can dogs be vegan?

As a professional pet sitter, I see a wide variety of canine diets. A big part of my job is to maintain the established routine for the pets in my care as best I can, so whatever they eat on a regular basis is what they eat when I'm feeding them. I don't judge–well, mostly I don't. I see both high-quality and low-quality kibble, canned food, raw diets, dehydrated food, and homemade food. Regardless of what the pets in a family are eating, I have to believe that their owners are feeding them the best they can with the knowledge and finances available to them. I try to keep my clients educated about the benefits of feeding a high-quality diet. That being said, I am not an animal dietician, and I am constantly learning. 

Whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores is hotly debated. The argument that dogs should be fed meat is largely based on the belief that dogs are carnivores, meaning they eat only meat. In fact, dogs are omnivores.  "In the wild" is almost a mute point, now, since they have been domesticated for so many generations, but if in the wild, they would eat a diet of mostly meat and some plants. 

Eager faces as I'm scooping their homemade vegan food into their bowls.

Eager faces as I'm scooping their homemade vegan food into their bowls.

As an aspiring vegan, I was particularly interested in the vegan diet my client, Karla, feeds her dogs. I may have just stepped in a pile of poop, because I understand that feeding a vegan diet to a typically meat-eating creature who is at your mercy for, well, everything, could be quite controversial. To me, it's less controversial than feeding your pooch a bag of low-quality kibble composed mostly of fillers, artificial colors, and preservatives, which doesn't have much meat in it, anyway, but most people don't bat an eye at the person in the big box discount store throwing a 50-pound bag of complete garbage in their cart, then feeding it to their dog for the next month. So I decided to learn more about the vegan diet for dogs, and Karla helped me understand her story. She has fed her Papillon, Chi-chi, and Yorkshire Terrier, Abby, a vegan diet for almost one year.

WM: Can you tell me a bit about your journey to becoming vegan?

Karla: I've been vegan for a few years, and I was vegetarian for a while before that. My reason is a combination of my love for animals and for a healthy, happy, lifestyle.  There's so much information about living vegan, and once I started opening myself up to it, this lifestyle just fell into place.

Karla has two school-aged sons.

WM: Is your whole household vegan?

Karla: I only cook vegan at home, however, my boys live with their father part time, and they do eat meat there.

WM: So what made you decide to feed your dogs a vegan diet?

Karla: Being vegan, I would encourage anyone to eat this way. I hadn't even considered the possibility of switching my pups to a vegan diet until a friend suggested it. I started researching what they can eat and made the switch. I had been under the same impression as many others, that they needed meat to be healthy.

WM: What were your dogs eating before?

Karla: I previously had them eating organic dog food that was free of fillers, etc. The expensive stuff!

WM: Have you noticed any changes in them, health-wise, since you started feeding them a vegan diet?

Karla: Chi-chi has had the most noticeable change. He was a little on the heavy side before, and now he's very healthy. I've also noticed that his coat is healthier, now. As a hair stylist, I believe you can tell a lot about someone's health by their hair and skin. The same goes for our pups!

WM: What research did you do before embarking on this diet for them, and how do you know that they are getting all of the nutrients they need?

Karla: It helped that I'd been eating this way already. I know what I need to be eating in order to get all of my essential amino acids, etc. All I've done is transfer that to Abby and Chi-chi.

Abby and Chi-chi absolutely love their vegan meals.

Abby and Chi-chi absolutely love their vegan meals.

WM: There is a growing trend to feed dogs a raw diet, and many people will say that dogs are carnivores, so they need meat. They will likely say you're not feeding them what they need. What do you say to that?

Karla: This is also said about us, but the truth is that we and our pups do not need to eat meat to be healthy, and, in fact, we are healthier with a plant-based diet. My dogs love their plant-based lifestyle. They did not get as excited as they do now when they were eating the old stuff!

WM: They do get excited. I notice a huge difference in a dog's poop depending on the diet, and I see a lot of dog poop. With few exceptions, the lower the quality of dog food, the softer and stinkier the poop. I notice that Chi-chi and Abby's poop is reflective of what you are feeding them. It's a bit seedy, and is firm, and not very stinky. I noticed a change in my own poop when I transitioned to a vegan-based diet, too. Sorry to have to go there, but poop is a big deal for dog owners. What do you notice about their poop?

Karla: Just like with humans, poo is a huge indicator of the health of our pet. Initially, they were going more than normal, and so did I when I switched to a vegan diet. This is due to our bodies' ridding of everything that has built up. Once this adjustment was made, I noticed that they go pretty quickly after a meal, and there's not much of a smell to it. I've also noticed that their urine is odorless, now (I have pee pad pups).

WM: I noticed that about their urine, too. I take care of a few "pee pad pups," and your place isn't as stinky. I hardly notice it. How did you figure out how to make your own food for them?

Karla: Initially, I started following recipes online. There's a great one on the PETA web site.

WM: Do you always feed them the same recipe, or do you switch things up?

Karla: I switch it up, now, because they eat pretty much what we eat (other than what's toxic or poison for them). Even when I switch up their food, there are no issues with their bowel. Switching it up is a wonderful treat for them and for us. They're much happier.

WM: Will you share their favorite recipe with us?

Karla: I'd love to!


WM: How large are the batches you make, and how long does it keep?

Sometimes Abby and Chi-chi's homemade vegan food makes me hungry. I can't say that about canned food or kibble.

Sometimes Abby and Chi-chi's homemade vegan food makes me hungry. I can't say that about canned food or kibble.

Karla: I make a mixture of quinoa and beans at the beginning of the week and typically just add the rest to it as I feed them. They're eating the majority of their fruits and veggies raw, at this point, so I just cut those up nice and small and mix them in. If I'm heading out of town, I'll make a decent batch of everything for my amazing pet sitter to give them, and that can last in the fridge for up to a week.

WM: Thanks for the compliment! So what about cost? How does this vegan dog food compare to feeding a high-quality kibble?

Karla: Oh, it's cheap! I get a large amount of fruits and veggies at the local farmers' market weekly, spending around $30 for the whole family. Hemp protein is $15 for a few-months supply, and quinoa–the most expensive out of it all–costs me about $5 per week. They live a healthier life, costing me less, as well.

WM: That's great. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

I know Karla to be a loving, responsible pet owner, and Abby and Chi-Chi are happy and healthy. Their breath doesn't stink, and I know, because I'm all about pooch kisses! Their coats are some of the softest I've felt. They are full of energy, a healthy weight, and always eager for meal time. From what I've observed, the vegan diet is working well for them and definitely deserves further exploration. I plan to try Abby & Chi-chi's Vegan Dog Food recipe and see if my picky pooch will go for it.

Dogs do not require meat. They require protein. Though meat-based foods are the most common source of that protein, it is not the only source. Dogs can get their protein from beans, quinoa, etc. We often become so focused on the source of the nutrients that we forget about the nutrients, themselves. The key factor in any diet is that it provides the needed nutrients. Dogs can have their needs met through a vegetarian or vegan diet.

As for longevity, we know that vegetarian and vegan dogs live as long or longer than their meat-eating counterparts, as long as the diet is meeting their nutritional needs. They benefit from good health and typically don't ingest as many preservatives and contaminants, so they are usually quite healthy. Most research says that a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet is a good long term choice for dogs. Dogs with certain ailments such as allergies can often find relief in a vegetarian diet, so those dogs definitely see their quality and length of life improve.  

There is such a wide variety of diet choices for our dogs, and pet owners have very strong opinions about the diet they choose to feed their pet. Have you tried feeding your dog a vegan diet? What do you think about dogs going vegan?

This article by me appeared in its original form in November 2013 on Hybrid Rasta Mama, a blog to which I contribute regularly, and has been reprinted with minor changes with permission. 

Please hop on over to Hybrid Rasta Mama and check out my December 2013 article, Veterinary Acupuncture for Prevention and Treatment.