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The trouble with vegan cats and dogs
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  1. Josh Loeb

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Would you feed your rabbit meat?

A carnivorous rabbit is something out of a Monty Python film, but is it any weirder than a vegan dog? How about a vegan cat?

Until recently the above suggestions belonged wholly in the realms of comedy.

But now there seems to be growing interest in turning dogs and cats vegan. Numerous companies serving the UK pet food market have started catering for this demand.

An internet search this week by Vet Record identified two brands of vegan cat food and more than 10 different brands of vegan dog food for sale in the UK. (Interestingly, there appears to be less in the way of commercially available vegetarian food for dogs and cats.)

This should come as no surprise. According to the results of an Ipsos Mori survey commissioned by the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. Interest in veganism stems partly from valid animal welfare and environmental concerns, which may also lead those who embrace a vegan diet to be passionate about their rationale for doing so and keen to see others follow their example. Is it possible that some have now begun projecting their ethical concerns and associated dietary choices onto their pets?

One-third of vegans feed their dogs a vegan diet

According to a survey of dog owners carried out by Wanda McCormick, an animal physiologist at the University of Northampton, 1 per cent of vegetarians feed their dogs a vegetarian diet, but around one-third of vegans feed their dogs a vegan diet.

That suggests vegans are keener than vegetarians to impose their value system on their pets. This is concerning, particularly with regard to cats, which are obligate carnivores (not to mention that feeding a cat a vegan or vegetarian diet may mean owners are likely to be neglecting their pet under the Animal Welfare Act, as it stipulates that owners must provide a suitable species-specific diet. The fact that many cats have outdoor access and are therefore able to ‘self cater’ to a degree does not negate the owner’s legal obligation to provide a suitable diet.)

Yet, in spite of this, previous research has indicated that some owners, albeit a small number, are feeding their cats a vegan diet (VR, 30 March 2019, vol 184, p 399).

For dogs, which are omnivores, the issue is somewhat less black and white, but, nonetheless, it’s fairly clear that feeding a dog a vegan diet is not recommended. Indeed, the BVA has said as much.

Luckily for dogs, there appears to be a major legal impediment to feeding one’s dog a vegan diet in the UK at present. Dogs need vitamin D, which currently can only be sourced from animal products when included as an ingredient in pet food (see p 198). This means that ‘complete vegan’ dog food is something of a legal oxymoron.

To what extent people who are attempting to feed their dogs vegan diets are aware of this is unknown. However, it neatly illustrates the almost insurmountable challenges – biological, legal and downright practical – facing anyone attempting to shoehorn dogs and cats into a vegan dietary system. Animals should not be forced to share our values.

The issue of diet has evidently become polarised, with owners at one end of the spectrum insisting on feeding dogs raw blood, guts and marrow (the ‘raw meaty bones’ or so-called biologically appropriate raw food [BARF] diets), while at the other end of the spectrum there are owners keen to turn cats into vegans.

What should vets do if and when they are faced with owners who want to feed their dog or cat a vegan diet? The consensus appears to be that such owners should be engaged with via a conversation about their reasoning and should be made aware of pet foods containing ‘ethical’ meat, or perhaps even insect-based foods.

Owners feeding cats a vegan diet might also be made aware that the Animal Welfare Act means they do not necessarily have the law on their side.

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