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Is vegan dog food healthy? We look at the pros and cons

Posted on September 06 2019

Is vegan dog food healthy? We look at the pros and cons

The switch to veganism is a healthy, humane choice. A plant-based diet lowers the risks of obesity, heart disease, and other such ailments. Aside from health motivations, many are switching to vegan diets for ethical reasons. For example, to reduce animal suffering. As another example, to curb the environmental effects of meat production.

BitchNewYork caters to people who love their pets and want to give them the best. Love for animals often translates into a love for the planet.

If vegan diets are so beneficial for humans, does it work the same for dogs? Is vegan dog food healthy? This article looks at the pros and cons of switching to a vegan dog food diet.

 

Difference between plant based and vegan diets

A plant-based diet involves eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Typically, these diets also restrict the consumption of animal products and processed foods. On a plant-based diet, some people don’t eat any animal products, while others eat a limited amount.

On the other hand, the point of a vegan diet is to avoid animal exploitation completely. For example, wines are traditionally filtered using animal products (such as fish bladder proteins). Because animals are involved, traditionally made wine is off-limits for vegans.

In summary, a plant-based diet restricts the consumption of meat. A vegan diet eliminates all animal products.

That doesn't mean vegan diets are healthier. For example, people could subsist on chips and soda and still qualify as vegan.

Why people go vegan

Why do people turn vegan?

Typical western diets are high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar, while low in fiber. This diet increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. For example, in China, growing affluence has led to a shift from a plant-based diet to one high in animal products. The result has been a noticeable spike in chronic diseases among Chinese.

Meat consumption is also an issue for animals. In 2010, 66 billion animals were slaughtered for food. Most of these animals were reared on factory farms in artificial systems using invasive husbandry procedures. Such practices are at the core of animal welfare concerns and the rise of veganism.

This doesn’t even take into account the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. Climate change is perhaps the biggest environmental issue of our time. Factory farms are a massive contributor to global warming.

Thus came the rise of veganism. A 2010 study estimated that there were 1.5 billion vegetarians globally. 75 million were vegetarians by choice, while the rest were vegetarian by necessity.

Can dogs go vegan?

Vegan dog eating grass

People who switch to a vegan or plant-based diet might do so for health, or to support the environment. So are plant-based or vegan diets good for dogs? Technically, dogs can transform certain amino acids into the nutrients they need.

This ability came through evolution. Dogs belong to the order of Carnivora. Their ancestors throughout history subsisted mainly on prey animals. Thus they evolved to facilitate the capture, consumption, and digestion of animal flesh. Part of this evolution included tooth crowns for cutting into flesh (rather than grinding plant matter like herbivores).

However, around 33,000 years ago, dogs were domesticated from wolves. Then, they became dependent on humans for food scraps. They adapted to a more varied diet that included plant-based foods.

That’s why, when compared to carnivorous wolves, domestic dogs are able to metabolize carbohydrates and subsist on lower protein diets.

This explains how and why vegan diets are technically fine for dogs. However, it’s important to provide diets that are palatable, bioavailable and nutritionally complete.

Problems with vegan dog food diets

While vegan dog foods are technically fine for dogs, it also depends on the nutritional suitability of those foods. A study by Kanakubo et al. (2015) raised important questions about the nutritional viability of vegan dog food diets.

The researchers looked at 24 vegetarian diets for dogs and cats sold in America. The crude protein and amino acid concentrations were compared with AAFCO Nutrient Profiles. All but one of the tested foods met minimum crude protein concentrations. However, six of the 24 diets failed to meet the minimum amino acid standards.

A follow-up study by Knight and Leitsberger (2016) contacted all companies by email, asking them to supply evidence of their nutritional claims. Five companies did not respond. None could provide independent lab verification about the nutritional value of their products.

One company (Wysong) actually admitted their product was not nutritionally complete. “Wysong does not advocate the singular feeding of VeganTM to carnivores such as dogs. … It is designed for intermittent feeding or as a base to add different meats for sensitivities and allergies”.

They added that the concept of a single, nutritionally complete diet was impossible. Rather, they encouraged pet owners to rotate dog foods to ensure a nutritionally sound diet.

Benefits and risks of raw dog food diets

Raw dog food diet

At the other end of the vegan dog food extreme is the raw dog food diet. The main components in this diet include raw meat, bones, fruit, vegetables, raw eggs, and some dairy.

Raw diets have been fed to racing greyhounds and huskies for years. The idea entered the mainstream in 1993 when Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst introduced the BARF diet: Bones and Raw Food.

The concept behind this diet is that dogs will thrive on a similar diet to what their ancestors ate before they became domesticated.

Potential benefits of raw dog food diets include cleaner teeth, shinier coats, and increased energy levels. The main risk is that raw dog meat contains potentially harmful pathogens that can harm both dogs and humans. A 2006 study tested 20 commercially available raw meat diets and found that 7.1% contained salmonella.

Interestingly, just as vegan dog foods need supplements to provide balanced nutrition, so do raw meat diets. These FDA guidelines suggest that manufacturers must address the nutritional deficiencies in raw meat diets. Specifically, these diets lack the calcium and phosphorous that dogs need.

Benefits of meat-based diets for dogs

Dogs eating meat-based kibble

The previous sections show the pros and cons of both vegan and raw dog food diets. Both provide benefits and drawbacks.

In the case of vegan dog food, dogs are not true omnivores. They can get nutrients from plants. However, their livers have a limited ability to metabolize plant compounds. This means that they can technically adapt to vegan diets - as long as those diets are supplemented with the nutrients they would normally get from meat.

Further, dogs need amino acids, vitamins, and minerals in different amounts than humans. Providing these from a plant-based diet can be complicated and time-consuming.

Regarding preferences, a study was done on street dogs in India. It found that dogs clearly prefer the taste and smell of meat-based foods. However, newly weaned puppies have no such bias. Rather, they learn to prefer meat-based foods based on the food choices of their mother.

In other words, if raised on vegan foods from a young age, puppies should have no problems adapting. However, if attempting to convert an older dog, they might resist.

Then again, there is no denying that dogs are optimized for eating meat. For example, cows have broad, flat teeth that are ideal for grinding down plant matter. Conversely, dogs have narrow pointy teeth that are ideal for cutting into meat.

In sum, meat-based diets are closest to a dog's natural ancestral diets. However, modern meat-based pet foods often have less protein and fat and more carbohydrates. Thus, even when feeding name-brand meat-based kibble, extra supplementation is the safest course of action.

Health of Vegetarian Companion Animals

How can we assess the nutritional adequacy of vegan dog food brands? The best method of doing so is feeding trials.

These monitor the health of animals fed exclusively on test diets, over an extended period. While definitive studies don’t yet exist, several examples exist online by pet owners, such as this one. These studies suggest that both dogs and cats can thrive on nutritionally-balanced vegetarian diets. Noted benefits include:

  • Less parasites (fleas, ticks, mites)
  • Diminished food intolerance reactions
  • Improved skin and coat
  • Reduced obesity
  • Improved vitality

However, these are anecdotal reports. From a scientific perspective, they are useful mainly as a basis for future research efforts. To achieve scientific standards of proof, randomized controlled trials are required. Then, a systematic review of multiple trials would provide the most reliable evidence.

One problem with this is that raising dogs on test diets in a lab setting for an extended time can raise ethical concerns. This is the main reason why such studies are lacking, even though they could provide the highest standards of scientific evidence on this topic.

That said, the number of informal feeding trials is increasing around the world as people test vegan dog food diets. For example, a study by Brown et al. (2009) was conducted on racing Siberian Huskies, companion animals placed under severe physical demands. During races, these dogs haul heavy sleds through the snow at high speed for 30 miles.

In the study, the researchers worked with 12 dogs. Six were fed commercial dog food, while the rest were fed a meat-free food. The commercial food contained 43% poultry meal, replaced by maize gluten and soybean meal in the vegetarian diet. The dogs were fed for 16 weeks, during which time they competed in 10 weeks of races.

Blood samples were collected throughout the study along with veterinary health checks. All dogs in both test groups were assessed to be in excellent physical condition.

What to Look for in a Vegan Dog Food

When shopping for vegan dog food, here are some things you should look out for:

  • High amounts of plant protein: vegan puppy food should have at least 22% protein, while the minimum for adult dog food is 18%. The best sources of plant protein are peas and legumes. 
  • Balanced omega fatty acids: for healthy skin and coat, dogs need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Make sure your selected vegan dog food contains a blend of both. 
  • Nutritional balance: to ensure balance, most commercial vegan dog foods include vitamin and mineral supplements.

Safeguarding the Health of your Pets

Vegan dog food diets can help reduce the hazards caused by meat-based diets. However, unless they are balanced and nutritionally complete, there is the risk of malnutrition.

To get started, it’s a good idea to slowly transition to a vegetarian diet. Making an abrupt change can cause digestive issues. Thus, get started by mixing around 10% vegetarian food to your dog’s diet. Increase by another 10% every 2-3 days.

Also, it’s a good idea to take your dog for a vet checkup a few weeks after making the transition. Ask for a urinalysis. Dogs that switch to vegan diets are at risk of developing bladder stones.

Most vulnerable to stones are purebred miniature schnauzers, Shih Tzus, miniature poodles and cocker spaniels. Even if bladder stones aren’t found, the urinalysis could also show that your dog’s urine pH level is out of balance. If that happens, your veterinarian can prescribe supplements to bring the pH back into a healthy range.

In addition to the above steps, dog owners should also reach out to pet food companies to ask for evidence about the nutritional viability of their products. If enough consumers did so, it would pressure companies to beef up their quality control standards. This could increase consumer confidence and also boost the quality of companion animal diets.

In the current landscape, definitive proof in the viability of vegan dog foods is debatable. Thus, pet owners should consider providing their dogs a varied diet, by combining brands or switching to different brands every few months.

Gradual changes are key. This allows enough time for digestive enzymes to adapt, which can minimize adverse reactions like flatulence and diarrhea.

Vegan dog food FAQs

Vegan dog food

Below are some of the most common questions people have about vegan dog food diets.

Why should I switch my dog to a vegan diet?

First, there is the ethical motivation. Veganism reduces the need for animals to be bred, confined and slaughtered for their meat. With less demand for meat comes a reduction in the need for land, water, and other resources.

Second there are medical benefits. Many studies show that veganism helps to reverse the spread of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health issues.

Can dogs live without meat?

Dogs need more protein than humans, which is hard to sustain without meat. Dogs also require essential fatty acids that are abundant in meat proteins. On vegan diets, you need to provide these as supplements if meat is removed from the diet. The right balance of different plant-based sources of protein (e.g., beans, corn, soy, and whole grains) can still provide the needed amino acids.

Dogs suffering malnourishment from a meat-free diet will become lethargic and increasingly disinterested in food.

If you want to try a vegetarian diet but are worried about the risks, consider going meat-free while adding eggs. Eggs have the greatest biological value (ability to supply essential amino acids) of all protein sources typically used in dog foods.

Will dogs accept meat-free foods?

At first, your dog may be hesitant. The way around this is to gradually add increasing portions of vegan food into your dog’s normal diet. Start by adding 10% vegan food, monitor your pet, then continue adding 10% increments until your dog gets used to the change.

Do vegan diets help dogs with allergies?

The most common food allergens for dogs include chicken, beef, pork, wheat, corn, and dairy products. If your dog is allergic to an animal protein, you can try switching to a different animal protein like venison. If problems persist, switching to a vegan diet is a sound choice.

What do veterinarians think about vegan dog food?

Dr. Lorelei Wakefield notes that dogs in India have been vegetarian for hundreds of years without suffering systemic illnesses. Conversely, modern dogs fed on commercial, meat-based diets often suffer from obesity and food allergies. These issues can be remedied by switching to a vegan diet.


 

Dr. Lorelei Wakefield VMD

http://wakefieldvet.com/ 

Dr. Lorelei Wakefield notes that dogs in India have been vegetarian for hundreds of years without suffering systemic illnesses. Conversely, modern dogs fed on commercial, meat-based diets often suffer from obesity and food allergies. These issues can be remedied by switching to a vegan diet.


 

Dr. Richard Pitcairn DVM Phd

https://www.drpitcairn.com/ 

According to Dr. Richard Pitcairn, standard dog diets are packed with animal products which contain high levels of toxins. This causes a host of chronic issues. However, when switched to a nutritionally balanced plant-based diet, many drastically improve.


 

DR Andrew Knight MANZCVS, DipECAWBM (AWSEL), DipACAW, PhD, FRCVS, SHFEA

http://www.vegepets.info/about.html 

Dr. Andrew Knight has found that the benefits of Vegan diets is if they are formulated to be nutritionally sound, then the animal is going to get all the nutrition it needs, without being exposed to all the potentially harmful additives.

 

 

Conclusion

Dog at vet getting checkup

Some pet owners transition to vegan dog food to support their pet's health. Others do so to help the environment. That's because cutting meat consumption reduces pollution while reducing animal suffering.

As this article explains, pet owners should proceed with caution with whatever type of dog food they choose. Many studies have raised issues with vegan, raw, and traditional dog food diets.

No matter what feeding choice you decide, make sure to check labeling claims. It's also a good idea to contact manufacturers to verify their claims.

Once you decide on a feeding routine, monitor your pet. Pay attention to their body weight, demeanor, and energy levels.

Finally, six months after switching to a new diet, schedule a vet examination. If your dog gets a clean bill of health, stick to your feeding plan. If there are issues, adjust as needed.

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10 comments

  • Audrey Walker: October 11, 2019

    My dog has been vegan for 4 years and is doing great. She had mast cell tumors before going vegan and has not had any new growths since making the diet change and starting a Chinese herbal formula. She is very health and energetic.

  • Emma : October 11, 2019

    My extra large Bulgarian street dog rescue has been on vegan (plant based) food for several years and is absolutely thriving.

  • Kris: October 03, 2019

    At first thought it seems crazy that a dog can be vegan but then you look at the science and deeply think about it and sure, why not! Of course a dog can get all its nutrients from a plant based diet

    Vegan dog food! I’m all for it :)

  • Nikki Medwelll: October 03, 2019

    My two large dogs have been vegan for 10 years. Our vet told us if everyone fed their dogs like we did, he’d be out of a job.

  • Cynthia King: October 03, 2019

    My dog, a mid-sized brindle pit mix, was aging and showing signs of slowing down. He had put on a few pounds, had a bit of urinary incontinence and wasn’t feeling energetic. He had been eating one of the mainstream brands of dry dog food. I switched to vegan dog food (V-dog) and I still can’t believe the improvement. He dropped the extra weight, has no more “dripping”, his coat is healthy and beautiful and he is full of energy. He is now 17 years old. No one can believe it when I tell them as he doesn’t move like an old dog. I am so grateful that we switched to V-dog vegan dog food and that it changed his life!

  • Liz: October 03, 2019

    Excellent article! Well backed by real (not payed for) science.

  • Lettice: October 03, 2019

    Thanks for such an informative article. I transitioned my dog to veganism when she was 3 years old. I started gradually and by the time she was eating 50/50 I noticed she was preferring the veg half over the meat half so I was confident in switching to full vegan knowing that she enjoyed eating it. She is now 5 years old and very healthy! As well as a urinalysis would it be useful to have a blood test as well? Would this show if her levels of nutrients were high enough?

  • shannon: October 03, 2019

    my Neapolitan Mastiff loved eating vegan. I learned he had a serious heart condition so I switched his diet to all vegan which perhaps extended his life. It certainly improved his coat, skin and energy. in addition to store purchased vegan food, I regularly cooked large amounts of organic brown rice, sweet potatoes and vegan meats. , which was his favorite dish.

  • Marie Oser: October 03, 2019

    All my dogs were vegan, Labrador Retrievers. They were healthy and active and all lived to be almost 14 and loved hiking on the trails with me. I love photos in your article… so many cute dogs!

  • Grainne: October 03, 2019

    Vegan dog food has been around for decades. It is clearly as healthy for dogs as non-vegan food, and since it means no other animals are killed, that means it is better. There is no way I would rescue a dog if it meant killing someone else, so vegan food is the perfect way to help one without harming another. Plus, quality dog food is expensive, but the vegan brands usually cost less. Everybody wins!

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