Is It Safe To Feed 'Vegan' Dog Food? Will My Dog Be Healthy?
by Alice Oven
We know how important it is to make good choices for the planet, and for all the animals who live on it. And we know how passionately you care about those things too.
But we also know that pet parents want what’s best for their dogs, and that includes dishing out the healthiest dog food. Can we really give our furry friends maximum wags if we stop putting meat in their bowls? Will they be at their healthiest and happiest eating ‘vegan’ dog food?
It’s totally reasonable to be asking these questions! Look under any social media post about plant-based dog food and you’ll see a lot of confusion, including people commenting that it’s wrong to deprive ‘carnivorous’ dogs of the meat they ‘need to survive’. And who can blame them for thinking this way? After all, pet parents are bombarded with adverts telling us to feed ‘the wolf inside’ or to satisfy our dog’s ‘primal’ craving for meat with raw dog food.
But what does the science tell us?
Think dogs are carnivores? You must be barking!
Domestic dogs are omnivores, just like their humans. They’ve evolved over many thousands of years to digest plant-based foods and receive all the nutrients they need without meat. But… how?
Once upon a time (sometime between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago) wolves started venturing closer to the campfire. The OG good boys, these wolves began to offer humans protection and help with hunting in return for tasty food scraps. From that point on, early dogs and their humans evolved and adapted together. They even shared similar foods, the dogs noshing on the humans’ leftovers: mostly beans and grains at the bottom of the stew pot or stale bread crusts, meat being a rare luxury back then.
Today our pet dogs not only look different to wolves, but their inner biology is different too. Inside their bodies, dogs make 30 times more amylase than wolves, an enzyme that helps them to digest the starches in plants. Dogs can also make maltase, another enzyme needed for starch digestion, only found in herbivores and omnivores.
All this means that our four-legged friends are no longer strict carnivores: they have important genetic mutations which mean they’ll give a paw for anything delicious, including vegetables! Yep, every canine is a flexi-dogian: an omnivore just like their human.
But where do our dogs get their protein?
Sound familiar? Unsurprisingly, ‘vegan’ dogs get asked the same question as their vegan owners! In fact, because so many people still think dogs are carnivores, the idea of a plant-based pooch is even harder to stomach. So, what’s the deal with dogs and protein?
Current nutritional guidelines say that a healthy dog needs protein to make up 18% of their daily diet. But this protein is only useful if it can be absorbed within your dog’s body: their food must contain bioavailable nutrients. Protein molecules are made up of strings of 20 amino acids. When dogs eat sources of protein, their digestive systems break it down into amino acid building blocks, which are then used by their bodies to make lots of different proteins (the ones needed to build muscle, produce hormones or fight infection).
If their food contains enough building blocks, dogs can make half of the 20 amino acids by themselves, including taurine, which they need to digest fat and keep their heart healthy. This is where dogs differ from strict (obligate) carnivores like cats, who can’t make taurine on their own and need to get it from meat or man-made supplements. Unlike cats, dogs can also use plant-based linoleic acid to make essential fatty arachidonic acid and turn plant-based carotene into retinol, an important vitamin.
The other 10 amino acids can’t be created by dogs, which means they need to be eaten. If a dog food contains enough of all 10 of these essential amino acids, it can be labelled ‘complete’. And yes, you’ve guessed it: high-quality plant protein can contain all ten! Dogs can get all the nutritious proteins they need from ‘vegan’ pet food.
Warning: may cause excess wagginess
There’s not a single credible study that suggests that dogs living on nutritionally complete vegan pet food suffer any problems. On the flipside, there are more than 10 studies showing that pets fed meat-based diets go on to develop health conditions (but that’s a story for another post!)
This isn’t just untested theory: there are thousands of ‘vegan’ dogs enjoying their best squirrel-chasing lives without meat. Maybe you’ve heard of Bramble, a Collie who once held the Guinness World Record for being the oldest living dog at 27 years young? Like her human, Bramble lived on a strict meat-free diet of rice, lentils, organic vegetables and, everybody’s favourite, nooch! So not only is it safe to feed your best friend ‘vegan’ dog food, but it might just be the best thing you can do for them.
Hold up! You can save the planet, help other animals and have your pup live their waggiest life? That’s not to be sniffed at.
Don’t take our word for it. You can read the research too, using the links below.
- A summary of the evidence supporting vegetarian over meat-based diets for pets in Animals (2016)
- An article on how dogs evolved to digest starches in Nature (2013)
- Another article, showing the high levels of Amylase activity in dogs in Animal Genetics (2014)
- Another more recent article supporting dogs’ ability to digest plant starches in Royal Society Open Science (2016)
- A list of articles showing the problems with meat-based pet food on website vegepets.info.