The foods for dogs that you typically find in the shops will always include an animal-based ingredient. However, it is true that dogs can get all the nutrients they need using plant-based sources. Vegetarian and vegan dog foods are becoming popular as more people are choosing to eliminate animal sources of nutrients from their own diet. Just because our canine companion can get all their nutrients without meat – can they thrive on a vegetarian diet?
Can dogs get enough protein from a vegetarian diet?
It is possible for dogs to get all the protein they need from a vegetarian or vegan diet. It can be tricky to manage this because the composition of most plant-based proteins do not typically match the requirements of the dog. However, a complete and balanced protein can be achieved by mixing different plant-based ingredients together.
Can dogs digest carbohydrates found in plants?
The ancestors of the modern domestic dog are thought to have adapted to starch digestion as a result of living in close contact with people. Early human settlements had large volumes of carbohydrate-rich waste which wild dogs would seek out as a source of food. Because of this, plant-based ingredients are a nutritious option for use in our dogs’ commercial diets.
What does the research say?
One study, published in 2009, investigated the use of a meat-free diet. For 16 weeks, six competitive racing huskies were fed only a vegetarian diet. Their health was monitored throughout this time using veterinary wellness checks and analysis of blood parameters. Not only did the dogs remain healthy, but they also performed well in their races! Although this was a relatively small study over a short period of time, it has contributed to the body of research that has demonstrated that dogs are able to thrive on a complete and properly balanced meat-free diet.
The commercial production of a completely vegetarian diet for dogs is possible; but, in practice, it appears to be quite challenging. Another study from 2015 found that most commercial vegetarian diets for dogs were not complete and balanced; despite having those claims on the label.
Editors’ note – A 2017 study found that 38% of commercial dry foods were also not completely balanced. However, using a similar methodology, all the vegan diets were unbalanced in this 2020 study.
How can I choose a plant-based food for my dog?
A good starting point when choosing any food for your dog is to check the label for an adequacy statement. It should be formulated to be complete and balanced to meet the needs of your dog. Ensure that it is suitable for the age of your dog, as puppies have different nutritional requirements than adult dogs.
The diet should have been formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or a PhD nutritionist. If this is not mentioned on the company website, there should be a customer service contact where you can ask for more information.
It is also useful to know about the quality control measures in place at the food manufacturing facility. There should be protocols in place to check that the food in the bag really has all the nutrients that your dog needs. This is another thing that may be mentioned on the company website. But you may have to ring the customer service line for the details.
Can I make my own plant-based diet for my dog at home?
If you choose to make your dog’s food at home, it must be complete and balanced to ensure that your dog is getting all the nutrients they need. Home-prepared recipes should be formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. These individuals are specialists who have focused their practice in nutrition for many years and have passed a rigorous board exam. Recipes that you can find online or in books are not likely to match the requirements of your dog and, in severe cases, can cause harm to their health.
Editor’s note: 100% of home-prepared plant-based diet recipes were found to be incomplete in this 2021 paper. In fact, eminent veterinary nutritionist Mike Davies recently concluded that all home-prepared diets are nutritionally inadequate, whether raw meat, plant based, or mixed. Clearly there is some way to go in ensuring that pet foods – plant based or not – are correctly balanced against the FEDIAF guidelines, but home-preparation from a generic recipe rather than following bespoke advice of a veterinary nutritionist seems to make things worse rather than better.
Although it has been shown that dogs are able to remain healthy while consuming a vegan diet, commercial plant-based dog foods are still relatively new on the market. It is best to do your research into a manufacturer before you decide on choosing their food for your dog. Home-cooked vegan diets can also be an option but the recipe must come from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure that it will be complete and balanced. With this current trend gaining popularity, hopefully there will be more research into vegan menus for our four-legged friends. This way we can all enjoy plant-based meals together!