A coworker brought up the subject of vegan dog food today, and it got some mixed reactions at work. Some people feel that it isn’t natural for dogs and cats to be vegan and that humans are projecting their own choices onto their pets who have no say in the matter. Perhaps they aren’t taking their pet’s best interest into account and they use their own reasons for going vegan to justify altering their pet’s natural diet.
I have read many accounts of vegan dogs that thrived and lived long, healthy lives. Their coats were shinier, their eyes brighter, and they had more energy. I read of a dog named Bramble, who lived to the age of 27 on a diet of grains, lentils, and organic vegetables. In 2002, Bramble was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living dog in the world! Still, I can imagine that if a dog weren’t fed a well-balanced vegan diet (or a human, for that matter) that a lot of health problems could result.
Studies have shown that animals have ailments related to a meat-based diet just as humans do: allergies, cancer, heart, and bone problems. But I have to wonder if it isn’t the quality of the meat and other ingredients in most pet food that’s causing these issues. Cats and dogs are carnivores by nature (dogs are more omnivorous, whereas cats are almost entirely carnivorous). Most pet food is made up of ground-up animal parts deemed as unfit for human consumption by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (often due to the fact that the animals used for food were sick, unable to walk, or dead). Also, let’s not forget that most pet food is full of fillers, over-processed soy, GM corn, sweeteners, and preservatives. It isn’t any more natural for a cat to eat these things than it is for them to eat a vegan diet. And in the case of most pet foods on the market, one might argue that a vegan diet is indeed healthier!
There is the matter of anatomy too. Whereas humans have a digestive system that more closely resembles a herbivore, cats and dogs have the digestive system of a carnivore (again, dogs are closer to omnivores on this continuum). They have pointed teeth and claws and innate hunting skills. They don’t need tools and weapons and fire. Their teeth and claws are meant to grab, hold, and tear raw meat. Their stomachs can handle un-chewed chunks of raw meat and their colons are different from ours. Carnivores have short, smooth intestines and they quickly pass the meat they consume. Humans have long, ribbed intestines not effective for digesting meat (although it is still possible to). Even how our saliva works in the digestive process is different. We need enzymes in our saliva to help digest our food. Dogs and cats don’t. The pH of their stomachs is much more acidic (for digesting meat). You can read up on the details of these differences, but what I’m trying to say is that what is right for us may not necessarily be right for our pet, and in fact, could be very wrong for them.
Since animals cannot speak for themselves, it is up to us to make the best choices that we can for those that are in our care. Of course, companion animals could also be pigs or rabbits, who are herbivores. Certainly most vegans out there would think it preposterous for an omnivore human to feed their companion rabbit meat just because they eat it themselves!
Here’s what I think: the animals in our care are unable to speak, but they have ways of telling us what they want and need. We have to be intuitive and respectful of our pets and their needs, even if those needs differ from our own. It is our job as loving pet owners to pay attention to what makes our pet healthy and happy and try to provide those things in the best way possible. Ideally, I would never have to support the meat industry in any way for the rest of my life. But that’s just not possible, cats or no cats.
We have to be realistic, not selfish, when it comes to taking another life into our care. I wouldn’t force a certain diet on my pet any more than I would my theoretical child. In the case of a child, they can make the decision for themselves once they are able to understand the ethics of it all, but what I mean is that I can’t project my ideals on another living thing and automatically assume it’s what’s right for everyone involved. I have looked at my individual situation (as every pet owner should), which is that I am the proud parent of two cats, and they are true carnivores. So even though I’d rather not buy meat, I do it for them, and I make sure I get a good quality, holistic pet food with wholesome ingredients.