As a vegetarian and former vegan, I must admit my interest has been piqued lately by an emerging trend in animal care: veganism in pets. Knowing all of the health and ecological/ethical reasons I personally subscribe to such a diet, I can't help thinking — could this be a good thing for my dog too?
While I'm not sure my sassy pit bull-chocolate Lab mix, Idgie, would be terribly enthusiastic about cutting meat out of her meal plan, I'm certainly willing to give it a shot if it's in her best interest. So, in the name of my dog's potential health enrichment, I decided to do some research.
Here's what I found about this rather controversial yet rising trend in pet care.
It works the same way for pets as it does for humans. In adopting a vegan diet for your pets, you would commit to abstaining from feeding them any food that comes from animals. This includes dairy as well as animal products (think leather collars, etc.).
Here's where the conversation gets tricky. For humans, the reasons can range from bettering our health to making the choice based on our personal beliefs about ethics, religion or even the environment. Although most pet owners would agree that animals do have feelings and relatively evolved thought processes, they aren't capable of making those kinds of decisions for themselves.
This means that some people who choose a vegan diet for their pet are ascribing their beliefs to their pet's diet — their viewpoints are carrying over into what they feed their four-legged companion. However, there are also documented cases of pet owners like Shelley Boyle of Atlanta, Georgia, whose vet suggested a vegan diet for Shelley's dog, Cleo, due to health issues.
Here's where the great debate really begins. On the one side, you have more holistic-minded vets and pet owners proclaiming the benefits of a vegan diet for cats and dogs. On the other side, you have those who insist it is unnatural. In the latter camp is pet specialist Dr. Bruce, D.V.M., who has over 15 years of experience in veterinary medicine.
When I asked Dr. Bruce his thoughts on whether or not a vegan diet for pets was healthy, he explained, "In the wild, dogs and cats aren't vegans — their bodies are set up to eat meat, and this is something that I feel should continue in their domesticated lives. To try and feed a true vegan diet [to your pets] would be very difficult to have a complete and balanced diet. I wouldn't recommend it."
According to board-certified veterinary nutritionist Cailin Heinze, V.M.D., it's simply not advisable for cats, as it goes against their physiology. However, she says, "For dogs, certainly vegetarian and vegan diets can be done, but they need to be done very, very carefully. There is a lot of room for error, and these diets probably are not as appropriate as diets that contain at least some animal protein." This certainly seems to align with what Dr. Bruce told me, as he said achieving a complete and balanced diet this way would be very difficult... not impossible.
In the case of Boyle and her dog Cleo, who was prescribed a vegan diet by their vet, Boyle told CNN that her vet at the Animal Dermatology Clinic in Pasadena suggested calcium and iron supplements — either through a diet rich in leafy greens or through a vegan pet vitamin. This would be key in a vegan pet diet, since cats and dogs have a markedly higher protein requirement than people have. Vegan pet foods can't entirely replicate the complete nutrient profile of a diet containing plants and meat.
Most experts seem to agree that a vegan diet is definitely not a good idea for cats — there are even well-publicized cases where a vegan diet nearly led to feline death — as they are obligate carnivores, meaning they essentially need animal protein to survive. However, there is evidence suggesting that dogs could conceivably live on a plant-based diet. Like cats, they are classified Carnivora, but unlike cats, modern dogs aren't obligate carnivores. They've adapted over time to an omnivorous diet. Whether that means they could thrive on a vegan diet remains to be seen, though.
While there is no shortage of information as well as experts out there to bolster each side of this argument, the bottom line is this: If you have a trusted family veterinarian, consult them before making any change to your pet's diet — especially one as major as going vegan.
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