Veterinarian Dr. Sarah Dodd on Vegan Dog Nutrition
Is Vegan Food Healthy for My Dog?
This is perhaps the most common question concerned guardians ask when discussing plant-based food for their dog. It is understandable too. Although our values and motivations play an important role in choosing a vegan food, we also want to be certain that it will be healthy for our companion animals.
Let us examine this topic in more detail. Where does a concern with a plant-based diet come from and what reassuring answers can we offer to dog parents?
Didn’t dogs evolve from wolves?
Domesticated dogs evolved from wolves, and both species are classified under the Order Carnivora. While this makes them sound like meat-eating carnivores, this classification is sometimes misleading. You might be surprised to find out that the Order Carnivora not only includes true carnivores like the Felidae family, but also omnivores like the Canidae family (which includes raccoons and skunks), and even the Ailuropodiae family – which includes giant pandas! In other words, Carnivore classification encompasses a wide variety of animals, from meat-eaters to omnivores, to strict herbivores. For this reason, is cannot be reliably used to determine dietary requirements of an animal. It is more important to examine evolutionary history of a dog.
Domesticated dog came a long evolutionary way from a wild wolf to Retrievers and Chihuahuas of today. Ancestors of domesticated dogs started to live alongside humans during the early agricultural revolution, as they scavenged for waste near human settlements. Dogs consumed human made, high carbohydrate food and depended on it for survival. That’s right, our beloved furry companions have been eating our scraps for tens of thousands of years, and their stomachs are well adapted to it!
Living in a human environment facilitated development of specific traits in domestic dogs, suited for adaptation in that environment. One such important trait is an improved ability to digest starch. We know from genetic research that dogs have much more developed gene expression for pancreatic amylase (AMY2B, a digestive enzyme that breaks down starch in the small intestine) than wolves do. While wolves only have two copies of the AMY2B gene, domestic dogs have 10-15 copies on average (exact number varies among breeds). Nature created this mechanism to allow dogs to receive the required nutrients from human-made food - grains, vegetables and legumes.
So the short answer is yes. Dogs did evolve from wolves, by developing traits suited to living in a human environment. Their stomachs are now well adapted to consume plant-based food prepared by humans.
Don’t they require certain ingredients?
In animal nutrition, we really prefer to talk about nutrient requirements, as opposed to ingredient requirements. Research on the nutrient requirements of dogs extends back to the first National Research Council publication on the topic in 1953. Since that time, independent researchers, industry researchers and veterinarians have all been continuing to fine-tune our knowledge and understanding of just exactly what dogs need to be healthy and thrive. As far as we know, dogs have no requirement for meat per se, instead, they have a requirement for nutrients which may be obtained from meat, or from other sources. And we know from research that dogs can get all their nutrients from eating exclusively plant-based diet. In other words, there exists no essential nutrient for dogs which we cannot obtain from non-animal sources.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, known as AAFCO, has defined the sufficiency of a diet to meet the nutritional requirements of dogs in two ways: 1) the diet can be formulated to meet the industry recommendations or 2) the diet can be tested by dogs themselves in a feeding trial. In terms of meeting nutritional requirements, any diet, regardless of ingredients, meeting either of these stipulations is recognized to be just as sufficient as any other diet meeting AAFCO’s ‘complete and balanced’ criteria. What this means, is that a plant-based diet bearing an AAFCO statement of adequacy contains all the essential nutrients required by the species and life-stage denoted on the statement.
What about vegetarian diets?
A handful of meat-free vegetarian diets also exist, though these contain eggs, dairy, and other animal products. These diets may not be as useful from a veterinary perspective. They are also not typically as popular as strictly plant-based diets are, since many people choose to feed a meat-free diet to avoid the inherent cruelty to animals stemming from animal-derived products.
Ok, so my dog can survive on a vegan diet, but can he thrive?
When people ask if plant-based diets are healthy, this is really what they are asking most of the time. Sure, my dog can live on a plant-based diet. However, will he be as healthy and full of energy as a dog next door feeding on a meat-based diet?
The answer to this question depends on several factors. What diet was your dog eating before, and what plant-based diet are you looking to switch them to? Are you changing the diet because of a health or wellness problem, such as a dry coat or fat intolerance? Or are you happy with how your dog is faring on their current diet, but would like to switch to a suitable plant-based diet?
Dogs thrive on a diet that meets their nutritional requirements, so look for a plant-based product that meets these requirements (outlined by AAFCO and FEDIAF). Consider your companion animal’s health and nutritional preferences. Does your dog require a lower protein diet and do you prefer non-GMO ingredients? Does your dog prefer canned food to dry kibble? For healthy dogs, the customer help line, provided by the company whose diet you are looking to try, can be a valuable resource, as you can discuss your dog’s individual needs and determine which diet is best for them. For dogs with a health condition, always discuss dietary changes with your veterinarian.
It’s worth mentioning that plant-based diets, like Evolution Diet’s MAXIMUM LIFE, have even been used extensively in veterinary practice to diagnose and/or manage common diseases. Animal-derived proteins are some of the most common allergens in dogs, making plant-based diets a fantastic option for diagnosing and managing dietary hypersensitivity. Transitioning to a plant-based diet has been a beginning of a better life for many dogs.
I hope this has served to illustrate that complete and balanced plant-based dog food is indeed healthy. For a more in-depth discussion, I encourage interested parties to read this review of plant-based vs. animal-based diets published by a veterinarian in an open-access peer-reviewed journal: www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/6/9/57/htm
We would like to thank Dr. Sarah Dodd for providing material for this article.