Can Dogs Thrive on a Vegan Diet?
By Paula Fitzsimmons
As veganism enters the mainstream, pet parents are increasingly looking into vegan diets for their dogs. To meet demand, pet food manufacturers have increased their vegan dog food options, and a variety of different vegan dog food brands have emerged.
Vegan dog foods contain zero animal products and replace meat ingredients with protein-rich plants and other vegan-friendly ingredients, like grains, lentils, rice, blueberries, carrots, peanuts and pumpkin.
Halo formulated the Halo Holistic Garden of Vegan dog food and even created vegan dog treats, Halo Healthsome vegan biscuits with peanut ‘n pumpkin. The vegan dog food brand, V-Dog, entered the dog food market with their V-Dog Kinder Kibble vegan dog food.
While eating plant-based diets is kinder to the environment and to farm animals, as a pet parent, you want to know if a vegan dog can be a healthy dog. Before considering a vegan diet for your best friend, it is important to understand the potential benefits and drawbacks.
Regardless of the diet you feed your dog, experts stress the importance of consulting with a veterinarian to tailor a diet plan that fulfills the individual nutritional needs of your pet. This is especially important if your dog is a puppy or senior, or is pregnant, is lactating, or has a health condition.
Dog Nutrition Basics: Can Omnivores Go Vegan?
Although our dogs are closely related to the carnivorous wolf, over time, they evolved into omnivores, which means they can get nutrients from both plants and meat. As a general rule, Dr. Lisa Weeth, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and founder of Weeth Nutrition Services, says she typically doesn’t recommend vegan diets. “The problem with diet extremes for dogs, whether the diet is meat or plant-based, is that their health status is based on feeding them an omnivorous diet,” she says.
If pet parents are vegan or vegetarian and want to transform their best friend into a vegan dog, however, she’s receptive. “I don’t have a problem with transitioning their healthy, adult dog onto a vegan or vegetarian diet as long as it is balanced for their life stage and balanced for a healthy adult. At the end of the day, if we’re meeting all of the individual animal’s needs, then we have a lot of flexibility in what we can feed them.”
Finding a diet that’s carefully balanced—especially one that’s vegan—is not straightforward, however. “We need to make sure they get the right amount of proteins and essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein,” says Dr. Weeth.
Some vegan diets may lack necessary amino acids—like taurine and L-carnitine—typically found in meat, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “A lack of these nutrients can lead to medical conditions like heart disease; lack of taurine can result in dilated cardiomyopathy.”
Like Dr. Weeth, Dr. Jeffrey doesn’t typically recommend feeding vegan dog foods. “If the vegan diet is AAFCO-approved, however, I'm okay with an owner feeding it to the dog. These diets should have undergone clinical food trials with dogs before I will recommend them.”
(For any diet to have an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) “complete and balanced” statement of nutritional adequacy on its label, it must be formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles, or undergo a feeding trial following guidelines established by AAFCO.)
Not All Proteins Are Equal
Many vegan diets for dogs are within the range of normal protein intake, but on the low end of the spectrum, says Dr. Weeth. They may also vary in quality. “Plant proteins don’t have as complete a profile of amino acids for a dog’s dietary needs as animal proteins do (although profiles can vary in meats, too).”
Vets look at biological value (BV), a measurement used to determine the efficiency of a particular protein. For example, “An egg has a very high BV. It has all of the essential amino acids that are required for a growing animal because it’s an egg, and it’s designed to support a growing fetus,” Dr. Weeth says.
A seed, nut or grain, on the other hand, doesn’t have as high of a BV; its amino acid profile isn’t as complete as that of an egg. “So we need to look at the type of protein, the quality of protein, as well as the amount,” she says. However, it is possible to combine different plant proteins so that all of the dog’s amino acid requirements are met.
Another issue with plant proteins is that they tend to be less digestible for dogs than animal proteins, Dr. Weeth adds. “So if you’re feeding them soy, it’s going to get metabolized differently than if you’re feeding them chicken or beef. And so we need to make sure that those plant-based proteins are digestible and the animal is able to utilize them. Otherwise we can run into problems, especially with pregnant dogs, lactating dogs or growing dogs.”
When Vegan Diets for Dogs Are Therapeutic
A vegan diet may be a good option for your dog if she needs to avoid animal proteins, says Dr. Joe Bartges, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Georgia in Athens. “For example, with kidney disease, urate bladder stones and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).”
Some dogs are very reactive to animal proteins—more so than they are to plant proteins—so transitioning them to a vegan dog food (or vegetarian dog food) could be useful for IBD, says Dr. Weeth. “That’s not to say vegan and vegetarian diets are better for all IBD cases. With IBD, it really depends on what the individual dog’s triggers are, so if there’s a food allergy component to it, we need to keep an eye on where those protein components are coming from—whether it’s a plant or animal source.”
“That being said, there are commercial hydrolyzed protein diets that are complete and balanced and work very well in dogs with food allergies,” says Dr. Weeth.
Plant-based diets also tend to have lower fat levels, says Dr. Weeth. “For dogs with things like pancreatitis or high triglyceride levels, they may do better on a moderate fat vegan or vegetarian diet.”
What to Watch For With a Vegan Dog Diet
If you do put your dog on a vegan diet (after consulting with your vet), there are several things to be aware of. For one, plant-based proteins tend to make urine more alkaline, says Dr. Weeth. “If you switch completely to a vegan diet and it’s a kind of moderate-level protein and they’re not adding any urinary acidifiers, it can put the dog at risk for struvite stones.”
Changes in your dog’s coat may mean she’s not getting sufficient essential fatty acids. “Is the coat glossy or is it starting to get a little bit dull and scruffy looking? Are they getting skin flakes? That’s something that people don’t always associate with a diet change because it can take two to three months to show up,” says Dr. Weeth.
If you notice any changes, talk to your vet. At your dog’s annual wellness exam, your vet will do blood work and a urinalysis to make sure the food is getting digested and absorbed the way it should, she says.
Not All Vegan Foods Are Created Equal
Quality control varies in vegan dog foods in the same way it does in traditional diets. In one study, a team of veterinary nutritionists assessed 14 vegan and vegetarian dog and cat diets; two samples (containing different lot numbers) of each diet were purchased three to four months apart. The researchers found that seven of the diets contained mammalian animal sources, most of these testing positive for animal DNA the second time, as well.
To ensure your dog’s diet meets strict quality control and nutritional standards, look at the label or call the company, says Dr. Bartges. “It should contain a nutritionally adequate statement, as well as how the nutritional adequacy of the food was substantiated. At the least, it must follow AAFCO requirements that could be validated by either chemical analysis or feeding trials. It will also state for what life stage or stages it is adequate for, like pregnancy, lactation, growth or adults.”
Given that diets for dogs need to be carefully balanced, vets recommend against homemade vegan diets.
Talk to your vet before transitioning your pet’s dog food to a vegan dog food brand. The most important factor of any diet—whether vegan or traditional—is that it’s balanced and fulfills your dog’s nutritional needs.
Image via RossHelen/Shutterstock.com
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