Vegan and/or Vegetarian diets for Dogs?
We are often quizzed by vegan and vegetarian pet parents on the topic. It's not easy to food mutts, pups & nobles on meat-based diets, when you yourself, find it difficult to deal with the content or concept. Yet, there is no debate when it comes to masters and muggles - we all accept the concept that cats are obligatory carnivores.
The following information is meant as a general guideline, and has been researched from other sources.
Yet, we fail to acknowledge that dogs are facultative carnivores - meaning that they will survive on non-specie appropriate diets. Mutts, pups and nobles are notorious for eating almost anything! Even though their natural diet is meat based, they will eat vegetables, fruits and some plants - facultative carnivores -, but they can only really thrive on real, specie appropriate, raw meat diets. So, yes, you can feed your dog a vegetarian diet, but it's like asking - is bananas real and if so, is it a herb or a fruit?
"The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison"
It is, unfortunately, still a highly debated topic - just perform a search on Google for "vegetarian diets for dogs" or "vegan diets for dogs", and you will find a whole lot of controversy. Considering that most kibbles end up being based on some form of plant source, and doggits seem to survive, it seems there be enough anecdotal evidence on this topic, right?
We tend to forget that there is no science (for both camps) behind the notion of McKibble and McCan, no long term research, just a very short term view - one that does not even span 80 years in the making. If we consider that our own nutritional needs are still being discovered, after many many more years of research, how would it be possible to determine the nutritional needs, and what constitute specie appropriate building blocks, of our fur kids in just under 80 years? Just think of the University of Cambridge, whom recently celebrated it's 800th Anniversary, however, the Veterinary School at the University has only been existence for just over 70 years, founded in 1949. Does not make sense does it?
Just think about how badly and often we get it wrong for human nutrition - in 1890's Dr Kelloggs tried to convince us that protein is bad [ref], then there was eggs - first it was good, then it was bad, then you shouldn't eat the whole egg, then we realised that there is things like anti-vitamins, and now we are back to eating it all [ref]. And fat - then it was good, then it was bad, then we tried to substitute it with plastic-like substances [ref], now we are back at good. And omega's - another major debate raging. If all we do is acknowledge that we know very little, and that responsible nutrition and variety is key to thriving, then we will have achieved a major milestone. But instead, we try and measure and manage nutrition like a corporate, with goals, objectives and metrics. Recommended Allowances (RA) is our new metric, kcal ME/kg our new measurement. Our society is bigcorp, and our manager bigpharma, bigsupplement, bigpetfood, etc, etc.
Consider the latest profile for dogs, allowances (proposed revised edition 2014):
Vitamin / Growth & Reproduction (Min) / Adult Maintenance (Min) / Maximum (IU/kg)
A / 5,000 / 5,000 / 250,000
D / 500 / 500 / 3,000
Does above seem like a guestimate or validated, considering the range between minimum and maximum?
How can this be? Surely there is more data available? Unfortunately, research around dog and cat nutritional needs only started in the 1970s and 1980s - but research is limited due to requirements for financial support (bigpetfood) and the objectives of the outcome (bigpetfood). The first research on this topic was published by the US National Research Council (NRC) for dogs in 1974 [National Research Council (1974) Nutrient Requirements of Dogs. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.], and for cats in 1978 [National Research Council (1978) Nutrient Requirements of Cats. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.], and formed the basis of the nutrient recommendations used by most bigpetfood to date.
Now, you should be aware, that these recommendations were often based on information extrapolated from other species and only provides for a single recommendation for all life stages combined initially.
A key development in these publications [ref] was an advisory caveat, ‘caution is advised in the use of these requirements without demonstration of nutrient availability, because in some cases requirements have been established on the basis of studies in which nutrients were supplied in highly purified ingredients where digestibility and availability are not compromised’; this had a profound impact on how the guidelines were used then.
A little history is important for context ...
Because ‘uncompromised’ availability of all nutrients could not be assumed or guaranteed in diets comprising typical commercial ingredients (given the nature and diversity of raw materials used), industry and regulators concluded that the NRC recommendations could not be used ‘in practice’ to support nutritional adequacy claims in pet foods. To resolve this impasse, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) formed the Canine Nutrition Expert and the Feline Nutrition Expert subcommittee(s) in the early 1990s.
These subcommittees comprised representatives from the pet food industry (bigpetfood) and academia and chaired by a representative of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The AAFCO, the Feline Nutrition Expert and the Canine Nutrition Expert subcommittees provided industry and regulators a vehicle for translating the recommendations of the NRC based on ‘purified diets’ into a set of guidelines that could more easily be applied for the practical formulation of pet food (bigpetfood) and the regulation of ‘nutritional adequacy’ [AAFCO (2011) Official Publication. Atlanta, GA: Association of American Feed Control Officials, Inc.]. However, these guidelines have not undergone a substantive update since the early 1990s and may not reflect more recent scientific reviews of this topic [National Research Council (2006) Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.].
In Europe, an additional set of guidelines for dogs and cats has been developed and published since 2000, under the auspices of the The European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF). These guidelines were drafted by a subcommittee made up of technical representatives from the main European National Pet Food Manufacturers [ref]. The purpose of the FEDIAF guidelines is broadly similar to those developed by the AAFCO, which is to provide industry with a set of guidelines that can readily be used for the practical formulation of pet food (bigpetfood). The guidelines play an important role in promoting best practice in the pet food manufacturing industry. However, there are some differences between the FEDIAF and AAFCO nutrient profiles. In part, this may be a reflection of differences in time frames for revisions and updates, but also reflects differing interpretations of the literature and judgements of what constitutes a ‘practical’ guideline for any given nutrient. However, the FEDIAF guidelines provide an explanation and rationale for specific recommendations.
In 2006, the NRC published an update of recommendations made for dogs and cats [National Research Council (2006) Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.]. The new edition attempts to address many of the criticisms of the previous publications by introducing a new concept, the ‘recommended allowance (RA)’, which takes account of the natural variation in the bioavailability of nutrients in ‘typical’ raw materials used in the manufacture of commercial pet foods. As well as combining nutrient requirements of both species in one volume and encompassing new information concerning the requirements for energy and essential nutrients, the new edition includes new chapters on digestive physiology, feeding behaviour, laboratory dogs and cats, physical activity and the environment, diet formulation and processing, and non-traditional food constituents, and provides information concerning the nutrient composition of common pet food ingredients.
Only recently, as recent as 2006, do we recognise the concept and importance of bioavailability ...
The 2006 NRC guidelines define the minimum requirement (MR) as the minimal concentration or amount of a bioavailable nutrient that will support a defined physiological state. Then, a safety factor, designed to allow for normal variation in nutrient bioavailability in typical pet food ingredients, is added to the minimum requirement (MR) to give a recommended allowance (RA) for foods formulated from normal pet food ingredients.
For many nutrients, a minimum requirement (MR) cannot be established because gradually increasing amounts of nutrient have not been fed to dogs and cats while measuring performance. As a result, the data, tables and guidelines supporting this topic, especially those for adult maintenance, have many blank values for minimum requirement (MR). However, where a minimum requirement (MR) has not been established, a pet food has often been fed to dogs and cats without resulting in signs of deficiency.
It should be noted that these 'feeding trials' are short term again, and does not evaluate feeding your fur kids for the duration of their life. AAFCO feeding trials consist of at least eight dogs being fed the same diet for a mere 26 weeks (approximately six months). During this time, 25% of the dogs (so, two animals) can be removed from the test and the dogs eating the food can lose up to 15% of their weight and condition; the food will still pass the test and be labelled "complete and balanced".
This allows an adequate intake (AI) to be established, defined as a concentration or amount of a nutrient that had been demonstrated to support a defined physiological state. Because the adequate intake (AI) is established using pet food ingredients, a safety factor is not included when a recommended allowance (RA) is established based on an adequate intake (AI). It is therefore possible that a diet containing lower concentrations than a recommended allowance (RA) established from an minimum requirement (MR) but made from bioavailable ingredients, or a diet containing lower concentrations than a recommended allowance (RA) established using an adequate intake (AI), may still support a given physiological state. These important possibilities are sometimes forgotten in most debates on the topic of nutrition. More importantly, these factors influence and inform most veterinary professionals.
Why do we advocate biologically, specie appropriate raw meat diets?
Given the history & science behind pet feed formulation, nutritional guidelines and the science supporting these, by now you would appreciate that there are many gaps in these profiles, metrics and guidelines. The best way to truly answer the question of whether or not mutts, pups and nobles should be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet is to look at what we have learned from science thus far about the PROCESS (not necessarily the nutrition) by which dogs obtain, process, and manufacture nutrition most efficiently.
As part of saliva production for an omnivore and carnivore, the starch and carbohydrates enzyme, amylase [ref] is included. You won't find this plant matter dismantling enzyme within the saliva of a dog - and even a cat, for that matter. If a dog does happen to eat a starchy food, amylase is still required to digest it, and the duty falls on the pancreas to produce amylase. This isn't a problem for small amounts of starches and carbohydrates - the pancreas can handle it - but a demand to digest a large amount of starches or carbohydrates is not what a dog's pancreas evolved to do.
It is therefore hugely important to compare and make reasonable sense of the interior anatomy of a dog versus other known omnivores and herbivores. The intestines of a carnivore, in this case a dog, is very short in relation to the intestines of an omnivore, a human being, and is especially short compared to the intestines of an herbivore, such as a cow or a horse. Longer intestines are found in herbivores because extracting nutrients from plant matter takes longer to do. The short digestive tract of a carnivore would never have enough time to extract the amount of nutrients it needs to thrive, let alone the digesting plant matter even containing the required nutrients a dog needs.
In the entire history of existence, somewhere, a dog has eaten a plant. They continue do so intentionally and unintentionally, but they also consume homework, rocks, baby pacifiers, jewellery, and other valuable items. So to understand which of these items a dog can digest well and thrive upon best is to look at its genetics. New research reveals, that unlike wolves, dogs do have the bonus of 3 genes that allow for the digestion of starch and glucose.
As far as empirical evidence goes, wolves and wild dogs have been observed, after a kill, to consume the contents contained within the stomach of their prey. Most of the time, their prey is usually an herbivore, and the contents within the stomach are plant matter. However, it should be noted, that not just the contents of the stomach are consumed, but also nearly every other part of their prey's body. While it's a good idea to look at the closest relative of the dog for nutritional guidance and suggestions, dogs are their own species and should be seen as a dog, not a wolf.
Our approach to fooding mutts, pups & nobles are therefore informed by the following concepts:
- bioavailability [ref] (the degree to which food nutrients are available for absorption and utilisation in the body. It is a critical issue for many nutritional concerns): bioavailability is key to ensure that your fur kids achieve optimum nutrition. Considering the need for recommended allowance (RA), minimum requirement (MR) and adequate intake (AI), a spoon of raw meat is 100% bioavailable to your fur kids, and even if fed less than the RA for protein, it means that your fur kids will use all of the nutrients available in the meal to achieve adequate intake (AI). The same cannot be said for plant based protein, as there are key differences between canine, feline and human digestive systems, that influence bioavailability of the raw materials in the diet. Bioavailability applies to nutrients, vitamins and minerals alike. Mineral bioavailability depends on several factors - the presence of vitamins in a meal enhances the absorption of minerals in the meal. Certain vitamins are not present in food in a bioavailable form. For example, riboflavin (vitamin B2) is present in milk and eggs but is bound to a carrier protein. The combined compound is known as riboflavin phosphate. In order for the organism to extract the necessary riboflavin from it, this compound must be converted in the intestines with the help of phosphatease enzymes. Vitamins can be water soluble or fat soluble. Vitamin D is an example of a fat-soluble nutrient. It is stored in fatty tissue and is released as the tissue is broken down by the body. In addition, fat must be present in your and your packs' intestines for vitamin D to be properly absorbed. If the diet does not include healthy fatty acids the ability to absorb vitamin D may be reduced. A complex topic of debate indeed ...
- specie appropriate: the second concept we advocate is specie appropriate diets. Species appropriate nutrition means that a creature should eat what is has always eaten ... its historical, evolutionary diet. Ponder this - scientists have only recently discovered and confirmed that the Giant Panda eats meat [ref]! Sounds odd that it took them so long to confirm that, but no one ever caught it live or on camera until 2011. Now we know that the correct species appropriate nutrition for Pandas should occasionally include meat with their ever-present bamboo. If soy-based diets where specie appropriate for cats and dogs, we would have observed our fur kids forage these resources in a more natural environment. Considering that soy has to be processed in some form for human nutrition, then one has to question the specie appropriate status of the raw materials.
- variety: the last item is lack of knowledge supporting the nutritional needs of our fur kids, and here we use variety to ensure nutritional completeness. You do not sit down at a restaurant and ask for a "complete and balanced meal". Neither do you use a book at home for cooking that states "complete and balanced nutritional meals for the whole family". Instead, you rely on variety of known food sources to ensure that you obtain nutritional completeness during the course of a week or a month. The same applies for your fur kids. Those gaps in the nutritional guidelines require variety to complete, whether recommended allowance or adequate intakes.
- unadulterated: the more natural, unadulterated the ingredients, the more complete they will be in nutritional completeness. No added sugar, added salt, unnatural fillers, chemicals, artificial colourings, preservatives, flavourings, grains or plant-based protein sources such as soy, no heat processing ...
- responsible nutrition: Specie Appropriateness + Bioavailability + Variety = Responsible Nutrition. The more inappropriate the diet, the less bioavailable, the more waste is generated, the less responsible the diet. The more unadulterated the source materials, the better the opportunity for nutritional completeness through variety.
But I Am A Vegan!
That's great, but your pack isn't and shouldn't be considered one just because you want them to be. Choosing to remove meat from your fur kids' diet does not change the required nutritional source needed to maintain their homeostasis. Sure, one could feed a dog a completely vegan diet - they can intentionally and artificially convert the dog's diet, not their dietary needs - two different things --, to an herbivorous one. But considering the many mistakes we make on a regular basis regarding dietary needs, is this wise? The best effort could even be made to assure proper supplementation is present while your pack consumes a vegetarian or vegan diet, but as it was mentioned from the start, the banana fruit you buy at the convenience store is a clone (monocultured) (yes, it's not real, it comes from a single cultivated variety, the Cavendish). And banana trees is technically classified as herbaceous plants, meaning herbs ...
Isn’t It Hypocritical for a Vegan to Feed Their Pet Meat?
Simply put? No. It’s not hypocritical or “unvegan” because:
- Veganism is a choice we make about our own lives, not others';
- Dogs & cats don’t have a moral compass and are incapable of having beliefs about right and wrong;
- Dogs & cats have a physiological need for meat, and feeding them anything else would be harmful to their health;
- A dog & cat does not eat meat because of pleasure - it eats that way because that’s what is in its natural wiring.
People and pet parents go vegan for a multitude of reasons - some are ethical vegans, abstaining from animal products because they don’t want to cause harm, all the way to vegans who strive for personal health and the good of the environment.
Despite the difference in the reason why these motivations share a common thread - the fact that these are decisions each of these people are making over their own diet and life.
Still want to Feed Vegetarian?
We hope by now you realise just how complex the concept of fooding your pack is. And why we stick to the middle high road available to us - one defined by nature itself. Whether you call our approach BARF or Frankenprey, the point is that we defer the risk of nutritional completeness back to nature through variety. No matter which type of diet – home made, vegan, raw or processed – is chosen, we believe it therefore must meet at least five requirements, as defined by Dr Shawn Messonnier in his book titled "Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats" [ref]:
- The diet must contain the proper amount and balance of essential nutrients required by your fur kids;
- The ingredients must be of high nutritional quality (in other words, FOOD, not feed) so that your fur kids can effectively digest, absorb, and utilise the dietary nutrients;
- The diet should be palatable so that your fur kids will eat it;
- The diet should contain minimal to no fillers such as animal or plant by-products, or if by-products are present, as in the case of some prescription-type diets for sick pets, the diet should contain the least number of by-products;
- The diet should contain no artificial colours, flavours, chemical preservatives, or additives, when possible.
Fruit, Herb or a reasonable conclusion ...
Science can tell us how things works, but science can't account for all factors applied in the real world. Science is great, because it can give direction to the most reasonable and logical explanation, but to draw a conclusion and never change it when new evidence is presented is irresponsible, close-minded, and just non-science! Just consider the dietary observations for Giant Panda's and the fact that banana's are clones, fruit and herbs at the same time ...
Lew Olson, PhD, author of Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs, makes this analogy: “Trying to feed a cat a vegan diet would be like me feeding my horses meat. You’re taking a whole species of animal and trying to force it to eat something that it isn’t designed to handle.”
“For cats, it’s really inappropriate. It goes against their physiology and isn’t something I would recommend at all," says Cailin Heinze, VMD, a
board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
"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," Heinze says.
Not all mutts, pups and nobles are the same, just like humans are not the same - genetically speaking. While everything about our fur kids reasonably suggests that meat should play a predominant role in their diet, with a smaller occupancy of plant matter, to completely omit meat from your packs diet should be solely based on that specifics individual fur kids' response to such a diet. The diet should conform to the dog, and not the dog conforming to the diet. Each dog is their own scientific experiment in that one doggit may do very well on a completely vegetarian or vegan diet, and another may do well on just raw meat, and the inverse of course. A problem arises when your fur kids health deteriorates, and you do not consider or alter his or her diet - that's irresponsible.
References and Articles
You can further your research through some of the research we have done, but be forewarned - this is one topic of debate that create much fear, uncertainty and doubt in your mind.
- H.C. Dougherty (PhD Animal Science) - Why Vegan Diets Will Kill Your Cat (and Sicken Your Dog) (https://www.whyanimalsdothething.com/posts/carnivores-and-vegan-pet-food)
- Roxanne Hawn - Should Your Pet Go on a Vegerarian Diet? (https://pets.webmd.com/features/vegetarian-diet-dogs-cats#1)
- Urban Vegan - Vegan Cat Food: The Cold Hard Truth (https://urbanvegan.net/cat-food/)