As many humans tend to move away from meat-based diets and focus on other dietary alternatives, becoming vegetarian or vegan has moved into the pet domain as well. It’s a touchy and very personal subject with proponents for both sides squaring off and believing their choices for their pets are the most sensible. We humans can make our own food choices but our pets cannot and they depend on us to keep them healthy and fulfill all their dietary requirements. It seems that many consumers are adopting a meat-free lifestyle and want to feed their dogs and cats the same way. The question is, can our dogs and cats thrive on a non-meat diet?
Just because you’re ditching meat doesn’t mean your pet should. Quebec’s order of veterinarians is warning pet owners that there may be dangers and risks in putting their carnivorous pets on an exclusively plant-based diet. Their digestive system is not as well adapted to plants as ours — although dogs, being more naturally omnivores, can handle a meatless diet better than cats, which are obligate carnivores and need specific nutrients found in cat food with animal products like taurine and arachidonic acid. It is extremely hard to balance a cat’s diet without animal-based protein but products containing milk, eggs or fish can help.
The pet food industry, sensing this growing trend, has begun marketing plant-based foods to cater to those owners who want their pets to mimic their lifestyle. However, the studies conducted so far have concluded the products tested are not well balanced for cats or dogs. Many products have not been studied at all and others only on a short-term basis compared to quality diets that have long been on the market and have been tested for years on a large number of cats and dogs.
Koji, a staple in Asian plant-based diets, is essentially the core protein source in a vegan diet made by new dog food brands. This dog food is 50 per cent protein (steak is 30 per cent by comparison) and the koji is compressed like tofu with a beet-based sugar solution and is then sliced and baked to make kibble. Some pet owners say their dogs thrive on it and that it helps with allergies and obesity. But is it ethical to impose a vegan diet on our pets — dogs in particular?
Everyone wants their dogs to be the healthiest, fittest and happiest they can be but many believe a vegan diet does not provide the necessary nutrients dogs need. It can be extremely difficult to create a nutritionally robust vegan diet for a dog, particularly without the addition of many synthetic nutrients. But while dogs can digest plants, their bodies require more protein and transitioning them to a vegan diet can deprive them of collagen, elastin and keratin proteins that are essential for a dog’s skin, muscles and joints. These proteins are available as supplements but are incredibly expensive.
There are recipes for vegetarian and vegan meals for dogs but supplementing L-carnitine and taurine will be essential so the animal’s health is not jeopardized. Cats are more finicky than dogs and their nutritional requirements are more complicated.
For all sentient beings, eating should be pleasurable and pet owners have that duty to provide a diet their pet enjoys eating. A dog will wolf down a mound of mashed potatoes with great enthusiasm but that alone would be nutritionally inadequate even though it tastes delicious. Proper variation requires effort and planning to ensure that delicious is married to nutritious.
It’s quite the conundrum for many pet owners as they weigh the pros and cons of a meat vs. meatless diet for their pets. The consensus may appear to be that some dogs and cats may thrive as long as the diet is nutritionally balanced to avoid health problems. Being vigilant about what you’re feeding your best friend is key and knowing what essential nutrients are in a plant-based diet is half the battle. Whatever you decide, do your research and make wise choices as a switchover to a meatless diet can be very daunting and is not for every pet.
As for my little poodle, Donny, he will always be a meat guy. His dog food has veggies mixed in and he likes to supplement his diet by licking up every crumb he can find on the floor be it animal, mineral or vegetable. On Christmas Day, he will impatiently pace back and forth in front of the stove waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven.
Happy holidays to all of my readers and your precious pets however you celebrate and whatever you eat. May 2020 be a tail wagging good year for all!
Judie Amyot is a volunteer with Animatch, a non-profit dog adoption service. For more information, visit www.animatch.ca