- A new study looked at the health and safety of vegan diets for dogs.
- The data indicated that the healthiest and least hazardous diet for dogs was a nutritionally sound vegan diet.
- More research is needed to confirm the findings.
What to feed companion dogs and cats is a hotly debated and controversial topic.1 Some people won't even consider the possibility of giving their own or any other dog a vegetarian or vegan diet because it's not "natural"—it goes against nature, they argue, because ancestral wolves from whom dogs evolved were carnivores—or because they don't think it's OK for humans to push their own food preferences on their nonhuman companions.
Many of the dogs with whom I shared my homes and heart enjoyed vegan diets and had extremely active, healthy, happy, and long lives. I didn't see any differences between them and dogs who typically ate conventional meaty diets, and neither did my veterinarian.
Regardless of my and others' experiences with vegan dogs, skeptics want to see data comparing dogs who are fed conventional meat-filled diets with their vegan relatives. Just this week, a large and comprehensive study called "Vegan versus meat-based dog food: Guardian-reported indicators of health" by veterinarian Andrew Knight and co-authors was published and is available online for free. An excellent summary of this unique and detailed research can be found in a piece called "Vegan diets are healthier and safer for dogs, study suggests."
The researchers asked, "Are vegan diets good for dogs?" To answer this question that focuses on the psychological and physical well-being of the dogs, they collected data on 2,536 individuals who were fed either conventional meat (1,370 = 54 percent), raw meat (830 = 33 percent), or a vegan diet (336 = 13 percent) for at least one year. Seven general indicators of ill health were analyzed: unusual numbers of veterinary visits, medication use, progression onto a therapeutic diet after initial maintenance on a vegan or meat-based diet, guardian opinion and predicted veterinary assessment of health status, percentage of unwell dogs, and number of health disorders per sick dog. They also considered the prevalence of 22 of the most common canine health disorders.
All in all, they found that the percentages of dogs in each dietary group considered to have suffered from health disorders were 49 percent (dogs who ate conventional meat), 43 percent (dogs who ate raw meat), and 36 percent (dogs who ate vegan meals). The pooled data from this very large-scale study, along with other information, indicate that the healthiest and least hazardous dietary choices for dogs are nutritionally sound vegan diets. In a related study, Knight and co-authors also learned that vegan dog food was generally not less palatable.2
I look forward to further studies on dog and cat meal plans. There are many reasons for wanting more research on dogs' diets in addition to improving the happiness and health—the psychological and physical well-being—of companion animals. For example, in addition to vegan diets potentially being healthier, it's also known that vegan dog food is less damaging to the environment and to the welfare of animals processed into pet foods. In the United States, companion animals eat around 25 percent of all meat consumed, an amount equivalent to the quantity eaten by 26 million Americans. This makes dogs and cats in the U.S. equal to the fifth largest country in terms of animal protein consumption.
Knight also recognizes that more research is needed to confirm the findings. He also notes, “The key limitation of our study is that we didn’t have a population of animals locked up in a research facility and fed one specific diet without any alteration... We studied what real dogs in normal homes ate and their health outcomes. It gives us a good indication as to what the outcomes are for dogs in the real world.” Many dogs live highly constrained lives in human-dominated environs, and anything that can be done to make them happier and healthier is a move in the right direction.
1) For wide-ranging discussions about meal plans for dogs, click here.
2) The abstract for this study includes more information on cats. It reads, "Consumer suspicion of conventional pet foods, along with perceived health benefits of alternative diets, are fuelling development of the latter. These include raw meat diets, in vitromeat products, and diets based on novel protein sources such as terrestrial and marine plants, insects, yeast and fungi. However, some claim vegan diets may be less palatable, or may compromise animal welfare. We surveyed 4,060 dog or cat guardians to determine the importance to them of pet food palatability, and the degree to which their animals displayed specific behavioural indicators of palatability at meal times. Guardians were asked to choose one dog or cat that had been within their household for at least one year, and not on a prescription or therapeutic diet. Of 3,976 respondents who played some role in pet diet decision-making, palatability was the third most important among 12 factors cited as important when choosing pet diets. For 1,585 respondents feeding conventional or raw meat diets, who stated they would realistically consider alternative diets, palatability was the fourth most important among 14 desired attributes. For the 2,308 dogs included, reported observations of 10 behavioural indicators of palatability at meal times reliably indicated significant effects of increased reports of appetitive behaviour by dogs on a raw meat diet, as opposed to a conventional diet. There was no consistent evidence of a difference between vegan diets and either the conventional or raw meat diets. For the 1,135 cats included, reported observations of 15 behavioural indicators indicated that diet made little difference to food-oriented behaviour. Based on these owner-reported behaviours, our results indicate that vegan pet foods are generally at least as palatable to dogs and cats as conventional meat or raw meat diets, and do not compromise their welfare, when other welfare determinants, such as nutritional requirements, are adequately provided."
BBC. The Food Chain, How not to feed a dog, 2022.
Bekoff, Marc. The Clean Pet Food Revolution Will Change the World.
_____. Canine Cuisine: "Can My Dog Do Okay on Vegan 'People Food'?" (Yes, he can—and many experts agree.)