Well, at the end of the day, any pet you want, as long as you’re able to care for them properly! However, if you want your pet to stick to a vegan lifestyle, you may be a little more limited… In this blog, we’ll take a look at a few common pets and their needs, from a vegan perspective.
Unfortunately, the cat is the absolute opposite of vegan. Cats are obligate carnivores – they MUST eat meat. It is neither ethical (nor legal) to try and make a cat into a “natural” vegetarian, let alone vegan. Unlike humans, cats have specific nutritional requirements – especially for vitamin A, taurine, carnitine and arginine. Cats CANNOT manufacture these, they are not found in significant quantities in plant-based protein.
It is possible to synthetically supplement these nutrients using chemically engineered versions. However, it is worth remembering that there are significant environmental consequences to the complex organic chemistry needed to make these. Also, remember that even a short-term deficiency is potentially fatal. A cat who eats a single meal that is deficient in arginine may develop tremors, seizures and go into a coma within hours if the deficiency cannot rapidly be replaced. While animal protein contains plenty of arginine, if the cat doesn’t eat the supplement you’re offering, there is a good chance that they will die.
I am aware that there are some commercial foods that do claim to contain all of the requirements, synthesised or purified from non-animal protein. The safety of these diets has not been formally investigated, however, so they aren’t something that I feel I can recommend at this point. I suspect that the cats that are anecdotally thriving on home-cooked vegan diets are likely to be supplementing their diet with animal protein from elsewhere (they just prefer their “vitamin supplements” to be warm and furry or feathered).
The other thing to remember is that cats are, by nature, avid hunters. This poses an ethical question if you are willing to support and keep a pet that sees all other life (well, anything smaller than he or she is anyway!) as a meal.
Finally, cats are animals adapted by millions of years of evolution to hunt and eat meat. I would argue that it is unethical to force a carnivore to live a vegan or pseudo-vegan lifestyle.
The bottom line – cats cannot be vegan without massive industrial support (or secret hunting when you aren’t looking). Additionally, their behavioural quirks are likely to be embarrassing to less forgiving vegan friends, so probably not the best choice!
Similar, biologically, to cats, the hunting instincts of ferrets are just as ruthless. Their metabolic requirements are much less well understood though, and as far as I know there’s been no research into veganism. Given their reproductive peculiarities, they also require much more invasive intervention to keep them healthy if not bred from. So, again, probably not the best choice.
Dogs at first glance do seem a better bet than cats or ferrets. They are omnivorous, and while they have an increased requirement for some animal amino-acids (especially taurine), it is possible to supplement this. Additionally, most dogs are also less obsessed with hunting and killing than cats are, and make loving companions.
The same issues apply to the synthesis of taurine, though, as for cats; and it is utterly essential. Until the advent of supplemented commercial pet foods, taurine deficiency was one of the commonest cause of heart disease. Dogs are actually only facultative omnivores, with a bias towards carnivory, and eating a vegan diet is unnatural for them. As veganism is rooted in respect for living things, disrespecting the telos, or “dogness” of a dog, poses its own ethical problems.
To meet their energy requirements in the absence of saturated animal fats, large amounts of cereal are generally required, which may increase the risk of diabetes. Meanwhile, a grain-free diet has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease in some recent reports (although a simple cause and effect relationship is not yet firmly established). Finally, a vegetable-based diet is too high in fibre for good gut health in most dogs. The optimal fibre level is below 5%, and levels higher than this can cause gut health problems. These include malabsorption, chronic diarrhoea, and constipation (ironically, some dogs suffer from both!).
So while dogs are certainly a possibility, make sure you get EXCELLENT nutritional advice before attempting to keep them on a vegan diet… Remember, their physiology and biochemistry is NOT the same as ours! It is of course perfectly possible to be a very healthy vegan human, but you do need to get your diet right – the same goes for dogs, although it is somewhat harder.
Rats are a good choice for a pet. They are true omnivores and are perfectly happy and healthy as vegans (although they may choose to supplement their food with insects or even meat if they can get it!). They are also intelligent and affectionate, and enjoy playing with their owners.
Unfortunately, their lifespan is limited – averaging about 3 years. Additionally, they are very prone to tumours and cancers in later life (whatever they’re fed on).
Rabbits are perhaps the best choice for a vegan pet. They are natural herbivores, and once weaned remain generally uninterested in any meat or animal products whatsoever. They are also intelligent, social animals, and can be very responsive pets. Their lifespan (roughly 8-10 years) means that having rabbits in your life doesn’t mean a rollercoaster of loss and replacement.
Just like a rabbit, cavies or guinea pigs are very suitable for a vegan household – thanks to Brianna for pointing that out!
Of course, like all pets, they need appropriate care and attention – but will fit naturally and happily into a vegan life and household.
Do you have any vegan pets? Would you be willing to put up with a meat-eating pet in an otherwise vegan household? What do you think?