Cats, owners will attest, are natural born killers and for most of their evolutionary history have enjoyed an almost entirely meat-based diet. However, fresh research has suggested that a vegan diet is not only safe for pet cats, but may have health benefits.
The study found that owners of cats fed vegan diets reported fewer visits to the vet, less medication use and said that their vet would be more likely to describe their cat as healthy. The findings provide reassurance to a growing number of owners who are considering alternative diets for their pets, the researchers said.
“Biologically, what cats need is not meat, but a specific set of nutrients, said Prof Andrew Knight, of the University of Winchester, who led the research. “There’s no scientific reason why you can’t supply all the necessary nutrients through plant additives.”
Pet food production has a significant environmental impact and a growing number of cat and dog owners are interested in alternative diets.
Cats need a high-protein diet that includes certain nutrients, like taurine, which are only found naturally in meat. However, these nutrients can be synthetically manufactured or sourced from specific plants and added into vegan food as supplements. In some cases, meat-based food also has to be supplemented because the nutrients can be destroyed during processing.
“The same supplements are used for vegan food to make sure it’s nutritionally sound,” said Knight.
The study, published in the journal Plos One, surveyed 1,369 cat owners, about 9% of whom reported feeding their cat a vegan diet. When asked about 22 specific health disorders, 42% of owners whose catate a meat-based diet reported at least one disorder, compared with 37% of owners of cats on vegan diets. Overall the vegan cats scored better on all health indicators, although these differences were not statistically signifiant.
The researchers could not rule out the cats obtaining meat through other means, but said that this was unlikely to influence the findings. “Most of the cats on vegan diets were indoor cats,” said Knight. “They weren’t going outdoors and hunting. It could’ve been for the other ones that there was some supplemental hunting going on.”
The British Veterinary Association has previously warned against placing pets on alternative diets, but said that it was reviewing its advice.
“There is increasing interest among pet owners around alternative diets for pets and while there is a lot of ongoing research into the impacts of vegan diets in particular, there has been a lack of robust data mapping the health consequences of this diet over time,” said Justine Shotton, the association’s senior vice-president.
“In light of ongoing research, the British Veterinary Association recently convened a companion animal feeding working group which will inform our recommendations going forward. In the meantime, owners should speak to their vet if they are considering changing their pet’s diet.”