A number of companies now manufacture vegan diets for cats. They don’t contain any meat, eggs, or dairy products. One such company advertises on its site that all its pet food is “cruelty-free” and approved by a leading animal rights organization.
For many people, vegan cat food makes an attractive option. They appreciate the idea of being able to feed pets without sacrificing other animals, especially if those other animals are subjected to possible cruelty during factory farming. But that’s not the only reason some people are drawn to a vegan diet. It’s also about the earth’s sustainability. It takes a lot of land, water, and food to grow and process animals that will be turned into food for other species, and that adds significantly to our carbon footprint.
But can a nutritious, healthful cat food be made without any animal ingredients whatsoever? Cats, after all, are carnivores. They require animal food to meet their nutrition needs. The answer is complicated.
Making sense of vegan cat food labels
It is certainly possible to create a diet for cats that contains no animal products whatsoever yet still has all the nutrients a cat needs, and in the right proportions. It will take the addition of certain nutrients created synthetically in a lab, but the numbers can be made to add up. That’s why you might very well see a vegan cat food with a Statement of Nutritional Adequacy saying the food has a nutrient profile established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) officials for maintaining good health.
But such a statement might provide “a false sense of security,” says Tufts board-certified veterinary nutritionist Deborah Linder, DVM. A nutrient created in a lab, or that comes from a plant food, might not be as well absorbed by a cat as a nutrient that comes from animal food. We need only to look at food for people to drive home the point.
Spinach is one of the most iron-rich foods in the human diet. But the form of iron in spinach is much more poorly absorbed by the human body than the iron in foods made from animals. So while on paper a diet containing a lot of spinach might look high in iron, it’s not the type of iron that people are readily able to assimilate and use to nourish all their organs and other tissues.
It’s the same for cats. All the right nutrients might be in the food, and in the right amounts, but that doesn’t mean they are being taken up and assimilated by the feline body in the necessary concentrations. If the feline diet has a lot of fiber, that could affect nutrient absorption that much more. Consistently high amounts of fiber can send certain nutrients out of the body during elimination rather than allow them to be absorbed and utilized by a cat.
It’s for that reason, Dr. Linder says, that you’d want to see a Statement of Nutritional Adequacy for a vegan cat diet that says the food was actually fed to cats and met their needs in long-term clinical studies, not just formulated with or calculated to contain the right amounts of all the nutrients. Because vegan diets for cats are relatively new to the market and not a lot is known about them compared to what we already know about animal-based diets for cats, you ideally want to learn if they have gone through feeding trials and whether they contain the amounts of various nutrients recommended by AAFCO.
Contact the company first
In taking care of your pet’s health, you should have as much information as possible before making a decision. “The more information you have,” Dr. Linder says, “the better.”
After all, cats pretty much eat just the one diet you feed them and nothing else, except for perhaps a treat here or there. It’s not like if they don’t get the right mix of nutrients at breakfast, they’ll get them at dinner. It’s pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition.
With that in mind, Dr. Linder says to follow the guidelines of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, which recommends finding out the following:
- Does the pet food company you’re considering employ someone with a PhD in animal nutrition or board certification by either the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or the European College of Veterinary Nutrition?
- What is the nutritionist’s employment status? Consultants may have limited influence compared to a staff nutritionist.
- Is the recipe developed by an experienced pet food developer with a PhD or at least a master’s degree in animal nutrition? (Recipe development is not taught in veterinary school, although veterinarians who are board-certified in nutrition have extra training.)
- What is the quality control process for ingredients and finished products? This includes information on toxicology, bacteriology, and packaging/shelf-life screenings prior to, during, and after manufacturing.
- What kind of product research or nutrition studies have been conducted? Have they been published in peer-reviewed journals? If studies have not been conducted and/or have not been subject to peer review by researchers outside the company, it means their results have not been vetted and considered acceptable by members of the scientific community who have nothing to do with the pet food manufacturer and are not paid by the company.
- The World Small Animal Veterinary Association advises that “if a manufacturer cannot or will not provide any of this information…owners should be cautious about feeding that brand.”
A case in point
Someone on our staff recently contacted the manufacturer of the vegan cat food referenced at the beginning of this article to ask questions similar to those listed above. We were e-mailed the following response:
All of our complete foods are made to meet and often exceed the nutritional guidelines for all the vitamins and minerals that are known to be essential for a healthy adult cat.
Our products are developed alongside pet industry nutritionists (who will work with many different companies to develop products), so the formulations involved in our products are taken very seriously and we take a lot of care in the selection of our ingredients and supplements.
In other words, it did not appear that someone with a PhD in animal nutrition was on staff, nor did it appear that any feeding trials had taken place and had been published in peer-reviewed journals for anyone to see.
That means the food is not a great bet for the health of your cat, even with concern for other animals or environmental sustainability. We urge you to contact Customer Service of any company whose vegan cat food you are considering and ask these questions before purchasing their product. Your own cat’s health hangs in the balance.