Considering a Vegetarian Diet for your Dog? Here’s Everything You Should Know!
If you’ve stumbled upon this article looking for veg dog food recipes, or are considering feeding your dog a vegetarian diet – you’ve come to the right place!
A little part of me dies inside, whenever someone mentions that their dog is a vegetarian. Of course, I want to interject and tell them how inappropriate that sounds, biologically. But I usually excuse myself from such conversations because almost all of them culminate in an ethical dilemma that’s pleasing to nobody. But it’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, sooner than later.
So in this article, we’d like to talk about Vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice for your pet dog. If you still choose for your furry kid to be a vegetarian, it’s your decision as a parent. But we’d strongly encourage you to read through completely before making the choice for him.
Are Dogs Omnivores?
Yes and No! The first and most scientific argument that people put forward while justifying a vegetarian diet for their dogs is that they’re Omnivorous animals, like humans. This belief has probably emerged from the increasing humanization of our pooches. Except that it’s not entirely accurate. Sure, a dog can eat and digest a vegetarian diet so he does qualify as an Omnivore by definition; but he’s not! Let’s understand why.
Omnivores are animals that derive chemical energy and nutrients from materials originating from plant and animal sources; carnivores survive purely on animal-based food and herbivores eat plant-based diets only. A variety of adaptations in the animal’s body built this capability. They develop different anatomical features relative to their natural diet.
Teeth & Jaws
A herbivore’s teeth (Fig. 1), for example, are wide and flat to grind the food well before ingesting. A carnivore’s teeth and jaws (Fig. 2) are designed to tear flesh, break and chew bones. A true omnivore has a mix of both – sharp meat-tearing front teeth and flat molars to crush and chew plant matter. Fig. 3 shows the teeth and jaw of a primate. And you’re not the only one who thinks they resemble your teeth. That’s because humans are omnivorous too.
Let’s look inside your dog’s mouth now (Fig. 4). Notice how his teeth are somewhat like scissors? They help him quickly tear through the hide, meat, and bones of prey animals. Their teeth are designed to rip, shred and shear animal meat. He also has pointed, and not flat, molars. Dogs have no flat molars because nature didn’t intend for them to eat plants.
A dog’s jaw opens wider to accommodate large chunks of meat and bones. The powerful muscles around the neck and jaw aid in pulling and killing the prey. It’s designed not to move laterally when prey is fighting against it. It allows only up and down movement designed for crushing. Omnivores and herbivores have jaws that permit lateral movement to grind plant matter; your dog doesn’t!
Enzymes & Digestion
When we chew our food, it’s mixed with saliva that has digestive enzymes. The enzymes start breaking down the starches (carbs) before they even reach our stomach. A dog’s saliva doesn’t have these enzymes. Instead, their saliva contains anti-bacterial enzymes. These enable them to eat and digest raw or even rotting meat, but they’re unable to handle carbs and starches.
Dogs’ pancreas produce only the amount of enzymes necessary to process fats and protein. Hence it falls on the liver to produce enough enzymes to deal with the contents of plant matter. Over time, the extra strain on the liver compromises its ability to function well. A starch-based diet is one of the leading causes of hepatic diseases in dogs.
The pH levels of a dog’s stomach is around 1 to 2. Most omnivores have a pH of 2 to 3.5. This indicates that dogs are more equipped to handle meat than vegetable matter. Dogs also don’t produce the varieties of gut bacteria that break down cellulose and starch in plant matter. This means most of the nutrients in plants are useless in nourishing your dog.
A dog’s intestine is very small (2.5X of his body length) compared to that of a human (5X of body height). Most herbivores tend to have longer intestines because plant matter takes longer to digest completely. A carnivore’s body quickly absorbs all the nutrients from the meat, and pushes the undigested food out of the body before it starts decaying.
Nutrition & Metabolism
Protein is a crucial component of every cell in your dog’s body. Essential amino acids from high-quality animal protein build healthy cells, organs, muscles, enzymes, and hormones. Dogs need 23 essential amino acids to handle all their metabolic and energy requirements. Their bodies only produce 13 of the 23. The other 10 must come from the food they eat.
Unlike herbivores and true omnivores who have longer intestines and a rich gut flora, dogs can’t absorb the amino acids from plant-based protein sources due to their short digestive cycle. A dog’s protein sources should provide a wide spectrum of amino acids available in a simple form, i.e. meat-based proteins.
Dietary fat provides energy, essential vitamins, and fatty acids. Fatty acids from animal sources are important for healing, normal cell membrane synthesis, reproduction, and a healthy coat and skin.
Plant-based nutrients are more complex than those from animal sources. Veggies and other plant-matter like grains and roots need extensive chewing & grinding. They also need special digestive enzymes and take a long time to digest completely. Omnivores and Herbivores usually have a complex digestive system that helps them digest plant matter effectively.
Dogs have a simpler and carnivorous digestive mechanism. That is why, while your dog can eat and enjoy a plant-based diet, it’s not the best for him. A bulk of his protein and fat should come from meat.
That being said, a meat-only diet is incomplete and incorrect for your dog too. Dogs also need a variety of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants to lead a healthy life. These micronutrients are mostly found in vegetables and fruits. Hence, it’s important to supplement your dog’s meat-based diet with veggies and fruits and sometimes other plant-based food sources. That’s the only thing that qualifies them to be called omnivorous, in my opinion. Although, technically, our canine friends (Genus: Canis) still belong to the order Carnivora.
This is the point where people usually start taking offence and throw ridiculed statements like “We’ve been feeding roti and dal to our dog for 60 years now and he’s still fine!”, “My dog doesn’t like meat” and others. If your dog doesn’t like meat, it’s probably because he’s never eaten it before! And just because we’ve been doing something for several years, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Maybe your dog could have done better, lived healthier, longer if he was on a meat-based diet instead? Who knows!
Of course, a dog can SURVIVE on vegetarian food but will THRIVE on a meat-based diet.
Can you make a nutritionally balanced vegetarian dog food?
Yes, but it would require a lot of work and planning to devise a plant-based recipe that’s appropriate for your dog’s life-stage. Getting all essential amino acids from plant-sources and making them available in an easy-to-digest form for your dog is complicated. Preparing a complex recipe consistently every day could be challenging. Even if you make your best attempt, there’s always room for error. The adverse-effects often manifest over a long time, and hence difficult to diagnose early. And even the most accurately balanced diets will need some synthetic supplements. Now would you rather have your dogs feed on vegetarian but synthetic food or a species-appropriate natural one?
Challenges with a Vegetarian Diet for Dogs
The most crucial component of a dog’s diet is Protein. Though not all proteins are the same. What works for you on a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily going to work for your dog. Owing to the anatomical differences we discussed earlier, dogs don’t assimilate vegetarian proteins as well as meat proteins. Given below is a list of foods and their protein digestibility index. Egg whites are a benchmark and given the value of 1 because they are really easy for dogs to digest. All other foods are given in comparison:
|Muscle meats (chicken, beef, lamb)||0.92|
|Organ meats (kidney, liver, heart)||0.90|
This means that if you use soy as a protein source for your dog, it will provide only 75% availability of the protein present in practice. Lowered availability along with an already high RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) creates a huge availability-gap in vegetarian diets. Over time, this results in deficiencies in your dog.
Why not use eggs itself, you ask?
Because whole eggs contain fats too. An excess of eggs in the diet (just enough to meet the RDI) can lead to obesity and vitamin-toxicity due to overfeeding of certain vitamins. Feeding egg-whites alone could lead to biotin deficiency. Egg whites contain high levels of avidin, a protein that binds to biotin strongly, making it unavailable to the body. Biotin deficiency could lead to a myriad of skin and coat issues in dogs.
It isn’t just the quantity of protein that’s a challenge. Not all proteins are the same. Unlike meat-based proteins which are usually wide-spectrum proteins, vegetarian proteins often have a limited set of amino acids.
There are 23 amino acids which dogs need. Of these, 10 are ‘essential’ amino acids, meaning the dog must obtain them through food. The other 13 amino acids are ‘nonessential’ for dogs. This doesn’t mean the dog doesn’t need them. It just means that the dog can manufacture them out of the essential amino acids.
The 10 essential amino acids are: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. All of these can be found in different plant-based foods. However, some aren’t as readily available as others.
The two non-essential amino acids that require special attention are Taurine and L-Carnitine. They are not considered essential because dogs can synthesize them in their livers. However, not enough to meet their daily nutritional needs. These amino acids are NOT found naturally in any plant-based food. They need to be synthetically supplemented, should you choose to feed a vegetarian diet to your dog. Their deficiency can lead to serious heart problems.
Vitamin D and B12
Unlike humans, dogs cannot synthesize vitamin D from sunlight. It’s not readily available in plant sources and needs to be supplemented. Similarly, there is NO plant-based source of Vitamin B12 and needs to be supplemented synthetically. However, be careful as too much of these could be fatal for your dog.
Kidney Risks with Vegetarian Food for Dogs
Due to their low availability, vegetarian sources of protein generate a urine in dogs with an incorrect pH level. If the urine is too acidic or not acidic enough, it puts extra stress on the kidneys and can result in renal issues. It’s important that a dog feeding on vegetarian diet drinks copious amounts of water to normalize his urine pH and keep his kidneys in good health. Periodic urine tests ensure that your dog’s uric acid and creatinine levels are in check.
Gastric Risks with Vegetarian Food for Dogs
Vegetarian diets, especially those high on carbs and leafy greens could generate excess gas in dogs. Gas could make your dog extremely uncomfortable, resulting in bloating or Gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), and even death, if not attended in time.
Sure, dogs can live a regular life on a vegetarian diet but they’d need planned meals and an extensive exercise routine to stay healthy. Apartment dogs are better off with balanced and complete meat-based diets. Low activity levels along with a vegetarian diet put them at a higher risk compared to their meat-fed counterparts. Working dogs MUST be fed a meat-based diet only.
A dog that’s fed a meat-based diet will always fare better than his vegetarian counterpart – be it on parameters of nutritional build up, muscle strength and endurance, agility, stamina, immunity or longevity. Sure, you don’t have put up your dog to a show. Most people never have to run a marathon, they still work out at the gym to stay fit. It’s about making the right choice. Make one for your furry baby today!
I don’t feel it’s right to kill one animal to feed another. What do I do?
Get a rabbit, hamster, guinea pig, goat, cow or a horse for a pet, instead of a dog!
While I sensitize with the Vegan movement and support kind and ethical treatment of all animals, I feel it’s also important that we respect the food-chain that’s built over millions of years of Evolution. Animals ‘hunting’ other animals for food has been a way of nature since the beginning of time. The shift from ‘hunting’ to ‘farming & slaughtering’ is a by-product of the human civilization and its progression. But that’s a discussion for another article.
Given an option, we’d love for all dogs to find and hunt their own prey and feed themselves. However, since the onus of their well-being lies on us, it’s important that we take an informed decision. Denying them a species-appropriate diet due to our religious, cultural or ethical belief is cruel treatment. Forcing our choice on them defies the very intent of that choice. Let’s be honest, given a choice between a piece of fresh meat and a bowl of salad, we know what your dog would pick!
You may be a vegetarian. And we respect that. But your dog is most certainly not. Can we respect that too, please?
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