Vegan Cat Food: The Cold Hard Truth
When it comes to feeding and caring for oneself, veganism is fairly straightforward.
No milk, meat, or egg products. No leather or silk. No makeup that’s been tested on animals, or contains animal products.
Things start to get a little murky, however, when it comes to feeding those in our care - namely, our pets.
While dogs can thrive on a plant-based diet, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have no choice but to eat meat, and cannot survive on a diet that does not include animal products.
While it can be uncomfortable for an ethical vegan to have to purchase cat food made from animals, it is ultimately our responsibility as pet owners to provide our companion animals with the foods they need to keep them healthy.
Why Do Cats Need Meat?
The “obligate” in “obligate carnivore” means a necessity, or required for survival. When it comes to meat in the feline diet, the obligate is a deliberate choice of words.
Thanks to a long family line of ancestors who only ate meat, the domestic cat’s digestive system evolved over time, eventually losing the ability to create the amino acids and vitamins on their own the way herbivores and omnivores do.
A raw meat diet provides cats with vitamins and fatty acids in a pre-formed state, so they don’t have to worry about making vitamin A from beta-carotene - vitamin A comes that way in meat.
The same goes for the nutrients taurine and arginine, two essential nutrients in the cat’s diet that come almost exclusively in animal foods, as well as high amounts of protein. In fact, arginine is so critical to the cat’s diet that a meal without it can lead to death.
A single meal might sound dramatic, but it’s certainly not an exaggeration - the cat’s digestive system has also adjusted its length to adapt to a diet consisting of only raw flesh. Cats have the shortest digestive tract compared to body size of almost anything in the animal kingdom. Because meat is simple and efficient to digest, cats lost the need for metabolic activities and fermenting bacteria in the gut responsible for breaking down plant matter.
In the true sense of “use it or lose it” the evolution of cats chose to “lose it” - because the diet contains no carbohydrates, their bodies don’t need to be able to break them down
What Happens If I Make my Cat Vegan?
Taurine, one of the amino acids in meat, is an essential nutrient in a cat diet. Taurine occurs almost entirely in animal tissue, mainly the heart and liver, and it cannot be consumed in adequate amounts through plants. When cats are deficient in taurine, it can cause serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and blindness.
Some vegan and vegetarian cat owners try to implement a taurine supplement into their cat’s otherwise vegan diet. However, this does not fulfill the animal’s requirement for that amino acid.
It is the equivalent of a human eating nothing but iceberg lettuce and taking a synthetic multivitamin - it’s simply not a substitute for whole, nutritious foods, and is meant to be an addition to a healthy diet, rather than the cornerstone of nutrition.
The same goes for supplements in a cat’s diet.
Isn’t It Hypocritical for a Vegan to Feed Their Pet Meat?
Simply put? No. It’s not hypocritical or “unvegan” because:
- Veganism is a choice we make about our own lives, not others'
- Cats don’t have a moral compass and are incapable of having beliefs about right and wrong
- Cats have a physiological need for meat, and feeding them anything else would be harmful to their health
- A cat does not eat meat because of pleasure - it eats that way because that’s what is in its natural wiring
People go vegan for a multitude of reasons - some are ethical vegans, abstaining from animal products because they don’t want to cause harm, all the way to vegans who strive for personal health and the good of the environment.
Despite the difference in the reason why these motivations share a common thread - the fact that these are decisions each of these people are making over their own diet and life.
Veganism, and any ideology is a uniquely human characteristic - we are the only animals in the kingdom capable of having beliefs and a moral compass. In fact, we can consider a common argument used against veganism - that it’s natural. The common image used is the lion eating a zebra, the top of the food chain. But, we know this is a strawman argument - the lion doesn’t eat the zebra out of pleasure or enjoyment, he does so only because he needs to to survive, and he doesn’t have a moral compass that tells him whether eating the zebra is right or wrong. This is no different for our cats.
You can’t force ideology on a cat. Your cat doesn’t know right from wrong, whether that’s eating meat or knocking your glass of water off the table. Unlike humans, cats have a biological, physical need for the nutrients in meat - it is not just that they like the way it tastes, or they never really liked vegetables very much. Feeding your cat a vegan diet would be like trying to feed grass to a human - their bodies simply can’t digest it, and nothing more.
Ultimately, your cat’s diet is not a reflection of how “vegan” you are - it would be like comparing apples to oranges. Humans can choose to eat a vegan diet because they can digest and use the nutrients from carbohydrates and because they feel eating animal products is somehow wrong, whether for the sake of the animals or otherwise.
Feeding your cat a meat-based diet does not somehow kick you out of the vegan club - in fact, it makes you a better vegan since you are providing your pet, who is in your care, with what they need to stay healthy. You can, however, apply vegan ideals to shopping for your cat’s food by doing your research, making compassionate choices, and buying pet food that does not come from factory farmed animals.
So What Should a Vegan Feed a Pet Cat?
While we must choose cat food that contains meat and animal products, there are “better” choices than traditional canned wet food or kibble made from factory-farmed animals. Food options for vegan cat owners, starting with the “best” option, are:
- Homemade pet meals made from local meat and supplements
- Free-range, hormone-free, commercially available pet food, usually frozen or refrigerated
- Canned free-range, hormone-free pet foods
It’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of veganism is not perfection, rather, it is to create as little suffering in the world as possible.
Looking for the most compassionate meat-based cat food is an exercise in such a task - we have no choice but to choose something that contains meat, but we can make it as humane as possible.
Purchasing Local Meat
The best, most compassionate choice a vegan cat parent could make would be to purchase meats from a farmer they know - perhaps from a vendor at the farmer’s market, or a nearby food co-op.
Get to know the farmer and ask questions about the living conditions of the animals, so you can get a better sense of how they live.
Consider purchasing organ meats from these farmers, as liver, kidney, and other offal are incredibly nutritious for your cat and aren’t usually purchased by humans who choose to eat meat. In this sense, you would be helping use the entire animal that would have been slaughtered for meat anyway, and letting nothing go to waste.
If you would prefer not to purchase livestock from a farmer, consider partnering with a hunter, or choosing food made from animals that cannot be raised with battery farming methods.
These types of animals include:
- Deer (venison)
While it may seem counterintuitive to buy meat from someone who hunts, remember that a hunted animal lives almost its entire life in normalcy, doing what it wants and what comes naturally to it.
This is an excellent option for those who want to give their cats the food they need, but feel conflicted about supporting a business that profits from keeping animals in cages.
It is just about as close to natural as you can get.
Supplements to add to meat-based meals
Note that if you feed your cat a homemade meal with local meats, you’ll need to add supplements - like the meat itself, this is non-negotiable.
You can add a pre-mixed supplement to your own meat and organ mixture, or choose the cost-effective option of creating your own supplement mix using taurine, fish oil, and vitamin B. You can find sample supplement blends and recipes on feline-nutrition.org.
It’s important to reiterate that supplementation in ground meats is not optional. If you fail to add supplements, you will kill your cat.
Commercial frozen/refrigerated meals
For those too busy to mix up their own ground meat and supplements, or who do not have a local source of humanely raised meats, commercial refrigerated and/or frozen meals are an option.
These meals are complete and do not require supplementation. If possible, look for varieties that are grain-free - it’s better suited for your cat’s digestive system.
Here are a few recommended brands:
- Aunt Jeni - Available in chicken, turkey, beef, or rabbit, Aunt Jeni products use free-range meats that are completely free of hormones and antibiotics. Note that the carbohydrate content of this food is 3-4%, as it contains some fruits, vegetables, and seeds, so see how your cat reacts or get your vet’s opinion. These meals are available at stores or will ship frozen to your door.
- Bravo - Offering complete foods in turkey, chicken, and beef varieties, all the poultry in these meals is hormone and antibiotic free, and the beef comes from grass-fed cows. Like Aunt Jeni’s, Bravo has about a 3-4% carbohydrate content, so get your vet’s opinion when introducing this into your cat’s diet. This product is available at retail stores.
- Rad Cat Raw Diet - A completely grain- and vegetable-free blend, Rad Cat uses all natural, free- and pasture-raised meats. The animals are completely hormone and antibiotic free, and the products are available in turkey, chicken, and lamb.
If none of these options are available, look for canned food that is either made from one of the non-factory-farmed animals listed above, or that has the phrases “free-range” or “pasture-raised” on the labeling.
It is true that these free-range, organic, and compassionate foods will be more expensive than low-grade alternatives. However, it is well worth the increase in price. Not only does it ensure the animals used in that food are treated more humanely, and live more decent lives than factory-farmed animals, but it will also mean that you are providing higher quality nutrition for your cat.
And, because veganism is about being the best stewards of the animal kingdom possible, this is a no-brainer when it comes to our responsibilities as pet owners.
Veganism and Companion Animals
In some cases, our beloved pets can survive and thrive on completely plant-based diets.
Unfortunately, because they are obligate carnivores and need meat to survive, it is not possible to feed a vegan diet to a cat and keep it healthy.
It’s important to keep this in mind if you are vegan and considering adopting a cat, or if you already own a cat and are transitioning to a plant-based way of life, you can make compassionate choices while still giving your cat the food it needs to be healthy and nourished.
Remember - veganism is not about perfectionism, it is about creating as little suffering possible.
Because your cat requires nutrients from meat to survive, the best thing you can do is to look for meats from local farmers, hunters, or choose products that are made from animals that cannot be factory farmed.
Being true to vegan values and a good cat parent can coexist - simply do your research, provide your cat, which is dependent on you for well-being, with what it needs, and do the best you can - that is the ultimate goal of an ethical vegan lifestyle.