More and more we’re treating our four-legged friends like our children. If not better. So, when we hear information about new ingredients or diets praised for improving our own health, it's easy to think ‘oh, this might make my dog healthier too.’
Veganism is rapidly increasing in popularity right now credited with having both environmental and health benefits. According to the latest research by The Vegan Society 1.2% of the UK’s population are now vegan, that’s well over 600,000 individuals. Even more of us are choosing to cut back on our meat consumption and might be considering going vegan this Veganuary. Naturally vegan and environmentally conscious pet owners will reflect on what they are buying for their fur babies so it's no surprise to see a growing interest in vegan dog food and vegetarian dog food.
But can our pets go cold turkey (or no turkey) and is this right by them? Can they really thrive off a plant-based diet alone?
What the law says about vegan pet food
The Animal Welfare Act dictates the duty of care we all have for our pets' wellbeing. This includes the need for a suitable, "biologically appropriate" diet. For meow-mies and cat daddies this is very clear since cats are obligate carnivores. They depend on meat for essential amino acids and struggle to digest plant material so it's not recommended to feed a vegan diet for cats. Never-the-less, vegan cat food does exist, containing synthetic amino acids but its still yet to be determined whether cats can absorb this as readily as the natural, animal sourced alternative. Until this is clear we think it's best to avoid vegan food for cats all together.
But what about doggies? Legally and theoretically yes, you can feed a dog a vegan diet albeit the science is not as clear cut.
Are dog's carnivores or omnivores?
The polarising debate continues as to whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores. But the general science based consensus is that our doggies are indeed omnivores. Critically, dogs demonstrate they are capable of digesting both animal and plant products which is a tell tale sign they are omnivorous.
Dogs have evolved enabling them to gain the nutrients they need from starchy and plant-based foods, just like we can. One of the main adaptations enabling this change relates to their production of the enzyme amylaze. This catalyses the breakdown of starch into sugars. Compared to wolves, our less ferocious floofs have 28 times more of the gene responsible for the production of amylase, allowing their bodies to produce the energy needed for their bodily functions. (Animal Genetics)
The domestication of the dog of today
On the topic of wolves, it's commonly thought that dogs descend from wolves so should be treated accordingly. Hence the assertion that dogs are strict carnivores and vegan diets a no no! The truth is more nuanced however. Dogs and wolves share common ancestry but have very different genetic paths, with the domestic dog genetic divergence thought to have taken place between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Yes dogs have been mans best friend for thousand of years, with the earliest Italian fur family member almost 20,000 years old.
It's thought the earliest ancestors of our modern dogs approached human settlements to scavenge for food and a symbiotic relationship developed. As our relationship with dogs has developed over millennia, dogs have become domesticated. Domestication shows itself in many forms, and is evident in the genetic make up of our beloved pooches. You only have to look at a Dalmatian next to a dachshund to see, but it's also clear under the skin.
The latest research shows that whilst dogs and wolves are closely linked by a common ancestor, they are in fact very different majestic creatures. They display very different behaviours and physical attributes, so let's not go and cuddle the next wolf we see. Admire from afar, wolves are not going to be your new bed buddy albeit as a recent study shows they do show some affection when raised by hoomans.
Should you feed vegan dog food alone?
So, we’ve found out that our doggies can and have been eating plants and veggies for quite a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should only eat vegan dog food.
Firstly proteins are not all the same. In fact, as they are made up of smaller units of amino acids, which can be sequenced in a vast number of variations, there are a wide variety of different proteins. To lead healthy lives, our doggies need the right quantity and range of these different amino acids to thrive. Each type of protein plays a vital role in differing functions. For example collagen, which plays a vital role in ensuring their connective tissue stays flexible.
Secondly different breeds require different protein quantities and qualities, which the FEDIAF sets out in their Nutritional Guidelines. Small dogs for example need more energy so need higher quantities of fats and protein for optimal health, which would be difficult to gain from a plant-based diet alone. This is the same for puppies or pregnant bitches.
Some proteins that our doggies need to thrive also don’t naturally occur in plants or are much less abundant. Like collagen and elastin which are found in the skin, or keratin found in nails and hair. It is therefore much trickier to ensure a plant-based diet is meeting all your pups dietary needs, and a veterinary-trained nutritionist should always be involved in the planning of their meals if you do opt for this route.
Myth busting opinions around vegan dog food:
“A dog will be healthier if fed a vegan diet”
- FALSE. A dog needs a complete, varied and balanced diet to be healthy. This could come from a plant-based diet, a flexitarian diet, a pescatarian diet etc. Quality is key; feeding your dog a poor quality vegan diet can be as damaging as feeding your dog a poor quality meat-based diet.
“Dogs can only digest protein from animal meat”
- FALSE. Our doggies are omnivores. They absolutely need protein to thrive, but this protein can come from meat or plant-based sources. Certain vegetables, pulses and grains have much higher protein levels than others. If you are feeding your dog a vegan diet it is very important to ensure they are receiving enough protein. Certain proteins like collagen, elastin and keratin that contribute to a healthy pup are also much more readily available in animal products. So you need to ensure they’re consuming the right kind of proteins too.
“My dog’s vegan and won’t eat meat”
- FALSE. If you’re pup has eaten vegan dog food or a plant-based diet from birth, they will be used to that. Just like with humans trying something new can be daunting, so whilst you may think that shows a reluctance to eat it, it’s likely just tentativeness.
What are the alternatives?
So you're wanting to reduce your pups environmental pawprint, but aren't confident you'll be able to design or find them a vegan diet that can fulfil all their needs. Here are some alternatives:
- A pescatarian or pollo-pescatarian diet like Scrumbles - fish and poultry have a much lower carbon footprint than red-meat. We're passionate about our planet and want to preserve it for all the future doggies to enjoy, therefore you'll never find red meat or dairy in any of our recipes. Check out our grain free fish dog food for fish-lovers!
- Vegan dog treats - opt for vegan treats which are supplementary to your doggies diet and don't need to fulfil all their nutritional needs. Check out our tasty Dental Dog Treats or Plant Powered Training Treats, which are not only vegan but also help keep their teeth pearly white, and come in delightful plastic free, compostable packaging. We've also got some exciting new vegan products on the way. Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to know!
- Shop local and responsibly - look for dog foods made in the UK or Ireland, that are made with locally and responsibly sourced ingredients to cut down on unnecessary food miles. You'll be supporting British businesses too!