of the immune system. Young dogs who don’t get enough vitamin D may develop rickets and older dogs might develop osteoporosis, Raditic says.
- Taurine deficiencies: taurine is an amino acid that is made from other amino acids. If your dog isn’t getting enough amino acids, he or she might have signs of heart disease or dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the heart’s ability to pump blood, says Raditic.
If you really want to go vegan, consider getting another pet altogether.
“It’s great to go vegan if you have a bird,” says Margolin.