Feeding a cat

Q. I’m a vegan for health, environmental and animal cruelty reasons, and I’d like my pets to be vegans too. There’s a huge debate on several Internet sites about this subject. What’s your take?

A. If your pets are rabbits or other herbivores, no problem. If you have dogs, it’s possible, but I really can’t advise it. If you have a cat, however, it’s my view that you’ll be putting your pet’s health in jeopardy. Knowing how your cat’s nutritional needs differ from your own may help put her very distinctive dietary requirements in perspective:

Cats must have meat. The feline system is designed to depend on the consumption of other animals to survive and thrive. Unlike humans and dogs, who are omnivores and can stay healthy on a variety of different kinds of diets, cats are “strict” or “obligate” carnivores. Just like their distant cousins the lion, tiger and cheetah, housecats not only prefer meat, they can’t maintain good health without it.

Pound for pound, cats need far more protein. A cat needs more than double the amount of protein per pound of body weight than a person requires. And even though we omnivores can meet our protein requirements with nonmeat foods like dairy products, nuts and beans, cats don’t have that luxury — animal protein is the only kind that fulfills their nutritional needs. If a cat doesn’t get enough protein in his diet, his body will actually break down its own muscle tissue to get the nutrients he needs.

Cats sponge vitamins and amino acids from their prey. There are some nutrients that an omnivore can produce or convert from food that cats have to get ready-to-use from their diet. Among these are vitamin A, niacin, and the amino acids arginine and taurine. Each of these nutrients is essential for good health. Without usable vitamin A, for example, a cat can suffer vision problems and a weakened immune system. Taurine is critical for heart health and also for healthy eyes. Unless your cat is dining on a fresh catch several days a week, you need to provide a diet that provides these nutrients in usable form. That means meat.

My colleague Dr. Ernie Ward has likewise written on this topic, if you need more food for thought. As for your pets, please discuss their dietary needs with their veterinarian. No one is in a better position to advise you.