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Can a Vegetarian Diet Meet Your Dog's Needs?

Dogs are omnivores with carnivorous tendencies, but they can thrive on vegetarian food.

 |  Oct 7th 2013  |   32 Contributions


Some people choose to become vegetarians. Now, whether or not you would make that choice, I think most people realize that vegetarianism is a perfectly rational choice and vegetarian diets can meet all of a human’s nutritional needs. But what about dogs? Dogs, while omnivores, have much stronger carnivorous tendencies than people.

These days there are a bunch of different formulations for wet and dry dog food that do not contain meat. In fact, most are fully vegan (not containing eggs or dairy products either). There are also a lot of different recipes for making vegetarian dog food at home, although in this post I am focusing on commercial diets.

Vegetarian dog food for allergies

Vegetarian diets are chosen not only for ethical reasons but because some dogs have developed complex allergies to meat or dairy products. In this case a vegetarian diet might be used either permanently, or temporarily, to help determine which animal proteins the dog can eat by selectively reintroducing them to the base vegetarian diet.

Many people claim that dogs fed on vegetarian diets look to be in poor health or not vigorous, even suggesting that feeding a vegetarian diet might amount to abuse. It does seem to me that critics are often projecting their concerns onto the dogs, placing any problems they have onto their diet and making subjective judgments about their energy levels and appearance. But even vegetarian groups seem divided on whether extending this dietary restriction to your dogs is always going to be a good idea.

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Is he pining for meat -- Labrador by chalabala at Shutterstock

Some dog owners report that their attempt to move to a vegetarian food was unsuccessful due to the dogs experiencing diarrhea or excessive gas. The same can be true, however, during any attempt to change a dog’s diet from what it has previously been eating. So these reported difficulties may not relate to vegetarian formulations specifically -- especially if owners make sudden switches in what they feed rather than gradually mixing the new food into the established food.

If there is any doubt, it is a good idea to take advice from your veterinarian, other experts and people with experience with dogs nutrition issues before you make any changes. But focus on experts with relevant experience and data-based advice, as many people have more doctrinal views that may not be informed by an understanding of the modern vegetarian formulations or your dog’s particular needs.

Minimum standards

There is a certain level of assurance that can come from using reputable commercial products, if you want to ensure that your dog is getting the basic nutrients and the trace elements he or she needs. As a bottom line, any diet must provide the minimum requirements for dogs as determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient guidelines. If they do this, it will typically be stated on the packaging. Keep in mind that vegetarian diets typically have not been the subject of extensive testing, be it a laboratory test or in-home feeding trial.

If you are home cooking a vegetarian diet, I think it is probably a good idea to use a supplement for vital trace elements (such as taurine, l-carnitine, and vitamin B-12), which are hard to provide from basic raw ingredients.

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There is more to a complete diet than protein -- taurine by Zerborv via Shutterstock

And with the increased competition, the prices from some brands have come down to be almost comparable to meat-based formulations. However, diets meeting multiple requirements (e.g. vegetarian and also organic or GMO-free) can still be very expensive.

As with any products, you need to do some research to be sure you know exactly what you are getting. For example, one company uses “vegan” as part of its name so that the term appears on products that are not actually 100 percent vegan. There are other things to be aware of, including that vegetarian dog foods should not be fed to cats, even if the labeling includes them. Cats are much less omnivorous than dogs and have a higher minimum protein requirement, which many of these foods will not meet. Also dogs can derive vitamin A and taurine from plant sources, whereas cats cannot. Do not immediately trust general claims on dog food labels, check the list of ingredients and check for levels of protein, fat and carbohydrate, and sources and levels of crucial trace elements.

What is in vegetarian diets?

Vegetarian dog foods use the same basic principle as vegetarian food for humans. Complete proteins are provided by a combination of pulses and grains. For example, if you have ever seen the diet pigs are raised on, it is generally ground-up rations of about half soy beans and about half corn, as this will provide the full set of necessary amino acids. Major ingredients in vegetarian dog food tend to be rice or soy but it varies a lot between brands. As a result of their plant ingredients, vegetarian kibbles tend to be relatively low in fat and protein and high in carbohydrates.

However, many owners seem to find their dogs are reluctant to eat the food; basically it does not taste good to the dog. This might be taken as an indication that the diet, while nutritional complete, is not pleasurable for the dog. And I don’t know about you, but I do think food should be a source of pleasure for dogs, just as it is for people.

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Not every dog wants to eat his veges -- alvant via Shutterstock

My thoughts

I personally eat a diet that includes some meat and have no reservations about serving dog food that uses animal byproducts. But a responsible owner who wants to feed vegetarian has a lot of options and resources available to them to ensure their dog’s nutritional needs are met. My conclusion would be that many, possibly most, dogs would be able to live and even thrive on a carefully balanced vegetarian diet. And these diets clearly provide a useful tool in narrowing down dietary sensitivities relating to meat and dairy products.

But if you do not have a strong veterinary medical or ethical reason for preferring these diets, they do not offer any benefits to your dog, and there is no reason to use them.

Do you feed your dog a vegetarian diet? Are you considering it? Tell us why in the comments!

About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin -- they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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