Dog nutrition and safety questions often appear in web searches related to individual foods. The “eat this, not that” of dog nutrition manifests in queries such as, “Can dogs eat bananas,” “Can dogs eat carrots,” and “Can dogs eat peanuts.” These questions illustrate that we instinctively understand that fruits, vegetables, and plant matter generally don’t belong in a standard dog diet.
October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, during which we are reminded of and respectful toward the variety of ethical, philosophical, and faith-based reasons why humans choose vegetarianism. When it comes to canine nutrition, however, is it appropriate for dog owners to force their dogs to submit to a vegetarian diet? Can dogs be vegetarians and remain healthy? Even the staunchest advocates of vegetarianism for dogs cannot say yes without a series of qualifications.
It is a simple and irrefutable fact that dogs are omnivores, which means that not only can they eat anything given the chance, but that, under certain conditions, they can derive some necessary nutrients from atypical sources. Human vegetarians may have any number of oppositions to meat consumption and the means of its production, but what is at issue here is not meat, per se, but the nutritional content of meat, things that are not found in plant matter.
Objections to the ingredients of commercially available dog food brands, and the question of dry or moist food aside, a healthy dog requires vitamins, minerals, amino and sulfonic acids, and proteins that are typically found in appropriate measure in store-bought dog foods. These include vitamins A, B12, and D3, along with the sulfonic acid Taurine, meat-based proteins, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.
For dogs, a balanced diet means one that contains the aforementioned components, one which a vegetarian diet cannot provide. What are the risks of a vegetarian diet for dogs? In the short-term, transitioning a dog to vegetarianism, or indeed, any wholesale dietary shift, carries with it the risk of digestive problems. Most immediately, these include diarrhea and vomiting, but it’s the long-term effects of nutritional deficiency that should be of highest concern.
Over time, dogs who are put on vegetarian diets and denied essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins are at higher risk for developing a number of health problems. A purely vegetarian diet exposes dogs to musculoskeletal issues, vision disorders — including blindness — chronic urinary tract infections, and cardiovascular disease. For instance, a balanced diet for dogs strengthens and sustains the heart muscle; without the nutrients a dog needs, the heart muscle becomes enlarged and weakened, contributing to cumulative and irreversible problems like congestive heart failure.
Your typical dog’s diet does not contain the amount of unhealthy fats, chemical additives, or artificial sweeteners and preservatives that make up so much of the typical dog owner’s daily food intake. This is the reason why, especially around the holidays, it’s important to refrain from giving dogs table scraps. While fruits and vegetables don’t contain these dangerous elements, neither do they contain nutrients that they do require.
That said, it is possible to have a vegetarian dog. After all, aside from refusing to eat what’s in his food dish, a dog cannot express his needs in any way that is comprehensible to us other than through gradual physical deterioration. Dogs can only eat what they are offered or what they can scavenge. Dog owners who insist on a vegetarian diet for their dogs should do so only in consultation with a veterinarian, and only when providing the dog with supplements to make up for all nutritional deficits. Are synthetic supplements as good as their meat-based counterparts? No.
A dog’s digestive system is fundamentally distinct from our own. What we can handle, tolerate, or adjust to for the sake of our beliefs is immaterial to a dog. While the contents of many mainstream, store-brand dog foods are certainly worthy of a raised eyebrow, you can choose brands that are produced more ethically for your dog.
It is perfectly normal to wonder, on occasion, whether a specific item will adversely affect a dog’s digestive system. It’s less common to seek to impose an entire human lifestyle discipline upon a dog, and to effectively deny a pet the nutrients he needs to thrive and flourish, those nutritional elements he needs for an active and healthy life. As we celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month, let’s be aware that it’s not a recommended option for our dogs.
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