With cats, giving them a meat-free diet is more difficult, whereas it is relatively easy to have vegetarian dogs. But it is not impossible to convert cats to vegetarian nutrition either.
A vegetarian lioness
In the case of felines as well, we have a "wild" model to look to. In America, in the '40s, there was a clamorous case of which the whole country and the world press talked. A lioness, Little Tyke, kept with other animals by a family in a ranch in Washington state, refused to eat meat. Georges Westbeau, her "adoptive father", in the book Little Tyke (A Re-quest book) (originally published by Pacific Press Pub. Assoc., 1956 and now reprinted) recounts that she was an extraordinarily tame animal, who lived in domestic peace with the herbivores of the ranch.
Little Tyke was also exceptionally healthy: one of the most experienced American zoo curators visited her and called her "the best specimen of the species" he had ever seen. The Westbeaus were still worried, because scientists kept saying that a lion cannot survive without meat. But despite their prolonged efforts, they could never make their lioness eat it. When in 1955 Tyke appeared live on the TV programme You asked For It, all America got emotionally involved in this modern tale of the Gubbio wolf. Unusual as the case of Little Tyke is, it clearly shows that even the most carnivorous of animals can live well without meat (and prefer it to boot).
Domestic cats' nutrition requirements
But what about domestic cats? It has long been thought impossible to convert these not easily deterred meat-eaters to vegetarianism. Many of those who accept a meat-free nutrition for dogs do not consider it suitable to cats. In this field we must thank Barbara Lynn Peden, an American supporter of a vegan diet for dogs and cats, who did not give up but started a really pioneering work. The book she wrote, Dogs & cats go vegetarian, documents the struggle she fought with tenacity and determination to solve the problem of finding a balanced diet for domestic felines without resorting to animal foods.
Her research starts with the recognition that cats do have special nutritional requirements. First of all they cannot transform beta-carotene, which is found in plants, into vitamin A (as do humans and dogs); therefore they need a pre-formed source of vitamin A. This problem has not presented great difficulties, though, because, even if a direct vegetable source of vitamin A does not exist, it's easy to find it as a nutrition supplement in tablets.
More complicated has been the question posed by taurine, an amino acid not essential for humans, whose body can synthetize it, but essential for cats. After months of research and toil among scientific literature, transoceanic conversations with biochemists and discussions with vets and dietologists, the obstinate Barbara has succeeded in finding a totally vegan source of taurine, first in an petroleum by-product and then in an organic, renewable resource.
The other two nutrients which have demanded a special enquiry and a series of trial and error attempts have been the arachidonic acid, a fatty acid which generally mammals (but, alas, not cats) synthetize from linoleic acid, and another fatty acid of the series ω3 (omega 3). Both are present in the seaweed Ascophyllum.
How to turn cats vegetarian or vegan
So, after all the obstacles had been overcome, Barbara Lynn Peden has put together these substances in one supplement, and called it "Vegecat". This only needs to be added to the pussy's meal. Furthermore, to make it even more precise, Barbara and her husband have developed a series of recipes on the computer, using a model of 47 nutrients taken from the latest knowledge on cats' nutrition (the same has been done for dogs). They have selected easy to find ingredients, like soya, rice, hazelnuts, wholemeal bread, oats, oil, vegetables, brewer's yeast, and have come out with a variety of recipes suited to every kind of vegetarian nutrition: lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, vegan and crudist. The nutrients which were not to be found easily in the foods themselves have been added to the supplement Vegecat, so that to use the latter and to follow the recommended recipes guarantees a balanced and complete diet. Vegecat can be ordered from the Vegan Society or directly from the American producers.
Kitties, as everyone knows, are a bit fussy about food, and it's not easy to get them to change even a tinned food brand. Vets call the attachment to a particular food "fixed nutrition preference", and recommend a gradual change to something new. The ideal would be to add some of the new food to the old one, and then increase the dosage little by little, until one is totally replaced with the other over a few days.
Barbara Peden has the following advice to give: "One recipe may be preferred over another. Our own cat ate her lentil-based food just fine for many months, until we tried chickpeas. We found that she likes chickpeas so well that, if we gave her lentils after that, she'd 'hold out' for chickpeas. So, try different recipes until you find one he likes".
Although many are still perplexed, the view that cats, respecting the due precautions, can be vegetarian is now accepted by various scientific literature, among which a recent report of the United States' National Research Council, which says: "A pure source of taurine can be added to vegetable diets... A much higher level of zinc is needed if a dietetic regime of vegetable protein is followed".