Can my pet be a vegetarian?

Many humans adopt vegetarian diets for a variety of reasons. With these diets growing in popularity, some pet owners are asking – can my pet also be a vegetarian? BluePearl’s board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Susan Wynn provides us with the answers.

Because cats and dogs have unique nutritional needs, it is important to examine the possibility of a vegetarian diet separately for both pets.

Let’s begin with dogs.

In comparison with humans, it may surprise you to learn that dogs have higher protein and other nutrient requirements. There are over 40 nutrients required in a complete and balanced diet for dogs. Dogs typically receive these nutritional elements through both meats and non-meat foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains, as well as though supplements in complete and balanced diets. However, if done correctly, it is safe to feed your dog a vegetarian diet.

The first step in transitioning your dog to a vegetarian diet is to speak with your family veterinarian. During this discussion, your veterinarian will be able to properly advise you on how to change your dog’s diet and ensure he is still getting the nutrition he needs. The meat in a dog’s diet supplies essential nutrients such as B-12, essential amino acids and taurine. If you choose to adapt a vegetarian diet for your dog, these nutrients will need to be supplemented to ensure a complete and balanced diet.

When choosing a vegetarian commercial dog food, it is important to use the same guidelines as you would for traditional commercial dog food. Look for an AAFCO statement on the bag, which informs pet owners on the intended use of the product. On this statement, you will want to see phrases such as “complete and balanced nutrition” or “intended for all life stages.” Commercial diets are typically recommended, because many homemade dog food recipes, including vegetarian, lack complete and balanced nutrition. If you are considering a homemade vegetarian diet for your pet, it is imperative to first meet with a veterinary nutritionist.

With your veterinarian’s approval and a careful selection of food, vegetarian diets can be safe and nutritious for dogs. Alert your veterinarian if you notice any changes to your dog’s health after the transition.

Now let’s talk about cats.

Cats are obligate carnivores – meaning they cannot survive without meat in their diets. Wild cats will not survive without prey. The diet of domestic cats is no different.

Similar to dogs, cats also have high requirements for certain vitamins, particularly vitamin A and some of the B vitamins, along with an increased number of essential amino acids. However, the feline diet has always included meat and cats do not adapt well to dietary restrictions. Unlike humans and dogs, cats do not have the ability to convert plant-based vitamin A precursors into vitamin A, which is essential for life. They can only get their supply of vitamin A from a carnivorous diet. Cats also cannot produce their own arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid which they can only obtain through meat.

There are many recipes and options online for vegetarian diets for cats, however, most lack the complete and balanced diet specifically required for the feline diet. Vegetarian diets are NOT recommended for cats, so it is essential to discuss a vegetarian transition with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to learn if this is nutritionally possible for your cat.

To learn more about pet nutrition, read our lifelong health nutrition article.