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Feeding cats a plant-based diet
  1. Anne Fawcett

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Anne Fawcett teaches professional practice and veterinary ethics at the University of Sydney, Australia. She also works in companion animal practice and is a European veterinary specialist in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

The dilemma

During a consultation, a client, who is vegan, reveals she has been following the development of plant-based pet foods and has come across a start-up company that promises to develop a completely feline-friendly diet. She currently feeds her cat a commercial, animal protein-based diet, but says she will transition her cat to this new diet the moment it becomes available. As a vet you’ve been taught that obligate carnivores require animal protein. How might you respond?

Issues to consider

Domestic cats are obligate carnivores, requiring regular intake of amino acids and vitamins not normally found in plants, including taurine, and vitamins A and B12 (cobalamin). The client currently feeds her pet with what you assume is a nutritionally complete diet and will do so until a suitable plant-based alternative becomes available.

She may be motivated by environmental concerns as production of omnivorous and carnivorous diets require more land, water, energy (including fossil fuels) and result in more green-house gas emissions than plant-based diets. A US study estimated that the diets of pet dogs and cats account for 25 to 30 per cent of environmental impacts from animal production (Okin 2017).

Another concern is how sustainable it is to continue feeding companion animals, and indeed humans, a diet high in animal protein (Willett and others 2019). With a projected global population of 10 billion by 2050, current dietary trends, including high animal-product consumption, will deplete global food production resources. Already, more than 820 million humans have insufficient food intake (Willett and others 2019). The transition of animals to appropriate plant-based diets may reduce environmental impacts and reduce the competition for animal protein.

Your client may be concerned about the animal welfare footprint of her cat’s diet, and for those ethically abstaining from meat there is a ‘tragic trade-off’ between caring for one’s own pet and protecting other animals (Rothgerber 2013).

In the UK, and a number of other western nations, companion animal owners are more likely to be vegan (5.8 per cent) or vegetarian (6.2 per cent) than the general population, and therefore this dilemma is quite likely to impact a large number of people (Dodd and others 2019).

A nutritionally complete, plant-based diet would eliminate this dilemma. Studies to date suggest that the majority of commercially available plant-based pet foods do not meet the nutritional requirements of dogs or cats (Gray and others 2004, Kanakubo and others 2015). However, not all animal protein-based pet foods on the market do this either; some have been recalled and analysis has shown potential discrepancies between nutrient composition and nutritional information on pet food labels (Gosper and others 2016).

Possible way forward

David Fraser’s ‘A “Practical” Ethic for Animals’ (Fraser 2012) consists of four principles which we can apply to this scenario:

  • ‘Provide good lives to animals in our care’: this requires a species-appropriate, nutritionally adequate, palatable diet that meets physiological and behavioural needs.

  • ‘Treat suffering with compassion’: the cat is healthy, however the owner may suffer moral distress if she feels she is harming other animals or the environment. A compassionate response would involve listening to, and understanding, her concerns.

  • ‘Be mindful of unseen harms’: commercial pet foods should meet appropriate standards. Given that companion animals have a comparatively homogenous diet and are therefore more vulnerable to contaminants, toxicities or deficiencies in food, regular quality assurance should be taken. You or the client can review product analyses, or seek advice from an independent nutritionist. It is currently complex to compare the environmental and animal welfare footprints of different pet foods.

  • ‘Protect the life-sustaining processes and balances of nature’: concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of pet food suggest a need to invest in the development of nutritionally complete companion animal foods. This should include minimal animal welfare and environmental footprints, as well as the need for safe, biodegradable or recyclable packaging.

Despite advances in technology, plant-based diets may not meet the nutritional needs of obligate carnivores and perhaps cultured meat may act as an alternative. While based on animal cells and therefore not vegan, this trade off is less tragic as it involves the use of fewer animals, and therefore could be justified on utilitarian grounds.

Until such a diet becomes available, other strategies can reduce the concerns associated with feeding meat-based food to pets. These include reducing overfeeding of pets which will inevitably decrease food and packaging waste.

Any thoughts?

We welcome views on this article. Please email your comments by September 13, 2019 so we can consider them for inclusion in the next issue of In Practice. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

vet.inpractice@bmj.com

This section gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute their approaches for dealing with ethical dilemmas in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested. However, there is rarely a cut-and dried answer and readers are invited to suggest alternative approaches at vet.inpractice@bmj.com.

The section is coordinated by Steven McCulloch, senior lecturer in human animal studies at the Centre for Animal Welfare, University of Winchester. Articles aim to provide a framework that will help practising veterinarians find solutions when faced with similar dilemmas.

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