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Can Our Dogs Eat Vegan and Vegetarian Meals?

Everybody wants the best for our furry friends, whether we’re buying them natural cooked dog food or a new collar that matches their personality. The topic of vegan and vegetarian meals for dogs has garnered attention lately, attracting Google search interest scores of up to 100 over the last year, as you can see in the graph below.

This increase in interest in vegetarianism for pets is likely due to the growing number of vegans and vegetarians across the UK — statistics report there were 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2019, so it isn’t surprising to learn that we’re considering this diet shift for our furry friends too. After all, if we want the best for them, we must find out if what is good for us is good for them too.

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So, lets address the all-important question — can dogs eat vegan and vegetarian meals? It’s important to research around what is best to give our pets considering they can’t tell us how their food is making them feel…unless if you’re Dr Dolittle.

Carnivores or omnivores?

A fun fact: Dogs evolved from wolves. From this, it’s reasonable to assume that our beloved furry friends have the same digestion system as their wolf ancestors, known across the world for their carnivorous diet. However, bear in mind that thousands of years of selective breeding has not only adapted dogs’ personalities, but their bodily processes too, including their digestive capacity.

Genetic sequencing of dogs, which is essentially their DNA which makes them who they are from the colour of their fur to their personality, is significantly different to wolves in fat metabolism and starch digestion. Changes in their genes and how they’ve accrued from the gene pool has been incredibly important in domesticating our dogs and adapting to starch-rich diets, the main carbohydrate in plants.

When the agricultural revolution took place between the 16th and 19th centuries thanks to technology, there was a lot more plant-based foods available for us to consume, increasing dietary starch in both us and our dogs. And like animals do, they adapted!

Humans have saliva to help break down starch, and while dogs don’t, their stomachs are more acidic, which helps the stomach to digest protein and kill bacteria in meat. Consider a dog’s appearance too, with their defined canine teeth that make them physically carnivorous.

A close up of a dog with its mouth open looking at the camera

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Source: Shutterstock, by PixieMe.

However, dogs aren’t obligate carnivores. By this, we mean that dogs have adapted more to eating plant-based foods than cats have, although they still eat meat. It’s important to note that carbohydrates aren’t essential for cats or dogs because they can derive enough energy from amino acids in proteins. However, both animals can gain energy from carbohydrates, particularly dogs.

So, can we remove meat?

Sadly, there isn’t an awful lot of research exploring how well dogs can cope with vegan and vegetarian diets. What research does exist suggests that dogs can survive with vegetarian diets, but will they thrive? The main issue however is that they will have lower or absent levels of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals found in meat. You want to make sure your dog is getting all the nutrients possible from a diet that is healthy for their digestive system and requirements, not yours.

In terms of vegetarian dog food and how plants’ nutrients vary, they should be supplemented with synthetic amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to be nutritional for our dogs — as with any pet food.

Vitamins

Dogs are unable to produce vitamin D3 in their bodies and dogs can’t get this vitamin from plant-based foods or sunlight. But animal sources like meat, fish, and eggs provide our canine friends with the much-needed vitamin. Vitamin D2 is taken from plants, however, it has less of a biological effect than D3. It’s important that dogs have a healthy intake of vitamin D for their bones as it is essential for calcium and phosphorus.

Vitamin B12 isn’t present in plant nutrients but dairy and eggs, and must be supplemented in vegan diets due to its positive effects on the health of bodily functions, including the canine nervous system.

Minerals

Dogs on a meat-free diet can become deficient in calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. It’s important to note that in plant phosphorus is a compound called phytate, which is an anti-nutrient that can reduce the biological effect of calcium, iron, and zinc from other foods. So, make sure that plant sources contain easily absorbed minerals and nutrients for your dog.

Amino acids

These acids are the building blocks of proteins — essential and non-essential amino acids vary between species. In simple terms, non-essential amino acids can be produced by the animal if ingesting the correct amount and mix of other amino acids. Essential amino acids can’t be synthesised by the dog and must be obtained through food.

Amino acids can be mostly obtained from plants however some plants can be poor sources of amino acids such as methionine, a crucial amino acid to dogs. This again is evidence for why supplementation is necessary for meat-free dogs.

Fatty acids

A vegetarian dog diet can be low in n-3 fatty acids including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are extremely important in supporting a healthy brain and nervous system development in puppies. Typically, puppies get DHA from their mother’s milk and good supplementation of fish oils. Domesticating dogs has resulted in us weaning puppies off milk earlier than they would in the wild, it’s important to consider post-weaning nutritional deficiencies that can occur from vegan and vegetarian diets in puppies, so it’s recommended to never feed them a vegetarian or vegan diet.

To conclude a lengthy yet important message — dogs have been adapted to eat both meat and plants. Just because a dog can live on a vegetarian or vegan diet, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should. If you decide to feed your dog a vegan or vegetarian diet, supplementing carefully and accurately can balance these diets. Vegetarian diets are easier to manage because dogs will benefit from animal products like eggs and it is harder to make sure a vegan diet is meeting the nutrients essential to your dog.

As there isn’t any research to support the claim that dogs can cope on meat-free diets in the long-term — although they might survive, will they thrive? If you’re considering making the shift for your furry friend, do so with caution and make sure you’re up-to-date on all knowledge and research. Visit your vet and get all the information you need to make an informed decision that will help your dog live its best life.

Sources

Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M., Maqbool, K., Webster, M., Perloski, M., Liberg, O., Arnemo, J., Hedhammar, Å. and Lindblad-Toh, K. (2013). The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature, 495(7441), pp.360–364.

WALTHAM® pocket book of essential nutrition for cats and dogs. (2009). 1st ed. [ebook] Leicestershire: MARS; WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition.

Case, L. (2011). Canine and feline nutrition. 4th ed. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.

Knight, A. and Leitsberger, M. (2016). Vegetarian versus Meat-Based Diets for Companion Animals. Animals, 6(9), p.57.

Phillips, F. (2005). Vegetarian nutrition. Nutrition Bulletin, 30(2), pp.132–167.

Arnarson, D. (2017). 7 Nutrients That You Can’t Get From Plant Foods.

Craig, W. J., & Mangels, A. R. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7), 1266–1282.

Kanakubo, K., Fascetti, A. J., & Larsen, J. A. (2015). Assessment of protein and amino acid concentrations and labeling adequacy of commercial vegetarian diets formulated for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 247(4), 385–392.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition. (2017). What DHA is and What it Means for Your Pet’s Diet | Hill’s Pet.

Davies, N. (1982). Effects of Phytic Acid on Mineral Availability. In: G. Vahouny and D. Kritchevsky, ed., Dietary Fiber in Health and Disease. New York: Plenum Press, pp.105–116.

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