The Vegan Cat: A Parable
Being vegan and the guardian of an animal that requires a meat diet can be a bit of an ethical conundrum. On one hand you want to minimize the suffering and commodifying of other beings as much as practically possible and on the other you are responsible for the well-being of animals under your care, meat eaters included. Before we go further, I need to mention that veganism is not a diet. At its core it is a philosophy that rejects the product status of animals (including consuming them). While it is technically possible to feed your cat a food that is entirely plant-based, most if not all veterinary professionals will advise against this. As responsible cat owners, we are obligated to feed them the appropriate food for them to live life to the fullest.
The entire Felidae Family, including our domestic companions Felis catus, are obligate carnivores. An obligate carnivore is one whose nutritional requirements can only be met by eating a meat-heavy diet. Dolphins, seals, eagles and walruses are also obligate carnivores.Whereas a carnivore is an animal that thrives on a meat-based diet, but their survival is not dependant on it. Many people assume dogs are carnivores but they are actually omnivores, meaning that they can thrive on meat, mixed, and plant-based diets.
A meat-only diet offers some vitamins and fatty acids in a preformed state. Because cats can get these nutrients from the prey they eat, they haven’t had to expend any energy to synthesis these nutrients e.g. taurine and over time evolution has removed this completely. This sets cats apart from herbivores or omnivores. Cats have a dire biological need for niacin, vitamin A, taurine and arginine, all of which can be found in meat sources. Cats can get adequate energy from protein and fat and have no minimum requirement for carbohydrates.
Fat and protein facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients while protein is truly the building material of a cat’s new body tissue. While plant-based proteins are suitable for humans, cats require meat as their source of protein to get the specific complete amino acids that they need. It is interesting that cats can meet their blood glucose requirements from gluconeogenesis, by using protein, rather than from the breakdown of carbohydrates in their diet like other mammals. They are so reliant on protein for energy that if their diet is lacking an adequate amount of protein, their body will start to break down its own muscle and organ tissue.
Our 'lions in the living room' have evolved to become very efficient hunters and over the years their physiology has changed to reflect this. Take a quick look at your cat's teeth and paws, they aren't suitable tools for foraging and grazing plant matter. A cat’s digestive track is uncharacteristically short (compared to omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores) and is designed to digest protein and fat quickly. To survive in the wild they need to hunt live prey, for this sharp teeth and claws are essential. Cats have four front canines to help grip and bite into flesh and their jaw is very strong which aids in ripping meat from bone and shredding it before swallowing. Even their ears and eyes have adapted to the pursuit of live prey. Forward facing ears controlled by twenty different muscles that can detect and close in on the sounds of prey. Cats eyes have many rod cells in the retina, aiding vision in very low light.
I am hopeful that one day an ethical and sustainable means of feeding our cats the right nutrition will be available. With a lot of research and development going into creating 'lab meat' for human consumption, I see utilizing this innovation to feed our meat-eating companion animals as the next step. If you are considering swapping your cat to a vegan cat food, I suggest talking to your veterinarian before doing so. Until next time,