It doesn’t take Rocket Science to understand why people opt to lead a vegetarian lifestyle. They save you more money, wards off cardiovascular diseases, adds 13 more healthy years of your life, supports the fight against animal cruelty, and might I add the vibrant colors on your plate every time you eat? The reasons we’re choosing to say no to meats are just endless. But what if we can give the same to our pets?
We’ve seen the benefits of leading a vegetarian lifestyle. Why can’t we do the same for our dogs? But can they get the required amount of nutrients they need from plants just like we do? Can they go without meat in their diets at all? Stick with me as I bring to light the ultimate question of: Can dogs be vegetarian?
You may or may not have heard of the story of Bramble. Bramble was a Border Collie who held the Guinness World Record for being the oldest living dog in her time. She completely lived on a vegan diet for over 25 years. That’s 189 in dog years! How amazing is that? Anne Heritage, Bramble’s owner, fed Bramble a big bowl of vegetables every evening and gave her lots of exercises. Her diet consisted mainly of organic vegetables, lentils, rice, and textured vegetable protein. The Heritage family and their dogs are a testament that dogs can still survive and be healthy while staying vegan. However, many dog experts still advise on not letting your dog go totally vegan. Let me break it down for you why.
Anatomy of dogs
How a dog’s body was made can tell us something about how they should actually eat. Our dog’s jaw structures, sharp teeth, and digestive tract sizes haven’t really evolved over the years – even if they were domesticated from so years go. Their sharp teeth were made to tear flesh. Yikes! But so were there strong jaws. Their strong jaws make crunching bones and cartilage a breeze for them. Unlike cows and horses, their sharp teeth move in an up-down motion making meat more digestible to them than grains and plants. This does not mean, however, that they are pure carnivores. Over the years from living with humans, dogs have adapted the ability to produce amylase in their pancreas and small intestine. Amylase is an enzyme that converts starch into simple sugars. Hence, dogs are now what we call “facultative carnivores”. This means that they can survive eating omnivorous diets if need be.
In the same manner, the size difference in theirs and our digestive tracts also come to play. Have you ever noticed that your dogs need potty time in a matter of 15-30 minutes? That has something to do with their shorter and simpler digestive tract. Dogs relatively have a hard time digesting cellulose found in plants. This causes dogs to be unable to extract the nutrients from the plant into their system long enough before they’re defecated. And so as mother nature would have it, dogs’ stomachs in turn were made to be highly acidic. This gives them the ability to digest meat proteins quickly and nutrients being readily available for them. Furthermore, stronger acids in their stomach also give them the ability to kill disease-causing bacteria commonly found in meats.
One of the many concerns for making dogs vegetarian is the effect of lectin to their bodies – specifically to their guts. A dog’s gut is responsible for 70% of their immune system. Damage the gut, and there can be irreversible consequences. Lectins are a natural-defense system for plants. They are their own form of insecticides and anti-nutrients. Because plants cannot move, lectins cause pests or predators to be discouraged from eating the plant. Consequently, GMO developers use this knowledge to create GMO grains that are high in lectins to increase their plants’ resistance to pests. But what does this mean for our pets? Feeding our dogs a vegetarian diet may expose them to harmful GMO products that contain a high level of lectins. This can damage their guts causing their linings to be inflamed and develop autoimmune diseases. Lectins are also associated with developing thyroid diseases and E-coli bacteria.
Lack of essential nutrients is the main concern for people who feed their dogs a vegan diet. These are the nutrients the body cannot provide for itself. This is why they must gain it through the food they take to survive. Sadly, some of these nutrients can be difficult to acquire in vegan diets. Dogs, for instance, need collagen, elastin, and keratin in their bodies to have healthy skin, joints, and muscles. Conversely, these three proteins can only be found in various animal parts like skin, hair, beaks, and feet.
Other essential nutrients our dogs need to have are:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin C
Let me briefly explain what these nutrients do. Vitamin A is just one of the vitamins that can be found in plants. Carrots are one great source for this. Vitamin A is responsible for healthy skin, fur, muscle, and nerve function. Vitamin D is needed to maintain strong muscles and bones. This vitamin, however, can only be acquired by dogs through their food intake. Unlike us, dogs cannot convert Vitamin D from the sun into their system. A chronic deficiency in Vitamin D may cause joint pain and makes dogs more prone to bone fractures. Taurine is an essential amino acid in a dog’s overall health. This amino acid prevents heart diseases like dilated cardiomyopathy and eye problems in dogs. Taurine is an amino acid commonly found in meats. However, dogs can produce Taurine on their own as long as provided with a dietary protein.
Dogs need B Vitamins in their diet. Especially Vitamin B6 that aid in glucose generation, nervous system function, immune response, niacin synthesis, and heart health. B vitamins may be commonly found in meat diets but dogs can break down the amino acid tryptophan into B vitamins if needed. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant. It can help fight against viral, respiratory, and bacterial infections in dogs. Dogs can generally produce Vitamin C in their livers. But incorporating supplemental and other fruits rich in Vitamin C in their diet can help.
Now that we’ve covered the important facts, it’s time to answer our question. Can dogs be vegetarian? Technically, yes but it can be dangerous. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a private non-profit corporation that sets standards for animal feed and pet food, recommends that an adult-sized dog should at least have 18% of protein in their diet. An amount the AAFCO deemed necessary to have good health and proper development in dogs. This is important to remember as the nutrients our dogs need differ in every stage of their life. Puppy food, for example, requires a higher amount of nutrition to help develop their bones, muscles, and provide enough energy.
In some medical cases, veterinarians prescribe commercial vegan pet food or home-cooked vegetarian diets to dogs with food allergies or liver disease. However, these cases are closely monitored and supervised by veterinarians.
Whether you’re thinking of switching to a vegetarian diet or a grain-free diet altogether, it’s most important that our dogs’ health is our priority. While it’s great to advocate against animal cruelty, sticking to a diet plan that provides all the nutrients our dog needs is still the best option – with or without meat. What I recommend fur-parents to do is do their homework. You must be made aware of the risks involved when choosing a meat-free diet for your dog. The health benefits we get from a vegetarian diet does not necessarily translate to our dogs. They may become susceptible to deficiencies and health problems. Consult a licensed veterinary nutritionist to guide you in this process.