It’s thought that up to 14% of Americans follow a diet of some kind and this is a figure expected to rise even further if the projected growth of the meat substitute industry is anything to go by — sales in Asia, Europe and the Americas are forecast to reach a whopping $28bn by 2025 according to one estimate.
And that’s just the human population. What about the 76 million dogs living in the USA? Can they be part of this boom of vegetarian and vegan diets, or is their taste for meat a little harder to overcome? Is vegan or vegetarian dog food ok?
Can dogs live without meat?
The vast majority of dog food on the market today contains meat or fish of some variety, typically mixed in with carbohydrates and vegetables. This formula has proven to be a reliable and cost-effective way of ensuring pets receive the recommended nutrients and vitamins necessary to lead a healthy life.
However, there’s a growing scientific consensus that dogs can get all the protein and amino acids they require from a plant-based diet and perhaps even be healthier than their meat-eating counterparts in some circumstances.
Part of this is down to the way in which dogs have evolved. Yes, their wolf ancestors led and continue to lead a largely carnivorous lifestyle, but in the tens of thousands of years since their domestication, dogs have developed to tolerate an omnivorous diet similar to their human parents — this means they thrive off a diet containing both meat and plants.
This is one of the ways in which cats and dogs are true opposites. Cats are what’s called obligate carnivores, which means they need meat or fish — and the amino acid taurine especially — to survive. Dogs aren’t as reliant on meat for taurine as they can get it from other sources, although they still need healthy levels in their body.
“Dogs require certain nutrients in their diet, rather than particular ingredients,” says the Dog Food Advisor’s independent in-house nutritionist, Laura Ward. “A vegetarian or vegan diet when it’s properly formulated can be a great option, especially for dogs with allergies.”
It’s no surprise to learn that the vegetarian and vegan dog food market has grown rapidly in recent years, with many brands bringing meat-free recipes onto the market and receiving certification from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in the process.
Can dogs be healthy on vegetarian or vegan dog food?
Now before you go flinging your meat-filled dog food into the trash, there are a couple of things you need to consider before putting your pet on a meat-free diet.
First of all, is this right for the specific dietary needs of your pet? The one person who will be able to offer the best guidance is your vet, as they’ll have great insight into your dog’s weight and illness history. As such, you should only make the changeover after being given the green light by your vet.
Another thing to watch out for is a deficiency of key substances. As is sometimes the case with humans who follow a vegan diet, vitamin B12 levels can drop in dogs going meat- and dairy-free. This vitamin is naturally abundant in animal products and is crucial for the formation of red blood cells, as well as the healthy function of the nervous system and brain.
Many vegetarian recipes will include B12 from dairy ingredients, but parents should check whether meat-free dog foods have sufficient amounts of B12. If they don’t, you should look into separate vitamin supplements to maintain healthy levels and ward off nasty side effects — these include a loss of energy or appetite, and a dull coat.
It’s a similar story when it comes to taurine, an amino acid found in meat that contributes to the healthy function of the nervous, digestive and immune systems. While dogs are generally capable of producing the necessary molecules from other sources, meat and fish are the easiest sources.
There’s also an established link between taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) — a disease causing the heart muscles to thin and weaken — in certain breeds, including Golden Retrievers, American Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds.
One way to increase taurine levels is to add a supplement to your dog’s diet, whether that be a pill or powder. The good news is there’s no danger of giving your dog too much — they’ll simply process the excess and dispose of it should it happen.
Are there other alternative diets?
Some dog parents choose to eschew meat for reasons linked to health or animal welfare, but others are motivated by the detrimental impact the meat industry has on the planet. If you’re driven by environmental concerns, there’s another recent development worthy of your attention.
How does the thought of feeding your dog insects make you feel? In recent years, there has been a proliferation of new dog food brands offering products made of insects, such as mealworms or fly larvae. Not only is it an excellent source of protein, and hypoallergenic in many cases, but it’s much less land- and carbon-intensive to manufacture.
Food for thought, right?
So should I make the switch?
This is a tough question — and an entirely personal one.
While meat-free pet food is a hot topic in the scientific community, there’s little research tracking the long-term effects of a dog following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some parents might understandably prefer to stick to what’s already working until a firm conclusion is reached.
However, the majority of recent studies seem to conclude your dog will suffer no adverse health outcomes on a vegetarian and vegan diet, provided their food is enriched with vital nutrients like vitamin B12 and taurine. Even big organisations, like AACFO and the American Kennel Club, have voiced their approval of meat-free dog diets.
Your dog should have a say in the decision, too. If you make the switch over to a vegetarian or vegan diet and notice a negative change in their behavior or personality, you should make the change back to meat.
Similarly, your dog may also show an aversion to veggie recipes for whatever reason and you shouldn’t force them to wolf it down just to soothe your conscience — they’re the ones actually eating the food at the end of the day.
If you do decide to make the change, one thing to bear in mind is any transition between different types of foods — even if it’s two meat-based recipes — should be done gradually. Start by mixing a small portion of the new brand into the old mix and gradually increasing the size of it over the course of a week or so. This way, your dog’s insides can get used to the new food and you’ll lower the risk of upsetting sensitive tummies.