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Meatless diets for pets becoming more popular

Vegan pets: It may sound like an oxymoron, but the idea of meatless diets for dogs and cats has been gaining steam recently.

Mainstream veterinarians are generally horrified, but vegans say the proof is in the lactose-free, soy-based organic pudding - in this case their happy, healthy, long-lived dogs and cats.

"People tell me I'm forcing my beliefs on my pets, but that's not how I view it," says Billy, a computer programmer on Prince Edward Island who feeds his dog and one of his two cats a vegan diet. "Our pets are our children, and we have to use the information at our disposal to make the best decisions for them."

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Though he says he's a proud vegan, Billy asks that his last name be withheld for fear of being ostracized by his meat-eating neighbours (and, perhaps, their pets). He and his wife went vegan seven years ago; his dog, Riley, soon followed them down the garden path. Riley, an 80-pound Doberman-Greyhound mix, had always suffered from stomach problems, but Billy says switching to vegan dog food (from a Minnesota-based company called Evolution) cleared those issues up.

"He's really excited about eating now," Billy says.

Dogs, of course, are omnivorous. Mine will eat anything, though she's recently taken to backing away from her dry-kibble breakfast, a distraught look on her face, if I fail to sprinkle liver powder on it. Yes, she has me well-trained. Although as a pseudo-vegetarian (no red meat) I wouldn't touch liver myself, I can't imagine depriving her of something that obviously gives her so much joy.

Cats are another story. They're obligate carnivores, which means exactly what it sounds like: They must eat meat. Vegan cat food includes synthetic versions of the meaty nutrients cats need, such as the amino acid taurine (lack of which causes blindness in cats). Billy's kitten, Delilah, has been vegan since she was adopted, and apparently loves her vegan victuals.

"Veganism is about limiting the amount of suffering in the world," Billy explains. "It is an ethical standpoint, but we wouldn't want to jeopardize our pets' health."

He's not the only one balancing ethical concerns with practical matters. Actress Alicia Silverstone claims that her four dogs stopped farting after they went vegan. (Sounds like a good way to reduce the amount of human suffering in the world.)

On a slightly higher plane, the New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece by Paul Greenberg, author of a forthcoming book on the future of fish, who bemoaned the profligate use of wild fish in pet food: About 10 per cent of the global supply of forage fish goes into pet chow, he states.

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"Those who feel a vegan cat goes against nature [the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for one]might rethink a pet's potential footprint before acquiring one," Mr. Greenberg writes. "A carnivore, be it a cat, a dog or a salmon, is a heavy burden for the environment."

Veterinarians are skeptical about vegan diets.

"You really have to be careful," says Danny Joffe, medical director of the Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Centre. "Every species has their own nutritional idiosyncrasies. The bottom line is, your source for info on your pets' nutrition is your family [animal]doctor, not something you read on the Internet or hear from the person at the pet food store."

Dr. Joffe says some vegan dog foods are nutritionally complete (the brand he recommends is Medi-Cal Royal Canin). But for cats, he hasn't found any vegan chow he considers healthy. Sure, he says, some people may feed their cats vegan diets for years and not encounter any problems. But he compares that to the occasional life-long smoker who never gets sick.

And maybe the desire to make our pets' food cruelty-free indicates a larger issue. "What people don't realize is that their pets are not humans; they are different species," Dr. Joffe says.

Of course, there is an easy, natural solution to the vegan pet-food controversy: Get a hamster. Or a rabbit. Or any of the cuddly herbivore pets available at your local shelter. That way, you can both tuck into a good meal with your conscience as clear as the air at Alicia Silverstone's house.

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