Opinions are divided about vegan cats and the overall health benefits and risks of vegan or vegetarian diets for cats. You might think that the health benefits you’ve experienced from going meat-free will work for your cat. Think again.
Some people, who are not feline nutrition specialists, contend that cats thrive on meatless diets. However, this is misguided and places cats at great risk. Cats are obligate carnivores. This means their digestive systems can only process nutrients and synthesize essential proteins from meat. Remove meat and your cat could die an unpleasant death.
The internet has as many sites advocating the pros of veganism for your cat. The advocates of meat-free diets argue that you just have to incorporate vitamins, proteins and amino acids that are vital to cats’ health. Despite the overwhelming volume of data available on the serious health implications of transitioning cats to a vegan or vegetarian diet, some cat owners are adamant that going meat-free is better for cats than an animal protein-based diet.
This, according to Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York, is a very bad idea because the proteins from animal-derived foodstuffs play a very important role in cats’ metabolism.
The fundamental reason vegetarian or vegan diets for cats are so dangerous relates to protein synthesis. Some plants contain these proteins, vitamins and amino acids, but the protein cats specifically need is only in meat or animal-derived foodstuffs. The amounts found in vegetables and plants are so minuscule that they might as well as be absent.
Taurine is the key in healthy diets for cats
The key component missing from vegan and vegetarian diets for cats is taurine. Taurine is an amino acid vital to cardio-vascular functioning and the health of visual organs and cells. It also plays a key role in the development of the skeletal muscles and nervous system.
Taurine is a 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid found only in animal tissue. It plays a very important role in producing bile. It also has important anti-oxidation, osmoregulation and membrane stabilization properties. Finally, it modulates calcium signalling. The uniqueness of taurine lies in its specific biology. Unlike the majority of biologically occurring acids, taurine is a sulfonic acid.
Taurine deficiency in cats can lead to death. There are also other long-term effects that cause irreversible medical conditions. Taurine deficiency is most commonly cited as the cause of reproductive failure, growth failure, eye problems and an enlarged heart with an inability to pump or contract adequately.
What else is missing?
Cats can’t synthesise enough niacin from the amino acid tryptophan in plants because the levels are too low. The levels in artificial and plant and vegetable derived supplements are also too low to benefit your cat. If you persist, you place her at risk of malnutrition.
Cats also struggle to synthesize retinol from plants. Retinol is a form of vitamin A derived from beta-carotene and vitamins D and B12. All of these are in short supply in plants, so you need to carefully calculate supplement dosages for cats on meat-free diets.
Arginine plays a crucial role in the urea cycle and regulates ammonia levels in the blood. Without the proper form of arginine, your cat can develop neurological problems. Again the levels found in plants are too low to adequately address your cat’s dietary and nutritional demands.
Other amino acids, fatty acids and proteins that are found in plants and vegetables in too small quantities to satisfy your cat’s nutritional needs include lysine and arachidonic acid, which are all found in abundance in animal-by products. Low levels of these nutrients can result in eye disease, blood clotting disorders, immune system dysfunction and neurological disorders.
But there are vegan products specifically for cats
Pseudo evidence persuades many people that vegan and vegetarian diets for cats are all right because specialist companies sell made-for-kitty meat-free products and supplements. “Evidence” guarantees products contain the right dosages of taurine and the essential amino acids and vitamins cats need to be healthy.
If you find the information compelling, bear in mind that manufacturers usually pay for the research studies. Studies often use unsound scientific methods. Results often result from short-term studies of small groups that don’t represent the population.
So if you’re considering making the transition because you’ve experienced the benefits of a vegan diet, or because you struggle with the ethics of being vegan and feeding your cat meat, you might want to think about the exact implications for your cat’s health. Your conscience might be eating at you now because your cat eats meat while you eat tofu, but how will you feel later when your cat is dying of malnutrition and heart failure? If it still bothers you, get a rabbit instead.