For the longest time, Ari Moore, 28, and her partner, wrestled with the idea of adopting cats. Committed vegans, the couple wasn't sure they could adequately square their ethical beliefs with a cat's nutritional needs.
But after research and conversations with other vegan cat owners, about four years ago, the pair decided to make the leap and adopted two homeless cats in their Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood.
"There's definitely a conflict in being a vegan that lives with a tiny carnivore. But we did it," Moore said. "We were convinced that we could do this in a healthy way. And we were convinced that we felt we couldn't say no to these animals. They needed a place to stay, and they worked their way into our hearts."
Now artists and activists (with one more feline in the family) in Ithaca, N.Y., Moore and her partner, Shira Golding, are part of a relatively small but deeply dedicated group of vegan pet owners who believe their cats' and dogs' diets should reflect their own beliefs about the treatment of animals and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
Despite the anecdotal evidence the group has amassed that supports vegan pet diets, many veterinarians are reluctant to recommend the meatless option.
Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University, said that while it's technically possible to formulate healthy nonmeat diets for cats and dogs, it's complicated and something he urges pet owners to consider very seriously.
"Could there be vegan pets? Yes. Would I do it for my own animal? Never," he said.
If he were to help someone do it, he said he'd make sure that the animal was a healthy, neutered adult. He would strongly advise against vegan diets for young, rapidly growing animals and those that are pregnant.
Most of all, he said, "I would definitely look carefully into it."
Buffington also said that it's easier for dogs to adopt a vegan or less-restrictive vegetarian diet because their nutritional needs aren't as strict as those of cats.
Animal welfare advocates share his concerns.
"With humans, of course, we believe that whether or not to consume meat is a personal and private choice. With our pets, of course, we're deciding for them," said Mindy Bough, senior director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Someone has to look at their own personal views and work with a veterinarian to make sure nutritional deficiencies aren't occurring."
Dogs, she said, are mostly carnivores, but because their diets are more varied, they could get away with a vegetarian diet that also includes eggs and other meat products. Vegetarian diets can include eggs, milk and other animal products, whereas vegan diets cannot.
Although there are commercial vegan diets available, Bough said, "I am personally reluctant to recommend that as a first choice."
Cats, however, are another matter entirely, she said.
As obligate carnivores, cats have stringent dietary requirements and it's more challenging to make sure they get the nutrients they need, including the amino acid taurine, vitamin A, iron, calcium and vitamin B.