By: Cate Burnette
As more and more pet parents turn to a vegan diet for health or ethical reasons, the foods of their furry, 4-legged companions come under scrutiny looking for the best ways to keep our cats and dogs healthy and happy.
Vegan diets – a totally plant-based regime that disallows all meat, eggs, fish, dairy products and honey – are showing up in veterinary nutrition studies and being considered by some holistic veterinarians and vet nutritionists as an alternative to commercial pet foods.
“Dogs are opportunistic carnivores,” says Dr. John Bauer, Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, “which means they will eat meat when they have the chance or when no other type of food is available. For wild dogs, prey is not guaranteed, so especially in the colder seasons dogs will eat more plants and vegetables as meat is difficult to find. As for pet dogs, they can easily be converted to vegetarians and vegans, and if done properly, it is just as healthy as an omnivorous diet is for a dog.”
While most domestic dogs can easily adapt and thrive on a vegan diet, research has shown that our housecats do NOT do well without eating meat products. To determine what is best for your pet, consult with your veterinarian prior to making any major food changes.
Health Benefits – And Cautions – Of a Vegan Diet For Dogs
Modern veterinary nutritionists and clinicians are following the research and paying attention to nutritional studies based on a canine vegan diet.
A 2009 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition compared the overall health and red blood cell counts of six sprint-racing huskies on a plant-based diet with six others maintained on a commercial meat-based diet. The study ran for 16 weeks including a 10-week competitive racing season. The blood tests were taken to determine how a vegan diet affects protein levels in canine athletes.
Blood results for all dogs were within the normal range throughout the study and the consulting veterinarian assessed all dogs to be in excellent physical condition. No dogs developed anemia. On the contrary, red blood cell counts and all blood values increased significantly over time in both groups, leading to the conclusion that, with proper nutrition and possible supplementation, vegan diets will not harm – and may possibly help – the health of sporting dogs.
Dr. Armaiti May is a holistic veterinarian that runs a vegan-friendly companion animal practice in California. She combines traditional Western veterinary medicine with the herbs and acupuncture of Chinese medicine to help the animals in her care. Dr. May believes that even though dogs are biologically omnivorous, meaning they will eat plants as well as meat products, they adapt well to a plant-based diet as long as it meets all their nutritional needs.
She reports that skin allergies, one of the most common ailments seen in even traditional veterinary practices, can often be traced to an inflammatory reaction to meat proteins (beef, chicken or other everyday meat sources). In her experience, vegan diets bring relief to the affected dogs so that they no longer itch or suffer from intestinal issues, and the incidences of ear infections, related to food and skin allergies, also lessens.
Additionally, the nutritional yeast, herbs and natural probiotics (non-fat yogurt, apple cider vinegar) found in vegan and vegetarian diets have been shown to increase a dog’s overall health and contribute to improved hair and coat condition. The veterinarian also notes that the longer a dog stays on a vegan diet, the less likely the chances of that animal becoming obese, contracting various cancers or infections, or becoming hypothyroid.
Dr. May does caution that vegan diets can change the pH balance in a dog’s body, causing the urine to become more alkaline and possibly predisposing some animals to crystal and stone formation in the urinary bladder and kidneys. To combat this, she recommends adding water to the vegan meal and analyzing urine pH 2 to 3 weeks after changing the diet. If the urine pH is too high (too alkaline) and/or struvite crystals are present, various acidifying agents can be used.
She states that, “Although diet-related problems are unlikely to occur for dogs on a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, certain dog breeds are predisposed to dilated cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease which may be influenced by lack of sufficient intake of taurine and/or carnitine (amino acids which are naturally occurring in flesh foods but can be added to the diet via synthetic supplements which are readily available).”
Doberman pinschers, Boxers, “giant breeds” (Scottish deerhounds, Irish wolfhounds, Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Afghan hounds), and Cocker spaniels are the dog breeds predisposed to DCM. The addition of taurine or L-carnitine to the canine vegan diet can prove advantageous to those dogs with or without prior cardiac disease.
Nutrition Requirements for Dogs and Cats
In a 2006 pamphlet written by noted veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists, the National Academy of Sciences detailed exactly what nutrients are necessary to keep your dogs and cats healthy and happy. You can download the study to see exact levels needed
The amount of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and various vitamins and minerals found in commercial pet foods, homemade and specialty diets need to be formulated around the needs of individual animals. Senior pets have different caloric and energy needs than do younger dogs or nursing mothers. A Bassett hound commonly needs less food than a terrier due to the Bassett’s lower energy levels. It is up to pet parents to follow the research and consult with veterinarians to provide their furry companions the best nutrition possible.
You can download the study to see the exact nutrient levels needed for your pet.
Dogs who eat vegan meals may require protein supplementation to meet necessary dietary requirements. Canines tend to automatically select foods that are high in protein; veterinarians do not know whether it is a matter of taste or the body’s natural response to a need for all 10 essential amino acids.
This particular report states that vegan diets can be a healthy alternative for dogs as long as the food contains sufficient protein and is supplemented with Vitamin D. Dogs cannot make vitamin D in their skin like humans, so it needs to be in their diet. According to vet nutritionists, the vitamin D needs to be D3 that comes from animal sources, not D2, that comes from plant-based sources.
Vegan Diets Problematic for Cats
Cats are considered ‘obligate carnivores’ – meaning they are instinctive meat eaters with no dietary need or predisposition for eating plants. They must eat meat to survive.
By comparing the dentition of cats with that of humans and herbivores (strict plant-eaters, such as cattle and horses), it is readily apparent that feline teeth, with their sharp edges and long points, are designed by nature to consume a diet largely comprised of animal tissue. A cat’s short intestinal tract – compared to an herbivore such as a horse – also indicates that they are not designed to accommodate diets containing large amounts of plant materials. Their nutritional requirements, including the need for relatively high amounts of protein and calcium, reflect these dietary limitations.
Cats are very specific in their nutritional needs. They require dramatically higher protein levels than other mammals. Domestic and wild felines cannot convert the beta-carotene in plants such as carrots and dark green vegetables into Vitamin A. Rather, they require pre-formed Vitamin A, typically found in liver and fish oils, to complete their nutritional needs.
To remain healthy, cats also need dietary sources of taurine (an amino acid-like nutrient) and arachidonic acid (an essential fatty acid), both of which are found in appreciable levels only in animal tissues. Another reason cats are required to eat meat is because the B Vitamin, Niacin, cannot be activated from their own enzymes and must be ingested from meat products.
Thus, while both species can eat and utilize some plant-sourced ingredients (dogs more so than cats), felines simply are not intended to eat only plants as are other animals such as cattle, horses and sheep.
Choosing a vegan diet for your dog can be a safe and healthy alternative to meat-based commercial foods, but you need to be mindful of how much protein your dog is receiving. If you decide to go with no meat whatsoever, at a minimum your dog’s diet must include protein-based foods or supplements.
So how should your dog get the necessary amount of protein when eating a vegan diet?
Through meat substitutes, including…
- Dairy Products and Eggs (if you choose a vegetarian diet).
- Soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh) may or may not be tough to digest. Start with small portions to determine how your dog reacts.
- Protein supplements found in most grocery or health food stores.
In addition to protein, you’ll need to maintain the appropriate balance of vegetables, vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet to keep your pet healthy. To help ensure the right nutrient mix, include plenty of veggie, grain and fruit varieties. You can try feeding apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, green, leafy vegetables (kale, spinach), cabbage, carrots, green beans, beets, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal and whatever else your dog enjoys eating.
Possible vegan meals are virtually endless, and different diets are necessary for different dogs. To make sure that you are preparing the right food for your dog, pick up a good natural health book for dogs and follow the diet given based on the size of your dog and the breed – it will ensure that your dog is getting all of the necessary nutrients and the right variety. It will also help you find a diet that your dog actually enjoys.
When transitioning to a vegan diet, consider having your dog’s urine periodically tested to keep urine alkalinity at a normal level. Dogs on vegan diets are more likely to develop urinary tract issues and you can catch a problem early and provide relief.
Some vegetables required preparation to make them more digestible for sensitive stomachs. When cooking, it is best to bake the veggies to retain the most nutrients. Boiling is your next best option. You’ll need to watch your dog closely to make sure what veggies your dog can eat comfortably without digestive upset.
You could purchase high-quality vegan diets over the Internet and at specialty pet stores if you’re uncomfortable preparing vegan meals for your dog. Commercial vegan diets are typically manufactured to provide all nutrients and necessary supplements.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.