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The benefits of a vegan diet for human beings are hard to dispute. In addition to being the most humane choice, a diet free from animal products lowers risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health problems that plague modern Americans. Because vegan diets seem so healthy for people, it’s only natural for dog people to wonder: can my dog go vegan?
The short answer is, “It depends.” Read on to learn about the nutrients dogs need, how vegan diets work, and whether or not a vegan diet is a safe choice for your dog.
There’s ongoing discussion of whether dogs are omnivores, carnivores, or something in between. According to research compiled by Hill’s Pet, dogs have several key omnivorous qualities:
- Molars with relatively flat surfaces designed to grind up bones as well as fibrous plant material.
- The ability to digest the majority of carbohydrates they consume
- A small intestine that occupies about 23 percent of the total gastrointestinal volume, which is consistent with other omnivores (true carnivores like cats have even smaller small intestines)
- The ability to create an essential nutrient, vitamin A, from betacarotene found in plants
What all this means is that dogs are able to obtain essential nutrients from plants and animal proteins. Still, meat is generally regarded as a vital source of protein for dogs, and let’s be honest: most dogs will run enthusiastically after a juicy cut of meat, whereas a pile of carrots may not even turn their heads.
According to veterinarian and former president of the U.S. Humane Society Dr. Michael Fox, there are two main reasons people elect to feed their dogs a vegan diet:
- Personal ethics (the human’s)
- Food allergies (the dog’s).
Dogs with food allergies are typically sensitive to specific animal proteins, and eliminating processed animal products from their diet can help so long as the replacement diet is carefully formulated to provide essential nutrients.
In an interview with CNN, Dr. Fox says that some adult dogs do adapt and even thrive on well-balanced vegan diets, but most do best with a variety of foods that include some animals fats and protein. Still, Fox notes, “Dogs could benefit from a vegan meal at least once a week to detox.”
Dogs can safely enjoy a wide range of vegan-friendly foods, including:
- Carrots, broccoli, and other veggies
- Certain types of beans (but keep in mind, for most dogs, beans = flatulence)
- Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale
Of course, there are plenty of plant-based foods that dogs should never eat. Before you feed your dog a vegan diet, you’ll need to do some serious research.
In addition to dog-friendly whole foods, a vegan dog diet requires careful attention to amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. It’s essential to consult with a pet nutritionist to determine the appropriate types and amounts of food and supplements to provide all the necessary nutrients.
There are more commercially available vegan dog foods now, which is a safe route to take as these foods have been formulated to meet a dog’s nutritional requirements.
Dogs can live on a vegan diet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Cailin Heinze, VMD, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, puts it this way:
“For dogs, certainly vegetarian and vegan diets can be done, but they need to be done very, very carefully. There is a lot of room for error, and these diets probably are not as appropriate as diets that contain at least some animal protein.”
According to WebMD, an improperly-balanced vegan diet can lead to a few serious deficiencies:
- Inadequate protein intake (levels vary depending on a dog’s age and activity level; in general, an adult dog’s diet should be 15-30% protein)
- Amino acid imbalance (can lead to heart problems and other illnesses)
- Vitamin and/or mineral deficiency (dogs require B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, and iron, which are most commonly and effectively found in meat)
Protein levels can be adequately reached with plant-based diets, so long as your dog is able to digest high-protein meat alternatives like legumes and beans. However, the amino acids provide more of a challenge. Commercially-available vegan dog food will be formulated to make up for what’s missing without meat, but if you make vegan dog food at home, you’ll need to include supplements.
For dog lovers with strong convictions about eating plant-based diets, it can be challenging to reconcile personal politics with the needs of their dog. I’m vegetarian, and I don’t particularly relish serving up a meaty mess to my dogs. But I trust my veterinarian, who agrees with the general knowledge that an omnivorous diet is best for them.
Here are a few tips to ensure your dog’s diet is healthy, humane and sustainable:
- Select commercial pet food brands with high-quality ingredients that support humane and sustainable farming practices
- Prepare wholesome homemade dog food using meats from local, trusted sources, and organic or home-grown veggies
- Compromise by offering your dog vegan treats, and integrating a few meat-free meals per month, while still providing meat-based protein the rest of the time for a balanced omnivorous diet.
With lots of research and careful preparation of meals, it is possible to get dogs all of the nutrients they need without meat. For dogs with particularly sensitive stomachs or serious allergies, a vegetarian or vegan diet, under the supervision of a veterinarian, can be life-saving. Just be sure to consult with experts before you take this route.