Let’s be clear. Cats are not built to be vegetarians. A cat’s digestive system is not structured to process plant matter, nor is it capable of deriving essential nutrients from plants. Humans make reasoned choices to pursue vegetarianism, based on logical, ethical, spiritual, or other considerations. Cats have no such scruples, nor can they afford to have vegetarianism foisted upon them because of human ideologies. It’s a matter of health.
Cats are true carnivores, also called obligate carnivores. That means exactly what it says, with no room for interpretation. They are obliged to be carnivorous. This has nothing to do with meat as such; it means that cats cannot live a healthy life, much less develop normally, if they are denied nutrients derived from meat. These nutrients are readily available in the overwhelming majority of store-bought, commercially available cat food brands.
Cat food that is made from or is derived from meat contains the range of nutrients — including vitamins, minerals, amino and sulfonic acids, and fats — that cats require for all their most basic needs. Specifically, things like A, B, and D vitamins, fatty acids like arachidonic and linoleic acids, and the sulfonic acid called taurine, are all things cats need. None of these are naturally occurring in purely vegetarian diets.
Advocates of cat vegetarianism will argue that dietary supplements can provide the nutrients missing from plant matter, which is to say, all of them. This is technically true, but synthetic supplements are only approximations, and are insufficient to fulfill a cat’s dietary requirements, which are easily satisfied by store-bought cat foods. The debate over the quality or source of the meat products in most cat food is irrelevant, since higher-quality, ethically sourced cat foods are available. It is about satisfying or denying a cat’s most fundamental needs.
Putting a cat on a vegetarian diet is not just risky, it is dangerous. For a kitten, it’s potentially deadly. If cats and kittens do not get the nutrients enumerated above, along with a host of other things, including calcium, phosphorus, and iron, the chances of vital system failures only increase with time. Vitamins sourced from meat ensure excellent hearing, bone density, and digestive health. Fatty acids from meat are needed for healthy skin and coats, proper subdermal insulation, and a functional immune system.
The sulfonic acid taurine alone, found only in meat and enriched in commercially available cat foods, is so essential to cats that withholding it is tantamount to abuse. In cats, taurine contributes to the strength and integrity of the heart muscle. Without taurine, a cat’s heart becomes enlarged, weakened, and unable to provide sufficient fresh, oxygenated blood throughout a cat’s body. Without taurine, a kitten’s growth will be stunted, his vision impaired or lost, and his liver function compromised.
When people inquire about cat nutrition, it’s usually about specific items. Questions like “Can cats eat fruit?” or “Can cats eat vegetables?” illustrate an unease and a basic understanding that these foods are not typical for cats. Healthy meals for cats are easy to provide with a supply of cat food available at any pet supermarket. Yes, wet or moist cat food is preferable to dry kibble, but water content is not what’s at issue with cats and vegetarianism.
Trying to give a cat a balanced diet based on a vegetarian meal plan requires extraordinary effort in consultation with a veterinary specialist. Even then, dietary supplements do not contain the precise nutrients that cats need. The simplest answer to the question, “What do cats eat?” is found where it has always been found: in meat or derived from meat.
The idea of a vegetarian cat is a contradiction, if not a deadly paradox. Becoming a vegetarian is not a viable nutritional alternative for a cat. Feline nutrition is optimized when the primary source is meat. Cats are true carnivores; what they eat is not a choice they make, but a biological imperative. Nutrients found in or derived from meat are essential to the proper functioning of all a cat’s vital systems: bone and muscle, skin and coat, vision and hearing.
Vegetarians choose to not eat meat for a range of reasons, none of which should prevent domestic cats from having their most basic dietary needs met. October is Vegetarian Awareness Month; let’s be aware of the total impact that meat has on a cat’s quality of life. As we ask other people to respect our dietary choices, we should respect our cats by making certain they have exactly what they need to live long, happy, and healthy lives from kittenhood to senior living.
Read related stories on Catster:
Learn more about your cat with Catster: