Can Vegan Dogs Save The Planet? The Environmental Impact Of Diet

environmental impact of vegan dogs

As a loving and well-informed dog owner you research how the food you give your dog affects his health.

But what about the health of the planet? And if you make decisions about your dog’s food based on environmental factors … what does that mean for your dog?

Even just considering the effects on your dog, experts differ as to the best food for dogs. I’ll get into that in a minute. But first, I want to mention something important. 

Don’t Ask Your Conventional Vet

When I say experts, that doesn’t include conventional vets. They receive almost no nutrition training at vet school. What they do get is a brainwashing from big pet food companies. They learn that food is only about nutrients.

So they think highly processed starches … plus other poor quality ingredients, are best for your dog. And then the food needs synthetic vitamin and minerals to avoid nutrient deficiencies.

I actually had a vet tell me, “I don’t like the raw diet you’re giving your dogs. But I don’t know why because we didn’t learn that in vet school.”  She got an A for honesty, at least!  But what happened to intellectual curiosity? Why wouldn’t any vet want to find out how to make their patients healthier with food? 

On the other hand, most truly holistic vets and practitioners did take that step. And they know a lot about nutrition. So make sure your vet is really holistic before you get into discussions about what to feed your dog. 

RELATEDHow to work with your vet: Agree to disagree …

The Real Experts

Otherwise … it’s best to listen to experts like animal nutritionist Richard Patton PhD. 

Dr Patton knows a thing or two about animal diets. He’s been doing this for more than 40 years, in 25 countries, and for nearly every kind of animal. 

Dr Patton says a raw meat diet is best for your dog. He warns against feeding dogs any starch … or any foods processed with extreme heat. 

Starch causes blood sugar spikes and has little nutritional value for dogs. The high temperatures used to make kibble destroy nutrients … and they denature protein. 

So Dr Patton’s clear recommendation is: feed your dog raw or freeze-dried raw

RELATEDWhy feed raw?

But others believe that feeding dogs meat is harmful to the environment. And that dogs’ digestive systems can adapt just fine to vegan diets. So that’s what I really want to get into.

Plant-Based Diets For Dogs 

Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD isn’t just a homeopathic veterinarian. He’s the homeopathic veterinarian – the one who taught all the others! He founded the Pitcairn Institute of Veterinary Homeopathy (PIVH). And just about all the homeopathic vets in North America trained with Dr Pitcairn. 

Dr Pitcairn’s PhD is in microbiology. In his research at Washington State University … Dr Pitcairn focused on the importance of optimal nutrition. And, in his veterinary practice, he treated his patients with nutritional therapy … as well as homeopathy. 

So we take Dr Pitcairn’s advice seriously. In 2015, Dr Pitcairn wrote a remarkable article … called Feeding The Dog In The 21st Century. We published it in the May-June 2015 issue of Dogs Naturally. 

Dr Pitcairn admitted that he used to think dogs should eat like wild animals in their natural state. He found that wolves and coyotes didn’t just eat other animals. They also ate vegetable matter, insects and even rattlesnakes! 

And he followed herbalist Juliette de Baïracli Levy. She believed dogs should eat a natural diet of 75% raw meat, plus vegetables and cereals. She included grains, root vegetables and legumes in the canine diet. 

Over time, Dr Pitcairn developed recipes that restored health to many sick animals. He found that most of his canine patients did well on diets that included grains. 

He also found these ingredients should be organic. With the advent of artificial fertilizers, nutrients in plant food declined significantly. Most meat animals eat these conventionally grown plants too. So meat is also less nutritious than it used to be.  And then there are all the other toxic chemicals in the environment. 

The Top Of The Food Chain

Dr Pitcairn concluded: 

  • Because dogs eat at the top of the food chain, they load their bodies with chemicals from the animals they eat.
  • Feeding organic helps … but not enough. 
  • Even organic meats and bones accumulate toxins from their environments, pasture and water.
  • Many of these chemicals will have health effects.
  • We don’t know what these health effects might be. But they could include digestive issues, thyroid disorders, chronic allergies, cancer. 
  • Most vets won’t recognize these chemicals as the cause of your dog’s health issues. 

So Dr Pitcairn now recommends feeding dogs very minimal meat or animal products

“If we emphasize vegetables and grains and use organic sources, we can provide a diet that, though not completely pure, is still very, very much lower in these toxic substances.”

Dr Pitcairn added: 

“You don’t like it? I don’t either. What a mess we have made of this world.“

His recommendation?

“The best solution, imperfect as it is, that I can come up with, is to feed dogs lower on the food chain and with the purest foods one can obtain.” 

Dr Pitcairn made a compelling argument. His excellent 7-page article took many factors into consideration. But is this advice practical for most dog owners? 

Plant-Based In Practice

It is possible to feed dogs a plant-based diet. But there are a few other practicalities to think about.  

DIY plant-based diets are a lot of work. 

  • Grains and legumes must be thoroughly cooked and carefully combined.
  • It’s hard to achieve a balanced diet. You can’t just “wing it” if you want to feed your dog correctly. 
  • And you’ll likely need to add some synthetic additives to get there. (Taurine is one example.)

Will you feed 100% organic?

  • Many people don’t even eat organic themselves. If that’s you … are you really going to buy organic foods just for your dog?
  • If not, you’ll still be giving your dog a lot of toxic ingredients. Glyphosate is one that’s a huge problem. (More on this later.)

Will your dog even eat it? 

  • Some dogs don’t like vegetables (mine carefully eat around them, even in their raw food).
  • If your dog doesn’t like it, what then? 
  • Eventually he’ll probably be hungry enough to eat it. But is that fair or kind to your dog? 

RELATEDCan dogs be vegan or vegetarian?

Vegan Kibbles

If you want convenience, you might opt for a commercial vegan food instead of cooking for your dog. So I did a little research into some of the top brands of vegan dog foods. Here’s what I found.

  • They are almost all kibbles*
  • I only found one that is organic (canned)
  • Most contain GMO ingredients 
  • They’re full of legumes
  • They all rely on synthetic vitamins and minerals
  • They’re all really high in carbs
  • They contain ingredients that test high in glyphosate, a known animal carcinogen

Here are some specifics about the PETA-recommended brands I looked at. 

  • V-Dog: 49% carbs, full of genetically modified ingredients, not organic
  • Wild Earth: 40.5% carbs, GMO ingredients, not organic
  • Halo (kibble): 52% carbs, low In protein, claims no GMO vegetables (but what about the legumes, grains and oils?)
  • Natural Balance: 64% carbs, low in protein, brown rice is first ingredient

*Halo, Natural Balance and Petguard make canned vegan or vegetarian foods. The ingredients aren’t any better than the kibbles – and they’re mostly water!  Petguard is the only organic vegan food for dogs. But the first ingredient is water!  They also make a vegetarian canned dog food, but that’s not organic. 

Your dog may eat them … because that’s all he gets to eat. The dogs I’ve seen who eat vegan kibbles are desperate to find meat! 

Vegan Kibbles May Not Be Balanced

Even though they all claim to be complete and balanced to AAFCO standards … research shows that many are deficient. I found two studies that looked at these foods and found deficiencies. 

One study at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil looked at 3 vegan dog foods (1 cat food) and found:

  • One food had low calcium
  • One had low potassium
  • One had low sodium
  • The calcium:phosphorus ratio did not meet AAFCO’s minimums in any of the dog foods
  • Copper was over the legal limit in all foods
  • Zinc was over the limit in one food
  • Iron was over the limit in one food
  • Methionine was below the minimum in one food

Canadian university study looked at 13 dry and 11 canned vegetarian diets for dogs and cats. They measured protein and amino acid adequacy in these diets. Many of the diets were deficient in several amino acids. 

Here’s their conclusion:

“Most diets assessed in this study were not compliant with AAFCO labeling regulations, and there were concerns regarding adequacy of AA content. Manufacturers should ensure regulatory compliance and nutritional adequacy of all diets, and pets fed commercially available vegetarian diets should be monitored and assessed routinely.”

Unfortunately we don’t know which foods were analyzed in either study. But nonetheless … it’s a warning to be very careful if you choose commercial vegan food for your dog. 

And there are other reasons plant-based diets (even homemade) aren’t good for your dog. Let’s get into the controversial topic of glyphosate! 

Glyphosate Exposure

You can’t make a vegan diet for a dog without legumes, grains and some synthetic additives (like taurine). And that brings us to toxicity of plant foods. 

One huge problem is glyphosate, the ever-present herbicide also known as Roundup. Glyphosate isn’t the only toxin (or even herbicide) that’s in food. But it’s the most prevalent. And it’s an “indicator species.” This means that if it’s present, growing practices likely allow other harmful chemicals too! 

Glyphosate is everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid it in our environment. A bit later I’ll talk about which foods have the highest levels. (The answer may surprise you.). 

The World Health Organization has said that glyphosate is …

  • A probable human carcinogen
  • A known animal carcinogen

Integrative veterinarian Katie Kangas DVM warns of other problems with glyphosate for dogs. 

  • It’s a herbicide in the plant and an antibiotic in the soil – so it interferes with beneficial bacteria. 
  • It blocks proteins that form in the plant, including important amino acids.
  • It affects kidney tubules (the inner lining of the kidneys). So kidneys can’t excrete waste properly. Pets are getting kidney disease at younger and younger ages. 
  • It damages the body’s mucous membranes. This includes the gut lining … causing leaky gut syndrome.
  • Leaky gut is linked to … autoimmune disease, inflammatory bowel disease, all chronic inflammatory diseases, chronic allergies, brain issues. 
  • Disruption of the microbiome reduces the diversity of gut bacteria. This harms the immune system. 
  • Gluten and glyphosate together cause more gut damage. So gluten grains are especially harmful. 
  • Many high-glyphosate foods contain antinutrients. These are compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Examples include gluten and phytic acid (in grains), lectins (in legumes and wheat), oxalates (in seeds and legumes).

 In humans, glyphosate is linked to autism, low birth weights, shorter term pregnancies. 

Diet is the highest source of glyphosate exposure. But dogs don’t just get glyphosate from food. They can also pick it up …

  • And then they lick themselves. 
  • Topically, from the surfaces they walk, play or roll on.
  • By breathing it in, when they sniff the ground. 
  • In tap water.  (Give your dog filtered or spring water to avoid glyphosate and other toxins like fluoride and chlorine).

RELATED: Glyphosate: The hidden dog food ingredient that can harm your dog …

Measuring Glyphosate

HRI Labs is a company that tests glyphosate levels in people, animals and foods. And they’ve found some alarming numbers.

  • 6 out of 7 people test positive for glyphosate
  • The average American now has 38 times more glyphosate than 20 years ago
  • Vegans have the highest levels of glyphosate
  • Dogs have 30 times more glyphosate than the average human
  • Dogs’ levels are the highest of any animal tested (higher than horses and cats)

On the “plus” side … organic foods have 95% less glyphosate. So you can minimize glyphosate by feeding organic as much as you can. 

Glyphosate is also water-soluble, meaning your dog’s body can excrete it. So you can also detox your dog. 

RELATED: How to detox your dog …

So where does glyphosate come from? HRI has found …

  • The highest glyphosate levels are in “OWL” foods. This means Oats, Wheat (+ barley, rye), Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans)
  • Genetically modified “Roundup ready” crops … like soy and corn, have only medium high levels
  • Foods labeled “non-GMO” or “natural” are just as high in glyphosate
  • Organic food has 95% less glyphosate

Two things surprised me about this. 

  1. Non GMO foods are just as bad. 
  2. I expected the “Roundup ready” crops to be higher. They’re genetically modified to survive the Roundup that’s sprayed to kill weeds. So the crops are sprayed when they’re growing.

So I wondered … why are the OWL foods so much higher in glyphosate? And the answer is … dessication

That means that … when the crops are almost ready for harvest, they’re sprayed with glyphosate. It dries out the crops so that any unripe plants don’t clog up the harvester. And it increases yields by a couple of percentage points. 

And this process means the OWL foods are the very highest in glyphosate. They “hang on” to the glyphosate that’s sprayed right before harvest. So they’re much worse than GMO/Roundup ready crops like soy or corn … that are sprayed while they’re growing!

All these ingredients are common in commercial dog foods. So how do they stack up on the glyphosate charts?

Glyphosate In Commercial Dog Foods

Luckily … HRI’s tested a bunch of those too. Testing shows …

  • Raw dog foods have very low levels of glyphosate – up to 5 parts per billion (ppb).
  • Canned and freeze-dried foods are 17 ppb. Not bad. 
  • But conventional kibble contains huge levels of glyphosate. It ranges from 200 ppb to 660 ppb (organic products are likely lower). Think about that! It’s more than 130 times the levels in raw!

So If you feed your dog a plant-based diet that’s not 100% organic, it’ll be very high in glyphosate. 

Glyphosate in raw diets is much, much lower. This is even true of raw diets containing factory farmed meats. It wasn’t just the organically or pastured raised or fully grass fed meats. 

Freeze-dried and canned foods are second lowest in glyphosate content. 

Environmental Factors In Meat

So … we’ve come full circle. Back to raw.  We know that most dog nutrition experts believe raw meat-based diets are best for your dog. And now we know that raw diets are the lowest in glyphosate. 

But what environmental (and ethical) considerations are there in buying raw meat?

Factory Farmed Meat: 3 Big Problems

HRI showed that all raw meat diets are lower in glyphosate. But there are many other problems with factory farmed meats. 

#1 The ethical problems with the way factory farmed animals live (and die) are obvious. 

Animals in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) …

  • Live in crowded, inhumane, unsanitary conditions, often barely able to move.
  • Eat inappropriate foods that are unsuited to their digestive systems
  • Lead miserable, unhealthy lives, often indoors.
  • Get large doses of antibiotics and growth hormones to increase growth rates and keep animals alive
  • Are transported to slaughter in overcrowded trucks, with no food or water.
  • Become highly stressed by waiting to die at the slaughterhouse.
  • Are stunned, electrocuted or gassed before slaughter.
#2 Factory farms cause environmental problems and climate change. 
  • Mechanized facilities increase carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide in the air increases the greenhouse effect, contributing to climate change. 
  • The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates livestock emissions at 7.1 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent a year. That’s huge! It’s 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Industrial amounts of animal manure from factory farms emit methane gas into the air. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat on the earth. 
  • Enteric fermentation: cattle digestion also emits methane as ruminants burp and fart. This is a big contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s aggravated by poor quality, indigestible foods given to factory farmed animals. 
#2 Factory farms cause environmental problems and climate change. 
  • Mechanized facilities increase carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide in the air increases the greenhouse effect, contributing to climate change. 
  • The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates livestock emissions at 7.1 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent a year. That’s huge! It’s 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Industrial amounts of animal manure from factory farms emit methane gas into the air. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat on the earth. 
  • Enteric fermentation: cattle digestion also emits methane as ruminants burp and fart. This is a big contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s aggravated by poor quality, indigestible foods given to factory farmed animals.

And then there’s antibiotic pollution due to factory farms incorporating antibiotics in animal feed…

#3 Factory farmed meats are nutritionally poorer

There are many nutritional reasons to choose grass-fed, pasture-raised meats over factory farmed meats. 

  • Pastured animals are healthier. Animals need daily exercise, fresh air and sunshine. Healthier animals make healthier, more flavorful meat.
  • The animal enjoys a happy life in a natural environment. This avoids stress hormones in the meat.
  • Grass-fed meats are much leaner. Grass-fed beef has less than half the level of fat in grain-fed beef. 
  • The fat in grain-fed beef is more than 2.6 times higher in cholesterol than grass-fed.
  • Grass-fed and free range meats have higher levels of Omega-3 fats. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega 3 in grass-fed beef is 1:65, vs 4.84 for grain-fed. 
  • Grass-fed beef has 3 to 5 times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  This fatty acid can help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It also supports immune function
  • Grass-fed beef has higher levels of vitamins E, A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, thiamin and riboflavin.
  • Antioxidants: grass-fed beef is higher in glutathione, a powerful antioxidant in the body. It’s also higher in super-oxide dismutase and catalase, two antioxidant enzymes that work together. Antioxidants help defend against free radicals. These are damaged cells that steal molecules from other cells and harm DNA. This is oxidation. It leads to chronic disease and faster aging.  Antioxidants help slow the oxidation process. When ruminants eat grains instead of grass, it creates more acidity in their digestive systems. This leads to disease and the need for antibiotics in grain-fed animals. 

What About World Hunger?

This is another controversial topic in the meat vs no meat discussion.

People who oppose meat eating often claim that we could end world hunger if we didn’t eat meat. They believe that the many acres of land used for grazing could grow grains and other plants to feed the hungry. And the plants that weren’t fed to livestock could feed humans instead. 

But that’s not really true. 

Grasses cover about 70% of the world agricultural area. Much of the grassland used for livestock is unsuitable for growing crops. This may be because of steepness, shallow or stony soils that aren’t very fertile. Or the climate may be too dry or too cold. But grasses and shrubs can grow on this terrain. And it’s good food for ruminants who need little more than grass to thrive. 

This is the case in many countries. And it’s true of large portions of the US, like the West. 

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service explains …

“Grazing […] is a very efficient way of converting otherwise non-digestible energy into forms available for human use: milk, meat, wool and other fibers, and hide.”

Many of the world’s poor are not farmers … and they don’t own land. But hundreds of millions of people rely on livestock for extra income and food. The UN FAO says “livestock plays a critical role in achieving food security, especially in harsh agro-environmental environments.”

In his book World Food Security, Dr Martin McLaughlin says that world hunger is due to poverty … and not food shortage. It’s not because the world doesn’t produce enough food. And, if we stopped eating meat, there’s be less demand for the crops that feed livestock. So farmers would turn to crops with higher demand. 

How Pastured Livestock Help The Land

Grass feeds pastured livestock. And in turn, they feed the land and help grass grow better. It’s a two-way street.  It’s another advantage of pastured livestock compared to factory farmed animals. Animals grazing on grass support soil health and plant growth. 

Cattle and other livestock help plant growth. When you mow your lawn, it helps keep it green and lush. Grazing animals “mow” grasslands in the same way. They eat old and dead plant parts. And that exposes growth points to more sunlight. This stimulates better root and plant growth. 

Animal hooves trample seeds into the ground. So they don’t get eaten by birds, or blown or washed away. 

Cow manure is organic matter that continuously “feeds” the soil. And it improves water infiltration rates too – by up to 150%, according the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

All this mowing, trampling and manure sets other biological processes in motion. Worms, insects, fungi and bacteria aerate the ground. They decompose waste, helping plants absorb nutrients. 

The grasslands grazed by livestock help with carbon sequestration. This means keeping carbon in the soil

  • Carbon dioxide in the air is a bad thing. It increases the greenhouse effect that causes climate change. 
  • But carbon in the soil is a good thing. It helps build the soil. It feeds plants that need carbon to live …and the plants return carbon to the soil when they die.  
  • Permanent vegetation like grass needs more carbon dioxide. So grasslands help trap carbon in the soil (and keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere). 
  • The UN FAO estimates that improvements in forage quality, animal health and carbon sequestration could reduce livestock emissions by 18 to 29%.

Grazing livestock helps prevent soil erosion. Research by the Land Stewardship Project shows perennial grazing land has 80% less soil erosion than cropland. Reduced soil erosion means more carbon stays in the soil. 

The grass itself helps prevent soil from running off or blowing away. Croplands are more susceptible to erosion. New seedlings don’t protect the ground much. And nothing protects the bare soil after harvest. 

Slowing Climate Change

Climate change is happening at an alarming rate. But there’s a growing movement called Regenerative Agriculture … that can help slow it down. 

Regenerative Agriculture aims to reverse climate change by restoring degraded soils. It’s done by rebuilding organic matter in the soil to increase biodiversity. This helps pull carbon out of the atmosphere into the soil. And it improves soil fertility and the water cycle.  

Regenerative agriculture practices use techniques like no till/minimum tillage. This helps avoid soil erosion and carbon loss.

Other regenerative practices help restore the soil microbiome. The soil has been damaged by monocrop farming, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

  • Cover crops – avoid bare land that allows soil erosion
  • Crop rotations – to add different nutrients to the soil
  • Using compost and animal manures instead of chemical fertilizers

Next, well-managed grazing practices help …

  • Stimulate plant growth
  • Increase soil carbon deposits
  • Boost pasture productivity
  • Improve soil fertilityIncrease insect and plant biodiversity
  • Strengthen soil carbon sequestration

You can’t have regenerative agriculture without animals.  Watch health guru Mark Hyman MD explain. That’s just a short clip, or you can see the full interview here.

The above techniques create better ecological health. They can correct the damage done by feedlots and CAFOs, which degrade food production due to …

  • Low nutrient density
  • Increased water pollution
  • Antibiotic use and resistance
  • Carbon dioxide and methane emissions

Better Health For Your Dog

Regenerative agriculture practices can also help your dog.

Canine nutritionist Steve Brown founded the Canine Healthy Soil Project to test his hypothesis. He believes exposure to healthy bio-diverse soil can restore the ancestral microbial community. And that will lead to improved health and behavior in dogs.  

The project is looking for dog volunteers, so if you’d like your dog to be part of it, sign up at this link

Eat Local

Eating local isn’t just a fad. There are several reasons to seek out local meats and produce.

  • Support (and know) your local farmers.
  • Local foods are fresher.
  • Lower carbon footprint for foods that haven’t traveled long distances. 
  • Shorter shipping means less cost for you.
  • Enjoy seasonality of local foods.
  • Less risk of contamination because they’re handled less. Cut out the middleman and buy direct from the farm.
  • You’ll need a lot of freezer space for this … but you can economize with bulk offers from local farms. Buy ¼ cow, or a ½ lamb or pig from a local farmer or butcher.

For the best quality meats … buy from a local farmer who raises free range, grass-fed or organic meats. Some dog food suppliers also offer grass-fed meats. 

RELATED: The butcher shop: The best raw food for your dog …

And lastly … be careful what kind of meat you choose. Because the terminology can get confusing. 

Meat Terminology

Here are some of the meat descriptions and what they mean.

Grass-fed (certified by the American Grassfed Association – AGA), Grass-Finished

  • animals raised on open grass pastures
  • eat only grass/forage
  • unconfined and free to roam
  • free of antibiotics and growth hormones
  • born and raised on family farms in the US
  • 24-36 months to develop (vs 18-20 months for feedlot cattle)

Grass Fed, Grain Finished 

  • raised on pasture, eating grass and forages
  • finish growing with grain diet for 4-6 months

Pasture-Raised

  • raised on pasture
  • feed is usually supplemented with grains

Organic

  • blended diet of grain, corn and grass
  • live in a way that “accommodates their natural behaviors” … not confined for long periods of time. 
  • no antibiotics or chemicals
  • 100% organic feed and forage
  • no GMOs or synthetic ingredients

The best choice is 100% grass-fed meat. Otherwise the animals may have been fed grain as well. This applies to ruminants who thrive on grass only … 

  • Cows
  • Bison
  • Lambs
  • Goats

Other animals, like pigs and chickens, need other foods. For these meats, look for pasture-raised animals. This means they had free access to fields. They ate a natural diet of grass, weeds, fruits, vegetables and insects. 

To buy meat that’s humanely and sustainably produced, look for these labels:

  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Certified Humane
  • Global Animal Partnership
  • Food Alliance Certified
  • American Grassfed Association
  • USDA Organic

Can Vegan Dogs Save The Environment?

In conclusion … 

  • Vegan diets won’t save the planet … unless they’re homemade and 100% organic.
  • And they’re not the best diet for your dog’s health. 
  • A raw meat-based diet is healthiest for your dog.
  • Raw feeding can help the environment … if you avoid factory farmed meats.
  • The best choices are local grass-fed meats and organic produce. 

I can’t imagine my dogs would be happy without bones to chew on every single day! Let your dog be the carnivore he really is!

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