You have decided to make a big step in your life by switching to a vegetarian diet for you and your family. Not everyone is excited about it and there have been some tense family meetings, but you have convinced them into a trial period. Since the humans do the grocery shopping and meal planning, it is easy to forget that one household member, your dog, has had no part in the decision making. Before deciding to include her in this new diet, it is best to learn about why this could be a problem for Molly’s long term health. The two reasons most often cited by humans choosing a vegetarian diet are ethical (opposed to eating animals) or health due to a history of coronary disease or high cholesterol, conditions not as common in dogs as humans, meaning that cutting cholesterol or fats would have no real health benefits for dogs.
The reality is that some dogs will eat anything and not complain, so humans sometimes think a meatless diet is sufficient for their dogs. Human vegetarian diets include grains, pasta, vegetables, legumes, and soy protein (tofu, tempeh, etc.). If the diet is vegan, it will not include dairy products or eggs or any other animal based product
Now let’s look at the nutritional needs of dogs. We hope that you have been providing Molly with a healthy diet appropriate for her size, age, and activity level. There are few studies available that either prove or disprove whether vegetarian diets are good for dogs and, when reading veterinarian opinions, we see they are very mixed. We know that dogs are omnivores (cats are strictly carnivores) which means that their diet is mixed between meat and non-meat foods. We see this in quality commercial dog foods that have meat as the main ingredient with pumpkin or legumes in lesser quantities. The dietary needs of our dogs can be broken down into the following nutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. Vitamins and minerals are provided through a balanced diet. Proteins, as found in meat, eggs, and dairy, are made up of 20 amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of cell growth, maintenance, and repair for dogs. About half of the amino acids are naturally produced and the other half must be acquired through diet. Protein is created by a process where all amino acids fall into line to create usable protein; if this process is interrupted by the lack of nutrients, the process stops. The biological value of proteins indicates how efficiently certain foods are used while digesting. Because dogs easily digest proteins from meat, some meat by-products, animal fats, eggs, and dairy, these foods have a good biological value. If you compare this value to that of plant proteins, you will find that the value is lower because of the foods being less digestible for dogs and also because there are insufficient amounts of some amino acids.
We know that fats are also part of a well-rounded diet for dogs, with fatty acids that aid in absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K which are all needed for a healthy diet. Similar to protein with essential amino acids, essential fatty acids also contribute to your dog’s health. One of these acids, linoleic is a source of omega-6 which is needed to remain healthy. When we look at switching our dog to a meat free diet, we have to take the reduction of protein and fats into consideration and understand how this reduction will impact their long term wellbeing and lifespan.
Unlike humans, dogs can survive without carbohydrates although there are some benefits. Their bodies can get energy from protein and fats alone, but carbohydrates can also be a source of energy; they breakdown in the digestive system and convert to glucose which produces energy. Carbohydrates are found in whole grains as well as certain vegetables and fruits. If you look at some commercial dog food labels, you will see carbohydrates near the top of the list of ingredients in the form of wheat or corn. Carbohydrates in the form of grains in large quantities in a dog’s diet can contribute to obesity and diabetes and energy loss due to lack of protein. Meat free diets for humans are often carbohydrate heavy and this is something to consider if you are thinking about a vegetarian diet for your dog. If energy comes from meat, animal fat, or carbohydrates, you want to be sure that you understand the risk of removing all meat or animal fat from her diet. We are not saying that all carbohydrates are bad, but that caution is needed. Brown rice, cooked very well so it is digestible, is sometimes added as a lesser ingredient in premium dog foods or food that you prepare at home.
Another consideration is related to the consumption of a high vegetable diet. Dogs digest differently than we humans do. Vegetables must be cooked until very tender or mushy so that your dog can digest the food without side effect, that can include diarrhea and gas. Foods such as potatoes or pumpkin are also sometimes included in quality dog food as lesser ingredients, but not as the prominent ingredient in the mixture. Any change in your dog’s diet must be well thought out. Withholding animal protein from your dog might have dire health consequences and it is important that you learn exactly what is best for your dog, especially if she has any health problems including digestive disorders or any other conditions that would be exacerbated by removing essential amino or fatty acids. In that case, a visit to the veterinarian is called for before a drastic change in diet.
If your reasons for wanting the whole family, dog included, to become vegetarian are related to ethical concerns about eating animals and how food is produced, it is clear that your dog doesn’t really have the ability to have an opinion (as far as we know). If you are wary about including your dog in this new venture, you can take a positive step regarding her food by only purchasing dog food produced by manufacturers who have made a commitment to using ethical methods of raising animals for food purposes. And you can advocate for more manufacturers to do so, or make homemade food with farm-to-table meat produced locally with high standards. That way Molly can be part of this search for a healthier life style without having her wellbeing compromised by the loss of essential nutrients.