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Can dogs be vegan? Vancouver vegans and their dogs: The great diet debate

Meatless meals for veggie dogs are out there - but is it the best choice? Owners and experts have their say.

Can dogs be vegetarian and vegan?

Asking this question always opens up a can of (plant-based) worms. Dog owners on both sides of the argument are as passionate about their dogs’ diets as they are their own. As they should be - but that doesn’t make the debate any less contentious.

When OhMyDog! reached out to dog parents in Vancouver, most responses were resolute and carnivorous.

“A dog is not and can not be vegetarian,” says former veterinarian assistant Liisa Huopalainen. “Your feelings and choices about meat have no place in providing proper nutrition for the animal you’ve brought into your family.”

Vancouver dog owner Susan Pinkus laughs at the idea. “My rescued street dogs would 100% kill their own meat if I tried to feed them a vegan diet!”

“It’s like vegans and vegetarians need a handbook,” cracks dog-mom Angela Chu. “‘How Not to Kill Your Pet.’”

It’s no wonder many of the vegan pet owners we talked to didn’t wish to be quoted. They say they are tired of the constant backlash against their choices.

Opinions on plant-eating pets remain divisive and often hostile. And because there isn’t a wealth of solid scientific data for vegetarian pets yet, the debate is often - and unfortunately - mired in internet infighting and website misinformation.

What’s needed is an honest and open discussion without villainizing either side, but the issue is hardly a black-and-white one.

No Simple Choice

As if dog food wasn’t already a divided field. Raw, kibble, wet, home-cooked - everyone has an opinion and routine. So throwing in the vegan dilemma makes dog food a complicated personal puzzle.

Think about it. Vegan and vegetarian diets alone carry different belief systems. People make choices for their pets based on environmental, health, animal welfare, and moral reasons.

Often it’s about leaving less of a footprint and pawprint on this planet. It’s not as simple as vegans thrusting their beliefs on their animals, as some argue.

“Our girl has allergies, so that limits our choices,” says North Shore resident Elle Dee about the vegetables and raw kibble she feeds her dog. “Yes, dogs are omnivores but different breeds require different amounts of protein, so find a form that works for you.”

Then there are local vegetarians like Colleen Dawson, who has been meat-free for 49 years, but still must handle raw animal parts to feed her dogs.

“I'd do anything for my girls, even to the point of cutting up large pillows of tripe into meal sizes,” she tells OhMyDog!. “If anyone has dealt with tripe, it smells like an outhouse on a hot day. Both my girls had or have food and seasonal allergies, so going raw, for me, was the only option.”

How does a dedicated vegetarian chop up animal parts each day?

“I wash up after touching the meat with hot soapy water, like a surgeon,” says Dawson. “I just zone out my brain while feeding her.”

Vegetarian and Vegan Dog Food

As sensitive a subject it is, vegan and vegetarian dog food is in demand, and an entire industry around plant-eating pets is thriving. According to a recent University of Guelph survey, about 30% of vegan dog owners feed their dogs vegan food.

Products like V-Planet, Wild Earth, and Natural Balance are all animal-free dog foods. On the homemade front, many vegan eaters feed their dogs high-protein foods such as lentils, potatoes, quinoa, pumpkin, spinach, and soybeans.

Rhianydd Bellis eats mostly vegan, and cares for Tessa and Ferris Bueller, two dogs she rescued from shelters. She feeds them a fish-based kibble she feels good about.

“It's not perfect,” she says. “Fishing comes with its own issues, but at least wild-caught fish lets me avoid supporting animal agriculture.”

Rhianydd with Tessa and Ferris | Courtesy: Rhianydd Bellis

"I try to design my life so that my actions align with my values. I believe it's possible to feed my dogs in a healthful way while still trying to minimize harm - or at least suffering - to other species.”

Bellis substitutes every few of their meals with dog food from Virchew, a Vancouver-based vegan dog food company. One of Virchew’s website slogans is “Feeding Fido Shouldn’t Be a Moral Dilemma - do the right thing for your dog, the earth, and your heart, too.”

The website also includes a disclaimer which states their products and services are not a replacement for the expert care and advice of a veterinarian.

So...Can Dogs Succeed Without Meat?

Virchew is on the right track with its disclaimer. Owner-vet dialogue about doggie diets is essential here, especially without an abundance of scientific backing on the subject.

Veterinarians often suggest vegetarian food for dogs with specific health issues or allergies, and many don’t recommend plant-based diets for puppies or pregnant dogs. The rest, is a vet-by-vet opinion, but pup parents should keep an eye on their pets’ coats, skin, and stools, as well as get bloodwork done yearly.

“Dogs’ commercial diets include animal product and by-product as well as grains, vegetables and fruits which, in balance, will be the perfect diet,” says Vancouver Animal Behaviorist and Nutritional Pet Consultant, Lilliana Olmedo.

“But let's remember they are carnivores. Their teeth and gastrointestinal tract are made to properly digest and absorb the nutrients that come from animal products.”

Dogs are in the animal order called Carnivora, but are actually omnivores like us. However, their digestive tracts are not built to digest plants as well as we do. Dogs’ jaw structures, teeth, and condensed “guts” have not evolved much, and still lean towards heavy meat-eating.

“Feeding a dog is not about the ingredients, but the nutrients that are provided by the different sources in the diet ” says Olmedo, who has a veterinary background. She adds that vegan dog diets must be supplemented with crucial things like vitamins D and B Complex found in animals.

It’s interesting to note - and vegan dog owners often do - that one of the oldest living dogs on record was Bramble, a border collie from England. Bramble passed away in 2003 at over 25-years-old, and yes, was a full-fledged vegan.

The Bottom Line

It seems that dogs can thrive on protein-heavy vegetarian and vegan diets if their caretakers are diligent with experts, supplements, and smart buying choices. At the same time, it’s not commonly recommended, knowing that dogs are dogs, and always will be. A diet of carrots and pasta won’t cut it for a vegetarian dog just as a human vegetarian won’t get many health benefits by eating only french fries every day.

It comes down to this (not uncommon) twist: you can source the greenest of greens, spend a small fortune on consultations, out-argue the naysayers, and concoct vegan masterpieces in the kitchen.

But if your dog won’t eat the food...well, it might have never been up to you in the first place.



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