Straight Up Vegan – a new online show for vegan viewers – features its first guest, Dr. Sarah Dodd. Dr. Dodd is a practicing veterinarian and a PhD student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She specializes in comparative nutrition of companion animals, with a strong focus on plant-based diets. This blog post consists of a series of questions and answers from this interview, on the topic of vegan pet nutrition.
To introduce this topic, there are heated online conversations on the subject of vegan cats, where people offer different opinions. Overall, there is a lot of confusion on this subject, which results from the fact that many people don’t understand the science behind it.
There are basically two groups of people: 1) vegans who are passionate about not feeding dead animals to their companion animals, and 2) other vegans who say it’s animal abuse not to feed meat products to your companion animals. These polar opposite opinions often result in inflammatory arguments, with both sides being very passionate about their point of view. Today, we have a true professional here, who will help us sort this out.
Q: Sarah, can cats be vegan?
Dr. Dodd: There is an important difference between eating or feeding someone a plant-based diet and adopting vegan ethics. So the short answer is no, cats cannot be vegan, but they can be successfully maintained on a plant-based diet.
One of the cornerstones of veganism is vegan ethics and making conscious decisions about your lifestyle. Companion animals, on the other hand, are dependent on their caregivers and cannot make these decisions. Caregivers are well-intentioned, for most part, and they worry about not giving their animals appropriate nutrition. They know that lions eat meat and they worry that their dog or cat needs animal flesh to survive. Mainstream veterinarians are not properly trained on this topic and they often cannot provide an adequate opinion on plant-based nutrition. This only fuels anxieties of dog and cat guardians, and these people may feel that they do not have an alternative.
Q: So veterinarians are not properly trained in plant-based nutrition?
Dr. Dodd: The issue of veterinarian training is not an easy one. Think of these professionals as equivalent to human general practitioners, except that they only go to school for 2 years. Within this period, they must learn how to do different types of surgeries, dental care, deal with emergency situations, all with various types of animals. As a result, they receive relatively shallow education on a broad number of topics, and it is no wonder that they don’t have much knowledge in nutrition.
Q: Lets talk about dogs now. Is it safe to feed a plant-based diet to a dog?
Dr. Dodd: animals need nutrients, not ingredients. If you feed your dog a diet that contains all of the essential nutrients that they require, then it doesn’t matter where these nutrieints from.
Q: I read on Google that nutrients are being added to commercial pet food after it’s already been cooked and processed. Is this the case with all commercial foods?
Dr. Dodd: Heat processing of wet food and kibble denatures some nutrients. For this reason, all processed commercial foods are supplemented. Vitamins, in particular, are not heat-stable, and neither are many amino-acids. All pet product manufacturers must heavily supplement their products. By the way, plant-based pet products contain a very similar mix of added nutrients as do meat-based commercial products.
Q: What about those people that cook food for cats and dogs?
Dr. Dodd: Home cooking is definitely a trend right now, among vegans and meat-eaters. This trend is in line with the wholesome, healthy lifestyle that many people are trying to lead nowadays. So people that avoid commercial products in favor of fresh home-made food will also tend to cook at home for their companion animals.
Another big trend is raw meat diets, which are very problematic. By the way, raw meat diets for companion animals are actually quite popular in the vegan community, strangely enough.
Q: How can this be? What is their justification?
Dr. Dodd: It does come from the idea that dogs evolved from wolves and wolves are carnivores. However, strictly speaking, wolves are not carnivores, and dogs diverged even further toward omnivore. Genetic studies have been done with dogs and wolves, which show real genetic differences between the two animals. The biggest difference is adaptation to starch digestion in domesticated dogs, which emerged as a result of their cohabitation with humans.
Here is a point regarding raw meat diets worth mentioning. A number of countries, including Canada, issued official statements cautioning people against using these products with their animals. Not for the sake of animals themselves, but for safety of people in the household. Here is what’s happening. Non-vegan guardians may think, “If I eat cooked chicken flesh, can’t my dog eat it too?” However, what these people don’t realize is that dogs will wipe that flesh across every surface of the house, which results in a real risk of e-coli and salmonella infections in humans. When people tell me that they bleach their dog bowl, I respond “Do you bleach your dog’s mouth, too?”. And yes, there have been human deaths associated with feeding of raw meat products to companion animals in Canada.
Q: This is illuminating. I think what also happens is that pet guardians see commercial meat-based food as a more ‘natural choice’. However, what they don’t realize is that the state of animal farming is extremely unnatural and there are so many risks associated with the products. Can you comment on that?
Dr. Dodd: Most of the junk commercial food that you find in the supermarket is manufactured in the same facility, often from the same ingredients as the ‘premium’ food. Yes, some ingredients will be different, but the ingredients that are shared will often be from the same source. So, interestingly, premium and junk commercial foods are often produced by the same label and offer practically the same quality, but you pay a lot more for the premium food.
Plant-based pet food is still a very small niche market, which creates the availability barrier. Commercial products are readily available in neighbourhood supermarkets, and so people choose them.
Q: If someone comes to you and says, “I want to feed my dog and cat a plant-based diet, but I have some concerns”, where can they find answers that they are looking for?
Dr. Dodd: I recently published an article Plant-Based Diet for Dogs, where I address these concerns. I also just presented a paper at the European Society of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition, with data from my recent study on cats fed plant-based diets. Preliminary results showed that cats fed plant-based diets had the same life span as cats who have been fed conventional diets. Also, the mean ages of cats fed plant-based and conventional diets were the same!
Q: This is excellent! This shows that potentially, there should be nothing to deter people from trying a plant-based diet with their cat. What about taurine?
Dr. Dodd: The same synthetic taurine used to supplement vegan kibble is added to every conventional cat food that I know of, and to many dog foods as well. It’s the same supplement they use in all cat foods, meat and plant-based.
Here is some history of synthetic taurine. Back in 1990’s, there was an animal cardiologist who found cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in cats. He also found that these cases were associated with feeding cats canned food (meat-based canned food, as this was back before plant-based food was around). Investigation found that during processing of the canned food, too much of the protein, particularly amino-acid taurine, was being destroyed. This cardiologist was then able to reverse these DCM cases with a simple addition of synthetic taurine to the food of these cats. This is when it was first discovered that synthetic taurine acted in the body the same way as naturally derived taurine.
Q: In other words, and to calm down the fears of many cat owners, synthetic taurine has exactly the same properties as natural taurine.
Dr. Dodd: And it’s in your cat’s food already.
Q: The next argument related to our topic is the cost of animal lives. How many animals would have to die to feed your average companion animal over a lifetime?
S: This number would be huge indeed. I’m not sure if this was scientifically quantified, but I know one study looked at the environmental impact of commercial food for companion animals in the USA and found that commercial pet food contributes to 1/3 of the total environmental impact of the animal agriculture! Needless to say, there is a considerable number of animals dying to feed dogs and cats a commercial diet.
Speaking in utilitarian terms, you are taking an animal from a rescue shelter, which would probably been euthanized, but then you are killing potentially 1000’s other animals to feed it over a lifetime. Is the life of this one animal more important than the lives of farm animals?
Q: Lets talk about the cost. How expensive is plant-based pet food?
When you take on a responsibility of caring for a companion animal, you must look into the resources, and cost obviously comes into play. I personally didn’t find a huge price difference in the plant-based food that I was feeding to my foster dog. When I took my dog from a rescue shelter, I also took a bag of meat-based food that they gave me. As a vegan, I was not comfortable with accepting the bag, but I kept it so that my dog could transition gradually. I bought plant-based food and it was honestly only a difference of $10-15. Looks like a good deal to me. Other animal’s lives are not worth less than iPad’s, laptops and other things that we choose to spend money on.
Dr. Dodd: We live with two 20 kg dogs and a smaller 16 kg dog. They are all healthy and maintain healthy weight. A 18 kg. bag of kibble will last them for about a month and a half, and the cost is around $120. And that’s for three dogs.
Here is an interesting point. Meat-based animals are often obese, and so you are spending a lot more money to feed them because they are overweight. It’s a huge problem – somewhere between 30% and 60% of companion animals are overweight. Animals maintained on a plant-based diet are more likely to be of healthy weight.
Q: So you could rescue three dogs, feed them an ethical plant-based diet, and it would only cost you under $50 a month per dog to feed them? That would be an equivalent to not going out for one drink in Toronto.
We cannot be playing God with other animals’ lives and say ‘you are important and you are not’. Can we imagine a situation where we are feeding a massive amount of dogs to a pig? We can’t, can we? That’s speciesism.
Dr. Dodd: Reminds me of a painting of a butcher, standing in front of a little cat with an apron, with a lot of farm animals behind him, and saying to the cat, “Which one do you want today?”
Q: How do these cats, often bred by breeders, end up being fed with these deep sea fishes that weigh over 190 kg? How is that natural? When would your cat be able to dive deep into the ocean, take down and consume this kind of fish? How does this stereotype of ‘cats need to eat tuna’ get maintained?
Dr. Dodd: This reminds me of putting a saucer of milk in front of adult cats. Many cats are lactose intolerant because they are not baby cows! Obviously it’s not natural, but the stereotype lives on.
If you are a vegan and are buying vegan products for yourself, but are feeding a commercial brand to your cat and dog, remember that you are funding an animal agriculture industry and contributing to suffering of farm animals.
As veganism grows worldwide, we are going to see the whole concept of plant-based pet food grow as well. There is published data that shows that vegans have more affinity for animals, and along with that, it’s more likely that more vegans live with companion animals and consider ethical options.