Can cats survive and thrive on a vegan diet?

Some 1,400 cat owners found that when they fed their pets vegan diets, they were even healthier.

 Cat (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Most owners of pet cats believe that – unlike dogs that can thrive without meat – felines will get sick and die without it. However, a new study at the University of Winchester in the UK surveyed nearly 1,400 cat owners and found that when they fed their pets vegan diets, they were even healthier than those fed meat. 

As recently as 2020, the British Veterinary Association claimed that “cats are obligate carnivores and should not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet. While on paper a diet may include supplements or alternatives to animal-based protein, there is no evidence these would be bioavailable to the cat or that they wouldn’t interfere with the action of other nutrients.”

Vegan vs. meat-based cat food 

Yet animal welfare and ethics Prof. Andrew Knight, who founded the university’s Center for Animal Welfare, and colleagues presented these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE under the title “Vegan versus meat-based cat food: Guardian-reported health outcomes in 1,369 cats, after controlling for feline demographic factors.”

They wrote that increasing concerns about environmental sustainability, farmed animal welfare, and competition for traditional protein sources are promoting considerable development of alternative pet foods. These include raw meat diets, in-vitro meat products, and diets based on novel protein sources, including terrestrial plants, insects, yeast, fungi and potentially seaweed.

Global pet food consumption is large and growing. By 2018, the pet population globally was estimated to include 471 million dogs and 373 million cats. The European pet cat population was estimated at 103.8 million, with 25% of households owning at least one cat. Many millions of additional dogs and cats who are not pets also consume some pet food, such as from cat-colony feeders. By 2014, total pet food sales internationally were worth Euro 131.7 billion. 

Many pet foods contain cooked meat as the primary protein source, but many available products use alternative protein sources. Many veterinarians have voiced concerns that vegan diets that lack eggs, meat, and dairy are less healthful for cats than meat-based diets – but until now, little research has been carried out on the subject. 

Dreaming about their next adventure: A cat lies next to a car (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)
Dreaming about their next adventure: A cat lies next to a car (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

Study details

To help clarify the effects on cats of vegan cat diets, Knight and colleagues analyzed survey responses from 1,369 cat owners who were asked to report about a single cat in their household that had been fed either a vegan or meat-based diet for at least one year. The survey asked participants several questions about the cat’s health, followed by its diet. About nine percent of participants reported feeding their cat a vegan diet, and the rest a meat-based diet. Additionally, the number of health disorders per unwell cat decreased by 15.5%.

After statistically accounting for other factors that could influence health, such as a cat’s age or whether it is neutered, the researchers found that participants reported that vegan diets were associated with a lower risk of several health indicators. However, none of the differences were statistically significant. 

For instance, compared to owners of cats on meat-based diets, owners of cats on vegan diets tended to report fewer veterinary visits, less use of medication, and that their veterinarian would be more likely to describe their cat as being healthier. After analysis, no statistically significant difference existed between the reported health indicators of cats on vegan diets and those on meat-based diets.

The survey also asked about 22 specific health disorders; 42% of cats on meat-based diets reported at least one condition, compared to just 37% of owners on vegan diets. The researchers said their findings support the healthfulness of vegan diets for cats but added that they did not analyze the nutrient content of the cats’ diets.