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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Get Your Geek On : Vegan Pets

  I am always looking for topics of discussion that are interesting to readers and myself. It has become apparent on the Twitter that I am something of a geek, and I am constantly asked about various topics. I take it upon myself to answer many queries because I love the quest for new information and thoroughly enjoy sharing my knowledge, both personal and discovered. With this in mind, I've decided that I'll offer up long-form responses to a few questions per week that I discover on the Twit. It is my hope that you too will enjoy getting your geek on. Here we go!

"Can a cat or dog be vegan?"

  This is indeed a multifaceted question that requires a lengthy response. One one hand you have folks who are likely to have disdain for vegetarians who suggest that it is some type of animal neglect to deprive them of meat; on the other hand you have vegetarians who may feel that the meat industry is wicked and unhealthful for their furry friends. The thing is that people sometimes politicize things, to insult those who are different from them with opinion. But what about facts?

  To begin with, we'll start with dogs. Dogs are omnivorous scavengers. A feral dog will eat anything from garbage to rats. But what about veggies? You bet! Dogs do indeed enjoy all kinds of foods, including vegetables and grains as part of a varied diet. But they do have digestive systems that suggest they are omnivores that consume animal material- they have acidic stomachs and far shorter intestinal tracts than a similar-sized human being. They have higher protein needs than a human to be sure, but less than a cat.

  On the health end, dogs with gastrointestinal problems will actually benefit from a meat-free diet. Studies have indicated that some animals do indeed thrive sans meat. The problem is that many, like the British sled-dog study do not run over the long term. There are numerous stories of eco-conscious pet owners who have had healthy, long-term animal companions on vegan diets. What is interesting is that many of these are animals fed owner-prepared food made specifically to meet nutritional needs of their dogs. There are brands of vegan dog food commercially available and supplements as well for those interested in an easier go at a diet that has worked in Europe for a long time.

  The caveat here is that there are some studies that suggest that vegan dogs are more prone to heart conditions and ligament tears. A poorly planned vegan diet may lack the fats and proteins needed for a very active dog. Most of the vegan dog foods are not approved for sole nutrition of a pregnant or very young animal. I personally worry about the carbon footprint of commercial pet foods regardless of whether they contain animal products or not.

  My own dog loves foods like rice and beans, but I do feed him meaty bones and various meats. His diet is varied in nature and he is an energetic fellow. I am vegetarian but my dog is not, although I suspect that he would tolerate a vegetarian diet well.

  So what's the verdict? Well, it's up to you, but I'd suggest seeking out one of the many vegetarian websites and giving your pal as many whole foods as possible. A gradual switch may be needed and you may have to resolve yourself to the fact that in rare instances, a dog may not enjoy the diet. If your dog has soy or corn intolerances, address those, and don't forget to include some crunchy nuts and oils to ensure that his diet is not too low in fat. That said, make the change only if you truly want to and not because you're afraid that the other ladies at the eco-club will give you grief. If you are truly convinced that a meatless food plan will be better for the environment and your conscience, you are free to do so.

  But what about cats? Cats are predatory carnivores- they are built for speed and agility. Complete with claws, fangs, and incredible perceptive abilities, cats are designed to hunt and kill. In the wild, cats consume other animals with some grasses to aid digestion in a system that is acidic and short. Their digestion system is that of a top-chain carnivore and will quickly turn animal-based foods into energy.

  But do some cats like veggies? Yes, indeed. I had a cat who was the smallest of a litter that was fed table scraps. Stuck with the peas, he actually developed a dislike for meat later on. But alas, Kizzy was not a complete vegan - about once a week he would hunt for prey. He would much on a mouse, bird, or baby groundhog from time to time. Now this is what I believe that many cats fed vegan diets will wind up doing.

  Vegan pet foods must be supplemented with various nutrients for your buddy to survive. If a cat's diet lacks sufficient protein, arachidonic acid and taurine, he will go blind or suffer kidney problems. Eventually your fuzzy friend will die of heart failure. There is no proof whether or not a cat absorbs all of the nutrients in commercially made fortified dry foods, whether plant or animal-derived. Even PETA suggests very slowly transitioning your cat, if at all.

  My cat now actually loves tofurky, but I cannot conceive of feeding him solely soybeans and vitamin drops. My spoiled furball enjoys raw meat from a local source and will turn his nose up at rice or corn. He and his brother are also avid hunters, which doesn't surprise since their mum was feral. I personally would never attempt to switch either cat to a solely plant-derived diet. Again, I worry about the ecological impact of commercially-made vegan foods versus my local cat chow.

  So should I stop giving my cat his little fishies? Unless you are a vet or have access to one who can specifically formulate a diet devoid of animal ingredients, I would not suggest feeding a cat a vegan diet. You can reduce your carbon footprint by buying locally-made foods from farmers that care. New companies are popping up all over communities and you can score chicken carcasses from butcher shops. Also, if your cat kills a mouse in the basement, don't get too stressed out about it and never scold your cat. He may be small and kind of pudgy, but he's the king of his personal jungle. If you don't want your house to resemble Animal Planet, choose another pet.

  So to my reader, I hope I answered your query. I certainly enjoyed writing this with my dog chewing a bone beside my desk. If there's ever a mini-mystery that you need decoded, don't be afraid to ask.

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