Cats, Vegetarian Diets, and Paying the Price of Admission

I first came across ‘paying the price of admission’ on a Dan Savage talk. He used it in the context of relationships, but just about anything you want or value in your life comes with a certain price. The trick is figuring out what it is, and if it’s worth it. For example, the price of admission for being married is no longer waking up to a perfectly still and empty house in which I am the only human, something I loved doing. The price of admission for being vegetarian is primarily social (if you’ve never been the only vegetarian at a meat-filled family holiday dinner, I don’t recommend it).

And it seems to me that the price of admission for having a cat as a companion is feeding it meat — or letting it go out and decimate the songbird population. As convinced that I am that eating animals is morally incorrect for me since my body does fine without them, Brie is an obligate carnivore, so she needs (and  gets) meat. And lots of it, because she gets expensive grain-free kitty food that is almost entirely animal protein.

Is the price tag worth it? I say yes. Having a cat friend in my life is one of the most important factors in my happiness and wellness. I’m willing to support the meat industry in this limited way for the sake of her health and dietary requirements. But if you’re not, I think you’re choosing not to pay the price of admission for having an obligate carnivore pet. Rabbits, by the way, make lovely companion animals for vegetarians.

The debates that rage about whether it’s healthful to feed a cat a vegetarian diet tend to center around two perspectives: 1) that it’s thoroughly unnatural and even abusive, 2) that someone knows someone whose aunt’s cousin’s sister has had a healthy and long-lived vegetarian cat. I’m inclined to agree with the first, as do the vast majority of feline veterinarians who know more about feline nutrition than one can glean from the internet, as does everything about the anatomy of the cat (short small intestine, forward facing eyes, tearing teeth, difficulty digesting plant matter). To change an animal’s diet on anecdotal evidence to something so foreign to its anatomy, evolutionary history, and preferences — and this includes crappy, cheap grain-based cat food as well as vegan cat food — is to experiment on your cat. Unfortunately, most dietary deficiencies are invisible until they have already produced considerable, sometimes irreversible, damage.

As I’ve noted, I think the price of admission for having a cat is feeding it meat, full stop. But that’s also because I’m skeptical that synthesized essential vitamins and nutrients are as beneficial or bioavailable as those in whole foods. For all our lab wizardry, we can’t make baby formula that’s more beneficial than breast milk, and we haven’t even established that taking a daily multivitamin makes a positive difference in our health. I don’t trust food scientists. I trust real food.

I think it’s fine to be concerned about the ethics of the meat your cat eats, and have been starting to think about making Brie’s food out of local grass-fed chicken and beef and maybe (gulp) even try raw. It’s hard for me to think about as a vegetarian who hates the smell, feel, and look of raw meat, but perhaps that, too, will become a part of the price I’m willing to pay for Brie. But my bottom line is this: my moral reservations about meat come after Brie’s physical need for meat, and her health matters more to me than the animals who died to feed her. And maybe being selfish about prioritizing her needs is the real price of admission for having her in my life.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Liz Rockey on 10/01/2010 at 04:38

    I agree with your thoughts here. It makes sense from a cat’s dietary perspective (cats need meat) and from yours—that feeding your cat meat is part of ownership. You make a good point about the type of of food you feed your cat. I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about my cat’s food and where the fish/meat is sourced. Meanwhile, I spend countless hours at the grocery store concerned about what I put in my body. Something seems off balance here—I definitely need to make some changes. Thanks for your insight!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Krys on 10/01/2010 at 09:56

    Do you give your cat meat directly, or cat food with meat in it? If you’re buying her meat-filled food, she’s already getting her nutrients from a synthetic source. Here’s how it was explained to me. The one nutrient that ‘requires’ cats to eat meat is taurine. Taurine occurs naturally in meat, but is destroyed when cooked. All cat food contains cooked, rather than raw meat, for safety reasons. So synthetic taurine is added. No matter how grain-free the cat food is, the taurine in it is essentially a vitamin pill mixed into your cat’s food.
    Now I confess, we haven’t yet switched our cats over to a vegan diet. I won’t give you the excuses, I’ll just admit that we’re bad vegans on that front. However, regarding the ‘cruelty’ of feeding cats non-meat products, my cat’s favorite thing in the world is soy yogurt. I have to eat it standing up so he won’t take it from me, and even then, he tries to climb up my legs to get it! He also loves licking the glass after we drink a smoothie, or almond milk. So of course, we supplement their icky food with bits of our vegan food, as much as they’d like. (Well, after I’ve had some of the yogurt, that is.)

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    • Posted by ailanna on 10/01/2010 at 12:30

      I don’t think feeding your cats meat means you’re a bad vegan; I think it means you’re a good cat caretaker. And I disagree that taurine is the one ingredient needed by obligate carnivores; it may be the one component of meat we’ve been able to identify as not being available in plant foods, but I think that’s overlooking the way their digestive systems function and the way they absorb protein and other nutrients. Brie gets a combination of just meat (although lightly cooked) and 87% animal protein Evo. I’m thinking about starting to include small amounts of raw grass-fed meat into her diet to get that natural taurine. (Though, I have to say — she’s already blind, so it may not be that high of a priority.)

      I don’t think the fact that your cat enjoys non-meat foods makes it less experimental or risky to switch him to a meatless diet. My last cat liked corn on the cob (little corn kernels came out pretty much undigested in her litterbox), and my friend had a cat who was just crazy about Red Vines. Cats have been known to like all sorts of food they don’t digest well, or in the case of substances like anti-freeze, actually poisons them.

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  3. You did a wonderful job boiling down the dilemma that many vegetarians are faced with by choosing to have a cat. I see no contradiction in your decision to fulfill the nutritional needs of Brie which require that she eat meat and with your ethical position that you must not consume it. I also appreciate your emphasis that a cat’s presence in your life is essential to your well-being. This renders your decision to properly sustain and care for Brie a moral one.

    While I understand the point of view among “abolitionist vegans” who consider the use of animals in any way whatsoever (even as companion pets) as immoral, I find that those who are OK with owning a cat are undermining their own logic. How can a hard-line vegan excuse themselves for sacrificing the killing of livestock (or harming their cat with a vegan diet) to support their indulgence in owning a house pet whose species they feel should be allowed to eventually become extinct? The claim that all these homeless cats already here need to be “rescued” seems to be a convenient excuse.

    I too find the mutual benefit in owning cats to be profoundly beneficial physically and emotionally. By providing a loving, supportive home for them and endeavoring to ensure that other pet owners do as well, we afford cats, as a species, the respect and reverence that they deserve.

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  4. I’m skeptical, but receptive, to the theoretical possibility that cats could be sustained on a vegan diet that is supplemented by the unique combination of vitamins, minerals and acidifiers that they require. As @noteasy2begreen has pointed out, there are risks to a cat’s health from self-experimenting with a feline vegan diet that without a veterinarian’s cost-prohibitive and continual monitoring, could result in permanent damage to kitty. Even with a futuristic proven-to-be-safe and wholesome vegan cat food, I see a couple of insurmountable problems:

    ● Nursing kittens require either their mother’s milk, or if orphaned, one of several bottle-fed supplements that contain several animal products. Even an older kitten, once weaned from its mother (≈ 8 weeks) has specialized dietary needs until well over 6 months of age that I can’t conceive being met via vegan food.

    ● What does a vegan owner do if their cat turns its nose up at a vegan regimen? Trading it in to an overcrowded animal shelter for another is not an appealing option.

    Reply

  5. Hello,
    I’ve done the same with my little carnivores. Although I’m Vegan realize their nutritional requirements are different than my own. So why would I potentially harm them by feeding them a Vegan diet?

    The last meat eaters I had in my household where ferrets. I adopted four from a local rescue shelter. Ferrets are obligate carnivores, they have a short digestive tract which means they can’t properly digest plant based protein. Ferrets don’t have a cecum so can’t properly digest plant based foods. I fed them a raw food diet. I did notice an improvement when I eliminated the processed ferret kibble they received and replaced with a raw meat. I noticed an improvement almost instantly, which made me think that all their nutrients weren’t being met with the processed kibble. There is a lot more information available then when I started feeding my little carnivrores this way. I purchased a few books, joined forums, to better educate myself. I’m so happy I did.

    The ferrets lived long lives. A lot longer than most ferrets in the USA, when comparing their diet to thsoe in other countries one thing many have noted was the way ferrets are fed. Those born in Europe are usually fed a meat based diet while in the USA it’s some type of kibble.

    These days I have guinea pigs (my daughter wanted them.) They eat a raw diet too, in their case it’s a mixture of vegetables and some fruit. However, I eventually know I’ll be owned by ferrets again. I’ll feed them the same diet as before.

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 10/09/2010 at 11:19

      Hi Opal,

      I’d love to hear more about how you fed your ferrets a raw diet. I’m looking into incorporating some raw meat into Brie’s diet, but I’m not really sure where to begin. I guess I should talk to the beef person at the farmers market whose stall I always avoid!

      Reply

  6. Hello Ailanna,

    The Raw meaty bones website was extremely helpful http://www.rawmeatybones.com/petowners.php

    I even purchased the book. Drs Tom Lonsdale, author of the book and veterinarian, has a lot of helpful information on feeding carnivores raw meat. Research can be found throughout the bok, along with reports on how various animals responded to the raw food diet. He used to offer the book free via pdf but I cannot locate the link.

    With my ferrets, I started them out slowly since they were used to kibble. I ground up the meat, added a tiny amount of oil and fed them through a syringe. The younger ferrets picked it up no problem, but the older ones took a few weeks. Within a month, they were eating 100% raw foods.

    Check out some of the yahoo Raw food for pets groups too http://pets.dir.groups.yahoo.com/dir/1602505219 I was a member of Raw for Pets, a local natural raw feeding group, and a few others. The local groups are extremely helpful, since you can get very good deals on raw foods, so check the ones in your area. I found the members to be extremely helpful and very supportive of those who were new to raw feeding.

    What was interesting was seeing the shift with same raw food pet owners. Noting the difference when they transitioned their pets to a more natural diet, a few started questioning their own food choices and some transitioned to a whole foods approaches to their own eating lifestyle.

    Reply

  7. […] Cats, Vegetarian Diets, and Paying the Price of Admission […]

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