A number of my vegetarian clients have asked me whether or not their dogs can be vegetarians too. Their main concern is whether or not a meat-free diet is appropriate for their dogs. If it isn’t, they’ll continue, albeit squeamishly, to feed their dogs foods that contain meat.
I’m a vegetarian myself, and I like being the bearer of good news, so this is a fun conversation for me. The answer is yes — dogs can be vegetarian. Because of the way the canine body works, dogs are able to eat a vegetarian diet and thrive.
While this topic is certainly interesting to vegetarians, owners who don’t have issues feeding their dogs meat should also pay attention. Here’s why:
It is true that dogs belong to the order Carnivora, but they are actually omnivores. The canine body has the ability to transform certain amino acids, the building blocks or protein, into others, meaning that dogs can get all the amino acids they need while avoiding meat.
Being a lacto-ovo vegetarian does not present many nutritional challenges for people or for dogs. In fact, eggs have the highest biological value of all the protein sources commonly used in pet foods. The biological value of a protein measures its ability to supply the individual amino acids that an animal needs. Eggs are an excellent source of protein for dogs. Even veganism — consuming a diet that does not include any animal products — though a little trickier, is possible for dogs. 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.
So why should non-vegetarians care about this? Because it helps make sense of the confusing information about canine nutrition that exists. Think of it this way, if dogs can live long and healthy lives eating a diet that is made from only plant-based sources of protein, why wouldn’t these ingredients also be appropriate for use in foods that contain meat? Using both animal and plant-based sources of protein in a non-vegetarian dog food makes perfect sense.
The only issue I’ve seen with dogs being switched to a vegetarian food is one of acceptance. It seems to me that dogs who are used to eating diets that contain meat go through a "where’s the beef, chicken … etc.?" stage. Overcoming this is easy if you simply mix increasing amounts of the new food in with decreasing amounts of the old and make the change slowly.
So, if feeding meat to your dog presents an ethical quandary for you, options are available. And even if you’re happy that your dog’s food contains meat, know that the inclusion of plant-based sources of protein helps to balance the diet’s nutritional profile.
Dr. Jennifer Coates