Is a Vegetarian Diet a Healthy Option for My Pets?
Q. In the last year, I have stopped eating meat because I don’t want to be part of the cruelty to animals on factory farms. I also have a problem with buying pet food made with meat that comes from these same terrible conditions. Are vegetarian pet foods good enough to keep a dog or cat healthy?
A. From a purely veterinary perspective, you’ll find very few veterinarians who’d recommend a vegetarian diet for a dog or cat, and even fewer who’d describe it as optimal nutrition for these pets. When pressed, they’re likely to offer grudging acceptance of such a diet for dogs, who have more leeway in their diet, since they’re as much scavengers as hunters. While it’s debatable whether or not most dogs can thrive on a diet with no animal protein, they can survive on a vegetarian diet.
Cats, however, are what’s known as “obligate carnivores,” meaning they need nutrients found in meat to survive. Pet owners who do feed cats a vegetarian diet typically supplement those nutrients, most notably taurine. However, among people who are resolutely vegetarian because they are against killing animals for food, this remains an option that’s vigorously debated.
A Healthy — and Ethical — Alternative
I can suggest another option, though. The choices for pet food in North America are seemingly without end, and among them you can find almost anything. Every year I walk the conference floor at the massive Global Pet Expo — with something like a dozen football fields’ worth of booths — and marvel at the selections. It’s possible that you can find a product that offers animal protein from a source you can live with, since I’m sure I’ve noticed companies offering “free-range,” “organic” and “human-grade” pet foods.
You can also source your own ingredients and make your pet’s food at home. I don’t recommend turning to the Internet for recipes, however; ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary nutritionist who has or can formulate a diet for your pets. You can then purchase meat from animals who have been raised in a way you may find more ethically acceptable.
I hope that helps. I know you are not alone in these concerns, by the way, which will make your efforts to find “humanely raised” food animals easier. Major food chains are now offering such meat in response to the demands of some consumers. That said, the cost will be more to feed your pets if you go this route — or choose any specialty product, for that matter.
One final thought: If you feed in any way outside the mainstream, do be extra vigilant when it comes to wellness care, including any regular diagnostics your veterinarian suggests. You want to be sure any problems that come up from a vegetarian or home-prepared diet are caught early and dealt with promptly.
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