Meet a Vegetarian Dog Who's the Picture of Health

 |  Dec 30th 2010  |   3 Contributions


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Many dog lovers firmly believe that dogs absolutely need meat to thrive. And I confess I used to be one of them - until I discovered that one of the most vibrantly healthy dogs I know is a vegetarian.

If you follow this column, then you've met Piggy the tripod Border Collie mix before here. Piggy's rescuer and constant companion, Tod Emko of Darwin Animal Doctors, is a confirmed vegan and, like many non-meat-eaters, he'd just as soon not feed protein from dead animals to his pet, if he can help it. So Piggy dines on vegetarian kibble.

"As a vegan, knowing the healing power of lentils, I nursed Piggy from the brink of death to absurdly healthy, on a diet of Natural Balance Vegetarian dog food," Tod says. Lentils are appreciated by vegetarians the world over for their high levels of proteins, including the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine; they are also a good source of dietary fiber and iron.

"When we first found him on the streets of the Dominican Republic, Piggy was just a pup - he had no hair, he was skin hanging over a skeleton, and he could barely walk a couple of blocks," Tod recalls. "After a few months recovering on his vegetarian diet, he literally tripled in size to 45 pounds, gained a foot in height, exploded with healthy, soft fur ...and he runs for miles on his three legs."

And when Tod says "miles," he's not exaggerating: "Piggy runs at least two to three miles a day on weekdays, and on the weekends he can run easily six or seven miles a day. The most he's ever run is 30 miles in one weekend." Piggy's a tripod who's going places! Just look at his happy smile in the photo above.

My dogs love their meat, although they've been known to eat spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, romaine lettuce, sweet potatoes, and burdock as garnishesand/or treats. But I've never thought to feeed any one of them an all-veggie meal. So I decided to give Natural Balance Vegetarian Formula a try, to see if it would pass muster. (My demanding crew gets a mixture of dry and canned food at every meal.)

Everyone clamored around the opened veggie can with the same enthusiasm they show when, say, the lid comes off a can of venison food. And when my toughest, most carnivorous customers gobbled up this meatless medley, it was obvious that palatability was not an issue - they clearly approve of the way it smells and tastes.

But foods that taste good aren't always good for us. So just to be sure, I asked a veterinarian whether it's safe to share the vegetarian lifestyle with one's dog - or whether doing so is an ideological imposition that could actually set back Spot's health.

"Humans can eat meat or not, and dogs are the same way," says Dr. Louise Murray of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. "Cats are obligate carnivores, so they are nutritionally inflexible and must eat meat to survive. But dogs and humans are both omnivores, and that means our physiology is very flexible. We can get Vitamin A from animal flesh or from carrots, but cats can only get it from animal flesh. So as long as they're eating a balanced diet, dogs can certainly be vegetarians."
 
Especially important in the balanced-diet mix are calcium and phosphorus. "Funnily enough, a vegetarian diet is a lot safer for a dog - if it's balanced - than an all-meat diet that contains no calcium," Dr. Murray explains. "Dogs who eat entirely or mostly meat don't get enough calcium in their diet, and can develop very fragile bones."
Strong bone health is especially important for an amputee dog like Piggy, whose three legs are doing the work of four; the goal is to keep those three limbs as strong as possible, for maximum mobility and quality of life.
 
Reputable pet-food companies employ veterinary nutritionists to achieve optimal nutritional balance. "Also, the ingredients themselves should be high quality," Dr. Murray adds. "The vitamins and minerals have to be bio-available, meaning they're in a form that the body can readily use. Here's an example: You could have a really digestible form of iron or a rusty nail - but if you stick the nail in a dog's food, he won't be able to get his iron from it!"
 
Cooking a vegetarian diet at home is also a nice thing to do for your veggie dog, Dr. Murray concludes - "As long as you work with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that what you feed is balanced."
 
Do you have a favorite recipe for vegetarian dog food? Please share it in the comments!

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