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Is a vegetarian diet safe for dogs and cats?

Little dog maltese and black and white cat eating food from a bowl in home
Image: 229475719/Shutterstock

Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that it seems like they will eat pretty much anything. A dog’s standard of appropriate food is usually low (and often pretty gross, too.) But you have a choice when it comes to the food you intentionally feed your pet. You care about what you eat and understand the link between food and health. But what about your pet’s diet?

Does Pet Food Quality Matter?

There are a lot of good reasons to be concerned about what your pets eat. A couple of high-profile pet food recalls occurred after several beloved pets were killed by tainted commercial pet food. Certainly this is a good reason to consider making your own pet food or to choose alternative commercial foods. For example, many artisanal and small-batch pet food manufacturers are making high-quality natural cat and dog food available. If you follow a vegetarian diet yourself, you may wonder if a similar diet would be healthy for your pet. Conventional wisdom says that dogs and cats can’t be vegetarian, but the truth is a little more complex.

Natural Diets for Dogs and Cats

Dogs and cats are natural carnivores. Their teeth and short digestive tracts are well-suited to eating meat. However, dogs and cats do eat plant matter as well, and people have been feeding varied diets to pets for centuries. It is possible to feed dogs and cats a vegetarian diet and some companies offer commercial vegetarian pet food. You can also make your own pet food, which has the additional benefit of avoiding the risk of contaminated commercial food.
A vegan diet that eliminates not just meat but all animal products, such as dairy and gelatin, is possible for pets but requires extra caution. Until recently, you couldn’t feed a completely vegan diet to cats because they need taurine, an amino acid only found in meat. However, synthetic taurine supplements are now available that do allow vegan diets for cats.

Ethical Issues

Even though dogs and cats can be vegetarian, the question is whether or not they should be. Pet owners who are committed vegetarians themselves may feel understandably squeamish about feeding meat to anyone, whether human or animal. In most cases, dogs and cats can survive on a vegetarian diet. However, it’s a good idea for the sake of your pet’s health to consult with a veterinarian if you are attempting to make your own vegetarian food for your pet to ensure the proper balance of nutrients.
The argument about whether a vegetarian diet is natural for dogs and cats also inevitably comes down to the question of whether keeping animals as pets is in itself a natural thing to do. A wild cat or dog would almost certainly never follow a vegetarian diet. However, a domesticated cat or dog kept as a pet usually cannot survive well in the wild.
Pets bring joy to your life and you want to keep them around for as long as possible. Make sure you check with your veterinarian about whether a vegetarian diet is safe for your dog or cat.

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