While undecided as to whether vegetarianism is the best option for people or pets, she has it on good authority that it won't do either much harm to give it a try. Janet Awe can be found on Twitter @AwesomeComms
The Dilemma of Vegetarian Pets
By Janet Awe
At a recent barbeque meat eating and vegetarian friends mingled happily while cooking their food on separate grills. Talk turned to vegetarianism, and there was some gentle teasing of an old friend. As a vegan and former director of the Dogs Trust, he used to feed his dog a vegetarian diet in his 20s but has since changed his opinion and approach. Nowadays, just as many people are vegetarian for health reasons as for moral ones. So when it comes to your four-legged friend, what route should you take?
In some respect, everything about keeping pets domestically is unnatural --from the conventional, processed pet food they're usually given to having them neutered or keeping them locked up and isolated at home all day. In that context, is giving cats and dogs a vegetarian diet as strange as some people think? Is it such a huge leap to take things one step further?
If you are a vegetarian or vegan for moral reasons, how do you marry that with feeding your pet meat? If your own diet is meat-free due to health concerns, you may well have the same worries about the hormones, pesticides, and general quality of meat in more commercial pet food.
The answer seems to be around understanding your pet's specific dietary needs. Regardless of whether you take the meat or the vegetarian option, as long as you do your research to ensure you're making an informed choice around what you feed them, they can live a happy, healthy life.
Dogs are omnivores, so they are designed to eat both meat and plants. Therefore, they are much better suited to surviving on a vegetarian diet than cats. Increasingly, people cite the value of the amino acid L-carnitine for preventing heart disease in dogs. However, as this can often be lost in processed food, an L-carnitine supplement is recommended, even if your dog isn't vegetarian.
Conversely, cats are carnivores and certainly couldn't survive on a vegetarian diet in the wild, as there are certain essential nutrients that they only get from meat. One of these is Taurine-- an amino acid that humans and dogs can generate in their bodies (although some dogs do need a supplement top-up). Cats can't generate Taurine, and would go blind and die without it. As all processed food is cooked at a high temperature, killing some of the natural nutrients, pet food manufacturers always have to add Taurine back in. You need to be vigilant that is in your cat's food, either way.
There are also some of the wider environmental issues to consider. In their well-publicized and equally well-received book Time to Eat the Dog, the Real Guide to Sustainable Living, New Zealand scientists Robert and Brenda Vale claim that a medium-sized dog produces more greenhouse gas than an SUV. While some people have since questioned their calculations, there's no doubt that your pet's meat diet contributes to global warming, and, in turn, to climate change.
On the other hand, if you don't feed your pets meat or a meat derivative, it's likely that you will be replacing the protein they'll lack with some form of soy-based food. The irony and dilemma here is that this contributes to problems for animals and humans in other parts of the world. Greenpeace's documentary Soy: In the Name of Progress and their report "Eating Up The Amazon" highlight how heightened demand for soy worldwide is contributing significantly to deforestation of the Brazilian rain forest. The land grab has now spread to agricultural organizations keen to flatten the forest so they can build soy farms. This deforestation leads to the displacement of people as well as the extinction of many animals. The soy problem adds another conflict of consciousness for an animal lover.
In the end, it's down to research and personal choice. With so many organizations and websites offering nutritional advice for your pets, it's much easier nowadays to find the information you need. Increasingly, pet insurance companies are giving a level of advice on diet-- perhaps partly from the increase in newer conditions among domestic pets, such as long terms skin problems which some people feel results from a more processed diet.
The Vegetarian Society approves a number of pet food brands, such a Benevo, while other useful specialist organizations include the long-established Veggie Pets. For those that don't want to put their pets on a vegetarian diet, there are still healthier alternatives available such as James Wellbeloved who provides hypoallergenic cat and dog food, free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. In America, everyone raves about V-Dog that manufactures 100% vegan pet food that contains no corn, wheat, or soy.
The Guinness Book of World Records cites the world's oldest living dog as Bramble, the 27-year old vegan border collie. In my mind, even if you only give your pet vegetarian food, that won't stop your dog from sneaking a sausage at a BBQ -- or your cat from eating the mouse it finds behind the bins. And I'm sure that they won't be any worse off for it.