Can Dogs Be Vegetarians?

Can dogs be vegetarians

If you haven’t heard about vegan and vegetarian diets for dogs, let me get you up to speed here …

Right now if you Google “vegetarian diets for dogs”or “vegan diets for dogs” you’ll find a whole lot of controversy…

Your search results will pull up passionate advocates insisting that dogs can simply live without meat and that plant based meals are a much better choice. But you’ll also find articles strongly contradicting these theories and vets and experts who are very much for feeding dogs a high protein meat diet.

So how do we know which is the best meal plan for our dogs?

Great question. So I went to an expert on this one …

This year at Raw Roundup, homeopath Julie Anne Lee DCH RCSHom, talked about the “Nutritional, Energetic and Ethical Value Of The Vegetarian Versus the Carnivore Dog

When asked her what her take was on the vegetarian diet, here’s what she had to say:

Julie Anne Lee

(Julie Anne Lee is a vegetarian herself and has long been active in campaigning for the ethical treatment of farm animals.)

But it’s not that simple …  There are many factors to consider when deciding what’s the best diet for your dog.

Like digestion. How well do dogs digest grains and other plant-based foods?

How Well Does It All Go Down?

The Difference Between Your Dog’s Digestive Tract And Your Own

Let’s start at the mouth. There are arguments that dogs have evolved and can now produce more amylase (an enzyme that converts starch into simple sugars), so that they can convert and use grain in their digestive systems. Most mammals (including humans) produce amylase in the saliva, so chewing their food helps pre-digest carbohydrates in the diet. But dogs don’t have salivary amylase (and they don’t spend much time chewing their food either).  So, the jury is still out on amylase.

Your Dog’s Digestive Tract: Why Size Matters

Dogs have much shorter digestive tracts than we humans do, and this means they don’t have the ability to digest, discard and process the waste of a plant-based diet through the gut and liver. Dogs have a very hard time breaking down cellulose; you may notice that if you give your dog a chunk of raw carrot, it comes out looking much the same at the other end, so he doesn’t absorb any nutrients from that carrot.

Dog digestive tract vs Human digestive tract

Toxins from GMO (genetically-modified) grains and pesticides in plants also negatively affect the gut, creating toxic overload in the organs and chronic systemic inflammation.

Second, what are the benefits and concerns of a meat based diet?

Dogs Are Built To Eat Meat

Your dog’s teeth, jaw structure and the length of the bowel have not evolved. Those sharp pointy teeth are there for tearing flesh and meat apart and his strong jaw is no coincidence, it makes crunching bone and cartilage a breeze. As humans, our digestive tract is longer and our teeth are flatter making it essential for us to grind our food to smaller bits and process through. Eating meat and bones mechanically support the way dogs’ bodies function.

Dogs’ digestive systems need to be much more acidic than humans. Meat is acidifying while plants are usually alkalinizing.

However, there are concerns about consumption of meat too. If the meat your dog eats is from factory raised animals, the meat will contain high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This can wreak havoc in your dog’s adrenal glands, thyroid and pituitary glands.

Toxins in meat are another serious concern. The toxic load that accumulates in the tissue of meat animals from pesticides is far more dangerous than in a plant-based diet. This is because pesticides are stored in body fat of meat animals, whereas plants don’t bio-accumulate pesticides. A pound of apples will have far fewer pesticides than a pound of chicken flesh.

Studies have shown that human breast milk of mothers who ate meat contained as much as 36% more toxins than those who ate vegetarian diets. However, humans have completely different digestive systems than dogs; keep in mind humans are really not built to eat meat (at least not as much as we do). Because dogs digest meat much more quickly than we do (again, because of their shorter digestive tracts), meat doesn’t sit in the body as long, so there’s less toxic effect on the body.

The Effect Of Diet On The Gut

Why is the gut a relevant player in the comparison of a vegetarian vs carnivore dog?

The gut is responsible for over 70% of your dog’s immune system. It’s the number one defense mechanism against toxins. The gut absorbs nutrition that fuels the body to survive and fight the aging process. So a healthy gut is extremely important.

Grains In The Gut

Julie Anne is a strong proponent of keeping your dog’s gut healthy, and this is her biggest concern about feeding grains to dogs.

“The most common components of food that can damage your dog’s intestinal lining are the proteins found in un-sprouted and GMO grains that contain large amounts of anti-nutrients or nutrient blockers called phytates and lectins.”

Lectins are sugar-binding proteins that are the natural defense system for plants, acting as natural anti-parasitics and antifungals. This is positive for plants but affects your dog negatively, as lectins damage the gut lining, causing inflammation.

Anti-nutrients are natural or synthetic compounds contained in grains, beans, legumes and nuts – again, to protect the plant from pests – but because they bind to vitamins and minerals, this makes them unabsorbable and they can derail important digestive enzymes and can really impair your dog’s proper assimilation of nutrients.

Graphic on how a normal cell gets attacked by free radicals, producing a cell with oxidative stress

Your dog’s gut has junctions in the gut lining that are supposed to keep toxins inside the gut and out of the blood stream; when the gut becomes inflamed, the junctions stretch and allow toxins and undigested nutrients into the blood stream. This causes allergies and chronic inflammation – and even auto-immune disease as the body’s immune defenses fight the intruding substances.

So, we can choose between giving our dogs unethical cortisol-ridden meat or nutrient-blocking pesticide-ridden plants!

Meat-eating delivers other important nutrients to your dog … if you feed the right bits.

Dogs Need “The Bits”

Body parts of chicken

What are the bits? Well, they’re not found in vegetables, for starters.

They’re body parts that are often thrown out by the butcher, but are great for your dog … things like skin, brain, eyeballs, testicles, feet, beaks, hooves, feathers, hair, thymus, thyroid, uterus, penises…

It’s an appalling waste not only from the perspective of the poor animal that gave its life, but also because of the tremendous nutritional value of these parts!

In animal medicine we often follow human trends and it’s the same with nutrition. Eating sweetbreads (pancreas or thymus gland), brains, tongue and fish eyes is a hot trend in upscale restaurants and with many health conscious people – especially bodybuilders.

Here’s why … these body parts contain nutrients like:

  • CoQ10, vital for energy production and cardiac function as well as a potent antioxidant
  • B complex vitamins, including B12 and folate, plus choline, which is important for cell membranes, brain and nerve function, heart health and prevention of birth defects
  • Minerals, including iron that’s easy to absorb, as well as copper, zinc and chromium
  • Quality fats
  • Excellent protein
  • Vitamin D, to support the immune system and help with calcium absorption
  • Vitamin E, for circulation, tissue repair, healing, deactivation of free radicals, slowing aging
  • Vitamin K2
  • Amino acids

Other Nutritious Bits

Skin, hair, beaks and feet are a great source of important proteins like collagen, elastin, keratin and melanin.


Collagen is part of the connective tissue in the skin that helps with firmness, suppleness and constant renewal of skin cells. It’s vital for skin elasticity and health.

It’s also paramount in the health and strength of ligaments (which are another type of connective tissue in the body, working to attach two bones and hold the joints together. So collagen is an important nutrient to help prevent injuries like cruciate ligament tears.

Collagen is found almost everywhere in the body, including in muscles, bones, blood vessels and the digestive system. It’s the substance that holds the entire body together, providing strength and structure.


Elastin is just what it sounds like … it’s the protein that gives the skin the ability to stretch and bounce back. If you have an itchy or allergic dog who scratches himself and starts bleeding, that could be due to a lack of elastin.


Keratin is a fibrous structural protein that that protects epithelial cells from damage or stress.

It’s common to see a skin disorder in dogs called keratinization – black, thickened elephant-like skin. Keratinization can be classified into hereditary, idiopathic and nutritional … but in fact almost anything can be classified into those categories, so it’s the susceptibility of the individual that’s key. So if a dog is lacking a nutrient like keratin, this could be the underlying factor even in the hereditary or idiopathic categories.

Bits Aren’t Really By-Products

We’re inclined to think of bits as by-products, but that’s really not the case. They’re an important part of the whole animal. You probably don’t consider your foot, brain or eyes byproducts of your body! In the wild a wolf or coyote will eat the offal (internal organs) first. What do they know that we don’t?

As a society we need to stop being ridiculous prudes and start looking at the ethics, the environment and the actual health benefits of consuming the entire animal.

So, nutritionally, eating meat provides important nutrients that can be hard to find in a vegetarian or vegan diet.

What about the effect of food on chronic disease?

Energetics – Stress And Chronic Disease

It’s just as important to manage stress in dogs as it is to manage our own stress levels. Stress contributes to chronic disease. A groundbreaking series of 10-year studies published in the British journal Psychology and Psychotherapy in 1988 found that “emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease than smoking.” They also found that individuals who were the most affected by stress had an overall death rate 40% higher than non-stressed participants.

Boredom, loneliness, lack of exercise and social interaction plays a huge role in disease in all animals. Mealtimes are usually one of the highlights of a dog’s day, so feeding them a raw, species appropriate diet can really contribute to increasing your dog’s happiness and emotional wellbeing.

Julie Anne says: “Feeding time around here is a pretty happy time. I believe that dogs get a natural prey-driven contentment from eating meat that can’t be produced by plants. Dogs, given the choice, would be whole carcass carnivores.”

Julie Anne’s experience in her practice bears out this theory. Her clinic would often be the third, fourth or fifth opinion, or the last hope for dogs with serious emotional issues, including severe anxiety or aggression. Surprisingly, many of the clinic’s patients were on vegetarian diets. The clinic would recommend that clients put their dogs on a species-appropriate, raw meat based diet. What they found was that the dogs, even before the clinic prescribed homeopathic remedies, nutraceuticals or herbs, would quickly – often in just a few days – become much calmer on their new diets.

Why would a simple change in diet have such an immediate effect on a dog’s emotions?

Diet And The Emotions

You’ve heard of the “runner’s high” caused by the release of endorphins during intense exercise in humans. Dogs experience endorphins too, and the hormones below all lead to reduced stress and increased happiness and health.

Types of endorphins include:


Serotonin is often called the happy hormone because it helps improve mood and overcome depression.

Correct serotonin levels support …

  • restful sleep
  • mood stabilization
  • dreaming
  • emotional and social stability
  • blood pressure levels
  • digestion
  • regulation of body temperature
  • pain relief

Low levels of serotonin are linked to …

  • depression
  • mood disorders (aggression in dogs)
  • anxiety (such as separation anxiety)
  • obsessive compulsive disorders (habits like eating feaces, rocks, sticks, paper or self-mutilation)
  • poor or restless sleep.

Serotonin is made primarily through intake of tryptophan-rich foods. Some foods to boost your dog’s serotonin include …

  • turkey
  • fish
  • chicken
  • poultry
  • cheese
  • milk
  • eggs


Dopamine is also considered another feel-good hormone.

Dopamine brings feelings of …

  • enjoyment
  • bliss
  • euphoria
  • natural pain relief

Low levels of dopamine can cause …

  • lethargy
  • lack of motivation
  • depression

Dopamine can be released just through excitement like playing sports, laughing, dancing and sex. So get your dog out running in the woods, doing agility, playing and flirting with other dogs. If your dog is too old to do vigorous exercise then give them lots of slow short walks in nature or social time with other geriatric dogs. The key is to get them excited, so things like seeing a squirrel or hiding treats for them to find can help get your dog’s emotional engine revved up.

Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine, so feeding a diet high in tyrosine will help give your dog the basic building blocks needed for dopamine production.

Dopamine-boosting foods include …

  • all animal products
  • almonds
  • apples
  • avocados
  • bananas
  • beets
  • green leafy vegetables
  • phytoplankton
  • turmeric

 The Gut Again!

The health of your dog’s intestinal flora impacts his production of neurotransmitters. An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic by-products called lipopolysaccharides which lower levels of dopamine. This means that foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, and raw sauerkraut can also increase natural dopamine production.

Keep the brain healthy by adding 10% to 25% of foods that are high in antioxidants. Free radicals (damaged cells that steal missing molecules from other cells, damaging their DNA) are the major cause of the aging process and contribute to mental and emotional issues as they attack brain cells and contribute to inflammation.

Foods that are high in antioxidants are …

  • leafy greens
  • sweet potato
  • squash
  • phytoplankton
  • blueberries
  • blackberries
  • strawberries
  • raspberries
  • plums
  • broccoli


Oxytocin is known as the love drug, the feel-good hormone, or the trust hormone. It’s been classed as the “most amazing molecule in the world” but what it really is, is a neuropeptide that inhibits stress-induced activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It’s increasingly becoming recognized for its role in bonding, socialization, and stress relief.

This hormone has the ability to decrease and treat …

  • cortisol
  • blood pressure
  • inflammation
  • pain
  • anxiety
  • post traumatic stress
  • depression
  • debilitating shyness
  • social anxiety
  • mood disorders

But now extensive medical research is looking into its role in cancer prevention and the results are very promising.

Oxytocin is produced naturally through the gaze between a mother and her infant or between sexual partners in monogamous species. This gaze interaction or loop activates the production of oxytocin and develops the attachment or bond. Until recently, this bond has always been researched within humans who share social cues and recognition of a particular partner. But a 2015 study (Miho Nagasawa et al, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds, Science, April 2015) showed that a similar oxytocin-mediated positive loop exists between humans and dogs, through eye to eye connection. Oxytocin levels are released in both humans and dogs, leading to the deepening of mutual relationships and interspecies bonding.

Follow these suggestions for a healthy raw food diet and lifestyle that’ll keep your dog happy and emotionally well balanced!

Ethical Considerations

Most humans would probably be healthier if they ate less meat. Greed, marketing, Big Pharma and Big Ag all have their hands in the grotesque amounts of meat humans consume – and even worse, waste!

Here’s what Julie Anne has to say about that:

“Am I outraged that the food industry treats animals as though they have no feeling or souls and that they are basically tortured then massacred for profit, And then 40% of their bodies are thrown out because they are always over-supplied, while a huge number of people in the world go hungry. You bet I am!

Even if you buy human grade meats, the steaks, ribs and poultry parts once had hooves, brains, testicles, beaks, feathers, eyeballs and feet. Commercial pet food manufacturers don’t use these parts, but they DO often use 4-D animals – dead, dying, disabled and diseased. No animal should be eating toxic 4-D meats!”

Even raw dog food makers don’t usually use the “bits.”

Meat’s Effect On The Environment

There’s not much attention given to the environmental hazards of factory farms. People picket, campaign and circulate petitions about other environmental issues. Is it possible it’s due to lack of awareness caused by the muzzling power of the meat industry?

Here are just a few more statistics reported by Cowspiracy. Visit their website for even more scary facts. Keep in mind these statistics are just for cattle and don’t include other meat animals like pigs, poultry, sheep and others.

statistics reported by Cowspiracy
statistics reported by Cowspiracy
statistics reported by Cowspiracy

What You Can Do

Start speaking up!

  • Write to your raw dog food companies and ask them to add the appropriate bits and parts.
  • Write to your government representatives (local and national) to ask for less waste and more awareness of the treatment of farm animals.
  • Be active in campaigning or petitioning for the rights of farm animals.
  • Reduce the amount of meat you are eating or only purchase meat from ethically raised animals.
  • Read up on the benefits of a vegetarian diet for you, and your family. Unlike dogs there are many studies and sites demonstrating the health benefits of plant based diets for people.


You’ll notice Julie Anne isn’t saying, “start feeding your dog a vegetarian or vegan diet.””

That’s because her conclusion, taking into account all the points highlighted in her talk, was:

“Sadly for me there is simply NOT enough evidence to support vegetarianism for dogs.”

Still Want To Feed Vegetarian?

Here’s Julie Anne’s advice if you’re passionate about wanting to switch your dog to a plant based diet:

  • Start by trying one day a week of a homemade veggie meal
  • Use organic vegetables and sprouted non-GMO grains
  • Do your research about what plants have the most lectins and stay away from them
  • Journal your dog’s diet and the results you get – and share that information with other dog owners
  • If it turns out to greatly benefit your dog, then everyone benefits

Even one day a week could have an impact.

Some Final Thoughts From Julie Anne Lee

“What I feel our dogs teach us is not whether they should be vegetarian, carnivores, dry food eaters or raw-fed.

What your dog gives you is the gift to open your mind, to confront the masses, to be brave, to stand up and speak out for what you believe – not what I believe or what the latest trends are or what the latest specialist or expert or scientist says – but the freedom to choose and not be judged for your choice. And that choice will continue to grow and shift and change.

The love for our dogs supports our effort not to be corralled, penned or caged. Through them we are speaking out and therefore creating a much bigger global change for the lives of all animals, ourselves and our planet.”

5 minutes a day. Healthier Dog.

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