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What You Need to Know BEFORE Switching Your Pet to a Vegetarian Diet

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Whiskers, Paws and Love Inc. Team

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    A vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet that does not contain any animal flesh, such as meat, poultry, or fish, but it can include dairy and eggs. Many people have considered putting their pets on a vegetarian diet, or even more challenging and dangerous, a vegan diet which is a plant-based diet that is even more strict (not allowing dairy, eggs, or any other ingredients derived from animals). Among the several reasons why people are looking at vegetarianism for their pets is that they are vegetarians themselves and they think that what works for them will also work for their pets. The media, as well as organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) , has been encouraging people to switch their pets to a plant-based diet and although it may sound like its simple to do, it can be difficult.

    Vegetarian Diets for Dogs

    Since dogs are omnivores (meaning that they can digest and derive nutrients from fruits and vegetables), it is theoretically possible to switch them to a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet for dogs will typically contain some of the following ingredients: rice, quinoa, oats, lentils, beans, seeds such as millet or flax, spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli, peas and other vegetables, soya, added vitamins and minerals, and eggs and/or dairy. For some breeds, such as Dalmatians, a vegetarian diet can be beneficial to their health because it can lower the risk of bladder stones, which Dalmatians are prone to develop; and veterinarians sometimes recommend carefully formulated vegan or vegetarian diets for dogs with food allergies to various animal proteins.

    The problem is: Feeding a diet that does not have the right balance of nutrients can result in serious health consequences for your dog. Dogs have difficulty producing Vitamin D3 from sunlight, so they need to get it from animal products. In particular, it’s not possible to meet a dogs’ protein requirements with a diet that contains only plant protein. While vegetarian diets include eggs and dairy which contain animal protein and other essential nutrients such as vitamin B12 that are difficult to obtain from plant-based foods, many dogs still require taurine and L-carnitine (found in raw meat) in their diets. Dogs will need a supplement of the amino acid, taurine, because a deficiency can cause symptoms such as excessive panting, collapse, blood in the urine, pain during urination, and pelvic and abdominal pain. New evidence shows that taurine deficiency causes the same condition in dogs.

    Another issue is the quality of commercial vegetarian pet foods. A study carried out by The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) on 86 vegetarian dogs in Europe found that

    over half the dogs were fed a diet deficient in protein, essential amino acids, calcium, zinc, and vitamins D and B12. A study of 24 vegetarian diets done at a California university found that a full one-quarter of those foods did not meet all the amino acid requirements. It is important to choose a reputable brand and check that the diet has been accurately assessed as complete and balanced. For example, that it meets the nutrient profile standards set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The safest bet is a veterinary therapeutic diet, and if your dog has any health conditions, it is a necessity to seek veterinary nutritional advice. The healthiest option might be to continue to include meat in your dog’s diet but to reduce the amount. Given how difficult it is to get the nutritional balance right, a home-prepared vegetarian diet is NOT recommended.

    For owners who want to safely switch their pet to a diet that is better for the environment there are more vegetarian pet foods being created every day. In Europe, dog food is already on sale that is made from insects; and in California, a company is working on lab-grown mice meat for cats.

    Vegetarian Diets for Cats:

    Unlike dogs, cats are true carnivores, meaning that they rely entirely on animal flesh for some particularly important nutrients. For instance, both dogs and humans can convert beta carotene from plant foods into Vitamin A, but cats cannot. They must ingest the vitamin directly from meat. There are also fatty acids, such as arachidonic acid, which are essential for cats and only found in animal fats. Other challenging nutrients are vitamin D, vitamin B12 and taurine. Cats must obtain taurine from the tissues of mammals. It is known that taurine deficiency is one cause of a heart condition in cats called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), where the heart muscle thins, and the chambers become enlarged, as well as retinal degeneration leading to blindness, altered white-cell function, and abnormal growth and development. While it is possible to add supplements to your cat’s food, you are likely to make a tough situation worse. Nutrients in real food are combined with thousands of other nutrients, interacting, and complementing each other and changing the way that they work. In supplements those other nutrients are removed which changes how they work, or do not work. And, if you own a cat, you know that they can be extremely finicky and stubborn about what they will eat. If you can find a healthy vegetarian diet which includes the necessary nutrients in the necessary amounts, do you seriously think that you could get your cat to eat it? Good luck with that!

    In summary, vegetarian pets are not recommended for cats and although possible for dogs, their health must be closely monitored. As always, consult with your veterinarian before making major changes to your pet’s diet.