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Last month, I was one of the fifty thousand people who took part in Veganuary, which meant living a vegan lifestyle for the month of January.
It was an eye-opening experience. I learned about how much of my daily diet was simply a meat-eating habit rather than conscious decision-making, and I discovered how easy it is to prepare delicious and nutritious non-meat, non-dairy, non-egg meals.
Since the month finished, I have stopped being a strict vegan. I still want to be certain that I don't support industrial-scale factory farming, but I don't see a problem with eating meat from animals that have lived enjoyable lives, drinking milk from cows that have an apparently contented existence, and eating eggs from free-range hens. So my new diet means three changes from the past, apart from simply eating more plant-based food and less animal-derived products.
First, if I ever eat pigs or chicken, they need to be free range.
Second, on the few occasions that I consume it, I'll only choose Irish milk, beef and lamb. I know that in this country, cattle and sheep generally lead natural, free-grazing lives, whereas in many other parts of the world, intensification of farming methods means that cows and sheep may never see daylight or grass. This just does not seem right to me.
Third, no more milk, egg or meat-containing products that do not specify the origin of those ingredients ( and you'd be surprised how much this crosses off my shopping list).
Now that I've sorted out the ethics of my own eating choices, what about the next dilemma: the eating habits of my pets. Many vegans and vegetarians are also animal-lovers and animal-owners, and they struggle with the fact that standard pet foods contain meat of unknown origin. Is there any way around this? Can dogs and cats become vegetarian or vegan?
Dogs are straightforward enough: they are omnivores. A Swedish study recently demonstrated that thousands of years ago, around the time that dogs became domesticated, they developed the digestive apparatus (anatomy and enzymes) to digest starch as well as meat. So dogs are naturally equipped to eat plant-based food, and as long as care is taken to ensure that their diet is complete and balanced, with the correct amounts of protein, carbohydrates, oils, vitamins and minerals, they can be vegetarian, or even vegan. The safest way for pet owners to do this is to purchase a commercially manufactured complete vegetarian dog foods. Such products are legally obliged to fulfil specific nutritional criteria, formulated by professional nutritionists. If the label states that the dog food is "complete", then you can be sure that it will provide everything that your dog needs. While it's theoretically possible to create home-prepared vegetarian food for dogs, it isn't easy to get it right. You would need to engage the services of a professional nutritionist to ensure that the diet was adequate, and you might even need to do regular blood tests to ensure that the dog's metabolism was maintaining full health. It's simpler and more cost-effective to use an established commercially produced complete vegetarian diet.
It's far more difficult for cats to be vegetarian or vegan. Cats are known as "obligate carnivores". Their biological structure - teeth and digestive tract - and metabolism have evolved to need nutrients that are only provided in meat. Compared to dogs, cats have a high protein requirement, and they need some specific amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that can only be found in meat. They also need arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid that is only found in animal tissue. Finally, they need a preformed version of Vitamin A, which again is only found in meat, and they normally obtain Vitamin B12 from animal tissues as well.
If cats aren't given these essential nutrients in their diet, they will not thrive, and they can become seriously ill, with a shortened life span. It's theoretically possible to feed cats on a vegetarian or vegan diet, topping this up with artificially manufactured supplements, but there are mixed reports of the consequences.
I have heard vets describe vegetarian cats that are stunted, prematurely aged and clearly not thriving, while other vets describe some cats on meat-free diets that seem to be thriving.
I suspect that the truth is that while it's possible to make cats vegetarian, there are risks involved. Cat owners need to factor in the risk of harming the cat before making a decision to force a meat eating animal to eat a diet that their body is not designed to consume. And they need to choose the vegetarian food carefully, making sure that it's properly supplemented with the correct nutrients. They also need to have their cat's urine tested once a month, to ensure that it is sufficiently acidic: plant based diets cause alkaline urine, which tends to lead to crystals and stones, causing dangerous urinary tract obstructions. A regular, simple urine test is the best way of monitoring this.
It's one thing to make a decision to change your own diet to fulfil your ethical ambitions, but you do need to be cautious about taking risks with other creatures' health. First, do no harm!