When compassion for all living beings is a core value in your life, it can be disturbing to feel your commitment to a vegan lifestyle is compromised by your desire to feed canine and feline family members the best possible diet. You may have eliminated animal products from your own diet, sworn off buying leather shoes, and never ever buy cosmetics that are not cruelty free—but the meat you buy for your dogs and cats is the one relic of the so-called “livestock” industry that still shows up in your home.
As more and more people adopt a vegan diet for themselves, they also consider eliminating animal products from their dogs’ and cats’ diets. But is this really a healthy option? Didn’t they evolve as predatory carnivores, existing on the raw flesh of their prey? Yes—and no. It’s true that their ancestors were wild hunters whose diets consisted primarily of the animals they killed. But the animals we share our homes with today are genetically far removed from their wild counterparts. Think about it—does a dachshund appear to have the identical genetic profile of a wolf? Does the kitten curled up on the pillow of your bed really look like she’s ready to take down an ibex? Of course not. Due to centuries of selective breeding and adaptation, the dog and cat who sleep at your side are substantially different from their ancestors. What’s more, the meat we feed them is substantially different from the wild game consumed by their predecessors. The cows and chickens of today are also the result of extensive selective breeding, and their flesh carries the residue of hormones, antibiotics, and the pesticides applied to the grain they eat—hardly the same as a freshly killed jackrabbit.
Let’s consider the canine diet. The fact is, even a wolf or a coyote is not a true carnivore. He’s actually more of an omnivore, or an animal that consumes both animal and vegetable foods. A wild canine nibbles on grasses and other vegetation, as well as the stomach contents of his vegan prey. All things considered, it’s reasonable to assume that our dogs can rely on non-animal sources for a healthy diet.
The same is true for our cats. Their predecessors, too, eat grasses and vegan stomach contents. Some supplementation is essential if meat is eliminated from a cat’s diet (see below), but there’s no question they draw nutrition from vegetable sources just like the rest of us.
The truth is, many dogs and cats actually blossom when switched to a meatless regimen, with glossier coats, fresher breath and cleaner teeth, more energy at play, and a more peaceful disposition overall. Removing animal products from the diet may even help overcome some health problems, including allergies, behavioral disorders such as aggression, hypersensitivity or anxiety, and even seizures. In some cases, eliminating meat from the diet will help an overweight animal trim down while still enjoying ample, satisfying meals. Consider, too, the benefits of eliminating the possibility your companion might be exposed to toxic residues in the flesh of farm animals that are not raised organically. And of course, you’ll feel much more at peace knowing your household really is cruelty free.
To make the switch to meatless fare for your animal family members, simply choose vegetable sources for the protein component of their meals. Vegetable proteins are not digested as completely as those derived from meat or dairy, so the proportions may need to be a little higher. Feeding a variety of ingredients is particularly important, to be sure your dog and cat get the balance of amino acids and other nutrients they need. Here are a few additional guidelines you may find helpful:
The high-protein vegan foods you eat yourself will replace the meat your dog and cat used to eat. Tofu, tempeh, lentils, beans, and split peas are among your options.
When using beans as your protein source, soak them overnight, rinse well, then cook them until they’re soft, and purée the bigger, firmer varieties like garbanzos. Adding a small potato to the cooking pot will help reduce “gassiness.”
Supplement with either a vitamin B12 tablet weekly, a daily multivitamin, or feed B12-rich spirulina or nutritional yeast on a regular basis. Cats must receive the amino acid taurine as a supplement, as a deficiency can cause blindness. The company called Compassion Circle offers supplements designed specifically for vegan dogs and cats.
Don’t forget to include fruits as well as vegetables in the diet, to provide a broad range of nutrients—and, of course, because they taste so good!
Since your cat may be a little fussier than your dog, you may need to flavor her vegan meals with a bit of the meat-based food she’s accustomed to. Just decrease the amount gradually till she doesn’t even notice it’s gone. Also try adding interesting flavors like nutritional yeast, spirulina, or a touch of tomato sauce. Cats also seem to love yellow and orange foods like melon, corn, sweet potatoes, and winter squash.
Remember to follow the golden rule of nutrition: Variety, variety, variety. Give her lentils on Tuesday, black beans on the weekend, tofu on Sunday morning. If providing a varied diet is difficult for you, follow a balanced, recipe formulated by a qualified veterinarian. Customized diets are available from a veterinary nutritionist at most veterinary schools or from PetDiets.com.
If you need to rely on a commercial cat or dog food, there are vegan varieties available. However the same concerns about processing, preservatives, chemical additives, quality of ingredients, and lack of variety apply just as they do for meat-based diets. Scrutinize package labels and manufacturers’ websites for lists of ingredients and company policies on ingredient sources and quality, processing, and so forth. Companies that offer quality vegan foods include Nature’s Recipe, Natural Balance, PetGuard, V-Dog, Halo, and Evolution.
Once your dog and cat start their new diets, watch for changes—for better or worse—in health or behavior. A brittle coat, low energy, or weak muscles may be a sign she’s not getting enough protein. If so, be sure the protein source is easily digestible and of good quality. Cook beans a little longer or purée them; increase the amount of protein, or try different sources such as tofu and lentils.
Chances are, though, you’ll find that your friends’ coats become softer and shinier, their energy increases, she’s less afraid of those thunderstorms, his breath is fresh, and that nasty build-up on her teeth seems to be going away. If that’s the case—celebrate and carry on!