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Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe for Your Pet?
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Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe for Your Pet?

People across the globe are giving up traditional meat-based diets to embrace a vegetarian lifestyle. A poll released in 2016 showed that the number of vegetarians in Australia had risen by from 1.7 million people in 2012 to 2.1 million people in 2016.  While a meat-free diet has many health benefits to humans, it does not have similar effects on our pets.

Whether you are considering a diet change because your pet is overweight, or you would simply like their eating habits to align with your own values, consider the following information before putting your pet on a vegetarian diet.

Dogs Can Handle a Diet Change

A study of pet owners across Austria, Germany, and Switzerland found that 90 percent based their pets’ diet on their moral and ethical concerns impacted. While in theory this may seem like a good idea — integrating a diet similar to our own into our pets — it can actually be detrimental to their health if not employed properly.

Dogs are omnivores, meaning their body has the ability to digest and benefit from both meat- and plant-based diets. As long as a dog’s diet is nutritionally complete and balanced, they have no problem consuming a strict vegetarian or vegan diet.

A study with sled-pulling dogs showed that they were able to thrive as athletes with a meat-free diet. A vegetarian diet for dogs can be done, but it should only be done under the supervision of a veterinarian. A plant-based diet does not provide dogs with enough vitamin D3, which comes directly from animal sources and is vital to the health of your dog.

Some nutrients dogs don’t need to get directly from food. For example, dogs are able to make taurine in their bodies if they are provided with the right amount of protein and amino acids. Taurine is a valuable nutrient to mammals, which is why is it so heavily found in animal products. Raw meat has the most taurine, but you may not want to go around feeding your pet a raw meat diet. Cats, however, cannot make their own taurine and must receive adequate amounts of this essential compound in their diet.

A Cat’s Health Is at Risk on a Vegetarian Diet

Cats are more complicated than dogs because they are carnivores. The anatomy and metabolism of cats have both evolved over the years to process meat as a significant source of nutrients. Their digestive system can adapt to a plant-based food, but there are specific nutrients found in meat that are absolutely needed for a healthy, functioning feline.

There are several nutritional risks to feeding a cat a strict vegetarian diet. These can be:

  • Inadequate protein intake
  • Low levels of amino acids
  • Low taurine levels
  • Vitamin deficiency

If a deficient diet is allowed to continue long enough, they can lead to serious and irreversible medical conditions. A common concern of a vegetarian diet is taurine-related dilated cardiomyopathy. This is when the body doesn’t get enough taurine and leads to an enlarged heart with limited ability to pump blood.

By feeding a cat a strict vegetarian diet, you are putting your cat’s long-term health at risk. Plant-based diets lack important fatty acids, vitamins, and amino acids that are found in meat. When a cat lacks these nutrients in their diet — either short term or long term — they can become very sick. A vegetarian cat must become an indoor cat. By being allowed outside they will quickly revert back to their instinctual ways and begin hunting birds and mice.   

“When you try to change a cat's diet, you’re changing a whole species of animals eating habits, forcing it to eat something it’s body isn’t designed to handle,” Cailin Heinze, a board certified veterinary nutritionist, says, and “it goes against (a cat's) physiology to eat a plant based diet and it is not recommended at all.”

Transitioning to a Vegetarian Diet:

Do not transition a feline onto a vegetarian diet unless you have the oversight of a professional veterinarian and understand the risks in doing so.

If you want to give a vegetarian diet a try with your dog though, follow these guidelines WebMD suggests to make a smooth transition:

  • Do not feed a vegetarian diet to animals that you plan to breed.
  • Only feed your animal food that has gone through feeding trials and meets WSAVA guidelines.
  • Work with a veterinary nutritionist who can analyze your pet’s vegetarian diet and make nutritional recommendations.
  • Plan to have more frequent wellness exams for your pet — at least two times a year.

There are several dog foods marketed as vegetarian options containing corn gluten and soybean meal. Both corn and soybeans are already a common meat substitute in dog food that are known to cause digestive issues. Checking your dog's food and treat labels can prevent unwanted ingredients from entering into your dog’s food supply, making way for nutrients they need and deserve.

Benefits of Vegetarian Diet for Dogs

There are some benefits reported after dogs have been transitioned to a nutrient-rich vegetarian diet including: fewer issues with fleas (ticks, lice, etc), improved coat shine, decreases of symptoms of arthritis, and improved eye health. Feeding your pet a meat-free diet can even help reduce your carbon footprint as a pet owner.

Veterinarian Dr. Michael Roth says that switching some dogs to a vegetarian or vegan formula can help relieve skin rashes and other symptoms of food allergies. He recommends trying a vegetarian diet for up to 12 weeks to see if it helps your furry friend relieve their itching or improve their skin coat, but only under the watchful eye of a veterinarian.

Ultimately, you as the owner are in charge of what your pet consumes. Be it your cat or your FIDO friend, knowing what to feed them is essential for their health and well-being. Choosing to feed them nutritionally valuable food is the best way to keep your pets living a long and fluffy life.

 

Image credit: Photo by Caleb Stokes on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/EJ1rVONw7wk

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