Should I Feed My Pet a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet? Our Experts Give Their Opinion

2019-07-29 | Care & Safety

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Our pet’s well-being should always be the number one priority. That’s what we believe here at Animal Health, after all; it’s literally in our name. It’s why we only offer natural pet food, it’s why we stay on the cutting edge of animal well-being practices and it’s why we hold a vet’s word as law.

 

However, what happens when our own ethics and lifestyles begin to clash with what’s conventionally considered best for our four-legged friends? And can animals survive, and thrive, whilst eating an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet?

 

This is the question that’s been raised more and moreover the last few years. Vegetarian and vegan pet owners have become increasingly more willing to explore alternative diets, diets that reflect their own aversion to meat. This approach has, naturally, come against a lot of criticism from those who argue that this kind of lifestyle isn’t, well, natural for pets.

 

It’s not just an owner’s adherence to green diets that has raised the question of a vegetarian or vegan diet’s validity though. Some studies even state that a staggering 25% of meat production is due to the pet food industry, which is a shockingly high number even for those who’d never think twice about serving up some tinned chow for their pet.


So where does this leave the debate? Both sides will adamantly stick to their guns, refusing to honestly consider the other’s points. A pet owner’s own lifestyle will inevitably lead to an element of bias, though whether this helps or hinders someone’s argument should be moot after considering the facts.

 

If only that was the world in which we lived.

 

It’s because of this seeming lack of a middle ground that we should turn to those who dedicate their lives to exploring the pros, cons and even validity of a proposed pet diet. In so many words, this is why we should trust the experts, which is exactly why we reached out to bloggers, healthcare specialists and veterinarians to get their views on the matter.

 

Whether they’re enthusiastic about researching for pets’ well-being or are exceptionally talented & respected professionals, we’ve tried to get opinions and insights from near and far; spanning the spectrum of this argument. Read on below and decide for yourself just how viable as plant-based diets can be for cats and dogs.



 

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Dr Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, DACVN, Chief of Nutrition Services at UC Davis Health Science District

 

“A vegetarian diet can be an appropriate feeding choice for a healthy adult dog, assuming it is complete and balanced and manufactured by a reputable company.

 

“We have previously studied all the vegetarian pet diets we could buy at the time and found amino acid adequacy problems with all of the diets intended for cats (or both dogs and cats)...Regardless, we were not surprised by the finding of amino acid adequacy in the diets intended for cats, and continue to strongly recommend against vegetarian diets for cats.

 

“However, we were surprised that so many of the diets we evaluated had issues with appropriate labelling. None of the currently available over-the-counter vegetarian diets for either dogs or cats are made by companies that meet the WSAVA criteria, so we would not recommend them regardless.

 

“We also found mammalian DNA in many of the vegetarian pet foods, in case that is of concern for a specific owner’s philosophy.

 

“Homemade options may also be ok but any homemade diet should be formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and customized to the individual pet to help ensure adequacy. Again, we have demonstrated that these can be problematic.

 

“In any case, I recommend that dogs fed vegetarian diets be monitored by a veterinarian including not just physical examinations and standard blood work but also plasma amino acid concentrations and serum vitamin B12 concentrations at least every six months.”

 

(More about Dr Larsen and her colleagues’ work can be read about here)

 

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Dr Marge Chandler DVM, MS, MANZCVS, DACVN, DACVIM, MRCVS, Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Edinburgh  

 

“People adopt vegetarianism for different reasons, and some owners wish to feed their cat or dog a vegetarian diet. In a study of cat owners, ethical considerations were the primary reason for wanting to feed cats a vegetarian diet (Wakefield et al, 2006).

 


“Four main types of vegetarian diets exist: Lacto-ovo vegetarian, which omits meat, but includes eggs and dairy products, ovo-vegetarian, which omits meat and dairy, but includes eggs, lactovegetarian, which omits meat and eggs, but includes dairy and vegan, which excludes all animal-derived products, including eggs, dairy and honey.

 

“When discussing a vegetarian diet with a pet owner, it is important to know the type of diet he or she is feeding or considering, as these have different limiting nutrients and potential complications. Dogs are omnivores and can do well on a variety of animal-derived, as well as vegetable-sourced, foods if the diet is complete.

 

“Racing sledge dogs showed good performance and maintenance of haematology parameters when fed a complete and balanced vegetable-based diet that included rice, corn and soya proteins compared to a poultry-based diet (Brown et al, 2009). Dogs also have the ability to convert beta-carotene found in plants to vitamin A, have sweet receptors on their tongue and are able to digest a variety of starch-based foods.

 


“Cats, as obligate carnivores, require animal-sourced ingredients to provide essential nutrients, including pre-formed vitamin A, arachidonic acid, taurine and higher requirements for arginine, cysteine and methionine – all of which are low to absent in plant ingredients. Cat owners should be discouraged from feeding vegetarian diets.“


(Dr Chandler’s full article, ‘Canine and Feline Foods: Helping Owners Negotiate Options’ can be found here)

 

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Daniella Dos Santos, Junior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association

 

“As an animal welfare-focused profession, we welcome pet owners taking an interest in the sourcing and ethics of their pet’s food, but it is important to remember that meat contains vital vitamins and nutrients needed by cats and dogs.

 

“Although we would not recommend it, it is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but owners would need to take expert advice to avoid dietary deficiencies and associated disease, as it is much easier to get the balance of nutrients wrong than to get it right. A dog on a vegan diet may also need synthetic supplementation.

 

“Cats are obligate carnivores and should not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet as they require animal-sourced ingredients to provide essential nutrients such as taurine and preformed vitamin A, which are minimal or even absent in plant ingredients.

 

“While on paper a diet may include supplements or alternatives to animal-based protein, there is no guarantee that these would be bioavailable to the cat or that they wouldn’t interfere with the action of other nutrients. That is why robust, peer-reviewed research is needed to ensure that non-animal protein sources can meet the pet’s dietary requirements.

 

“Any changes to a pet’s diet shouldonly be undertaken under the advice of a vet with in-depth nutritional knowledge.”

 

(Daniella Dos Santos’ other contributions to the BVA include her many informative blog posts, all of which can be read here)

 

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Samantha Barton, HealthyPets.com & EntirelyPets.com

 

“We own and manage seven vet clinics in the Bay Area of San Francisco, so naturally we recommend to our e-commerce customers who are seeking advice to speak to their veterinarians before making a change in diet.

 

“Many vets, including those in our clinics, believe that dogs should have a balanced diet. Putting a dog on a vegan diet requires a lot of research, preparation and, of course, grocery shopping. If done improperly, the dog could be left lacking essential nutrients which could lead to serious health issues.

 

“It all boils down to consulting your veterinarian and being committed to doing the necessary research needed to provide a proper vegan diet.”

 

(Samantha Barton represents the HealthyPets.com blog, which can be explored here)


Elisabeth Geier, The Dog People

 

“There are two main reasons people elect to feed their dogs a vegan diet: personal ethics (the human’s) and food allergies (the dog’s). Dogs with food allergies are typically sensitive to specific animal proteins, and eliminating processed animal products from their diet can help so long as the replacement diet is carefully formulated to provide essential nutrients.”

 

(Elisabeth Geier’s full article, ‘Vegan Dogs: How Does it Work, and Are They Healthy?’ can be read here)

 

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Wanda McCormick, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Science and Technology, Anglia Ruskin University

 

“Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need to eat meat to survive but dogs can, in theory, live on a plant-based diet – though that doesn’t necessarily mean they should...As omnivores, dogs should be able to adapt well and manage on well prepared commercially available vegetarian diets as long as the essential nutrients they would normally get from meat are present. One study has even shown the ability to maintain active sledge dogs on a carefully produced meat-free diet. But be aware that not all pet foods are made equal.”

 


(Wanda McCormick’s full article, ‘Vegan Dogs: Should Canines Go Meat Free?’ can be found here)

 

Dr Jennifer Coates, Pet MD
I’m a vegetarian myself, and I like being the bearer of good news, so this is a fun conversation for me. The answer is yes — dogs can eat a vegetarian diet and thrive... Being a Lacto-ovo vegetarian does not present many nutritional challenges for people or for dogs. In fact, eggs have the highest biological value of all the protein sources commonly used in pet foods. The biological value of a protein measures its ability to supply the individual amino acids that an animal needs. Eggs are an excellent source of protein for dogs.

 


(Dr Coates’ full article, ‘Can Dogs Stay Healthy on a Vegetarian Diet?’ can be found here)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the array of different experts we reached out to, it seems that feeding a dog or a cat a vegetarian diet is technically possible, though it isn't advisable as both cats and dogs naturally require a diet that contains meat.


It is vital to remember that every single one of our experts emphasises the fact that, should a pet owner wish to feed their dog or cat a vegetarian or vegan diet, they need to do so after considering the animal’s well-being first and foremost, and then only after consulting a vet and creating a specially catered diet with their expert opinion.

 

This revelation may be somewhat of a shock to some, especially those who immediately dismiss claims that a vegetarian diet is a possibility for these animals. A lot of time and thought should go into your pet’s diet, not just for their well-being but for their general quality of life.


Have you considered feeding your cat or dog a vegetarian or vegan diet? Have any thoughts about these kinds of diets you’d like to share? Be sure to get in touch via Facebook or twitter! For more discussions about animal well-being, tips for pet ownership and general news about the pet industry, be sure to keep up to date with our blog.