A weird message popped up in my Facebook feed the other week with a friend saying his cat was a vegan.
My first thought was ‘I better reply and tell him that’s impossible’ and my second thought was ‘I should probably research that first’.
Nathan Verney says he decided to put his cat Luna—a rescue kitty from Cat Haven—on a vegan diet to save other animals.
A vegan himself, the former editor of Murdoch University’s Metior newspaper says he didn’t want other animals to die for food as a result of his saving Luna.
She’s now been a vegan for more than a year and Mr Verney, now a PhD researcher in news media, reckons she’s fit and healthy.
“My partner’s taken her to the vet a few times. They’ve said she’s ‘very healthy, nothing wrong with her, normal weight and everything.
“And after the check up she has mentioned that the cat’s vegan.
“The reaction is usually ‘oh. Um. I don’t know about that…’”
Difficult to balance
Murdoch university’s senior lecturer in small animal medicine Robert Shiel says it’s theoretically possible for a cat to get all the nutrients it needs from non-meat sources, but in practice, “it’s very difficult to get right”.
“Cats’ nutritional requirements are very different from people,” Dr Shiel says.
“The main difference is they are what is called obligate carnivores, which means that naturally they need huge amounts of meat to survive and a diet predominately made of meat is their usual intake.”
Cats need amino acids like taurine to survive and, unlike humans, aren’t able to extract them from vegetables or legumes.
Without taurine cats go blind, lose fur, and suffer heart attacks.
Some vegan pet foods aim to synthesise taurine from vegan sources that cats can process.
Dr Shiel says this is possible but “from a studies perspective, I don’t believe that there’s [been] a lot done”.
He points to a paper published by the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 which found, “vegetarian diets can be supplemented, but it’s very difficult to get it right, while feeding high-protein meat diets [balancing nutrients is] relatively easy”.
“It brings up the wider issue about whether it’s fair, that if a cat is an obligate carnivore, whether it’s the right thing to do to impose our diets on them.”
10 years without eating any meat
Sandy Anderson from Vegan Pet makes the food Mr Verney feeds Luna. She has almost 3000 customers around Australia.
The animal welfare advocate says she puts a lot of research into finding nutritious vegan food for cats.
“I had to find a vegan source of everything the cat needed… to have everything just there available like it is in meat.”
She says US studies on vegan cat foods test poorly largely because they are regular cat food with meat taken out.
She is confident her mix gives cats everything they need, and she knows one that’s been on the diet for 10 years.
“Benson has now reached double figures. He’s 10, he started at six months.”
A constant craving
David Neck is president of ASAVA, the cat and dog branch of the Australian Veterinary Association.
He’s concerned that even if the nutrients are technically there, a cat on a vegan diet will have a constant craving for meat.
“They evolved to eat meat, meat, and a little side order of meat,” he says.
“Just because you can create a vegan diet that may tick the nutritional requirements for the cat, doesn’t mean that you should.
“They’re protecting the rights of the food animals, but the cat has equally as much right to eat its natural, evolutionary diet.
“For us to impose our ethical beliefs on the pet while potentially risking the pet’s health, that’s a big imposition.
“Imagine having that craving and not being able to satisfy it. It’s unnatural.”
Dr Neck says vegan diets for cats are the equivalent of making a meat-based diet for rabbits.
He also suspects a cat will hunt to get its meat fix.
“If you are missing meat how are you going to replace that? With little fuzzy native Australian animals.”
An indoor cat
To prevent Luna from terrorising local wildlife, Mr Verney has installed a cat run around the side of the house and keeps her indoors at all other times.
He says Luna started on her diet as a kitten and doesn’t seem to miss meat.
He’s also wary of arguments about the diet being ‘unnatural’ as domesticated cats chowing down on tuna, salmon and beef are hardly replicating their wild diet.
“In the wild they hunt for their prey, they go and mate and they do all these other things.
“In a domestic society they’ve got a bowl full of food which isn’t prey, which isn’t natural cat food… a cat’s not going to bring down a cow.
“They’ve been desexed so they don’t have those urges to reproduce, so they’re so far removed from what’s natural.
“Where do you draw the line?”
Ms Anderson recommends starting cats on the vegan diet young. She says it would be mean to force an older, meat-loving cat onto the diet if they weren’t interested.
“I don’t believe in hard love and I say this to all my vegan customers,” she says. “There’s some odd cats that will not, no matter what you do, eat my food, and I will not say ‘eat it or go hungry’, that’s just not fair.”
But she says even if owners have a mix of 50/50 meat food to vegan, they’re doing something part to reduce their reliance on slaughterhouses.
Dr Neck says there are good options for vegan owners who want vegan pets: “Get a rabbit or a guinea pig.”