Science Sides with Plant-based Pups
A ground-breaking new study has revealed very encouraging health data for dogs fed on vegan diets, and worrying results for those on conventional pet food.
Just as there are plenty of persistent myths around the unsuitability of a vegan diet for humans, there are ample baseless assumptions about the viability of a plant-based diet for canine household members masquerading as fact. While most experts in animal nutrition now acknowledge dogs can thrive on a well designed plant-based diet, a new study suggests that vegan food might actually be healthier and safer than conventional doggie diets.
A large-scale study involving over 2500 dogs, who were tracked over a year, compares health outcomes of those on three different diets; conventional pet food, raw meat, and vegan pet food. Professor Andrew Knight, lead researcher on the project, says the results of the study conclusively dispel the misconception that feeding dogs vegan food somehow compromises their welfare.
“Research on this scale about dogs is the first to be published and clearly demonstrates that the healthiest and least hazardous diets for dogs are nutritionally sound vegan diets,” he explains.
Titled ‘Vegan versus meat-based dog food: Guardian-reported indicators of health’, the study was recently published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Plos One (www.plos.org). The research was carried out by a team of researchers in the UK and Australia, who tracked 2536 dogs for at least a one-year period, with their guardians surveyed on seven general indicators of health.
The composition of the participating dogs breaks down like this: 54% were on a conventional meat diet, 33% on a raw meat diet, and 13% on a vegan diet. The health outcomes monitored over the study were:
- Unusual numbers of veterinary visits
- Medication use
- Progression onto a therapeutic diet after initial maintenance on a vegan or meat-based diet
- Guardian opinion
- Predicted veterinary assessment of health status
- Percentage of unwell dogs
- Number of health disorders per unwell dog
The primary conclusion of the study was that “dogs fed conventional diets appeared to fare worse than those fed either of the other two diets”.
Health outcomes for dogs on both raw meat diets and vegan diets were significantly better than those on conventional pet food. Outcomes for dogs eating raw meat were slightly better than those on a vegan diet, but the study notes that the dogs in the former category also had the “health protective effect of being significantly younger” than the dogs in the vegan group.
The study also examines the various hazards associated with the three different diets. The research indicated a raw meat diet would not be recommended due to associations with “increased risks of bacterial pathogens, as well as non-bacterial pathogens and zoonoses”. These risks are not present in a plant-based diet.
A key statistic from the study’s findings relates to the percentage of dogs that suffered from health disorders from each dietary stream: 49% of dogs on a conventional meat diet, 43% on a raw meat diet, and 36% on a vegan diet.
The study concludes: “the pooled evidence to date indicates that the healthiest and least hazardous dietary choices for dogs are nutritionally sound vegan diets”.
This is the first study of its kind to be carried out, and the research team acknowledges various limitations and a need for further research. The study relied on both quantitative results as well as opinions reported by the dogs’ guardians, where “large-scale, prospective studies, that utilise relatively objective assessments of unambiguous data” would produce more reliable data.
With sufficient funding, the researchers would like to see longitudinal studies based on results of veterinary clinical examinations, veterinary medical histories, and laboratory data, to produce results of greater reliability.
Evidence of the impacts of western society’s heavy meat consumption on the environment and population health, continues to mount, as does concern for how farmed animals are treated. Many are looking to veganism as a way of mitigating these impacts. With some 470 million dogs kept as pets worldwide, a transition away from meat-based pet food has the potential to effect significant change.
However, commonly held beliefs around the “dangers” of feeding dogs vegan food remain a barrier for many. Food awareness organisation, ProVeg International, is one organisation working to overcome this barrier. The organisation contributed funding towards the study and Stephanie Jaczniakowska-McGirr, international head of food and retail for ProVeg, says the findings are important.
“It is vital to have this added to the scientific database as pet owners are very concerned that their pets’ nutritional needs are fully met in the pet food they buy,” she says. “This study goes a long way towards removing the uncertainty about the value of a vegan pet food diet.”
Many companies around the world produce and are developing vegan pet food alternatives, based on new protein sources such as plants, seaweed, yeast, and fungi. As the popularity of veganism for both humans and their animal family members continues to rise, so too does the opportunity to disrupt traditional, meat-based sectors and their heavy impact on our world.
Plant-Based Pups: Emma
Emma is a 10-month-old who was abandoned as a puppy in Whangārei but has since found a loving home with her best friend, Madeleine. After first meeting, the pair spent a few weeks at Paws Awhile Animal Sanctuary in Raglan, where Emma learned social cues and confidence from the other dogs, and Madeleine got the rundown on being a top dog mum from sanctuary proprietor Anna.
Now home in Auckland, both Madeleine and Emma are living their best lives fueled by plants.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, so over the course of a few months I just really gradually transitioned her from the meat-based kibble she was having at the SPCA to a combo of Addiction vegan kibble and homemade meals,” explains Madeleine.
“Generally, any meals I make are roughly half high protein, like chickpeas, lentils, or TVP, 40% or so oats or another grain, and the rest a mix of nutritious and delicious add-ins like flaxseeds or nutritional yeast. Peanut butter and tofu are probably her favourite treats at the moment!”
When not chowing down on good vegan kai, Emma loves meeting new dogs and people on her romps around the maunga, cuddling, and sleeping in.
Plant-Based Pups: Mila
Mila is a six-year-old Jack Russell cross who found her family through Waikato’s DC Rescue Dogs. She came into Samineh’s family as an adorable 3kg pup, and is now a 23kg dog in peak health.
“She is very loyal, loving and protective of us,” says Samineh. “She loves kids and grew up with my daughter and now with my son. She’s ever so gentle with them.”
Mila eats a vegan diet, including Addiction Zen Vegetarian Dog Food, vegan treats like Awesome Pawsome and MuttButter, vegan canned meat from Vegie Delights, as well as lots of the food the rest of the family eats.
“She actually had some skin issues for the first year of her life, in which she ate meat,” recalls Samineh. “When I changed her diet to plant-based due to my ethics her skin issues also went away, which is a huge bonus as otherwise the vet’s solution to her skin flare ups was injections — which wasn’t really a cure.”
Mila’s favourite pastime is fetching her ball: “She goes nuts for it all day long, every minute of every day she will be happy doing that.”
Plant-Based Pups: Willow and Poppy
Willow and Poppy are both nine-year-old Dachshunds who have been vegan for seven years. They originally joined Kitty’s family before she herself had begun her vegan journey, but now all three are positively plant-based.
“Healthwise, Willow’s been great,” says Kitty. “Poppy has only suffered from problems specific to their breed: Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) and Sterile Nodular Panniculitis.”
As part of the online Dachshund community, Kitty says the only premature dog deaths she has noticed were both to do with meat-eating: “Sadly, one choked on a piece of steak and died, another died from an infection from a meat-bone bought from a pet shop.”
The beach is Willow and Poppy’s happy place; they love running around and playing chase, and Poppy loves to swim in all kinds of water — as long as it’s not the bath.
Is vegan right for your dog?
Obviously, the results of this study are very heartening. But remember, just like humans, all dogs are different, and it’s never wise to apply one-size-fits-all ideas around individual healthcare. If you’re thinking of transitioning your pup to a vegan diet, here are some points to consider:
- Do it in consultation with a vet: Preferably one you have confidence in with an understanding of the latest nutrition research
- Don’t do it quickly: Abrupt dietary changes can wreak havoc on your pal’s digestive system
- Regular checkups: Stay friendly with that vet, bring your pup in for follow-up appointments regularly as they transition
- Do your research: A vegan diet must be well planned, nutritionally complete, balanced, and appropriate for your dog’s life stage, if it’s to keep them healthy
- Not all dogs: Every canine comrade has their own unique health needs, and for some it’s just not going to be possible to thrive on a vegan diet (try not to take this as a failure; the goal is best you can, not perfection)
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.