My dog used to be a vegetarian… an accidental vegetarian. While I choose not to eat meat, I have no problems feeding it to my dogs. But Apollo has severe inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). He needs to eat a special type of dog food to keep his symptoms under control, and the one that has worked well for him is a vegetarian, hydrolyzed diet. Its protein comes from soybeans, and those proteins were broken down into such tiny pieces that Apollo’s immune system no longer reacted inappropriately to them.
Apollo has eaten this diet for years and thrived. I often get questions from veterinary clients as to whether or not dogs can be vegetarians; I use Apollo as evidence for the answer being “yes.”
Many people think that dogs are pure carnivores. This misconception is understandable given that wolves are dogs’ closest relatives, and wolves certainly eat meat. But in reality, dogs are quite able to get all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) they need from plants. They simply transform certain amino acids into others and they’re good to go. The situation is not the same for cats, by the way. Cats are lacking the physiological pathways necessary to make some of these transformations and as a result are true, obligate carnivores.
I bring this topic up because I recently changed Apollo’s food. The new formula still has hydrolyzed soy as its first listed protein source, but it also contains hydrolyzed chicken and hydrolyzed chicken liver. I thought switching Apollo to this new food offered the opportunity to run a neat little mini-experiment. Would I notice any change in his well-being now that he was eating meat?
I can honestly say that after a couple of months of eating his new, non-vegetarian diet, the only change I’ve noticed is that Apollo seems to enjoy his meals more. The old food had almost no smell and was an unappealing beige color. I used to joke that it looked like Styrofoam and probably tasted like it, too. The new food looks and smells like “regular” dog food. While that might not sound all that appealing to you, Apollo certainly seems to appreciate the change. He now cleans his bowl in one sitting, which he almost never did in the past.
I’m glad that Apollo finds his new food more palatable than the old, but health-wise, everything has remained the same. His inflammatory bowel disease is under control, and he is the same healthy and happy boy that he has been ever since his IBD was identified and treated. I’ve noticed no changes for the worse or for the better.
Now, an experiment involving one individual is hardly conclusive. Some vegetarian dogs might enjoy improved health if they began to eat a meat-based diet, and some might even do worse. But Apollo’s case does show that we can take into account other considerations (concurrent disease, owner ethics, expense, etc.) when deciding if (or how much) animal-based or plant-based protein a dog eats.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Javier Brosch / Shutterstock