The new v word

A close friend said to me once, “At the rate we’re depleting this earth, if we all (pets and humans) eat meat this planet is ultimately [expletive deleted]!”

Recently, a magazine in the UK showcased an article about my journey and the fast rise of my career as a pet nutrition blogger. It was a very sweet and endearing article and I was on cloud nine for about nine minutes.

Yes, nine minutes of enjoyment until … the “experts” came rolling in with their comments on social media rebutting the article. When entering the arena of social media with information, you’d better be prepared to get beat up! However, I’m not here to discuss the few negative comments I received but rather a topic I want to address after getting lambasted by a certain group.

A Growing Movement

Quite recently, a movement has been quietly growing in the pet world that, shockingly, doesn’t really involve any raw or kibble feeders. This movement is the pet vegan or vegetarian movement.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) claims the nutritional needs of dogs and cats can be met with a balanced vegan diet. They say they don’t need meat to thrive and should be fed an all-vegetable diet with artificial supplements mimicking the essential amino acids and minerals.

Another supporter of the cause states there’s a range of healthy vegetarian alternatives available. “Our widespread reliance on meat-based diets causes enormous suffering, ill-health and premature deaths for literally billions of ‘food’ and companion animals annually,” says Australian-British animal ethicist and president of Animal Consultants International, Dr Andrew Knight on Vegepet.com.

Some owners believe their pets will live longer, healthier lives as vegans – like Bramble, a Border Collie from the UK, who, when she died age 27 was the oldest living dog in the world. According to her owner, Bramble lived on a vegan diet of rice, lentils and organic vegetables.

The Bigger Picture

Others may be making the switch to reduce pollution or to preserve Earth’s natural resources. Or they love animals and are ethically opposed to eating them or feeding them to their pets.

Veterinary homeopath Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD summarizes some of the issues:

“This is very important work. In our time we cannot sustain the use of animals as a major or primary food source. It is simply not possible considering how very inefficient it is to feed edible grains and other vegetable sources to animals so that they, in turn, will be eaten. Even more important are the very real health effects from feeding at the top of the food chain. We don’t know the levels of pollutant accumulation in the tissues of animals, but in people it has been found that well over 100 chemicals are now resident in our tissues especially in those that regularly eat meat. Avoiding animal flesh in our diets very much reduces this toxic accumulation. Lastly, from an ethical standpoint, our food animal industry results in very great suffering for large numbers of animals and it is logically inconsistent to treasure one animal (the one emotionally close to us) at the cost of other animals being treated inhumanely. To find alternative diets for dogs and cats that do not include meat is very important work and needs to be done.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, as we’re rapidly obliterating our planet, depleting it of its natural resources while creating massive factory farmed operations all over the world. Animals are raised in terrible conditions, just to be inhumanely slaughtered and then fed to the population.

With all the horrific images of abused animals in factory farms popping up in my newsfeed, I’ve converted to a pescatarian diet myself and am slowly making my way towards vegetarianism.

But is this fair to our pets? Should we really try to convert facultative carnivores (dogs) and obligate carnivores (cats) into herbivores? I’m not going to touch this question for a zillion reasons – but I’ll blame it on my word count restrictions for this article! (Editor’s note: Rodney, you’re already 1,000 words over your limit.) Instead, I’d like to focus on the options for pet parents who want to make the switch.

Commercial  Vegetarian Pet Food

Dr Andrew Knight believes “There is absolutely no scientific reason why diets comprised entirely of plant, mineral and synthetically based ingredients cannot meet all of these requirements, and several commercially available diets indeed claim to do so.”

As pet parents surf online trying to gather information on switching a carnivorous pet to a vegetarian diet, most will find that the popular vegan or vegetarian sites all refer pet parents back to the same group of pet food manufacturers who believe they’ve created the ultimate dry version of green food.

Analyzing The Options

So, are these options safe? Let me switch to my pet nutrition blogger mode here and head over to my lab to dissect some of these processed, dry “green” kibble options for you.

Take a look at the ingredient list of the first random bag I grabbed:

Natural Balance Vegetarian Dry Dog Formula: Brown Rice, Oatmeal, Cracked Pearled Barley, Peas, Potato Protein, Canola Oil, Potatoes, Tomato Pomace, Vegetable Flavoring, Lecithin, Flaxseed, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, Inulin, Taurine, Natural Tocopherols. Guaranteed Analysis: Crude Protein 18%, minimum Crude Fat 8%, minimum Crude Fiber 4%, maximum Moisture 10%.

It’s The Carbs!

On paper, the ingredients initially look great! However, on closer inspection of the guaranteed analysis, I found that the carb content is around 58 percent. Is this a normal value (especially with today’s pet obesity epidemic affecting approximately 60 percent of our pets)?

To quote Richard Patton PhD on pet obesity and carbs: “The average starch and sugar content of meat, fish, eggs, insects, plants, fruits, berries and vegetables is about four percent. Most dry pet food is 40 percent carbohydrate. Fat is not the problem. This has been known for over 100 years, and it has been proven unequivocally by the scientific community.”

In other words, carbs are the problem. After checking the carbohydrate value in most of the vegetarian kibble options, they all seem to hover around 50 percent or more. Considering Dr Patton’s comments, these diets sound kind of high in carbs, don’t they?

Okay, but let’s say for a moment that a chubby pet isn’t a big deal. Are there any other problems?

It’s Not Balanced!

Well, the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) research team recently tested vegetable based kibble and canned diets to see if they were sound. A cross-sectional study of 13 dry and 11 canned vegetarian diets for dogs and cats revealed that 18 of the 24 diets were found to contain all amino acids in concentrations that met or exceeded minimum AAFCO recommendations. However, six diets did not meet all amino acid minimums, compared with the AAFCO nutrient profiles. Only three diets were compliant with all AAFCO pet food label standards. Says AVMA, “Because vegetarian protein sources are often poor sources of specific essential vitamins, fatty acids and minerals, vegetarian diets must be appropriately formulated and balanced.” (avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.247.4.385)

The AVMA concluded that most diets assessed in their study were not compliant with AAFCO labeling regulations, and there were concerns regarding adequacy of amino acid content. How on earth would a pet parent ever know if the bag of veg-food they were feeding their pet was complete?

Skip The Soy!

So, logically, the next bag to assess, one would think, would be the “veterinary prescription” version of vegetarian food. It’s made by the big guns, is it not? Great! Let’s take a look at this trusty veterinarian vegetarian line of pet food. Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets HA Veg Option: “Starch, hydrolyzed soy protein isolate, vegetable oil, dicalcium phosphate, partially hydrogenated canola oil preserved with TBHQ, powdered cellulose, corn oil, potassium chloride, guar gum, choline chloride…”

A bag of starch and soy for a vegetarian belief system … sounds deliciously yummy.

But wait a minute … is soy good for dogs? Not according to veterinarian and author W Jean Dodds:

“Soy interferes with the thyroid gland’s ability to make T4 (thyroxine) and (T3) tri-iodothyronine, hormones necessary for normal thyroid function. In dogs, the result is hypothyroidism.” In a 2004 study analyzing 24 commercial dog foods containing soy, researchers found that these products contained concentrations of phytoestrogens in large enough quantities to have a biological effect on our pets!

And, to make matters worse, hydrolyzed soy protein often contains large amounts of MSG (monosodium glutamate), which poses a myriad of health risks such as obesity, nervous system disorders and more.

Beware Mycotoxins!

And, last but not least are the ever-so-popular vegan pet food companies that use the following label claims: “Our kibble is corn, soy, wheat and gluten free.”

Sweet! Right? Well, no – unless you live in a bubble – it’s not. I saved this last dangerous issue for my grand finale. If you’ve been following the media lately you’ll probably know we’re suffering from a massive mold problem hiding in plant-based ingredients all over the world.

Here, my friends, is where the leak in the boat starts to get bigger: “Pet food protein is changing, as traditional sources such as fish and meat byproducts are replaced with plant-derived proteins. These proteins are more accessible and affordable but they may be accompanied by harmful plant-based toxins, say University of Guelph researchers.” – ( news.uoguelph.ca/2013/06/is-your-pet-food-safe/ )

Trevor Smith is an animal and poultry science professor, who, after 35 years of mycotoxin research at Guelph, is a world leader in the field. “Instead of worrying about bacteria spoilage or disease contamination like we have in the past, we now have to focus on removing mycotoxins. Although we have no exact numbers, we can estimate that when half of the food is of vegetable origin, there will almost always be some degree of contamination. If the food is mainly of animal origins, the chances of contamination are greatly reduced.”

Hopefully I don’t need to explain any further what happens to our pets when we feed them mold. Liver failure is just one possibility.

The driving force claimed by green processed food manufacturers is to move away from toxic 4-D meat based kibble to a “clean” vegetable based protein source of kibble. For the average pet parent, this seems like a great idea. Realistically though, according to current data, one would only be leaving a toxic meat problem to risk a potentially more toxic plant problem.

What’s The Solution?

Ask most practicing vegetarians today and they’ll tell you the importance of consuming fresh, whole, organic, bioavailable vegetables. You’ll probably never hear them rave about the benefits of switching from a meat based box of a processed packaged product to a vegetable based box.

I’m not going to tell you whether your dog should eat a vegan or vegetarian diet; but I believe wholeheartedly that if you opt to switch your pet’s diet from meat to plants, you should do it the bioavailable way – with fresh whole organic foods – and stay away from the processed, toxic easy (commercially produced) versions. Seek the advice of an animal nutrition expert. Don’t try to just wing an incredibly hard balancing act!

From the November 2015 Dogs Naturally Magazine Issue