Conrad the cat!

Vegan Cat Food and Vegan Cats: Weighing Risks & Rewards

Brace yourself: the topic of vegan cat food and the question of whether vegan cats can thrive is fraught with complexity. There’s a great deal of misinformation on the topic, and I’ll do my best to set things straight.

While it’s surprisingly easy for most people to become vegan, getting your cat onto a vegan diet is roughly a million times harder. Cats are natural carnivores and their digestive system is nothing like our own. They’ve got pointier teeth, much stronger stomach acid, and shorter intestines—all hallmarks of true carnivores.

The first problem associated with putting a cat on a vegan diet involves finding food they’re willing to eat. Cats are notoriously inflexible when it comes to trying new foods. Most have no interest in working with you, and would never attempt to meet you halfway. These are, after all, creatures who can dismiss a given food forever, based on a single sniff. That hardly seems fair, but unaccountable behavior is what being a cat is all about.

Is Vegan Cat Food Nutritionally Adequate?

There is consequently no one-size-fits-all approach to feeding cats. I’ve met cats who delight in eating pureed vegetables. Unfortunately, my cat, Conrad, was never one of these obliging sorts. He wouldn’t eat a spoonful of veggies if you offered him a lifetime supply of catnip. Yet, oddly, Conrad happily devoured something few cats will touch—he adored fruit. He’d scarf down any fruit at all. I’ve fed Conrad apples, bananas, cherries, and even blueberries. As long as I broke up the fruit and hand-fed it, so his tongue could tear into it, Conrad was the happiest fellow on earth.

Of course, fruit doesn’t begin to provide all the nutrients a cat needs. So it’s not enough merely to find vegan foods your cat will eat; you need to construct a diet that offers adequate nutrition. And providing adequate vegan nutrition for cats is a daunting task.

The Nutrients Vegan Cats Need

Humans require just nine types of amino acids, all of which are found in abundance in many vegan foods. Cats, by contrast, require eleven different amino acids. And these extra two amino acids, taurine and arginine, aren’t normally found in plant-based foods. Taurine and arginine aren’t just desirable for cats, they are essential—without sufficient taurine, your cat will go blind.

Fortunately, taurine and arginine are both easily synthesized from vegan sources. Any reputable brand of vegan cat food will therefore feature taurine and arginine in its ingredients. But taurine and arginine alone won’t cover a vegan cat’s nutritional needs. Cats typically obtain most of their vitamin A and D from animal sources.

And then there’s the matter of arachidonic acid, an animal-based ingredient that nobody outside the cat food industry has ever heard of. Once again, however, all of these nutrients can be derived from plant-based sources. Every vegan cat food on the market should contain all these vital nutrients; just check the ingredients list of the product’s label to verify their presence.

Finding Food Your Cat Will Like

So why did I make such a big deal about the difficulty of feeding cats a vegan diet? You just need to find a good brand of vegan cat food, and make sure it contains all the nutrients I covered above, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As we’ve already seen, the switch to vegan food can be a tough sell, no matter how expertly formulated and nutritionally balanced the brand you’ve purchased. Worst of all, since there are only a few vegan cat foods on the market, your cat might hate all of them. What to do then?

Preparing Vegan Cat Food from Scratch

All is not lost. Your next step is to get Jed Gillen’s book Obligate Carnivore. Gillen explores the nutrition issues of vegan cats in great detail. He also includes recipes for vegan cat food that you can make right in your kitchen. Since individual tastes vary between cats, you may need to try a number of recipes before you find one that your cat deems satisfactory. There is nothing more humiliating than spending thirty minutes lovingly preparing a batch of cat food, only to watch your cat give it a perfunctory sniff and then walk away in disgust, without deigning to taste even a morsel. When this happens, you can usually count on your cat shooting you a scornful look over his shoulder as he walks behind the sofa.

But with persistence, you may achieve success. Once you discover a recipe your cat enjoys, you must spike all future batches with a specially formulated amino acid and vitamin supplement. The most popular brand is called VegeCat, which can be purchased online. Don’t spike your test batch of homemade cat food with these supplements until after your cat approves of the recipe. These supplements are expensive and it’s silly to waste them on a test-recipe batch that will go uneaten.

The Cost Savings of Homemade Vegan Cat Food

Some people prefer making their cat’s food from scratch, which will save considerable money. Homemade vegan cat food is much cheaper than store-bought.

That’s especially true given the cost of commercially-made vegan cat food. Vegan cat food brands are up to ten times more expensive than many conventional brands. So the amount of money you’ll save by preparing your own cat food is substantial, especially if you have more than one cat. If you go the homemade route, always add in the supplement mixture to each batch of food you make—otherwise your cat is guaranteed to develop serious, life-threatening deficiencies. It takes under a half-hour of preparation to create a batch of food that will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks.

Coaxing Your Cat to Eat

Whether you’re trying commercial vegan cat food or going the homemade route, there’s a final strategy to try if your cat rejects every food you offer. That is: start out by mixing only about 20 percent of the vegan stuff into your cat’s regular cat food. Over a few weeks, you can ratchet up the vegan portion until you reach 100 percent.

Note that this approach only works if your cat isn’t totally repulsed by the food in question. You might see waning enthusiasm for eating each time you increase the proportion of vegan food. And if you’re feeding them dry kibble, many cats will actually dig through the bowl and eat only the meat-containing kibbles. This is a clear indication that your cat is plotting to kill you in your sleep and that you ought to abandon your attempt to feed him that particular type of vegan food.

Finally, keep in mind that some cats every bit as unwilling to go vegan as your uncle Frank. Try as you will, it’s just not going to happen. But with enough effort on your part, many cats will over time happily shift to a 100-percent vegan diet.

Veterinary Concerns for Vegan Cats

At the start of this article how I wrote that it’s exceedingly difficult to get your cat onto a vegan diet. Now that we’re halfway through, it must seem like I’ve exaggerated the total effort required. How hard is it, after all, to try a few different brands of vegan cat food or to experiment in the kitchen until you concoct a recipe your cat will accept?

But transitioning your cat to a nutritionally balanced vegan diet is only half the job. And, unfortunately, it is the (comparatively) fun and easy part. Because once your cat has become vegan, there is a second, less savory half of the job that you must perform. Are you ready? You’ve got to have your vet obtain samples of your cat’s urine for pH testing. I wish I was making this up, but it’s true.

Collecting Urine Samples

Now why would you need to collect urine samples? Haven’t we already concluded that correctly formulated vegan food delivers all the nutrients a cat needs? Sampling urine turns out to be an absolute necessity because vegan diets, even if nutritionally complete, tend to be more alkaline than diets that are based on meat.

Since a cat’s urinary system is tuned to function with high acidity, a swing towards too much alkalinity can cause severe health problems. Even if your cat is getting all the nutrients he or she needs from a vegan diet, elevated alkalinity can lead to life-threatening—and expensive to treat—health problems.

Specifically, a vegan diet increases the risk of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD). A precursor to FLUTD is the formation of urinary struvite stones. These stones arise from either too much dietary magnesium or excessive urine alkalinity. Vegan cat food is unlikely to contain excessive magnesium, but it’s quite likely to increase urine alkalinity.

The Importance of Urine Tests

Once struvite crystals form, they can block your cat’s urethra, making urination difficult or impossible. The required catheterization and hospitalization typically costs upwards of one thousand dollars. Without prompt veterinary treatment to deal with this blockage, a potentially infection can set in. Any cat can develop urinary crystals if put on an improper diet, but when males develop urinary crystals, the consequences are much more serious.

So for both karmic and financial reasons, it makes sense to do everything possible to ensure that these stones won’t form. The most reliable way to prevent struvite stones is to conduct urine tests. You must do a urine test two weeks after changing your cat’s diet. About 15 to 20 percent of vegan cats will develop FLUTD if they do not undergo proper urine tests.

Your cat’s urine test will reveal several important pieces of information. If the test reveals bacteria, that indicates your cat has a bladder infection requiring veterinary treatment. Likewise, the urine may contain crystals, which—if not treated—could lead to a bladder infection. And even if the urine contains no bacteria or crystals, an improper pH signals danger ahead.

What to Do if Urine Tests Reveal Problems

If the urine is too alkaline (showing a pH is above 6.5), consider adding acidifiers to the diet. These acidifiers include methionine, vitamin C, and sodium bisulfate. They’re all discussed at length in Gillen’s books. Be sure to consult your vet before using a methionine supplement, since these can produce gastrointestinal problems or anemia. If you’re preparing cat food from scratch, rather than purchase an acidifier you might switch to a cat food recipe that contains naturally acidifying foods like asparagus, peas, brown rice, or oats.

Note that you should only resort to acidifiers or acidifying recipes if urine tests indicate a necessity to do so. You want your cat’s urine pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Unwarranted use of acidifiers can cause health problems. Ironically enough, inappropriate use of acidifiers can cause those wretched urinary tract stones again. In this case—when urine is too acidic—the crystals will consist of calcium oxalate rather than struvite.

If you’re trying to correct urine pH levels through diet or supplements, you must keep bringing your cat in for testing every two weeks until the urine pH falls into a healthy range. And once your cat’s urine hits a safe levels, you must conduct tests on urine acidity every six months for the rest of your cat’s life.

Ongoing Efforts to Protect Your Cat’s Health

Maintaining proper urine acidity in vegan cats requires a delicate balance and vigilant checking. Anyone unwilling to do the initial urine tests followed by twice-yearly follow-ups should not put their cat on a vegan diet. Each urine test will cost at least seventy dollars. But that’s a pittance compared to the surgery and hospitalization costs associated with undetected urinary problems. More importantly, these tests can eliminate the suffering and life-threatening risks that arise from a blocked urethra.

Even if the urine pH is in the healthy range, you can provide additional support for urinary tract health by encouraging your cat to drink plenty of water. One way to accomplish this is to provide two sources of water: plain water, and water flavored with vegan bouillon cubes. Many cats will drink extra water if it is provided by a flowing water fountain. Serving wet rather than dry food can also boost your cat’s water intake, although this may diminish your cat’s dental health.

Even if your cat’s urine tests indicate no cause for concern, urinary tract problems can still occur. Every cat guardian should therefore keep an eye on litter box behavior. Watch for your cat shows signs of straining during urination or lingering around the litter box. Such behavior could be a sign that the urinary tract has become blocked. Bring your cat to the vet right away if you see this sort of abnormal behavior. The more time that passes, the more damage occurs, and the greater expense and complications. Being vigilant for meowing, straining, lingering, and frantic behavior at the litter box can prevent disaster.

Communicating Honestly with Your Veterinarian

Beyond finding ways to help your cat to transition, and carefully monitoring his health, you’ve got one more responsibility. You must tell your veterinarian about your cat’s diet. This might become a demoralizing experience. Your veterinarian probably won’t be any more enthusiastic about feline veganism than was your cat. This leads naturally to the temptation to keep your vet in the dark regarding your cat’s diet. But doing so would be a terrible mistake.

I hope that this article has made clear that vegan cats face a number of special health risks. If your veterinarian isn’t informed of your cat’s diet, he or she won’t know to check for early signs of trouble.

Should You or Shouldn’t You?

If you’ve done everything suggested here, then all you need to do over the long-term is to keep an eye on your cat’s coat, eyes, and overall behavior, as those things can offer the first indication of health problems.

There’s no doubt that many cats can thrive on a vegan diet long-term. And it’s likewise certain that putting cats on a vegan diet deprives the meat industry of some revenue. What’s more, numerous people have switched to vegan cat food and found that their cats’ health actually improved. This is hardly surprising, given the vile ingredients that find their way into regular cat food.

There’s no doubt that vegan cat food is a cleaner and more wholesome choice than conventional cat food. But finding nutritionally balanced vegan food that your cat enjoys may pose an insurmountable challenge. And even if you succeed at this task, you still face the ongoing responsibility to ensure that urine pH levels stay within the normal range.

On top of all this, there are a few final things to consider when contemplating the switch.

The Vegan Cat Food Industry is Still Immature

One of the main problems with shifting your cat to a vegan diet is that no large corporation is yet manufacturing vegan cat food. Large companies can devote resources to R&D and quality control that smaller companies cannot match. In consequence, there can be risk associated with entrusting your cat’s health to a small manufacturer of vegan cat food. This is especially true given the fact that many variables must be accounted for if cats are to thrive on a vegan diet.

One pet food company markets a vegan cat food that, by the company’s own admission, is nutritionally inadequate. Another company’s cat food was once tested an independent laboratory, and the results indicated that several key nutrients were present at levels far below the label’s claim. More troubling still, in my opinion, this company did not act swiftly and decisively to rectify the situation.

These cases are troubling, to say the least. Levels of taurine and other key nutrients demand careful attention. Your cat’s quality of life and long-term survival depends on properly formulated food. While it’s relatively inexpensive to ensure that your cat’s food is not creating an alkalinity problem, it’s much harder to test your cat for taurine and other possible deficiencies. When it comes to evaluating whether a given cat food’s nutrients match up with the claims on the label, you have no choice but to trust the word of your cat food or supplement manufacturer.

Conventional Cat Food Shouldn’t Get a Free Pass

Having said all this, it’s not as though the companies that produce meat-based cat food are bastions of quality and integrity. For budget and mid-priced cat food, a substantial portion of the product is commonly derived from slaughterhouse byproducts. What goes on in endering plants is horrific, so these byproducts may include some incredibly nasty stuff.

Basically, if you feed your cat anything but premium cat food, you can be certain that your animal is eating rendered protein from flesh riddled with tumors, abscesses, or infected wounds. Most slaughterhouse products that are too disgusting to put into a hot dog become pet food. In fact, cheaper cat food can even include animal protein of unspecified origin—which means your cat may be dining on the rendered flesh of dogs and cats killed at city shelters.

Should Vegan People Have Vegan Cats?

So, should vegans feel ethically obligated to put their cats on a vegan diet? Perhaps not. In making this analysis, I’m in no way seeking to belittle anyone’s choices, no matter which way they go.

Putting your cat on a vegan diet guarantees that not a penny of your cat’s food cost goes to support factory farms and animal slaughter. But it’s tough to argue that putting your cat on a vegan diet delivers the biggest bang for the buck in terms of preventing farmed animal suffering. For one thing, between the added expense of commercial vegan food and the twice-yearly urine tests, you can count on spending at least an extra two hundred dollars each year to keep your cat on a vegan diet. You can eliminate much of this extra expense if you’re willing to prepare the food from scratch—assuming your cat will eat homemade food—but then you’ll need to spend perhaps twelve hours a year preparing cat food. Many vegans doubtless lack the time and money to make these commitments.

Weighing Competing Priorities for Animal Protection

Suppose you took the extra $200 a year it costs to feed your cat vegan, and instead donated it to an effective animal protection group. Doing so would probably yield a reduction of slaughter at least ten times greater than what switching your cat to a vegan diet would accomplish.

Additionally, it probably takes two to twelve hours of time each year to keep a cat healthy on a vegan diet. That is time that could be invested into animal protection work that generates a much greater reduction of animal suffering.

In the end, the decision to put your cat on a vegan diet should depend largely on three factors:

  1. Your finances.
  2. The time required to ensure your cat stays healthy on a vegan diet.
  3. Your cat’s ability to stay healthy while cheerfully consuming the foods you provide.

If any of these factors are lacking, there’s no need for despair. Just consider this an opportunity to channel your energy into avenues that make an even bigger difference for farmed animals.

For further reading: please see our article on vegan dogs and our “Why Go Vegan?” essay.
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