Can dogs be vegan or vegetarian?
I’m a veterinarian who specializes in canine nutrition. And I firmly believe dogs should eat raw meat based diets. But I get the “vegan” question a lot. So I decided to analyze vegan diets for dogs and tell you what I found out.
When I was studying small animal nutrition at vet school in the early 2000s … I was taught that kibble covered all dogs’ nutritional needs and is the best food for them!
We learned that all human foods are dangerous for them. And that feeding dogs raw meats and bones will provoke their inner instincts to hunt. So they’ll no longer be our best companions … but our enemies ready to attack and tear us into pieces! (So watch out for that killer raw fed dog of yours!)
Two years after I graduated from veterinary university I met a dog named Max in my practice. He was an 18-year old German Shepherd in perfect health. He was rescued at age of 6 and since then he’d eaten exclusively a fresh homemade diet. Until then, I’d never seen a dog who lived that long. In veterinary literature the typical life span of big breed dogs is about 10 to 12 years.
A Change In Approach
Meeting Max made me realize that nutrition plays a significant role in dogs’ health. So I started to study small animal clinical nutrition. I graduated in 2016. Since then, I’ve turned away from conventional medicine.
My approach towards my patients has changed.
I now focus on addressing health conditions with changes in diet. I’ve studied nutrigenetics, herbalism and raw diets. I’ve learned how to formulate complete and balanced dog food using only fresh foods.
I’ve seen incredible transformations in my canine patients from switching their diets. I still see these changes when they go from highly processed dry food to fresh raw meat diets.
In raw fed dogs, I hardly ever see chronic problems like …
- Skin conditions …
I believe dogs are “designed” to eat raw meat diets … and they should eat their ancestral diet. Our domesticated dogs share more than 90% of the DNA of wolves and coyotes.
But nowadays … many dog owners are vegetarian or vegan themselves. And they want their dogs to follow the same lifestyle. They want to avoid meat or any foods and products of animal origin.
The reasons for this vary, but their choices are mainly due to …
- Animal welfare
- Climate change
- Impact of farming
I’ve heard many stories of vegan and vegetarian dog owners being criticized for their choices. Sometimes people assume their dogs don’t receive adequate veterinary care.
At the same time, the pet food industry is responding to this demand. They’re creating highly processed vegan or vegetarian pet foods. These are packed with poor ingredients … but with plenty of synthetic additives so they cover legal requirements.
Synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t well absorbed by the body … so they aren’t good for your dog in the long term. This means vegan kibbles don’t provide good nutrition.
So with this trend in mind, I started to research the topic.
Issues With Vegan Diets For Dogs
Vets around the globe repeat that plant-based diets are extremely dangerous and will harm dogs.
That’s a fact. Dogs are very different from humans, especially in their ability to process carbohydrates.
- Dogs lack the enzyme amylase in their saliva. Amylase is the enzyme that’s responsible for breaking down carbohydrates.
- Dogs’ digestive tracts are much shorter than ours. So foods have less time to be digested and processed.
- Dogs don’t need carbohydrates in their diet to sustain life. They have different metabolism routes to fuel their cells.
- Dogs need taurine and L-carnitine in their diet. Taurine and L-carnitine are amino acids found only in meat. They are responsible for eye and heart health, reproduction and fat metabolism.
- Dogs need to eat large amounts of plant-based food to cover their caloric needs.
On the other hand, dog are opportunistic animals. So they can adapt quite easily to changes in their environment … even new owners or new food.
There’s evidence to support this:
- The stomach contents of their ancestors contains not only meat … but plants, herbs, and insects.
- Research in India showed that the preference for meat is not innate in dogs. Free ranging dogs in India are well adapted to scavenging in waste. So their diets are carbohydrate-rich. These dogs thrive by eating meat only occasionally. The researchers concluded that early exposure to food …. and their owners’ habits in puppyhood … shapes the lifetime eating habits of dogs.
- The world’s oldest dog Bramble, the Welsh Collie – who lived to 25 on a vegan diet.
- All 10 essential amino acids for dogs can be obtained from plant-based foods.
RELATED: Veganism for carnivores …
There are other considerations too:
- Residues from pesticides used in agriculture can be toxic. So an exclusively plant based diet can lead to a number of health problems.
- Meats contain toxins like antibiotics and growth hormones. These too have a negative impact on dogs’ health. You can avoid them by buying free-range, grass fed instead of factory farmed meats.
But I really wanted to focus on the nutritional aspects of this discussion. So, I decided to set aside the environmental and political questions. And I ran a nutritional analysis of a homemade vegan dog food recipe.
Analyzing Vegan Diets For Dogs
I put a variety of plant-based ingredients into my formulator software. I was very surprised to find out that nutrient report was more than sufficient. Even the amino acid requirements were within AAFCO recommended ranges.
This result made me believe that perhaps dogs can be vegan … or at least vegetarian.
RELATED: Can dogs be vegetarians …
But I was thinking “Okay … the nutrient requirements may be covered. But will dogs eat this diet? Is it palatable enough for them? How they are going to feel? Will they be constantly hungry and begging for food?”
To answer all these questions, I tested the diet on my own dog Power. I made him a vegan! He is a tiny Chihuahua and can be really picky sometimes. He has a sensitive stomach and his digestion gets upset quite easily.
Again to my surprise, Power did really well on his plant-based diet. He ate it for a period of 5 months. During this time …
- There was no change in his behavior
- He showed a preference for certain foods … but overall, he ate with appetite
- He remained healthy and sound
I’m currently transitioning Power back to his usual raw diet. But having a healthy and happy plant fed dog at home reassured me that a dog can be a vegan.
But she must have a very carefully designed diet.
If You Must Feed Your Dog Vegan
I want to be clear … I still believe raw meat diets are best for dogs.
So I don’t recommend feeding dogs plant-based diets. The exception to this is if a dog has a medical condition that will benefit from a vegan or vegetarian diet.
But I also know that some dog owners have made the choice to raise a vegan or vegetarian dog. If you’re one of them, you may not be persuaded to feed meat. Instead you might buy a poor-quality vegan kibble. Or maybe you prepare the food yourself without proper attention to nutrient balance.
So if you’re a pet owner who’s determined to feed your dog vegan … I want to tell you how to do it correctly.
Warning: It’s a lot of work and It’ll take some planning! But if you don’t do it right, your dog will lack some important nutrients. And that can damage her health.
Transitioning The Diet
You’ll need to transition your dog gradually to her new food. This allows the stomach acids and enzymes to adjust. If you dog is currently eating a pre-made raw diet, switch her first to a homemade meat diet. Then reduce the amount of meat gradually … until she’s eating a meatless diet.
Support the transition by adding …
- Plant based enzymes such as papain (found in papaya) and bromelain (found in pineapple)
- Herbs to support digestion, such as slippery elm, marshmallow root, mint leaves. These herbs stimulate stomach acid and enzyme production. They help protect the intestinal lining. Ideally, give the herbs on empty stomach, 30 minutes before feeding. You can use prepared tinctures (following the manufacturer’s feeding guidance). Or use dried herbs to brew a tea. Use 1 teaspoon per 1 liter of boiling water. Give 60ml liquid per 20lbs body weight. Another option is to mix dry herbs mixed into the food. Give a small pinch per 20 lbs body weight. Or pour herbal tea over the food.
- Gut friendly bacteria. Probiotics, kombucha or bacteria rich soil.
- Flax seed water. It will form a film over the intestines and protect them from irritation. Boil 1 liter of water and add 1 cup of organic flax seeds. Simmer until half the water has evaporated. The flax seeds will thicken the water. Strain the seeds from the water and give on an empty stomach, 30 minutes before feeding. Give 60ml flax seed water per 20lbs body weight.
- Psyllium husk. This soluble dietary fiber can support GI health. It can absorb 10 times its own weight in water. This will add bulk to your dog’s stools to help avoid either constipation or diarrhea. It promotes a feeling of fullness and helps with anal gland health. For small dogs, mix 1 teaspoon dry husk with ½ cup of water and give 1-2 times daily. For medium and large dogs, mix 2 tsp dry husk with 1 cup of water, and give 1–3 times a day. Always ensure your dog has access to fresh, filtered or spring water.
It’s a good idea to keep a diary when transitioning your dog and to record her reactions. If you notice stomach upset, slow down the process.
Building A Vegan Diet For Dogs
Second, correctly build your dog’s vegan diet by ensuring every meal contains:
- 50% cooked legumes. Split peas, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed beans, pinto beans, kidney beans and more.
- 25% cooked whole grains. Quinoa, barley, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, amaranth, oats, whole wheat gluten free pasta.
- 12% raw or gently steamed red, orange or white vegetables. Carrots, sweet potato, squash, pumpkin, cauliflower, beets, parsnip and more.
- 12% raw or gently steamed green vegetables. Asparagus, broccoli, green beans, kale, peas, spinach, celery, cucumber, cabbage, bok choy, green peppers and more.
- 1% ground seeds, oils or nut butter. Flax, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, sesame, chia seeds, tahini, peanut butter, almond butter, flax oil, hemp oil, MCT oil, olive oil and more. If you use nut butter make sure there are no added preservatives, sugars, or other sweeteners … like xylitol, which is deadly for dogs.
Note: if you can, feed organic and non-GMO foods. That way you’ll avoid toxins like glyphosate that’s used on so many crops. It’s better for the environment … and your dog will get better quality nutrients too.
How Much To Feed
This is just a guide. It’s for maintenance of a normal weight adult dog with a typical activity level of 2 hours per day.
- 2–4 lbs dogs should eat 10% of their body weight
- 6–8 lbs dogs should eat 7% of their body weight
- 10– 6 lbs dogs should eat 5% of their body weight
- 18–20 lbs dogs should eat 3% of their body weight
- Dogs over 20 lbs should eat 2% of their body weight
Always monitor your dog’s weight and adjust the daily amount of food accordingly. At first, you can feed your dog smaller, more frequent meals.
To improve the digestibility of a plant-based diet for your dog …
- Cook all legumes and grains thoroughly until soft
- Pre-soak legumes and grains
- Feed fermented vegetables instead raw or steamed, to provide naturally occurring gut friendly bacteria
- Feed sprouted legumes and grains
To improve the nutritional value of a vegan diet, consider adding supplements such as …
- Nutritional yeast. Very rich in protein and a source of iron and B vitamins. Most nutritional yeasts are fortified with vitamin B12. Use 5g daily per 20lbs body weight.
- Wheat germ. Concentrated source of vitamin E, folic acid, phosphorus, thiamine, zinc and magnesium. It also adds fiber to the diet.
- Spirulina. Source of choline, iron and calcium. Use 1–2g per day.
- Kelp. Source of iodine, calcium, phosphorous, selenium, iron and vitamin D. Use 1–2g per day.
- Seaweed. Source of iodine and calcium. Use 1–2g per day.
- Organic sunflower or soy lecithin. This is a pre-cursor for synthesis of choline. Use 2.5g per 20lbs body weight daily.
- Organic chlorella. Source of vitamins D and B12. Use 1–2g per day.
- Taurine. Use 1–2g per day. (Note: “vegan taurine” is synthetic. Choose one sold for dogs or humans. It needs to be pure with nothing else added.)
- L- Carnitine. Use 1-2g per day
- Choline. Use 5g per day.
Mix the supplements evenly with the cooked food. Do this after cooking to preserve their nutrients.
There are few supplemental vegan foods that are safe to add to your dog’s diet:
- Pure plant protein powders made from peas, chickpeas, hemp, rice. Always choose unsweetened products with no additives.
- Unsweetened plant milks and yogurts.
- Tofu. Soybean milk curd which contain 8 of the 10 essential amino acids. Choose tofu without flavors, salt or preservatives.
- Miso. Soybean paste with enzyme starters. It contains all 10 essential amino acids and it adds enzymes to a vegan diet.
- Natto. Fermented soybeans, which are source of vitamin K.
- Seitan. Meat substitute made from wheat gluten. It is source of riboflavin, vitamin C, niacin and iron.
- Tempeh. Fermented and partially cooked soybeans. It is source of manganese and copper.
If you choose to feed any of the supplemental vegan foods, make sure your dog’s meal consists of:
- 25–40% protein
- 45–55% carbohydrates
- 15–25 % vegetables
- 1% ground seeds, oils or nuts
I’ve provided below a sample weekly meal plan to get you started. Just click on the day of the week to see each day’s suggestions.
Sample Weekly Meal Plan
Mixed cooked beans & millet with raw carrot, cucumber, kelp, milled flax seeds and nutritional yeast
Cooked chickpeas & buckwheat with raw cabbage, beets, olive oil, spirulina and nutritional yeast
Cooked red lentils & oats with raw parsnip, celery, milled sunflower seeds, kelp and nutritional yeast
Tofu with cooked barley, broccoli with raw carrots, pumpkin seeds, kelp and nutritional yeast
A handful of blueberries
Cooked split peas with quinoa, pumpkin, spinach, hemp oil, kelp and nutritional yeast
Pea protein powder with cooked oats, asparagus, green peppers, coconut oil, seaweed and nutritional yeast
Piece of cucumber
Cooked mixed beans with whole wheat pasta with cauliflower, spinach, milled chia seeds, chlorella and nutritional yeast
Small pot of plain plant yogurt