More than 7 million people* in the United States are vegetarians for reasons that include health, ethics, culture and religion. It’s not surprising that some vegetarians extend no-meat diets to their pets, but some pets require a plant-based diet to avoid animal-protein sensitivities or to treat illness.

Vegetarian wet and dry foods – mostly for dogs – are available for lifestyle or solution-based diets. They’re made with plant-based ingredients and added minerals, vitamins and amino acids.

Dogs and cats need essential amino acids (taurine being the most essential) provided by proteins to support growth and muscle and organ health. They both need B and D vitamins and other minerals. But dogs and cats have different ways of absorbing and processing amino acids, vitamins and minerals, which affects their unique dietary needs.

Dogs Are Omnivores

As an omnivore, a dog can eat meat and plants. A dog can exist on a balanced meatless diet despite a natural inclination to eat meat.

A meatless recipe for a dog may include blueberries, carrots, brown rice, lentils, peas and quinoa. The most important vegan ingredient for dogs is protein, which may come from:

  • Soy: A cost-effective ingredient, soy is the only plant-sourced complete, high-quality protein.
  • Pulses: Peas, lentils, chickpeas and bean are pulses. These ingredients add protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Pea protein is a popular ingredient that includes amino acids.
  • Rice: With higher levels of the needed amino acids methionine and cysteine, rice may be combined with peas to achieve complete protein.

Beef, chicken, lamb, pork and dairy are potential allergens for symptomatic dogs. For dogs with meat protein allergies, a plant-based diet is necessary to avoid symptoms such as digestion problems, itchiness and low appetite.  A veterinarian can work with a pet parent to find the right diet for an allergic dog.

Cats Are Carnivores

Cats require meat to be healthy and need up to three times more protein than dogs. They require the amino acid taurine from meat because, unlike dogs, they cannot make taurine with a combination of other dietary proteins.

Cats have a shorter digestive tract than dogs and have a more limited capacity to digest and use plant-based ingredients. But cats can have some plant-based ingredients in their food, including cranberries, tomatoes and spinach. (Never give grapes, raisins, onions or garlic to a cat.)

A feline diet combining meat and plant-based ingredients that offers complete nutrition may be a compromise for pet parents who want to reduce meat consumption. Fish is an alternative to meat that provides ample omega-3 fatty acids, which help with heart, joint, brain and kidney health.

A vegan diet requires diligence to ensure adequate nutrition for health and wellness, including weight management, energy levels, skin and coat health and dental health. The key is to be sure the diets has enough digestible protein, along with the correct balance of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

To decide whether a plant-based diet is appropriate for a dog or cat, confer with a veterinarian. For pets who go “veg,” additional wellness checkups may be necessary each year to catch nutrition deficiencies and health issues early.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has more information on feeding cats: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feeding-your-cat

The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers more information on feeding dogs: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/best-dog-food-choosing-whats-right-for-your-dog/

*Vegetarian Times: https://www.vegetariantimes.com/uncategorized/vegetarianism-in-america