Understanding vegan diets for dogs

Choosing an appropriate diet for your dog can be a daunting task. There are so many options for pet owners to pick from. Not to mention the conflicting and strong opinions on what is the best choice. 

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Canine nutrition is constantly evolving; it’s an area that has been well-studied over the years and is highly regulated in the UK. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition for dogs. Each dog is an individual with their own specific needs. These needs change based on their age, breed, lifestyle, and general health. Sustainability is also an important consideration when choosing dog food, now more than ever.

Common myths and misconceptions about dog food

There are strong opinions about the various types of dog foods available, whether raw, kibble, vegetarian, or vegan! Find out the truth about some of the common myths below.

“Commercial dog foods are full of by-products, preservatives and other contaminants.”

The by-products referenced in pet foods typically refer to meat derivatives from animals. They are from animals fit for human consumption but are seen as undesirable in some cultures. Not only do these meat derivatives have nutritional value, but they also contribute to minimising waste. We add preservatives to food to keep it from going bad. They are also used in human food and are considered safe. In the UK, regulations require animal by-products to be free of transmissible diseases.

“Cooking dog food destroys the nutrients.”

High temperatures can affect food in various ways. Too much heat can make proteins harder to digest. But heat can also decrease certain compounds that reduce the nutritional benefits of food. There’s no proof that raw food is easier to digest than cooked food. Cooking food substantially lowers the risk of foodborne illnesses in dogs.

“Dogs don’t need grains and many have grain allergies.”

Grains come from plants and are an excellent source of energy for dogs. Examples of grains include oats, barley and rice. Over the years, the digestive systems of dogs have evolved (similarly to humans) to be able to digest properly cooked grains. Grains contain many nutrients to support optimal health in dogs, such as antioxidants, fibre, protein and minerals. 

Food allergies exist. But they are much rarer than flea and environmental allergies. The three most common food allergies in dogs are beef, dairy, and chicken. Grain allergies are relatively uncommon. They account for less than 13% of all dogs with food allergies. Avoiding grain is not an effective way to diagnose or manage food allergies in dogs. 

“Dogs are carnivores.”

Dogs, like humans, are classified as omnivores. This means they can eat and live on both animal- and plant-based food sources.

What is a balanced diet?

Did you know? Your dog needs 37 essential nutrients in their daily diet!

Studies on dog nutrition have shown that a balanced diet must have the right amount of nutrients. These are split into 6 key groups: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. An essential nutrient is one that must be provided in the diet, as dogs cannot produce it themselves. The amounts needed for each of these vital components vary depending on your dog’s life stage and lifestyle. 

Your dog’s diet must contain the correct amount of these nutrients. Too little or too much of some nutrients can cause illness. Poor-quality or unbalanced diets can lead to severe problems. These include pancreatitis, skin problems, gastrointestinal diseases, and diabetes.

Can dogs be vegan?

In theory, dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet. But only if it’s properly balanced. And ensuring it is balanced is one of the main difficulties. Vegan and vegetarian diets require careful formulation by qualified animal nutritionists. 

Dog owners may consider putting their dogs on a vegan diet for many reasons. These include religious beliefs and concerns about the environment. Vegan dog food doesn’t contain any of the most common allergens, so it may be useful for dogs with food allergies. Studies show that owners of dogs on vegan diets see them as having good body condition and weight. They also report having fewer health problems.

What to be aware of with vegan diets

Vegan diets for dogs are still relatively new. So, there is limited information, research, and long-term studies about them. Studies around nutrition are complex, take a long time and require a large number of participants. 

If you choose to feed your dog a vegan diet, it’s best to speak to a qualified dog nutritionist first to help you select a complete and balanced diet. 

Potential problems associated with unbalanced vegan diets

Some vital nutrients are in very low amounts or are missing in plant-based products. These need to be appropriately supplemented in vegan diets.

  • Vitamin B12 is found in meat and dairy products. Deficiencies in this can lead to anaemia and neurological problems.
  • An imbalance in the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio can lead to a condition causing bone, joint and mobility problems.
  • Amino acids are essential nutrients in dogs that come from protein. Meat sources tend to have better availability of this type of nutrient. Deficiencies in amino acids can lead to symptoms such as poor coat condition and digestive problems. Also, low taurine levels (an amino acid) are thought to relate to the risk of dilated cardiomyopathy (a heart condition). 

Vegan dog foods tend to have a higher fibre content. Diets with too much fibre can affect the absorption of essential fatty acids. This can lead to skin and coat problems.

Puppies, because they are growing, need more of certain nutrients. They are at the highest risk of nutritional imbalance.

Balancing sustainability and animal welfare considerations

Awareness of sustainability and animal welfare is growing. People are turning their attention not only to the food they eat but also to what they provide for their pets. 

One undeniable fact about vegan diets is that they are more sustainable. Feeding your dog a vegan diet can significantly cut your carbon footprint. 

Concerns about production animal health and welfare are also a common reason why people choose veganism. However, the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.  

Insect-based diets are a fairly newcomer in the dog food industry. They appear to have a good balance of sustainability while still providing dogs with adequate nutrition.

What to look for when choosing a diet for your dog

Important points to consider when choosing a diet for your dog:

  • Who made the diet? Does the company have a nutritionist? What qualifications does the nutritionist have (a PhD in Animal Nutrition or Board Certification with ECVCN/ACVN)?
  • What nutritional studies or research have been done to test the diet?
  • Is the diet complete and balanced? In the UK, the UK Pet Food (and the FEDIAF in the EU) set out strict nutritional guidelines for cat and dog foods. Some foods are considered complementary or short-term diets.
  • Does your dog have any long-term medical conditions? Like diabetes, kidney disease, or obesity? Some diets are specially formulated for these patients. The diets consider their needs for specific nutrient levels.

Interested in finding out more? The WSAVA website has lots of useful information for pet owners.

vegan diets for dogs

Vegan dog food has ethical and environmental benefits. But it needs careful research and formulation. By understanding dogs’ nutritional needs and seeking professional advice, pet owners can make informed choices. They can choose options that prioritise both their pets’ well-being and their own values.

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