In my research, education and experience in working with dogs—in particular those that experience excessive itching, skin redness and irritation, scratching, chewing paws and other symptoms related to food allergies—I’ve discovered that a plant-based diet can help to alleviate these symptoms. This is because plant-based diets are devoid of the top three most common food allergens in dogs, which are beef, dairy and chicken. Additionally, recent evidence has shown that plant-based diets have other benefits, such as improving overall health, increasing lifespan and helping with maintenance of optimal weight, leading to longer, healthier and happier lives for dogs (and their parents).
But I did not arrive at this finding lightly…
Since beginning the role as the Professional Services Veterinarian at a plant-based pet food startup, I have gained several certifications in animal nutrition, with plans to pursue my Masters in Animal Nutrition. I have worked tirelessly to compile the evidence for plant-based feeding in dogs, have spoken to leading experts in the field, and have come to see the benefits of a plant-based diet for longevity and symptom relief.
Through my work, my passion for education has extended past pet parents to include veterinarians as well. As a profession, we are all taught to be open-minded (as science is ever-evolving) and to think critically about the evidence presented. Yet, many of us will shut down when we hear the words “plant-based.” I was once in your shoes, and I first had to unlearn the myths that surround a plant-based diet for dogs—and there are a lot of myths out there!
As veterinarians, we need to think critically and adjust our mentality based on the overwhelming weight of evidence on the side of nutritionally sound plant-based diets. It is interesting to think that we will recommend a dog food whose protein source is feathers for food-allergic dogs, yet hesitate to recommend a nutritionally complete and balanced plant-based diet devoid of the most common food allergens for that same dog.
It is my goal to provide evidence-based data to those who seek it, and to be a reliable source of information to help dogs live longer, healthier and happier lives…and what I have found in my unlearning was that some dogs live longer, healthier and happier lives on a plant-based diet.
So, let’s bust the four most common myths about vegan diets for dogs:
1. Dogs need meat for protein.
Not exactly…Dogs don’t need to eat meat, but they do need high-quality protein. And you know what’s loaded with protein? Plants and fungi—which dogs can eat because they are scavenging omnivores that evolved alongside humans over tens of thousands of years. During all those years of evolution, dogs have been a man’s (or woman’s) best friend, eating table scraps like bread and potatoes, so it’s no wonder that they have developed gut enzymes that allow them to digest a wide variety of foods; not just meat. That brings me to the next myth…
2. Dogs are carnivores.
From a biological perspective, dogs actually lack most of the metabolic adaptations to a strict diet of animal flesh that is seen in true carnivores, such as cats. Compared to true carnivores, dogs produce more of the enzymes necessary for starch digestion and can easily utilize vitamin A and D from plant sources, just as people do.
The truth is, the digestive system of a dog doesn’t care where the protein comes from—what matters is that the protein is complete, high-quality, bioavailable and highly digestible. In fact, one recent study conducted by Professor Andrew Knight1 found that “the pooled evidence to date indicates that the healthiest and least hazardous dietary choices for dogs are nutritionally sound vegan diets” when compared to conventional and raw meat diets.
3. A dog’s health will decline on a vegan diet.
Nope. More and more studies continue to come out proving that vegan food can be healthier for some dogs than conventional diets, and promote longevity for our best friends. Another study which surveyed dog owners2 found that dogs who were fed plant-based diets “reported fewer health disorders, specifically with respect to ocular or gastrointestinal and hepatic disorders. Dog longevity was reported to be greater for dogs fed plant-based diets.”
As I mentioned earlier, the most common culprits involved in cutaneous adverse food reactions in dogs are beef, chicken and dairy. I’ve found firsthand that when dogs who are experiencing food allergy symptoms like skin irritation and itching switch over to alternative protein sources, like dried yeast, they experience symptom relief.
Additionally, the study results by Prof. Knight1 indicate that when looking at specific health issues, the vegan diet-fed dogs were shown to be significantly less likely to fall prey to common disorders, with 36% of vegan-fed dogs suffering from health issues, compared to 49% of processed meat-fed dogs.
4. A plant-based diet is not nutritionally sound.
On its face, this is a myth. Vegan diets for dogs can be nutritionally complete and balanced, they just need to be carefully formulated. Veterinarians have rightfully been very skeptical of alternative diets, including plant-based diets for dogs, because many past studies found that, historically, these were nutritionally deficient. The reason for this was that most people were formulating their own vegan diets and these, of course, were not nutritionally complete and balanced.
In the last several years, however, there has been an explosion in evidence-based research that supports plant-based food in dogs, and now we have many commercial companies manufacturing these foods on an industrial level, most of which are taking good steps to ensure that products meet a high standard and are nutritionally complete and balanced.
Plants and fungi are wonderful sources of the essential nutrients dogs need. For example, microalgae is a great source of DHA, an essential fatty acid that dogs need for cognitive health. Flaxseed, soybean oil and sunflower oil provide even higher amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than animal sources such as chicken fat and fish oil. Amino acids, taurine, choline and L-carnitine are also commonly added to most commercial dog foods, whether plant-based or animal-based, to ensure a well-rounded diet.
A vegan diet for dogs can be balanced and nutritious, help dogs live healthier and longer lives, and be a diet that dogs love. However, this is not to say that all plant-based diets are created equal, and careful evaluation of the diet must always be completed. As with all commercial diets, it’s important to look carefully at the guaranteed analysis, ingredient list and AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement to begin.
As a veterinarian, I know that nutrition is the cornerstone of health. But as a veterinarian who backs plant-based diets for dogs, I also know that the work I’m doing improves the lives and health of dogs—and in a sustainable and cruelty-free way. +
- Knight A, Huang E, Rai N, Brown H. (2022) Vegan versus meat-based dog food: Guardian-reported indicators of health. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0265662. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265662
- Dodd S, Khosa D, et al. (2022) Owner perception of health of North American dogs fed meat- or plant-based diets. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0034528822001345?via%3Dihub#ac0005