NEW YORK – With more Americans skipping the Christmas ham this year, the family dog could end up stuck with a vegan meal, too.
One-third of U.S. pet owners said they would be interested in feeding their animal a plant-based diet, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada. In response to growing demand, major brands and smaller, independent companies alike are developing plant-based pet food that is high in protein.
One reason for the vegan pet trend is environmentalism, and specifically concerns about global warming. Cats and dogs account for up to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States, according to a 2017 study by University of California Los Angeles.
However, veterinarians and pet nutritionists generally advise against putting cats and dogs on a vegan diet.
“Get yourself a rabbit or a guinea pig if you’re worried about that,” said British Veterinary Association’s President Daniella Santos, referring to climate change.
Cats are obligate carnivores — meaning they require certain nutrients only found in meat — so they should not be put on an exclusively plant-based diet, vets say. And dogs, while omnivores, are also said to be better off eating meat.
“She wasn’t in extreme pain or suffering a whole lot”
Nonetheless, Daniela Withaar, 22, a vegan college student, from Denver, Colorado, has been feeding her cat vegan cat food for three years.
She said Zola has suffered two urinary tract infections but the animal’s pain wasn’t enough to justify going back to feeding her meat.
“She was uncomfortable with the UTIs for about five days, but she wasn’t in extreme pain or suffering a whole lot,” Withaar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The vegan pet food business has attracted big-name investors like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who last year invested $450,000 in Wild Earth, a biotech startup developing vegan pet foods.
Mars Petcare, one of the world’s largest pet food manufacturers, has also invested in the Berkeley, California-based startup.
Wild Earth uses a Japanese fungus called koji in its food, saying it has the 10 essential amino acids dogs require.
Some companies, such as British brand Yora, are also promoting insects as an alternative protein source for pets, saying pellets made out of grubs will reduce your “global pawprint.”
Professor Mick Bailey, a veterinary scientists at Britain’s University of Bristol, said pets would have to go vegan to save the planet.
“If we consider that the only way to combat climate change is to mitigate livestock agriculture then we certainly need to do it,” he said.
A drop in reliance on livestock would free up several million square kilometers of land by 2050 and cut 0.7-8.0 gigatonnes a year of carbon dioxide equivalent produced by livestock, the United Nations estimated in August.
Just say no to vegan pets
But other scientists disputed the idea that pets must suffer for the sins of their owners.
“The environmental impact of the consumption of traditional dog and cat foods is not as bad as one might think because they use byproducts,” said Professor Tilly Collins from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London.
Collins, who has researched the environmental impacts of meat consumption by pets, said the undesirable parts of calves, the hide, bones, digestive system and brain, were commonly found in pet food, much of which would have been waste anyway.
Bailey said like humans, cats and dogs required essential amino acids, nutrients that must be supplied through diet.
“What I recommend is exactly what I’d recommend to human, which is to reduce their dependence on meat, but not totally. Everything in moderation,” said Bailey.
(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; editing by Belinda Goldsmith for the Thomson Reuters Foundation; Pluralist contributed to this report.)