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"Sustainable Pet Ownership" Means Cats Don't Need Meat to Survive? I Don’t Think So!

A pet-food maker's study touts "sustainability," saying vegetable protein is all cats need. Wrong!

 |  May 3rd 2013  |   28 Contributions


I’m all for sustainability and living a sustainable lifestyle. What do I mean by "sustainable?" According to one dictionary definition I found it means, “Of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged; of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.”

Accordingly, I support my local farmers’ market because I want to eat food grown locally. I make my best effort to eat meat and dairy from livestock that was raised humanely and drug-free. I walk everywhere rather than using motor vehicles, which I can do because I live in a safe and walkable city and I’m able-bodied enough to do so.

But sustainability means different things to different people.

Hallelujah! The farmers' market is back, and I can finally buy tomatoes that taste like tomatoes! A person pays a farmer for some fresh veggies by Shutterstock

And when some people start using the word “sustainability” as a Newspeak term that really means “putting cheap, crappy ingredients in pet food,” that just makes me mad.

According to a recent article in Science Daily, University of Iowa animal sciences researcher Kelly Swanson, in cooperation with scientists at The Nutro Co., are “raising a number of important questions on the sustainability of pet ownership.” 

What does that mean, "the sustainability of pet ownership?" Apparently, it means “applying the ethics of living as a human omnivore to animal carnivores.”

Hmm. Why is this cat eating a mouse? Could it be because he's designed to eat meat? Cat eating a mouse by Shutterstock

The pet food industry is very tightly linked with livestock production and the human food system, as the article's authors say. But most pet foods are made from the castoffs of the human meat production industry -- organs and other parts that humans refuse to eat, for example, and fat and carcasses rendered into sludge for use in pet foods and other products.

Or, as the article euphemistically puts it, “Pet food manufacturers also make heavy use of the secondary products from the human food chain.”

This, if you ask me, is a second-rate and pretty unhealthy solution to meeting the nutritional requirements of obligate carnivores.

Sure, cats eat plants ... when they want to throw up! Norwegian Forest Cat eating grass by Shutterstock

So, what’s the solution to this pesky “animals need to eat meat to stay healthy” thing? Well, says the article, if owners didn’t foolishly think their pets needed extremely high levels of protein, maybe we could make pet food that’s more “sustainable.”

After all, Swanson says that dogs and cats require specific nutrients -- not specific ingredients -- and that it’s possible to replace animal protein with plant protein in food to give our cats the protein they need. After all, his research showed that kittens fed vastly different protein-to-carbohydrate ratios all remained healthy, so it has to be totally fine to feed our cats corn and potato starch and soybeans forever and ever amen, am I right?

Never mind that cats can stay healthy in the short term on just about anything that fills their stomachs and sort of meets their nutritional needs.

Never mind that everyone who passed eighth-grade biology knows that cats are obligate carnivores.

Let’s go to the dictionary to help Swanson and his colleagues brush up on their vocabulary:

  • Obligate (adjective) 1: restricted to one particularly characteristic mode of life; 2: biologically essential for survival.
  • Carnivore (noun) 1: any of an order (Carnivora) of typically flesh-eating mammals that includes dogs, foxes, bears, raccoons, and cats; broadly: a carnivorous animal.

Soy-based proteins are a common pet food ingredient, the article says, and their production is a lot more efficient in terms of fossil fuel requirements.

Yeah, about that: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 93 percent of soy produced in the United States is genetically modified. I don’t knowingly eat GMO crops, and I don’t want to feed them to my cats, either. There's nothing sustainable about crops whose DNA has been manipulated for short-term gain and that are being banned in Europe and South America because of the known and/or potential health risks of consuming them.

I'd eat this random flower from a Seattle traffic turtle before I'd eat GMO crops!

“Nutritional sustainability is not just about minimizing environmental impact," the article states, "it also involves promoting pet health through appropriate nutrition and food quality and safety.” 

What?

The authors spend 500 words bloviating about how nutritionally inappropriate foods are the key to nutritional sustainability for pets. Then they say that nutritional sustainability is about promoting pet health?

There’s nothing healthy for cats about eating a diet composed totally of plant proteins.

If we really want a sustainable lifestyle, we should make the commitment to eat more consciously and lower our fossil-fuel consumption. But we can't stop feeding our cats the diet they have evolved to eat -- the diet they need to eat -- because a pet food company and its scientists are telling us that it's the PC thing to do.

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing the cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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