This week on Ireland AM, Kiko and Finzi helped Pete to tackle an interesting question: is it possible for dogs and cats to avoid eating meat? Is it safe for pets to be vegetarian or even vegan?
The answer is very different for each of the two most common species of pets: dogs and cats.
Dogs are omnivores, so yes, they can thrive on non-meat diets. A Swedish study in 2013 showed, using DNA analysis, that over ten thousand years ago, around the time that dogs became domesticated, they developed the digestive apparatus (anatomy and enzymes) to digest plant-sourced starch as well as meat.
This means that, despite the current misguided fad for grain-free pet food, dogs are naturally equipped to eat plant-based food. They do not need to eat meat. As long as their diet is nutritionally complete and balanced, with the correct amounts of protein (including specific amino acids), carbohydrates, oils, vitamins and minerals, dogs can be vegetarian, or even vegan. A 2009 study on sledge-pulling, hard working, Huskies demonstrated that they could thrive on a balanced meat-free diet.
The safest way for pet owners to do this is to choose a commercially manufactured complete vegetarian or vegan dog food that has gone through feeding trials to demonstrate its efficacy. Such products are legally obliged to fulfil specific nutritional criteria, formulated by professional nutritionists. If the label states that the dog food is “complete”, then it must provide everything that the dog needs.
Theoretically, a home-prepared vegetarian food for dogs could be made up, but to do this safely, it would be necessary to get advice from a professional nutritionist to ensure that the diet was adequate. The cost and complications of doing this mean that most people prefer to buy the ready-formulated option.
Vegetarian dog food is not that easy to come across in shops but on air, I demonstrated a complete vegetarian kibble from Maxizoo: both Finzi and Kiko thoroughly enjoyed eating it.
The situation is far more complicated for cats: they are “obligate carnivores”. Their anatomy and physiology – teeth and digestive tract – and metabolism have evolved for processing meals derived from small prey.
While their anatomy can adapt easily enough (i.e. they can eat and digest plant-based food such as vegetarian or vegan kibble), some critical, essential aspects of their metabolism requires for nutrients from the diet that are only commonly found in meat. For this reason, cat owners should be very cautious indeed about feeding a vegetarian or vegan diet to their pets. My suggestion is that it makes far more sense for cat owners to focus on feeding high welfare cat food to their pets; as natural obligate carnivores, this will be far safer for their long term health.
You can watch the video clip of Pete’s Ireland AM discussion by clicking on the link below.