From: kevone (pool-71-255-169-155.bstnma.east.verizon.net -126.96.36.199)
Subject: veggie cats
Date: February 22, 2006 at 11:47 am PST
The Cat That Ate Tofu
By Michael Rosen-Molina
May 23, 2004
Alfredo Kuba stands in the kitchen of his Mountain View, CA home,
stirring a spatula through a potful of lentils and tofu. Mussi, his
sleek tabby cat, watches
expectantly from his kitty bed, eagerly flicking his tail to and fro.
Kuba spoons the stew into a bowl – and sets it on the floor. It's
Mussi's dinner. "It took him a little while to get used to this, but
now he loves it," says Kuba. "For a special treat, I give him a little
Mussi eats this way everyday, and he's not alone in his peculiar
tastes. Some cats will dig through trash only for the empy tuna cans,
but others will lust for spinach, steal cantaloupe – even slurp
spaghetti. Mussi is a vegan cat, part of a growing group of cats whose
owners, vegans themselves, have decided to wean their cats off
their "natural" food and put them on a plant-based diet. With the
proper supplements, these cat-owners claim, a cat can live a healthy,
normal, even happy life eating vegetables.
From the outside, it might look like taking veganism to an absurd
extreme. We can choose not to eat meat for many reasons – health,
ethics, animal rights – but a cat can't understand those things. Even
if he could, nature has designed everything about a cat, from his
teeth to his intestines, for a carnivorous lifestyle. What would
feeding him vegetables accomplish?
A lot, according to vegan cat owners.
"You're saving animals by not feeding your cat meat," says Kuba. "It
makes you feel good to feed your kitty something this good. Sometimes
I even try some myself when I'm cooking." Kuba sprinkles a tablespoon
of Vegecat supplements, a fine powder that looks like pepper and
smells like Italian spices, into the mix and adds some garlic salt for
taste. I try a spoonful; it tastes just like split pea soup.
The mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of vegan cat food. "I don't
know about that stuff," says one Berkeley pet store employee when I
asked about vegan cat food, "Some places have vegan dog food, but I
don't know about that either. Dogs evolved from wolves and I can't
imagine a wolf that would prefer a salad to a moose."
But despite conventional wisdom, some dogs do prefer the salad. As any
dog owner knows, dogs love to munch down on meat, vegetables, old
pizza crusts and just about anything else they might find in the
trash. Most experts agree that dogs are omnivores that can thrive
without meat; vegan dog foods can even be found in some mainstream
But cats are a different story. Unlike dogs, cats are obligate
carnivores – meaning that in the wild they would eat nothing but meat.
Dogs can enjoy a meatless diet because they can synthesize some
necessary nutrients that cats need to get from their food. Those
essential nutrients – including taurine, arachidonic acid, and vitamin
A – abound in meat. Cats go blind and deaf without taurine. Without
arachidonic acid, they suffer from reproductive problems. And a
vitamin A deficiency will stunt their growth and bone formation.
At the heart of the vegan philosophy for many is a desire to the
reduce the pain and suffering of animals. But no matter how much
progress a vegan cat-owner makes toward fighting animal exploitation,
he's still forced into an uncomfortable compromise to keep his pet
happy and healthy. If a cat can, in fact, live on vegetables, it would
solve that problem in a flash. Many vegans see it as the only way they
can stop feeling like hypocrites.
"As much as I would love to, I haven't switched my cats to vegan diets
because I'm concerned that it's nutritionally inadequate for them,"
says Julie Ahern, a Berkeley vegan who lives with two non-vegan cats,
Tiger and Memphis. "I've heard arguments that supplements can make up
for inadequacies, but I just don't want to take any chances –
particularly Tiger, because he's older and has health problems."
I met Ahern as she handed out vegan ice cream sandwiches on UC
Berkeley's Sproul plaza, as part of Berkeley Organization for Animal
Advocacy's (BOAA) community outreach. Ahern said she wasn't yet vegan
when she adopted Memphis six years ago, but, by the time she'd adopted
Tiger the following year, she was. "I'm not happy at all about feeding
them animal products but I haven't come across any other viable
options," she says. "I suppose I could be labeled a hypocrite because
it seems like I value their lives more than the lives of billions of
Ahern hasn't given up searching for a better solution. She pores over
cat care books like "Natural Health for Dogs and Cats," by Dr. Richard
Pitcairn, a veterinarian and founder of the Animal Natural Health
Center in Eugene, Oregon.
On Pitcairn's advice, Ahern wants to reduce Tiger and Memphis's meat
consumption; she feeds them Jeffrey's Fresh Meat Pet Foods from
Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods in San Francisco. A store brochure
describes the food as "a blend of raw, human grade, additive-free
ground meats, organic vegetables and other essential nutrients."
"And as far as the animals that are killed to make the food are
concerned, it really doesn't matter in the end whether they're organic
or free-range, does it?" she says. "Whether factory-farmed or free-
range, animals raised for food all end up at the same horrible place,
Vegans like Ahern are still looking for an acceptable solution. Vegans
like Kuba think they've already found it.
How healthy can a cat be if it's denied meat? Even healthier than it
would be on meat, say some. Kuba notes that Mussi developed diabetes
on his old canned food, and required up to 14 units of insulin a day.
On his new plant diet, Kuba says, he only needs a fourth of that. In
Seattle, Lindsay Saibara says a vegan diet helps control her cat
Kumori's bowel problems just as well as the medicated diet he used to
eat, and Diane Kantor credits a vegan diet for her cats' glossier
coats. But that's only anecdotal evidence. No one has ever conducted
any scientific studies on what it means to keep a cat on a meat-free
diet, and experts don't agree about what the long-term effects a vegan
diet might be.
"Cats don't need meat," says UC Davis cat nutrition specialist Quinton
Rogers. "They need specific nutrients found in meat and if they can
get that some other way then they can be reasonably healthy on a vegan
diet. I wouldn't recommend it because you're more likely to get into
trouble, but if you know what you're doing, and you get the pure
elements, you can make it work."
Pitcairn, the author cited by Julie Ahern, disagrees. He writes that
many vegan cats he's treated appear less healthy than their
carnivorous counterparts, that cats specifically need nutrients from
animal sources. Other vets are skeptical, but reluctant to advise
against a vegan diet without doing further research.
Neither ethics nor science are clear-cut on the issue. "The long-term
effects of feeding cats a diet without animal sources of these
nutrients are still unknown," says Teri Barnato, Director of
Veterinarians for Animal Rights in Davis. "There is also the issue of
whether humans should manipulate a cat's normal diet to address human
ethical concerns. Vegans may want to consider not having cats as
companions, given their need for animal products and the typical
sources of those products."
Making the Switch
In a perfect world, say many vegans, we wouldn't have this problem. We
never should have domesticated cats, they say, but now we've just got
to make the best of a bad situation. A vegan diet might not be ideal
feline diet, but many cat owners see it as the only way that can live
with peace at heart, knowing that they're consistent in their beliefs.
"People are all hung up on meat as a natural thing," says Jed Gillen,
author of Obligate Carnivore, a book that details Gillen's journey to
veganism and his decision to raise his own cats on a vegan diet.
I met up with Jed Gillen at the World Vegetarian Day Celebration at
the Hall of Flowers in San Francisco, where he sold "Vegans Kick Ass"
T-shirts, vegan cheese-flavored snacks, and vegan condoms (Made
without casein, a milk protein.)
"Nothing about a cat's life is natural," says Gillen. "It's eating
stuff that comes in a little bowl, it's living in your house, you're
giving it vaccinations. But people cling to meat as something natural.
In the wild, when does a cat eat a cow? In the wild, cats eat rodents,
birds and insects. Why do we think cows are equivalent to insects?"
Even Gillen admits that vegan food is far from a perfect solution.
"For cats, I don't believe the vegan food is as good as real meat,"
said Gillen, leading a group discussion on vegan cats in a small side
room at the World Vegetarian Day celebration. "I'm arguing that the
cat's going to live a normal life span and be healthy on a vegan diet.
Maybe your cat will live one year less. That's a sacrifice, but look
at the huge benefit for all those other animals."
Of course, a human can understand the issues involved, but a cat
doesn't know anything about factory farming or animal cruelty. Would
it be right to make that choice for the cat?
Writes Gillen: "To overrule a dietary preference that is based on [a
cat's] extremely limited understanding of the issues and instead
select a food for them that is more in alignment with what you know to
be ethical is not "forcing" anything on them anymore than parents of
human children routinely "force" them to brush their teeth or to not
play in traffic. To make a choice as complex as which food to buy, an
issue which carries ethical concerns that they couldn't possibly begin
to understand, is one of our jobs. Not only is this kind of thing not
contradictory to good parenting, it is an inherent part of it!"
At the discussion, some weren't convinced that was enough. "It kills
me everyday that I have to feed my cat meat," said Berkeley vegan
Isobel Schneider. "I'd love to be convinced otherwise, but for the
long term health of the cat it seems he should be eating meat. I love
my cat so much that I've been willing to be a hypocrite."
Back in Mountain View, Mussi's eating his dinner. Kuba became a vegan
almost overnight two years ago, after hearing a lecture at the Earth
Day convention in Berkeley on the suffering of factory farm-raised
animals. Mussi took a little longer to convert. For six months, Kuba
mixed increasing doses of vegan cat food with Mussi's regular dinner
until he was completely meat-free. It was a slow process, as Kuba
struggled to find the right combination of vegetable tastes that would
win Mussi over. He cooked different recipes from James Peden's
Vegetarian Cats and Dogs, plying Mussi with exotic combinations of
rice, oats and garbanzo beans. Ultimately, he discovered Mussi's
favorite dish, lentils and tofu. "It was a trial and error thing,"
said Kuba. "Every cat is different, and they can be finicky. It's like
cooking for a member of the family. It's simple to switch a cat if you
do it with patience and love."
Mussi doesn't like to be disturbed while he's eating; even at the ripe
old age of 16, he's every bit as protective of his food as his
ancestors might have been over vanquished prey. In the backyard, four
bushy-tailed squirrels scamper up to the screen door, chattering
loudly. Kuba slides the screen door open and tosses a handful of
peanuts into the yard, where the squirrels swarm over them. Mussi
ignores their insistent chattering.
"He doesn't chase them anymore," says Kuba. "Part of it is just that
he's older, but I think his new diet might also have something to do
with it. And I think he just sees how I interact with the squirrels,
how I treat them with respect."
But what if Mussi refused to eat tofu? What if, despite everything,
Mussi simply demanded meat? "I'd probably have put him back on regular
food," says Kuba, shrugging. "I don't want him to starve."