Is there such a thing as a healthy vegan diet for dogs?

One of the very first books about dogs I’ve read was published in England. So it was rather modern and free-thinking in comparison to many other tomes I had. Besides the usual guides on breeds and grooming, this book (unfortunately I can no longer remember its title) had a chapter about vegetarianism for dog in case some people decide to feed their dog according to their ethics. The advice was very sensible, as far as I remember, and pretty do-able for any true vegetarian. The book clearly showed that a dog can definitely live on a meat-free diet and remain well as long as his food contained dairy, eggs and fish (think ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian or pescatarian diet). Some resent studies also suggest that, just like in people, complete balanced vegetarian diets are associated with several health benefits in dogs (vitality, reduced risk of arthritis, cancer and diabetes, to name a few).

Admittedly, years later I’ve become a vegetarian myself. It was soon after we got Oscar and somehow I realised that I am no longer interested in eating any form of meat. So I went down the lacto-ovo route as the most nutritionally-sensible (and face it – tasty!) choice. The rest of my family, Oscar included, continued enjoying poultry and occasional lamb though. Everyone was happy. Should Oscar ever gone off meat and wanted to eat a diet of eggs and fish I would, of course, let him. But he was the cocker spaniel and his diet was true to what any cocker spaniel should have eaten.

However, about three years ago I could not help but notice a new “breed” of canine food appearing on the market. Yes, the vegan one. Which naturally lead to the obvious question….

Can our dogs really be vegan?

In theory, yes. But only if we base it on the fact that the balanced diet is nothing more but a combination of nutrients including all essential amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – and not ingredients as such. And  theoretically these nutrient blocks can come from any source otherwise many dog food companies would not use wheat gluten or soy protein in their formulas. It’s a bit like building a wall and filling the gaps with all kinds of bricks and stones as long as they fit in.

In reality, putting your dog on a vegan diet can come with quite a few issues…

Lets begin with the obvious. Cockers were bred and raised on meat-based diets. Not soy or beans. It has nothing to do with dogs being carnivores. They are not. Dogs really are omnivores and thus can eat a varied diet of, well, everything and anything including meat, plants and grains. But it didn’t make them choose veganism, no. The good old Obo and his relatives ate meat. So our lovely cockers would want some in their diet, too. Simple.

Another factor worth thinking about is the way most dog diet trends transition from the human ones. We had the Atkins and Keto – and now these are pushed into the dogs. People went carb-free – and so their dogs had to do the same. When dog owners decided to go raw, the whole bunch of companies produced another range of foods. Why? Because trends sell like hotcakes! The problem with every trend, though, is that any person can stop following it at any point (and trust me, as a nutritionist, I have never seeing anyone who would be able to live on vegan, Atkins, carb-free or raw diet for their entire life without consequences or simply giving it up at some point) yet most dogs will have no choice but to eat the same food for days, weeks, months and years, which is likely to increase the risk of many health problems.

Also bear in mind that vegan food for dogs must be balanced with an impeccable precision otherwise they are likely to lack certain amino acids, vitamins and minerals. This can theoretically be achieved through additional supplements, but under- or over supplementing a dog’s diet or using incorrect or low quality supplements can put a strain on the dog’s health – or worse, lead to toxicity.

If you decide to cook the meals at home to avoid genetically-modified ingredients (think soy, corn, maize etc) or the “toxic chemicals” that may lurk in the dog food, you are very likely to fail. For a while you dog may enjoy the meals – most dogs would happily eat a bowl of porridge or rice with carrots and a bunch of greens. But the problem will begin as soon as their natural “amino acid pool” will “dry out” and the body will start missing out on the “building blocks” that are essentials for creating new cells and maintain the immune system.

Even most complete vegan dog foods are likely to be based on a combination of pulses (beans, lentils, peas etc.) or vegan proteins (soy, corn or wheat gluten), which have been linked to many cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, a life-threatening disease associated with deficit of specific amino acids such an taurine and l-carnitine that can only be obtained through animal proteins. Additionally, the dog can also become deficient in vitamins B12 and D, which will have a negative effect on several body systems.

In other words, if you choose to try putting your dog on a vegan diet to see what happens – don’t be surprised if your expectations are not the ones you’ve pictured in your head.

My advice? Don’t risk it when it comes to your dog.

Choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle because it can make a positive change to the environment, planet, animals or your own well-being is one thing. Feeding a dog with a vegan diet is something completely different and, lets be honest, against nature.

Dogs don’t have as long as we do, so let them live these years with pride and joy of being an animal.

Make the changes by changing your own habits. Eat less meat, skip it completely or be a vegetarian who has a couple of completely vegan days a week. Don’t waste food. Choose household product and cosmetics made without animal-based ingredients. Go organic. Buy dog food that contains moderate quantities of protein (an adult dog requires 18-28% of protein in dry food, that’s all!), not meat-only or high-protein mixes. Do something. Anything!

If everyone chips in, the little steps will compensate for the fact that dogs do need to eat their meat- (or more precise, animal protein) containing diets. Because we can choose how to live our lives including accepting responsibility for making conscious and health-appropriate choices for our pooches. They may like an occasional carrot but can’t jump in a car and go grocery shopping should their parent decide to replace a tasty chicken dinner with a less-than-palatable kibble made of chickpeas and soy.

As we celebrate the World Vegan Day I will leave you here to marinate the medley of thoughts… Should you decide to learn more about appropriate nutrition for your cocker spaniel, benefits and pitfalls of certain diets or how to choose the best food, you will find the answers in my book, Perfect cocker spaniel.

 

Photo source: photo by Sergiy Kabachenko via 123rf.com