With approximately 5% of the American population self-identifying as vegetarian and another 3% as vegan, it shouldn't come as any surprise that a growing number of pet owners are exploring vegetarian and vegan diets for their dogs.
There are several reasons why people might choose this lifestyle for themselves or their pets. They include potential health reasons, environmental considerations, and even ethical reasons.
But a big question remains. Are meatless diets safe for dogs?
In this article, we'll explain the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets. Then, we'll explore the various protein options for meatless dog food and highlight the different kinds of food that are available. By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of whether or not a vegetarian or vegan diet is appropriate for your dog.
What's the Difference Between Vegetarian and Vegan Diets?
It’s important to understand the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets.
A vegetarian diet is one that does not include any meat. This means no beef, poultry, seafood, or wild game. What it can include is animal products. Occasionally you might hear the term "lacto-ovo vegetarian". This type of vegetarian diet permits dairy and eggs. Eggs often make an appearance in vegetarian dog food. That’s because they’re an amazing source of protein and other nutrients.
A vegan diet, on the other hand, excludes not only meat but also all animal products. Dairy, eggs, and bee products are all avoided. This extends to several additives and flavorings that are animal derived as well. Bottomline is, if it isn’t plant-based, it isn’t vegan.
Are Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Suitable for Dogs?
One thing many folks don’t know is that dogs, just like us human pet parents, are classified by scientists as omnivores. This means we can all eat, survive, and thrive on both plant and animal-based food.
But don’t just take our word for it. Let’s check-in with an expert!
In a research paper titled Vegetarian versus Meat-Based Diets for Companion Animals, Professor Andrew Knight of the University of Winchester stated that, "dogs maintained on vegetarian diets may be healthy—including those exercising at the highest levels—and, indeed, may experience a range of health benefits."
Professor Knight’s work also states that a vegetarian diet for dogs, "must be nutritionally complete and reasonably balanced." So, let’s take a look at what that means.
A proper vegetarian diet for dogs should include healthy foods that contain all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients they need to thrive. Vitamins A and D as well as taurine are extra important here, as that’s where some veterinarians see deficiencies in pets who have been switched to vegetarian diets.
This is where a high-quality, specially formulated dog food comes into play. It can help address all of these concerns by ensuring your dog is getting the nutritional building blocks they need. It’s really no different than selecting foods that contain meat. As pet parents who want the best for our furry friends, it’s our job to pick the very best foods out there.
Vegan diets, on the other hand, are a little different.
Technically speaking, it's possible for dogs to survive on a diet that contains no meat or animal products. However, vegan diets must be very carefully formulated to keep dogs from developing serious nutritional deficiencies.
Vegan diets may be a good option for dogs that are allergic to meat and animal products. But you should never feed your dog a vegan diet without the supervision of a holistic veterinarian or animal nutritionist.
Protein in Vegetarian and Vegan Dog Food
A big question for many folks when it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets is, "Where’s the protein?" It may surprise you that it’s easier to come by than you might imagine.
The best source of protein in many vegetarian dog foods is eggs. They’ve been called one of the most nutritious foods on earth and for good reason. In addition to their high-quality protein, eggs are also a great source of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and other nutrients. We’re talking calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, manganese, vitamin E, folate, and more.
There are also many sources of plant-based protein. In fact, you’ll probably see some of these listed on dog food that contains meat. They can help diversify a dog’s diet while delivering important nutrients, including protein. Some popular ones include chickpeas, green peas, lentils, and beans, and ancient grains like quinoa and millet.
Types of Vegetarian and Vegan Dog Food
Just like dog food that contains meat, vegetarian and vegan dog food comes in many varieties.
Kibble will be the most popular. It’s convenient to feed, while also being easy to store. There are more options in kibbles because they’re the most common form of dog food on the market. If your dog has a particular food allergy or sensitivity, finding a kibble that meets their needs isn’t too difficult.
Wet or canned options also exist. Some people might associate this type with meatiness, but there are vegetarian and vegan options on the market. They can be good options for helping support proper hydration levels and may have higher protein content. Wet food also makes a great treat or topper for kibble, enticing picky eaters.
Dehydrated vegetarian and vegan options are popping up, too. They’re light, making them easy to transport. And dehydrated dog foods have almost the same nutritional value as raw food. That’s because they keep all the enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and general nutritional value that would be lost or damaged by cooking.
Flexitarian, Meatless Mondays & Other Options
Even if you’re not fully transitioning your pup to a vegetarian or vegan diet, it doesn’t mean you can’t cut out some of the meat from time to time.
Flexitarian eating has become very popular with people, and is starting to catch on with dogs as well. A flexitarian diet includes a balance of plant-based and animal products, giving you the health and sustainability benefits of a vegetarian diet while not depriving your pet. This approach can be especially helpful for pet parents whose dogs thrive on a high animal protein diet, but might want to minimize their environmental footprint.
Flexitarian is flexible, as the name implies, but most pet parents use a vegetarian topper on their dog's regular meat-based diet. It's the equivalent of filling your dinner plate up with more veggies and less meat.
Meatless Mondays have been shown to positively impact the health of us humans, and a similar initiative might be good for your dog as well. Simply get your dog introduced to a vegetarian or vegan diet they like and rotate to that recipe every Monday. Then just return to your regular food for all other meals. It's important to remember to introduce your dog to this food over time so they don't get an upset stomach. After this introduction period, they'll be able to alternate between diets easily. Digestive enzymes and probiotics can help support normal digestive function while you're transitioning.
Before changing your beloved furry friend to a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important for you to talk to a supportive veterinarian.
In the end, it’s all about increasing quality of life for our dogs. And if you’re ever unsure about the steps you’re taking, don’t be afraid to consult the experts, like your vet or a specialized pet nutritionist.