Can dogs be vegetarian?
Yes, they can. Although closely related to the carnivorous wolf, dogs are omnivores. This means they eat meat, vegetables, and anything else they can get their paws on. It’s a common trait in natural scavengers, not to mention a very successful one. When food is scarce, being able to digest meat and vegetables is a big advantage.
Meat contains loads of protein, an essential nutrient for all living organisms. Proteins are the building blocks of tissue and muscles, and also provide a very handy energy source. It's composed of chains of amino acids, which are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other vital chemicals.
From this perspective, it's not the meat that's important; its the protein inside the meat that really counts. And protein can be found in other foodstuffs. Eggs are an excellent source of protein. A large egg contains about 7 grammes of protein. 4 of those come from the egg white, the rest comes from the yolk.
And then there are plant-based proteins like soy, beans, nuts, and quinoa.
Should dogs be vegetarian?
We've established that dogs can be vegetarian, but does that mean they should be vegetarian? This is a difficult question to answer, and much depends on your personal beliefs and opinion. A dog is incapable of understanding what it means to become a vegetarian.
The decision is made for them by their owners, and it often reflects their preferences or beliefs. One study found that 100% of people who fed their pets a vegetarian diet were vegetarian themselves. This is unsurprising, but should people be making such ethical choices on behalf of their dogs?
More importantly, is a vegetarian diet suitable for dogs? Cailin Heinze, a certified dog nutritionist, believes it is, but only if it's done right:
Potential problems with a vegetarian diet
A vegetarian dog diet is possible, but it does have a few risks. Get it wrong, and your dog could suffer from the following:
- Inadequate protein intake (dogs need around 25grammes of protein for every 1,000 calories)
- Imbalance of the certain essential amino acids
- Nutritional defecincies, specifically B vitamins, calcium, and iron
If such problems aren't rectified, they’re likely to lead to further health complications, some of which can be very serious. For example, a lack of certain amino acids can lead to blindness; not enough iron can cause anaemia.
A healthy, well-balanced vegetarian diet
If you're still committed to a vegetarian diet for your dog, consult a local vet first. They can give your dog a quick check and offer some very important dietary tips. If your dog is sick, pregnant, or very young, the vet is likely to recommend against going veggie.
Synthesized protein supplements and iron tablets can help, but your dog will still need plenty of natural protein from meat-free alternatives.
The benefits of a vegetarian diet
Vegetarianism is often an ethical choice, but it also has health benefits for certain people. Get the balance right, and your dog might enjoy these benefits, too. A vegetarian diet has been linked to better skin and fewer allergies. After fleas, food is the leading cause of most allergies in dogs. These are often linked to the consumption of meat. Cutting out meat has also helped some pooches with digestive problems, kidney stones, and liver disease. Red meat has also been linked with certain cancers.
Lew Olson is the author of Raw and Natural nutrition for dogs. Before becoming a writer, Olson worked as a psychiatrist and had direct contact with owners who wanted their pets to go vegetarian. Olson says, “People do this to make themselves happy. It’s not about the animal.” Given the title of Olson's book, you could say she's a bit biased (the raw diet is almost entirely meat based). Still, she does make a valid point. Diet is extremely important for your dog's long-term health, and any decisions should always be made for their benefit.
But a healthy veggie dog diet is possible. Just make sure you do plenty of research and consult an expert before making any major changes to your dog's diet.