An awkward compromise for vegan cat owners: the pet meat industry

cats eating

I’m a vegan with four cats. Every morning, one of the first tasks of my day is a gruesome one, as I rip open pouches of meat and squeeze them into bowls; every morning I go against everything I believe in, every principle by which I live the rest of my life, and I do my bit to support the meat industry.

To be clear, I’ve lived with cats my whole life. These animals – Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Luna and Huxley – are two pairs of siblings, and all came from a local cat rescue shelter, and all have joined us since I became vegan. This is one of the great hypocrisies of my life perhaps, but, like all of us, I try the best I can and this is my compromise.

Periodically I google cats and vegan cat foods, and it’s clear that, just like the human rise in plant-based diets has risen dramatically of late, so has the demand for pet foods that support this way of life. The number of dog and cat foods commercially available on the market is growing rapidly and it’s clear that dogs, natural omnivores, can thrive without meat. But cats? Ploughing through the masses of information on the web, it seems that some cats can go vegan, whereas for others it simply makes them ill over a longer period of time.

Taurine – an amino sulfonic acid, often referred to as an amino acid, and a chemical that is a required building block of protein – is the word that frequently gets hurled about in this debate. We make it; cats need it. And they need it, so it seems, in the quantities found only in meat and fish. Whether vegan diets make cats sick through lack of taurine literally appears to be the luck of the draw.

I’m constantly hunting to find out more about this topic and what greater source of consumer opinion could feasibly exist than the internet. I’m a great fan of reddit (think animal forums and kitty photos) and so I threw the cat somewhat among the pigeons by asking for views around this topic on the two groups which truly have a vested interest in this question: the cat forum and the vegan forum.

I phrased the question slightly differently for each audience, but in each case I was quite open and clear about my own current pet food choices. I expected my karma (the points system which amount to a review of your contributions on the site) to drop at first, and this was pretty much spot on. For the first few hours it plummeted as the kneejerk down voting kicked in. But then people started to actually read what I was saying and two decent debates followed. What became very quickly clear is that no-one is sitting on the fence in this matter.

Unless labelled as Bardo Burner (BB), the posts are all from other users.

Posted in the ‘cat’ forum:

I’m a vegan interested in knowing what cat owners think about vegan cats. For the record, my cats are carnivores and I feed them meat, but these products exist.

1. NO. NEVER. Cats are obligate carnivores.

2. Cats have to eat meat. A vegan diet will eventually kill them, and it will be a slow horrible death too. Don’t do it.

3. Here’s a WebMD piece on vegetarian dog and cat food which looks pretty good. My impression is that there are people selling vegan cat food as a racket, charging absurdly high prices for malnutrition. Anyone who deprives a cat of proper nutrition has no business claiming to be “compassionate.” (And I understand that’s not what you’re doing. Some people on Reddit hate anyone who even asks questions on taboo topics.)

4. Totally agree

5. Not all products that exist and are available are safe for pets. For example sand being sold for pet lizards is usually deadly but if you ask a pet store employee they will happily recommend it as a substrate. You don’t even need to feed your cats raw meat if you don’t want to but keep giving them normal cat food that’s meant for cats. I’m not sure why this would be a problem since I’d assume vegan cat food and normal cat food probably look the same so you shouldn’t feel disgusted or something by giving it to your cats.

6. If you wanted your pet to be vegan then you should not have a carnivore for a pet. Get a rabbit or something. Not fair to the cat.

7. (BB) I’ve got four and I don’t feed them lettuce, I assure you. Can imagine their disdain if I tried. To be clear, I have no intention of making my cats vegan. Purely came across the cat food and interested to hear your views.

8. Whoever invented these products is fucking retarded. Cats can become very ill by eating like that, the thing is that cats will not show you when they feel weak and sick. So by the time you realise you’re poisoning your cat, it could be too late. I’m so glad you’re using your logic by asking around and making sure you don’t do anything stupid. Keep your cats healthy as the carnivore they are and keep your diet the way you wish as an omnivore.

9. Look into hydrolase protein cat food, available on prescription from the vet. It’s designed to be very easy to digest. I finally looked at the ingredients and didn’t find anything obviously meat. So, I’m wondering if I’m feeding my cats a vegetarian diet but, my cats are doing wonderful on it, shiny fur, more energy, etc. so I guess what I’m saying is, I would never feed my cat a vegan diet, but if it’s vet prescribed, it’s probably okay.

10. This is probably the worst possible thing you could feed your cat. “Your” cats are not carnivores – ALL cats are carnivores. Unlike many animals they are OBLIGATE carnivores and require meat. They do not get nutrition from plant matter. Vegans who are not comfortable feeding meat (and, for a cat, the more meat the better) should not keep an obligate carnivore as a pet. There are many, many, many herbivorous animals out there. I understand that cats are many people’s favourite pet – but just like giving up foods can be a sacrifice, sometimes you have to choose not to keep a pet that isn’t compatible with your lifestyle or else make an exception. Like, seriously. Why are you a vegan? Does it have to do with feeling like animals should be humanely treated? It is not healthy to feed a cat a vegan diet. It is harmful to the cat. Note that these foods are only approved by the “Vegetarian Society and Vegan Society.” They are not approved by even AAFCO, which evaluates if a diet is nutritionally complete. Feeding a non-complete diet will slowly kill your animal. It is frankly hypocritical to even consider it. Cats did not evolve to sit and eat vegetables and fruits just because you want to rest easy at night — it isn’t a requirement that you own cats and they don’t deserve that kind of treatment.

11. (BB) My cats eat meat and I’m not about to change that. That was never my point.

cats munching

Posted in the ‘vegan’ forum:

Vegans and pet food – how do we justify supporting the meat industry? Or do we force our omnivore animal companions to go vegan? I have four cats and every day I feed them a whole lot of meat, while being totally plant-based myself. Currently researching for a blog piece. I’d appreciate any thought/opinions/personal experiences. Thanks.

1. Well, I’ve been vegan my whole life thanks to hippy parents. I have a 17-year-old cat who I saved from a factory when he was a kitten and he’s never eaten anything but a vegan diet so I call bullshit. He’s healthy, happy and living the good life.

2. (BB) Ha! Brilliant

3. I’ve been looking into this myself as I have two cats. From what I’ve found it seems the consensus is that dogs can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet, and in some cases it can dramatically extend their lifespans. But for cats it’s a roll of the dice. Some cats are reportedly fine on a vegan diet, and some fall ill. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take, so until lab-grown meat is available this is what I’m doing. I had my cats before going vegan. I most likely would not have adopted them as a vegan however.

4. Because they need it to survive until lab grown meat is available, animal flesh is what we have to work with.

5. (BB) I hear you, but some vegans choose to feed their dogs, and even cats, plant-based diets.

6. And those vegans are selfish people who shouldn’t have chosen cats as pets. I’m on mobile and can’t link, but Google is easy and you’ll find the “Healthy vegan cats are possible!” argument debunked pretty soundly, very quickly.

7. A lot of those vegans were already taking care of cats before they were vegan, or they adopted cats from shelters. Most are probably also opposed to the breeding of cats.

8. (BB) Yup. I hear you and mine get fed meat.

9. That’s good to know. I’m sorry if I came across as abrasive – I’m an animal lover (which is why I don’t eat them), but I had this nutjob friend who forced his kitten to “go vegan” and it ended exactly how you’d expect. It strikes a nerve is all. I’m glad you have balance and can recognise that while we humans have options, cats do not. Cats at least have a chance to live a healthy life without meat. Farmed animals have no chance at all.

10. Cats can’t live “a healthy life without meat”. They are obligate carnivores. They can’t digest plant-based food. That is why a vegetarian or even vegan diet is harmful for a cat. Humans are omnivores. They can live without meat pretty easily, but cats cannot. That’s whole point of this discussion, that shouldn’t be a discussion in the first place.

11. Why do you think cats need to survive, but chickens, pigs, cows and fishes don’t need to survive?

12. I mean why do you think Inuits should live, but whales shouldn’t? We classify animals into hierarchies based on socialization, sentience, etc. Inuit humans are higher on the scale than whales, so we don’t say that it’s morally wrong for them to kill whales if they need it to survive. Cats are higher on the scale than those animals, so if cats need them to survive, then we have to deal with it until lab grown meat because commercially viable. I think there might be vegan cat food out there, if the pros outweigh the cons (cost, health) then I wouldn’t blame someone for feeding animal products to their cat. Because of necessity, we deem this hierarchy to be justified. When you take out necessity (for example the vast majority of first-world humans don’t need animals to survive) then the hierarchy is no longer justified, so basing your moral system on it is unjustified.

13. A cat isn’t necessarily more sentient or more social than any given prey animal. They objectively have no greater worth. (I will concede that we make an exception for our own species – no one would try to justify killing humans to feed to cats). The strongest argument for feeding cats meat is not that they somehow occupy a higher rung on a linear scale that makes them more qualified to receive our compassion, but rather, that they cannot survive and thrive without meat. Similarly, a human with no access to sufficient plant foods will die unless they resort to meat (as per your Inuit/ whale example). It is an accepted principle in veganism that an individual may kill if it’s their only option to keep themselves alive. A domestic cat usually has no access to prey, so their human steward fills that role for them by (indirectly) killing prey. Of course, this raises the philosophical question of whether it is morally justifiable to keep cats as pets in the first place, which many vegans disagree upon. Science may eventually produce a vegan cat food proven to be nutritionally adequate in the long term, which will make the whole dilemma obsolete.

14. That’s the way of the world. If we take away the predators the whole ecosystem would suffer, because the herbivore population would grow too much without any predators to control it. So the question “Why should predators live, but prey should die?” is easily answered: you need both for a stable ecosystem, otherwise everyone suffers.

15. We’re not talking about wild animal suffering here. We’re talking about pet animals and farmed animals. Animal agriculture is actually destroying ecosystems worldwide by deforestation, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. You probably knew this already. Cats don’t partake in ecosystems like wild predators do, because they often live along humans and get fed animals that were bred to be killed. But even when fed, in some cities cats are decimating bird and mouse populations, which actually negatively affect that local ecosystem. In what way do you think pet cats are supporting their ecosystem? By killing off sick or wounded small animals?

16. Cats aren’t omnivores, they need meat.

vegan cat food17. (BB) Yup. I’m with you. But vegan cat food?

18. I’d never feed my cats vegan cat food. It’s silly that it even exists! That’s the way to go if you want to starve your cat slowly and painfully. If someone wants a vegan pet, you’re better off by getting a bunny or something.

19. Exactly! Why get a carnivorous pet if you’re not cool with any species eating meat? I’m sure vegans are fine with lions eating antelope because it’s natural. It’s natural for a cat to eat meat too. Just because we domesticated them doesn’t mean we completely changed their dietary needs. Or their preferences – how much would it suck to be the kitty that gets fed vegan food every day? That cat is guaranteed to be the neighbourhood bully, beating up other cats for their meaty breakfast.

20. (BB) To be clear, cats are carnivores, my cats eat meat. Purely interested.

21. Here’s some info on vegan cat food

22. This is indeed info, but it is not good info.

23. What I personally know (as a cat owner): Cats are %100 carnivores and need meat. Dogs (which I don’t have) are omnivores and can easily thrive off a vegan diet. Though I would do more research on that if I ever thought about getting a dog.

24. The solution is to stop breeding so many pets because it’s causing a lot of problems.

And there it is. Until lab-grown meat appears, or until further studies show definitively that cats can or can’t live vegan lives, I’m erring on the side of caution, looking at the deadly sharp carnivorous teeth revealed every time Schrödinger gives a weary stretch and a yawn and keeping on checking out the research regularly.

In the meantime, a Google search will help anyone with a similar dilemma. Here are a few links showing the myriad sides of this conundrum to get you started:

One Comment

  1. I’ve liked cats since before I went vegan and this issue has always bothered me.
    The conclusion I’ve come to is that the best and most important thing we can do moving forward is to prevent all cats from breeding any further to the best of our ability and allow all of the existing cats to die out naturally so that eventually “pet” cats no longer exist.



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