Vegetarian and vegan cat owners can struggle with the idea of feeding their kitty meat for every meal. Every year more people are choosing to adopt a plant-based diet. But can your cat eat a vegan diet and stay healthy and happy? Cat in a Flat finds out.

Why do we feed cats meat?

Cats are obligate carnivores. That means that cats have to eat meat to survive. Thousands of years of evolution have made cats unadapted to eat a plant-based diet. In the wild cats would live on a diet of small animals including rodents, birds, reptiles and even insects. When no creatures are available to hunt, cats can and do switch to plant-based food to bolster their diet. However, in the longterm, cats can’t eat a vegan diet as it doesn’t contain the nutrients and amino acids to keep them healthy and strong.

Many pet owners might wonder why dogs can survive on an omnivorous and even a vegetarian diet, and cats cannot. Simply put, cats are very different animals from dogs, and their digestive system and metabolism cannot cope without meat. Below are some of the main reasons.

  • Protein: cats require a lot of protein to get energy. Animal products contain a concentrated amount of protein that cats would struggle to get from plant sources. Cats’ gastrointestinal systems have evolved to digest a meat-based diet too, so struggle to get the nutrients they need from plants.
  • Carbohydrates: cats’ bodies do not cope well with digesting carbohydrates and getting energy from carbohydrate-based foods. Our furry friends have evolved to get energy from animal sources, not plant ones. 
  • Taurine: this amino acid is a building block for proteins and is essential in keeping cats healthy. Taurine is found exclusively in animal products. Some animals, including humans and dogs, can synthesise taurine, but cats cannot. Kitties need to get it from eating animal products. Without taurine, cats can develop severe health conditions, including dilated cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal heart condition. Degradation of the retinas and visual impairment, even blindness, is another possible result of a taurine deficiency, as well as a compromised immune system and problems in pregnancy. 
  • Vitamins: cats get vitamin A and D from animal products and cannot effectively absorb them from plant sources. 
A vegan diet doesn't provide all of the nutrients cats need
A vegan diet doesn’t provide all of the nutrients cats need

Cats can eat some plant-based food

Although cats need meat in their diet, they don’t – and shouldn’t – have to live exclusively on animal protein. Cats need more meat and fat in their diet than humans or dogs but should be happy and healthy on a diet of up to 40 per cent protein. Kittens need a little more and seniors a little less protein than an adult cat. 

Most cat foods include vegetables and grains to bulk them out and include extra fibre, and these are usually entirely safe for kitties. Some cats are intolerant to grains, however, and can develop health problems if they eat food containing them, so monitor your furry friend carefully if grains or cereals are part of their diet.

Cats will naturally also eat grass as it can act as a digestive aid. The greenery’s fibrous nature helps relieve blockages and upset tums. Indeed, a patch of cat grass is a good investment for all cats, especially indoor kitties, to prevent potential complications from hairballs.

But then why do vegan and vegetarian cat food exist?

The demand from some pet owners for their cat to eat a vegan diet means that plant-based cat foods are indeed available from some shops. These foods usually contain plant protein, a vegan source of taurine and digestive aids to help kitties process their meal. However, there isn’t a tremendous amount of research on whether these foods can sustain your furry friend over a long period.

Most vets, cat charities and experts would strongly recommend against a plant-based diet for your kitty. Even with food developed to meet a cat’s nutritional requirements, your pet would need constant supervision and vet check-ups to make sure they are thriving. Any problems could lead to illness, discomfort and even death. In the UK the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has even warned pet owners that forcing their cat to eat a vegan diet could be construed as cruelty and lead to a conviction under the Animal Welfare Act.

Always consult with a vet before changing your cat's diet
Always consult with a vet before changing your cat’s diet

What you can do to make your cat’s diet more ethical

We might not be able to get our cats to eat a vegan diet, but there are ways to make their diet more ethical. If you can afford to, choose quality food that uses meat from high-welfare sources. As consumers become more conscious of the ethical and environmental impact of their choices, more and more brands are developing products that meet high welfare standards, including using only free-range meats. 

Some pet food companies have launched foods made from insect protein. Because insects swarm, food made from creepy crawlies is much more sustainable to produce. Many consumers would also consider farming insects to cause less suffering than farming cows, pigs, chickens or fish.  The British Veterinary Association has even come out in favour of insect-based foods for their nutritional and environmental advantages.

Soon, we might also be able to buy lab-grown pet food. A Canadian company, Because Animals, developed the first cultured meat cat treat made from lab-grown mouse cells. And they have plans to develop the cultured mouse meat into readily available cat food. And Because Animals aren’t alone, many companies are trying to develop affordable and healthy lab-grown meat for pet food. 

The most important thing to remember is to make sure to consult your cat’s vet before making any changes to Mr Whisker’s diet. We all know how finickity cats can be about their food. And if your cat shows any sign of going off their food, or starts vomiting, please seek medical advice immediately.

Don’t forget to brief your cat sitter on your kitty’s dietary requirements before you leave on a trip. And read our advice on how to check if your cat is fat, or just fluffy, here.