Happy World Vegetarian Day! Many humans make diet choices for ethical or health reasons to become vegetarian, and some of them wonder whether their cats can join them in their dietary changes. The short answer is no, it isn’t safe for your cat to eat a vegetarian diet.
Cats are obligate carnivores. Their physiology requires that they eat meat, and cats who don’t eat meat risk serious health issues.
One of the clearest examples of why cats need a meat-based diet is that they require taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that is found in small quantities in muscle meats and in larger amounts in the heart and liver. The nerves in a cat’s eye that see images are rich in taurine, and they degrade when a cat is taurine-deficient, leading to a loss of sight. Long-term taurine deficiency can even lead to blindness.
The heart of a cat with taurine deficiency can grow enlarged and weakened, a condition known as dilated cardiomyarpathy (DCM). After Dr. Paul Pion discovered of the danger of taurine deficiency to feline heart health in 1987, commercial cat food manufacturers began supplementing the taurine in cat food to make up for taurine destroyed during the cooking process.
Cats also have a short digestive tract compared to humans. In humans, food takes 30 hours to five days to pass through the intestine, compared to 12-24 hours in cats. Herbivores, like rabbits, have intestines much longer in comparison to their body size because the process of digesting the cellulose is long and difficult. Cats intestines aren’t meant for extracting nutrients from plant matter the way they are from meats.
A cat’s absolute requirement for a meat-based protein diet and a digestive tract too short to extract nutrients from plants are things that make your kitty a carnivore rather than an herbivore. Your cat can’t safely join you in your vegetarian diet, so celebrate the differences that make your kitty unique and different from you, including your different diets!
References and further reading
Journal of the American Medical Veterinary Medical Association, Clinical findings in cats with dilated cardiomyopathy and relationship of findings to taurine deficiency.
Waltham Science, Cat/Dog Nutrition, Differences between Cat and Dog
Biopharmaceutics & Drug Disposition, Comparison of the gastrointestinal anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry of humans and commonly used laboratory animals