Last year, my husband, Ty, and I adopted sweet baby Sprout from MaxFund, a no-kill shelter in Denver.
I didn’t know I could love something so much. She’s so cute, it makes me want to punch her in her adorable puppy face! Ty sings to her and we let her sleep in the bed with us. We are disgusting.
When we rescued her, we had a long discussion about how to feed her. We were acutely aware of the cognitive dissonance of “saving” an animal but feeding it the ground-up bodies of other animals. It felt like speciesism. We have also been endeavoring to reduce our carbon footprint. Just like humans, the majority of a dog’s carbon footprint comes from food. Just like humans, reducing a dog’s meat intake drastically cuts the environmental impact of the dog’s food consumption.
The benefits of a vegan diet for humans are hard to dispute. In addition to being the most humane choice, a diet free from animal products lowers risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health problems that plague modern Americans. Because vegan diets seem so healthy for people, it’s only natural for dog people to wonder: can my dog be vegan?
So, we asked a trusted friend and our vet about how we could prepare a vegan diet for Sprout. It was really easy! Let me explain why.
First, this is information is ONLY for dogs. It is my understanding that a vegan diet is not healthy for cats. This is because cats are strictly carnivorous and their bodies are not designed to digest starches and carbohydrates like dogs and humans can. I also don’t have information for other pets because I only have SO MUCH TIME, PEOPLE.
Dogs can live a healthy life without any animal-derived ingredients, as long as you ensure that you are working with someone with considerable dog nutrition expertise. I would not advise crafting a vegan diet at home (make your life easier and just buy the dog food).
But aren’t dogs wolves?!
Before I get into this wolf issue, I need to make a confession. For many years, I didn’t know whether a fox was “a kitty or a doggie”. The internet/Bill Nye explained that the fox is actually its own species, Vulpid, but belongs to the family Canidae, and is therefore a cousin of dogs. All that to say, the internet is amazing.
Anyways, dogs v. wolves:
In 2013, a group of researchers compared the dog genome to the wolf genome and found that the differences between the two mainly fell into two categories – genes that were responsible for behavior traits (how we got from the temperament of a wolf to a golden retriever) and starch digestion. One of the major genetic differences between dogs and wolves is that dogs have evolved to better be able to digest carbohydrates than wolves!
Dogs are classified in the order Carnivora, but are actually omnivores. Other species included in that group are omnivores: bears, raccoons, skunks, as well as the giant panda (which is a strict herbivore), just to name a few.
From a biological perspective, dogs lack most of the metabolic adaptations to a strict diet of animal flesh that are seen in true carnivores such as cats or ferrets. Compared to true carnivores, dogs produce more of the enzymes needed for starch digestion, have much lower protein and amino acid requirements, and can easily utilize vitamin A and D from plant sources, just as people do. The canine body has the ability to absorb amino acids, the building blocks of protein, from plants, meaning they can get all the proteins their need while avoiding meat. We also have evidence that they also evolved from wolves by eating more plant material. Nature is cool.
Other key omnivorous qualities include having molars with relatively flat surfaces designed to grind up bones as well as fibrous plant material; the ability to digest the majority of carbohydrates they consume; a small intestine that occupies about 23 percent of the total gastrointestinal volume, consistent with other omnivores (true carnivores like cats have really short small intestines).
All of these factors make them more accurately classified as omnivores than carnivores.
I had no idea before learning about this that dogs could be healthy on a vegan diet just like humans! I just assumed that dogs *had* to eat meat to stay alive – it turns out that isn’t the case at all!
We have taken Sprout to the vet for checkups and our vet assures us that her vegan diet is great and that she is much healthier than other dogs she sees. I believe this is because meat products can be inflammatory, often aggravating dogs’ joints. Again, similar to humans, a plant-based body is generally healthier than an animal-based body.
Dogs can safely enjoy a wide range of vegan-friendly foods, including:
- Carrots, broccoli, and other veggies
- Certain types of beans
- Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale
Most prepared vegan dog food is made from peas, lentils, quinoa, carrots, and sometimes fruit for antioxidants. Like meat-based dog food, vegan dog food is similarly supplemented with vitamins and minerals for your dog’s coat, teeth, and eyes. We tried out several brands for Sprout before landing on one that she liked. I recommend the following two brands to try:
Proceed intelligently, thought, because according to WebMD, an improperly-balanced vegan diet can lead to deficiencies, including:
- Inadequate protein intake (these vary depending on a dog’s age and activity level; in general, an adult dog’s diet should be 15-30% protein);
- Amino acid imbalance (can lead to heart problems);
- Vitamin/mineral deficiency (dogs require B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, and iron).
Protein levels can be adequately reached with plant-based diets, so long as your dog is able to digest high-protein meat alternatives like legumes and beans. However, the amino acids provide more of a challenge. Our vet indicated that commercially-available vegan dog food is formulated to make up for what’s missing without meat, but if you make vegan dog food at home, you’ll need to include supplements.
In addition to kind kibble, we feed Sprout peas, carrots, peanut butter, and cooked sweet potatoes as treats.
That being said, don’t just cut up veggies for your salad and throw the extras on the floor- there are a shocking amount of fruits and veggies that dogs have allergies to! Here are some plant-based foods that dogs should never eat. When in doubt, look it up- remember, I learned about foxes from the Internet, so you can do anything!
I was really surprised by all of the information I learned about preparing a vegan diet for dogs. Interestingly, there are some dogs that simply can’t digest animal products due to allergies – this is more common than I knew! There are many great products to care for your companion animal while still respecting the lives of other animals. In our view, pigs, chickens, cows, turkeys, salmon, and other animals that are found in dog food, are just as important as our dog. Just because we let this type of animal live in our home and wear sweaters and sleep in our bed, doesn’t mean we get to take away the lives of other animals.
Please drop me a comment or ask questions! Or, even better, send me a picture of your dog!