Vegetarian Diets and Your Dog

You are what you eat. We hear that over and over growing up. Some people have chosen to eat a strictly vegetarian diet, or a vegan one. Many of these people want to feed their pets the same type of diet they eat. The question, then, is can a dog survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, and what kind of quality of life will that entail.

Dogs are omnivores. However, their teeth and digestive system are best suited for consuming meat. Wild canines primarily eat meat and may eat a few other things thrown in when they are available, such as fruits or berries. Primarily, though, they are meat eaters.

In addition to their teeth, dogs have a short digestive tract designed to digest meat, not large amounts of vegetable matter. This makes it hard for them to absorb the nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Most of the nutrients pass through unabsorbed.

Reasons for feeding a vegetarian or vegan diet differ. Pets do not suffer from coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or the other problems humans suffer from when eating a meat based diet in anything approaching the numbers humans do. Health reasons do not dictate a vegetarian or vegan diet.
On the contrary, they suggest that such diets are bad for dogs. While a dog may survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, they will not thrive. The inability to absorb the nutrients in the plant based food wears at the dog’s system.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has developed a nutrient profile for dogs. Dog food sold commercially must meet this standard based on tests in the laboratory and on test dogs. It is almost impossible to meet these standards with a vegetarian or vegan diet. In fact, vegan diets cannot meet this standard because dogs need B12, available only from animal sources.

Puppies especially have high nutrient requirements. Even if you ultimately decide on a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is wise to feed a commercial diet for the first year of your dog’s life. It is hard to cram enough nutrients into the amount of food a puppy eats to keep him healthy while he is growing.

There are a few vegetarian commercial diets. Most of them have eggs and diary. Using them, if you decide to feed such a diet, ensures that the food is as close to what the dog needs as possible with this diet.

Feeding a homemade diet is fraught with difficulty even when it includes meat. While you can readily find recipes for homemade vegetarian and vegan diets on the web or in books, most of them do not meet AAFCO standards and may lead to serious nutritionally related health issues for your dog. You will need to add supplements to meet the dog’s needs.

Keep your veterinarian in the loop. Vets are trained in nutrition and can guide you on what to feed your dog. If you insist on a vegetarian or vegan diet, your veterinarian needs to know. He will need to monitor the dog for signs of nutrition related illnesses. Further, if the dog is not in optimal condition, surgeries and injuries become more problematic. Extra precautions will need to be taken to insure your dog’s recovery from them.

In summary, while it is possible to feed a dog a vegetarian or vegan diet, most authorities feel it does not meet the dog’s nutritional needs. Some go so far as to say it will shorten the dog’s lifespan and reduce their quality of life. It is far better to feed the dog a conventional diet and enjoy your healthy dog for as long as you have him.