The vegan diet has now become mainstream for humans, but more and more pet parents are extending their lifestyle choice to the life of their dogs and cats. Even food manufacturers have begun offering vegan options, but are they safe? More importantly, are they ideal?
What is vegan dog food?
A vegan dog food is one that does not contain any animal products, including meat and eggs. Meat is replaced with the use of plants rich in protein and grains, fruits, and vegetables. Vegetarian diets, on the other hand, still contain animal-derived products (such as eggs) but do not contain any meat.
Is vegan safe for dogs?
By nature, dogs are omnivores. That means they eat both meat and plants. While still closely related to wolves, which are carnivorous (eating only meat), our household dogs have evolved through the centuries. That means plants can also offer them nutrients, but is that an ideal way for them to fuel up?
Most veterinarians agree that a vegan diet is generally not recommended for a healthy dog.
In order to support your dog's health, you need to work on feeding them a balanced diet that consists of both meat and pants in order to meet their needs as omnivores. Those pet parents who are committed to transitioning their dog to a vegan lifestyle need to consider that, even more so than humans, a dog requires a balanced diet based on their health and life stage.
However, finding a carefully balanced dog diet (especially a vegan one) is by no means straightforward. Your dog needs a balanced amount of amino acids and proteins in order to stay healthy.
Why aren't vegan diets ideal?
The primary reason why vegan diets aren't ideal for dogs is because it is even more difficult to achieve the necessary balance. They often lack essential amino acids, such as L-carnitine and taurine, both of which are usually found in meat.
The lack of these essential nutrients can actually lead to a dog developing heart disease. A taurine deficiency can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy.
What's the best vegan diet?
The key to feeding your dog a vegan diet and supporting their good health at the same time is finding a vegan diet that is AAFCO approved. That means they have undergone a clinical trial and are "complete and balanced" for your dog.
Oftentimes, vegan diets fall within the acceptable range of protein intake for dogs, but they do lean towards the lower end of the spectrum. The protein count also varies in quality because plant protein simply isn't complete like animal proteins. They lack amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Veterinarians use BV, or biological value, to measure the efficiency of a particular protein. An egg has a very high BV because it's designed to support a growing fetus. On the other had, a seed, grain, or nut does not have a high BV. The amino acid profile is not nearly as complete.
It's also important to realize that plant proteins are more difficult for a dog to digest compared to animal proteins. If you are feeding your dog soy, that is going to be metabolized differently than beef or chicken. This can cause significant issues, especially for growing, pregnant, or lactating dogs.
Therapeutic Vegan Diets
In some instances, a vegan diet may actually be recommended by a veterinarian. This is typically the case if your dog has kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, or urate bladder stones that mean they need to avoid animal protein.
Some dogs tend to be reactive to animal proteins, and that can make a vegan diet especially effective for dogs with IBD. In addition, since plant-based diets have lower levels of fat, they can benefit a dog with pancreatitis or high triglyceride levels, but you should always ask your vet.
What to Watch For With a Vegan Dog Diet
After consulting with your veterinarian, you may decide to put your dog on a vegan diet. That has both benefits and drawbacks, and there are some things you need to watch for. These signs can mean that you may need to change up your dog's vegan diet or transition them back to a diet that also includes meats. Remember, at the end of the day, your dog's health should be put first.
Number one, plant-based proteins tend to lead to higher levels of alkaline in their urine. If you don't add any urinary acidifiers and the dog is on a moderate-protein vegan diet, that can put them at risk for struvite stones.
You're also likely to see a change in your dog's coat, which would mean that they are not eating enough essential fatty acids. If it starts to get scruffy or dull looking and/or if they have skin flakes, you need to consult with your vet again. Oftentimes, this takes 2-3 months to show itself, so owners often don't associate it with a diet change.
At your dog's annual visit, your vet will do some blood work and a urinalysis in order to ensure their food is being absorbed and digested properly.
Choose Vegan Foods Carefully
Quality control will vary between vegan dog food brands just as it does with traditional dog food diets. One study among 14 different vegan and vegetarian diets for dogs and cats found, in two separate analyses four months apart, that seven of the diets actually continued mammalian animal sources.
You should be sure that the diet meets nutritional standards and that it adheres to the strict quality control measures you expect. A nutritional adequate statement should be on the bag along with information substantiating the nutritional adequacy of the food.
At the very least, any vegan dog food you choose should follow the requirements set by AAFCO. A chemical analysis and/or feeding trials should also validate the food's nutritional aspects. You'll also need to factor in the life stage of your dog.
With a carefully balanced vegan diet, your dog can thrive. Ask your vet about transitioning your dog to a vegan lifestyle.