It hasn’t been very long since I last wrote about vegetarian diets for pets, but a new study is out that touches on the issue, so I thought it was time for an update.
Dodd, S. A. S. et al. (2021) ‘A cross-sectional study of owner-reported health in Canadian and American cats fed meat- and plant-based diets’, BMC Veterinary Research. BioMed Central, 17(1), p. 53. doi: 10.1186/s12917-021-02754-8.
This study specifically addresses vegetarian diets for cats, so let’s start with the conclusions from my most recent article on the subject:
Cats have been more lightly touched by domestication and artificial selection than dogs, and they are clearly still obligate carnivores.34,35 This does not mean they are healthiest when fed only raw birds and small mammals, and in fact the evidence indicates this is not the safest or healthiest diet for domestic cats.36,37 However, domestication has had limited effects on the physiology of cats, and their dietary requirements are unlikely to be effectively met by plant-only diets. The need for preformed vitamin A, taurine and other specific amino acids lacking in plant-based foods, and other specific and known dietary requirements of cats makes it unlikely that long-term feeding of vegan diets will support good health in this species.35,38
There are few studies evaluating the health effects of plant-based diets on cats. Some research on cats fed commercial vegetarian diets by their owners have found deficiencies in some nutrients in some cats, but the evidence is limited and of low quality, so no robust conclusions can be drawn.9,39–41
This new study appears to suggest that the jury is in and that plant-based food for cats has no health risks and may even have health benefits. Here are some of the key results:
* No differences in reported lifespan were detected between diet types.
* Fewer cats fed plant-based diets reported to have gastrointestinal and hepatic disorders.
* Cats fed plant-based diets were reported to have more ideal body condition scores than cats fed a meat-based diet.
* More owners of cats fed plant-based diets reported their cat to be in very good health.
However, even the authors recognize that these findings don’t just the general conclusion that vegetarian diets are safe or health for cats. Here is their more measured assessment:
Cat owner perception of the health and wellness of cats does not appear to be adversely affected by being fed a plant-based diet. Contrary to expectations, owners perceived no body system or disorder to be at particular risk when feeding a plant-based diet to cats. This study collected information from cat owners and is subject to bias, as well as methodological limitations. Further research is warranted to determine if these results are replicable in a prospective investigation.
The key point here is that this study didn’t actually evaluate the effect of plant-based vs. meat-based diets on health or longevity in cats. What the study evaluated was the perceptions of owners about their cats’ diet and health. The difference is crucial.
The study was essentially an online survey distributed through a pet store and cat-centered social media. The owners surveyed were those who voluntarily chose to go to the web site and fill out the survey. This already introduces a selection bias since the people willing and able to do this differ in various ways from the rest of the population. People who respond to web surveys, for example, are younger, whiter, and richer, than people who are more likely to respond to mail or phone surveys. And people tend to respond to surveys when they have a higher level of interest in the subject than the average person. Surveys touching on unconventional diet and medical beliefs tend to be biased towards people with the strongest feelings on these issues, which biases the results.
The other major problem with such a sample is that the health status of the cats was determined entirely based on the opinions and reports of owners. No medical evaluation or records were involved. Owners, however, are neither medical professionals nor objective about their cats’ health, and they are likely to report their beliefs, which often doesn’t line up with the reality.
For example, 55% of cats in the study were reported to be a health weight. However, previous research has shown that owner assessment of body condition is inaccurate and tends to underestimate weight in overweight cats. People who fed a plant-based diets were much more likely to report that their cats were a healthy weight (71% compared with 54% of those on meat-based diets) and less likely to report they were overweight (22% compared with 34% of those on meat-based diets). Proponents of plant-based diets will likely conclude that this means such diets lead to a healthier weight than meat-based diets. This is possible, but it isn’t a conclusion we can reach based on this survey. All we can say is that owners who choose to feed a plant-based diet believe their cats are a healthier weight than owners who feed meat-based diets. Since plant-based diets are fed to a small minority of cats (only 18% in this survey, which likely overestimated the true popularity), the people who feed these diets must choose to do so based on pre-existing beliefs about their health value. Such individuals already believe these diets are healthier, and they are likely to see and report what is consistent with these beliefs, whether or not it is the reality of their cats’ condition.
The same sorts of biases create a problem for all of the other measures of health assessed in this study. Again, it didn’t really evaluate diet and health, only diet and owner beliefs about health. As the authors suggest, prospective, blinded, randomized feeding studies would be needed to allow any strong conclusions about whether or not plant-based diets are safe and healthy for cats.
9. Knight A, Leitsberger M, Knight A, Leitsberger M. Vegetarian versus Meat-Based Diets for Companion Animals. Animals. 2016;6(9):57. doi:10.3390/ani6090057
34. MacDonald ML, Rogers QR, Morris JG. Nutrition of the Domestic Cat, a Mammalian Carnivore. Annu Rev Nutr. 1984;4(1):521-562. doi:10.1146/annurev.nu.04.070184.002513
35. Morris JG. Idiosyncratic nutrient requirements of cats appear to be diet-induced evolutionary adaptations. Nutr Res Rev. 2002;15(01):153. doi:10.1079/NRR200238
36. Glasgow A, Caver N, Marks S, Pedersen N. Role of Diet in the Health of the Feline Intestinal Tract and in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.; 2002. http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ccah/530-752-7295. Accessed December 28, 2018.
37. Schlesinger DP, Joffe DJ. Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review. Can Vet J = La Rev Vet Can. 2011;52(1):50-54. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21461207. Accessed October 27, 2018.
38. Weeth L, Chandler M. Vegetarian Diets. Clin Br. 2015;(January):61-63. https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/vegetarian-diets. Accessed April 29, 2019.
39. Leon A, Bain SA, Levick WR. Hypokalaemic episodic polymyopathy in cats fed a vegetarian diet. Aust Vet J. 1992;69(10):249-254. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1359869. Accessed April 29, 2019.
40. Wakefield L, Michel KE. Taurine And Cobalamin Status of Cats Fed Vegetarian Diets. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2005;89(11-12):427-428. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0396.2005.00611_2.x
41. Gray CM, Sellon RK, Freeman LM. Nutritional adequacy of two vegan diets for cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004;225(11):1670-1675. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15626215. Accessed April 29, 2019.