Editor’s Note: We’ve received a great deal of feedback since Butchie’s Fatty Snax Deli went plant-based. Although reader responses have been largely positive, there was one common misunderstanding: “Are Mooch and Earl going vegan? If so, could this send a potentially harmful message about pet nutrition?”
Patrick intended only for Butchie (and maybe a few of his human customers) to transition to a fully plant-based diet, but we acknowledge readers’ worries about unintentional messaging. After all, if there is one thing that unites the MUTTS community, it’s the love and concern we have for our animal companions.
To shed more light on your questions about cruelty-free pet nutrition — including the meticulous care and monitoring recommended for pets who are fed “unconventional” diets — we consulted Dr. Sarah Dodd, an animal nutrition specialist and longtime MUTTS reader.
By Dr. Sarah Dodd BVSc, MSc
Last month, Butchie, beloved by Earl and Mooch for his Fatty Snax Deli, “saw the light” and transitioned his shop to provide plant-based foods for his customers. As Butchie himself said, he’s doing it for the sake of everyone’s health, as it’s well-recognized that a whole foods plant-based diet has a wealth of nutritional benefits for people — but what about for our four-legged friends?
What Can “Carnivores” Eat?
You may be familiar with the term carnivore as it has been applied to dogs and cats. Indeed, both species fall within the taxonomical order Carnivora, a mammalian order including a wealth of other animals as diverse as lions, tigers, panthers, skunks, weasels, otters, raccoons, and bears.
While some carnivorans are true carnivores in that they rely on the predation of other animals for sustenance, other members are omnivores or herbivores. For example, even though pandas are taxonomically carnivorans, their diet is a highly specialized herbivorous diet consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. So, simply being a carnivoran isn’t the whole story!
Common Dietary Practices for Dogs and Cats
This brings us to the carnivorans who live inside our homes: dogs and cats. Dogs are grouped in the canine subfamily, which is predominantly omnivorous, while cats are grouped in the feline subfamily, which is strictly carnivorous. While both domestic dogs and cats can exist on diets composed exclusively of animal tissues, this is certainly not required.
For the past 50-60 years a majority of dogs and cats across North America have been fed commercial diets, with advances in animal nutrition continuously refining our concept of their dietary requirements. These advances have resulted in an international industry that is closely associated with veterinary science, and which focuses on the development of foods to benefit canine and feline health and longevity.
By and large these commercial foods contain a mixture of non-animal and animal-based ingredients — which means many omnivorous dogs and carnivorous cats are already eating diets with plant-derived ingredients. In fact, the idea of feeding exclusively meat (or animal tissues) to cats and dogs is considered unconventional compared to the current pet food zeitgeist, and is considered a dietary risk factor for adverse health outcomes.
Another unconventional feeding practice is to eschew animal products altogether in favor of a completely plant-based diet. Though there are still some vociferous opposers, it is generally accepted that appropriately formulated plant-based diets are suitable for many dogs. In fact, there are even meat-free therapeutic diets designed to benefit dogs with particular adverse health conditions.
For cats, however, there is far less consensus, and no such veterinary products currently exist. Can we formulate plant-based diets that meet all the nutrient requirements currently recognized as essential for cats?
Absolutely. But should we?
Plant-Based Diets for Cats? A Meticulous Approach
The answer to that question depends entirely on who you ask. There are some who would consider it to be an act of animal cruelty to feed a diet considered “unnatural” or inappropriate for a carnivorous species. Others counter that feeding an animal like tuna, a fish that grows up to 15 feet long and weighs up to 1,500 pounds, lives in open seas and can swim up to 43 mph, to your eight-pound domestic kitty is similarly unnatural. In nature, never the two would meet! Is feeding something “natural” necessarily better? Wild cats in nature don’t live as long as domestic cats, and when injured or ill, they receive no veterinary attention. Nature truly can be cruel.
What then, solves the dilemma of maintaining our own cruelty-free lifestyle? Surely no cat parent wants to be cruel to their cat, just as no vegan wants to be cruel to the animals made into pet food. A possible solution is to select a diet demonstrating nutritional sufficiency (by way of formulation, laboratory testing, and/or feeding trials), which is appropriate for the individual, while also monitoring the pet’s health. This is the advice routinely given to pet parents by veterinarians when discussing any diet. Whether or not the food contains animal ingredients is up to the discretion of the pet parent and where their ethics lie.
There are several nutrients known to be limiting in plant-based diets, so monitoring these nutrients can help assuage pet parents’ concerns regarding the health of their furry family members. In comparison to animal tissues, most plant-derived ingredients contain less sulfur amino acids, taurine, arachidonic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B12, and D. Thankfully, these nutrients can be added in synthetic forms, minerals, or concentrates from natural plant sources.
Routine bloodwork is recommended on a regular basis for every pet, regardless of the diet they are eating. For pets fed an unconventional diet, it’s often recommended they be monitored more closely, and routine analyses performed more frequently. Evaluation of blood amino acid and vitamin levels may also be indicated. Indeed, this recommendation holds true for pets fed any diet considered alternative to the mainstream.
The reason for this recommendation stems from our comfort levels with conventional vs. unconventional diets. There are decades of research and tens of thousands of published articles regarding common pet food ingredients. This gives veterinarians and nutritionists the confidence to recommend these products and to know that most pets eating them will maintain their health and nutritional status.
Without this same level of evidence, many veterinarians and nutritionists are more cautious about foods with novel ingredients or those composed entirely of plant-derived ingredients. That is not to say that these diets are necessarily less suitable, simply that there is not yet evidence to demonstrate it. Being at the start of a trend or a shift in commonly accepted practices always comes with this risk and uncertainty until the accumulation of knowledge is sufficient to accept the new norm.
Every Animal Is Unique
The key takeaway for keeping pets healthy while remaining cruelty-free is to ensure their diet meets their individual requirements. Not all foods are the best option for all pets, and some have specific dietary needs. Monitoring of pet health is essential, always, no matter what they eat, but feeding something considered unconventional may warrant more vigorous observation and monitoring. Consultation with the pet’s veterinarian is always recommended to ensure both members of the pet’s advocacy team (the pet parent and the veterinarian) are on the same page.
About the Author: Dr. Sarah Dodd graduated from the Veterinary Science program at Massey University in New Zealand in 2016. Since then she has practiced as a small animal veterinarian specializing with a nutrition residency at the Ontario Veterinary College Clinical Nutrition Service. Alongside her clinical practice, Dr. Dodd has received an MSc in Clinical Studies at the University of Guelph researching plant-based diets for pets and is currently in the midst of furthering that field of study in a PhD program at the University of Guelph.