Walk or scroll through the dog food section of your favorite pet supply store and you'll find diets that cater to every need — including vegan and vegetarian dog foods. Plant-heavy diets are known to be one of the healthiest options for people, but is the same true for dogs? Can dogs be vegan or vegetarian and still get the nutrition they need to live happy, healthy and frisky lives?
The short answer is yes, vegetarian and vegan dog food can be a viable option for dogs, as long as pet owners are willing to put in some extra time and effort. Let’s look at why you might make the choice to feed your dog a vegetarian or vegan diet, what’s involved, and how to ensure that dogs get all the nutrients they need to remain happy, healthy and frisky.
Why Go Vegan or Vegetarian?
What sets vegetarian and vegan pet foods apart from more traditional diets? Put simply, vegetarian dog foods do not contain meat or fish, while vegan pet foods go a step further and exclude all animal products including eggs and dairy as well as supplements (vitamins and amino acids, for example) that have an animal origin.
We can break down the major benefits of going vegan or vegetarian into three categories: environmental, animal welfare, and health.
- The factory farms that produce meat and other animal products are notorious polluters. Waste routinely runs off into surface waters, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
- The animals bred for industrial farms often endure brutal conditions throughout their short, unnatural lives. By not purchasing animal products, you reduce demand and animal suffering.
- Animal products contain potentially harmful contaminants and pathogens at a higher rate than plant sources. This is especially true for the “feed-grade” ingredients included in most commercial pet foods. A meat-free diet can reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and even heart disease.
Some dogs will react poorly if they're fed quality dog foods that contain meat, eggs, or dairy. Research published in 2016 revealed that beef, dairy products, chicken, wheat, and lamb are the most common triggers for dog food allergies, making many vegetarian and vegan diets good choices for dogs with food allergies and related conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. Plant-based diets also tend to be lower in fat, which can be beneficial for dogs with pancreatitis or hyperlipidemia.
Can Dogs Be Vegan?
Vegetarian and vegan dog foods have a lot in common, but going vegan is a little trickier because the list of ingredients that must be avoided is longer.
Concerns over protein are usually what first come to mind with a vegan diet. It’s relatively easy to ensure that a dog food provides enough total protein, but it’s equally vital that dogs get all the different amino acids they need. Amino acids are the building blocks for the proteins that dogs make themselves.
Thankfully, dogs are very good at converting some types of amino acids into others. When used in the right combination, ingredients like beans, soybeans, sweet potatoes, peas, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, rice, and whole grains can supply dogs with all their essential amino acids.
But aren’t dogs so-called "obligate carnivores" who need meat to survive, or at least omnivores who need some meat along with their vegetables? Actually, not necessarily. Over tens of thousands of years, the domestication process has altered their physiology to allow dogs to eat a more varied diet than their wolf-like ancestors.
A study published in Nature found that “novel adaptations allowing the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.” In other words, modern domestic dogs can now get the essential nutrients they need from a more plant-heavy diet than their wild, carnivorous cousins. (Cats are a different story: They can't produce certain vital proteins, such as taurine, without eating meat. Cats with a taurine deficiency can develop dilated cardiomyopathy, a serious, potentially fatal illness.)
However, creating dog food that is completely free of animal products does require strict attention to detail. Your best option is to purchase vegan dog foods that have an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement of nutritional adequacy printed on their label. Make sure the AAFCO statement matches your dog’s life stage — adult maintenance versus growth and reproduction, for example.
It’s also possible to make your own vegan dog food at home, but the only way to do so safely is to closely follow a recipe that has been designed by a veterinary nutritionist. Never assume that the recipes available online or in books are nutritionally complete and balanced. Most are not.
Really, these recommendations apply regardless of the type of dog food you buy. Commercially available vegan, vegetarian, and even meat-based foods should all follow AAFCO guidelines, and a veterinary nutritionist should be involved whenever you feed a homemade diet over an extended period of time.
Safeguarding Your Dog’s Health
The most important thing to do before switching to a vegan or vegetarian dog food — or making any dramatic change to your dog’s diet — is to speak with your veterinarian. The best food for dogs depends on many factors including their life stage, health, activity level, and more. Your veterinarian can point out the pros and cons of different types of food based on your dog’s unique situation. More complicated cases will benefit from the input of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
To avoid upsetting your dog’s stomach or risking food refusal, make changes to your dog’s diet gradually. The difference between a vegan or vegetarian dog food and a meat-based diet is greater than, say, two different chicken-based formulations, so make the transition even more slowly than you might have in the past. For example, start with 90% of your dog’s meat-based food mixed with 10% of the vegan or vegetarian food. Every two or three days, shift the proportions by 10%.
If at any point your dog develops gastrointestinal problems or doesn’t seem to like the new food, go back to feeding your dog’s previous diet and start transitioning even more slowly. After switching to any new diet, be sure to monitor your dog’s weight, energy level, coat quality, and overall demeanor. If you notice problems, ask your veterinarian for advice.
So, Should You Move Your Dog to a Vegan Diet or Not?
In the end, the choice of what to feed your dog is yours, but whatever your decision, it pays to be vigilant. Read and compare dog food labels! Look at the ingredient list and the guaranteed analysis. If something isn’t clear or seems off, talk to your veterinarian or contact the manufacturer for clarification.
Vegan and vegetarian diets do have some real benefits, but they aren’t always the best food for dogs. Puppies, pregnant or lactating females, and dogs with certain health conditions have special nutritional needs, which may be more difficult to achieve with a vegetarian or vegan diet. And it’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. What works well for one dog may not be ideal for another. If your dog does not appear to be thriving on their current diet, whether it's plant or meat-based, it might be time to try something different.