From dairy-free milk to alternative hamburger patties, it seems that the popularity of vegan food is on the rise. And for good reason. It’s widely considered an environmentally-friendly way to eat and offers a number of potential health benefits, including lower risk of obesity and major health problems. So it was only a matter of time before people started thinking about imposing these dietary restrictions on their pets.
But even though sales of plant-based food (for humans) continues to grow by double digits, you might be wondering if there’s any legitimate reason for feeding your pet vegetarian dog food or vegan dog food. After all, if a vegan diet can help reduce the risk of serious medical conditions for you, what are the potential benefits for your beloved pooch? And on the flipside, what are the possible drawbacks?
To answer these questions and more, it’s critical to know the facts. Just remember: Before switching up your dog’s food routine, talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist.
Can Dogs Thrive on a Vegan Diet?
Like vegan food for humans, vegan dog food contains no animal products or by-products. Instead of meat protein, vegan dog food focuses on protein-rich plants, peas, grains, and lentils.
Thanks to years of evolution, dogs became accustomed to surviving off of human scraps. Those scraps included a mix of carbohydrates and plant-based foods. This was one of the first steps toward carnivorous wolves transitioning to omnivorous dogs.
Cats, on the other hand, could not survive on a strictly plant-based diet because as a species they are carnivores. Cats must get their protein from animal meat, not plants. According to DVM Lisa Pierson, “cats lack specific metabolic (enzymatic) pathways and cannot utilize plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins.”
No matter the diet change, it’s not a decision to take lightly, nor is it overnight transition. Like humans, dogs are omnivores that thrive on a diverse and balanced diet. It’s worth noting that a dog’s natural diet would include meat. That said, many pet parents find that opting for a vegan diet might be a good way to go if their dog has a food sensitivity or food allergy related to meat. However, the best way to determine if this is the case is to consult your vet.
Pet owners thinking about removing an entire food group (whether it’s meat or something else) from a dog’s diet must make sure all nutritional requirements are met. If your dog goes strictly vegan, the food and dog treats they eat throughout the day need to contain the essential nutrients they would otherwise get from animal products.
What to Look for in Vegan Dog Food
It can be challenging to get your dog the correct balance of nutrients if you remove an entire food group from their diet. So, what are some ingredients that you should be looking for in vegan dog food? For starters, look for proteins and essential amino acids such as taurine, which are vital for proper body functioning.
In addition to taurine, some key things to keep an eye out for in vegan dog food include:
- A high amount of plant-based protein
- A blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat
- A balance of vitamins and minerals to support basic functions of the body
Be sure to do your research if you’re considering a vegan diet for your dog to ensure the food contains an adequate amount of amino acids, protein, omega fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals. Dogs with taurine deficiency are at risk of compromised immune health.
Since a meat-free diet for dogs is a relatively new concept, it might be less common to find a bag of vegan kibble at the pet store that will meet a dog’s nutritional needs. Popular dog food brands that make vegan dog food include Halo, V-Dog, Wild Earth, and Natural Balance. While these brands adhere to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards and guidelines for safe pet foods, keep in mind that not all pet food is created equal. In fact, studies show that most commercial vegetarian pet foods don’t meet the AAFCO’s minimum standards for being labeled as nutritionally sufficient.
As with any dog food, it’s imperative to choose brands that offer high-quality, whole ingredients. Avoid ingredients that aren’t important to your dog’s nutrition, including artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, GMOs, and gumming and thickening agents.
Dog food also shouldn’t contain excessive amounts of sugar or salt. Any sugar should come from natural sources like honey and molasses. In addition to veggies, core ingredients in vegan dog food should include peas, lentils, brown rice, and quinoa (provided your dog is not allergic to any of these).
Talking to your vet and educating yourself about your pet’s dietary needs and the available options on the market will ensure you protect and promote your dog’s health.
Vegan Food for Dogs Is Doable, But …
Although vegan dog food may be better for the environment (80-90% of water usage in the U.S. goes towards meat and dairy production), it might not necessarily be the best for your pooch’s overall health and happiness.
Dr. Cailin Heinze of the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University writes, “vegan diets (or home-prepared diets in general) can cause numerous health issues if not designed by someone with considerable dog nutrition expertise.”
Still, Dr. Heinze also mentions that dogs have evolved to better digest starches, and can therefore safely eat a vegan diet as long as it is carefully designed and has all of the essential nutrients to meet their needs.
It’s worth noting that there have been no long-term studies on the effects of feeding dogs a strictly vegan diet. However, there is anecdotal evidence that the longest living dog, Bramble the collie, was fed a whole-food, plant-based diet. That said, Bramble’s diet was handmade by her pet parents from fresh ingredients. It did not come from highly processed, mostly grain-based kibble you find at the pet store.
As an alternative to an exclusively vegan diet, you might consider gradually decreasing your pet’s meat intake and introducing more veggies and legumes in their meals. Choosing health-conscious dog treats that contain all-natural (yet not completely meat-free) ingredients can be a more moderate approach.
The Bottom Line on Vegan Dog Food: Talk to an Expert
You want what’s best for your pup. If you haven’t gotten the message by now, it bears repeating: If you’re a pet owner who is considering a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet for your dog, discuss it with your veterinarian first.
Your vet can make recommendations for supplementing a vegan pet diet with the right protein and other nutrients your dog needs. You might also want to seek out an experienced veterinary nutritionist. A vet nutritionist can evaluate your dog’s specific health profile and provide guidance on a proper diet plan that minimizes health risks and supports a healthy, vibrant life.