There are many ways that mostly, or completely, herbivorous animals can potentially obtain B12 which are not available to vegans living in Western society.
Cows are ruminants, as are bison, buffalo, goats, antelopes, sheep, deer, and giraffes (1). Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach and a rich supply of bacteria in their rumen (the first chamber that their food enters) (1). Some of these bacteria produce B12 in amounts normally sufficient to meet their needs (2).
Non-human primates typically eat small amounts of eggs, insects, and small vertebrates and/or soil (3). Gorillas, possibly the closest to vegan of all the species closely related to humans, eat insects (3, 4) and sometimes feces (5).
Horses, elephants, zebras, rabbits, hares, and many rodents have large cecums in their digestive tracts, located between the small and large intestine (1) where bacterial fermentation takes place. Some sources say that all non-ruminant herbivores require some B12 fortification of their feeds (2), but at least one source says that bacteria in a horse’s digestive tract are able to produce enough B12 if there is enough cobalt in the diet (6).
Many wild herbivores, such as elephants (7), inadvertently ingest soil on a regular basis. Hares, rabbits, and some rodents eat their fecal pellets, which provide an opportunity to obtain vitamins produced by bacteria in their digestive tracts (1).
Necessity of Cobalt in the Soil
The availability of B12 for animals who rely on bacterial synthesis of B12 (rather than getting it from animal foods) is dependent on cobalt levels in the soil.
Citing an article from the Annals of the New York Academy of Science (1964;112:735-55), Crane et al. (8) point out that some soils in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Kenya, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Russia, and the USA have insufficient cobalt for adequate B12 formation. They state, “This is a major concern of ours because vegans commonly seem to hold to the concept that all essential nutrients will be supported in foods from non-animal sources. They fail to realize that plants can grow readily in soil that is too low in cobalt for bacterial action to supply animals with sufficient B12.”
1. Hickman CP. Roberts LS. Larson A. Integrated Principles of Zoology, 9th Edition. St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book, Inc.; 1993.
2. Subcommittee on Vitamin Tolerance, Committee on Animal Nutrition, Board on Agriculture, National Research Council. Vitamin Tolerance of Animals. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1987.
3. Billings, Tom. Comparative Anatomy and Physiology Brought Up to Date. Part 2: Looking at Ape Diets–Myths, Realities, and Rationalizations. Accessed March 7, 2002.
4. Billings, Tom. Humanity’s Evolutionary Prehistoric Diet and Ape Diets–continued, Part E: Correcting the vegetarian myths about ape diets. Accessed March 7, 2002.
5. Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA. Frequently Asked Questions About the Gorillas. Accessed March 7, 2002.
6. TheHorse.com. Horse nutrition fact sheet. Accessed March 7, 2002.
7. University of Michigan. Animal Diversity website. Accessed March 7, 2002.
8. Crane MG, Sample C, Patchett S, Register UD. “Vitamin B12 studies in total vegetarians (vegans). Journal of Nutritional Medicine. 1994;4:419-430.
8 thoughts on “Vitamin B12 and Nonhuman Animals”
So can humans be supplimented cobalt instead of B12, and produce B12 from our intestines like the animals?
> So can humans be supplimented cobalt instead of B12, and produce B12 from our intestines like the animals?
Interesting idea, but the B12-producing bacteria in human digestive tracts live below the part of our intestines where B12 can be absorbed.
so how are humans supposed to get b12 in nature? is my kindness to animals or my fear of parasites not natural?
The suggestion that humans have ever relied on uncleaned, organic produce for vitamin B12 doesn’t have any reliable evidence at this time. Only until organic foods are chosen randomly from markets and grocery stores throughout the world and are consistently shown to decrease MMA levels will someone not be taking a considerable risk in relying on organic foods for B12. For now, the only reliable [vegan] ways to get the vitamin B12 we need are through fortified foods and supplements.
So if a plant is grown in soil containing cobalt does the plant absorb or get covered with the bacteria that produce B12?
No. Most plants used for food in the U.S. are grown in soil that contains cobalt and most do not contain vitamin B12.
I have a question. Right under the last subheading, it reads: “The availability of B12 for animals who rely on bacterial synthesis of B12 (rather than getting it from animal foods) is dependent on cobalt levels in the soil.” Given that both ruminant and non-ruminant herbivores get B12 via bacterial synthesis with the help of cobalt in the diet, doesn’t that mean that the meat taken from any animals reared on those cobalt-lacking soils would lack sufficient B12? Very little cobalt means very little bacterial synthesis of B12, which means very little B12 in the meat. Can anyone confirm / clarify this?
Vitamin B12 is synthesised in their stomachs. Cobalt is needed for this. It’s an essential element that if severely lacking in their diets they will get sick and die at a young age, when they especially need it. Farmers don’t chance that, atleast not in NZ. Cobalt is regularly supplemented to pastures and animals.