Can a Vegetarian Diet Work for your Dog?
The question as to whether dogs can be happy and healthy eating a vegetarian diet is a complicated one, and there is vehement disagreement among experts. The most accurate answer seems to be that dogs should not eat a diet that entirely excludes meat-derived protein, but that with a good deal of research, planning, and care, a vegetarian diet can be made to work.
A meat-based diet does not carry the same health concerns for dogs as it does for humans, so the reasons for reducing or eliminating meat from your pup’s diet will probably be based on your ethical concerns regarding factory farming and inhumane treatment of animals cultivated for slaughter. To satisfy your ethical standards with regard to your dog’s diet, you will need to take the time and undergo the expense to ensure that your dog receives all the nutrients she needs to prevent dietary deficiencies which can occur when you eliminate animal protein from her diet.
Are Dogs Carnivores or Omnivores?
Central to the debate about feeding dogs a vegetarian diet is the deceptively simple question of whether they are carnivores or omnivores. Dogs are part of the order Carnivora, but are further classified as “scavenging carnivores,” as opposed to “obligate carnivores.” This means that they are designed to eat meat, but can survive on plant-based food when meat is unavailable.
For some experts, this means dogs are truly omnivores; others point out that surviving and thriving are different, and that meat is necessary for dogs to flourish.
There is not much room for argument that canines are designed to eat meat. They have the teeth and jaw structures of carnivores, as well as the expandable stomachs and short, simple digestive tracts of carnivores. They also lack some of the pancreatic enzymes and gut microflora used for breaking down and deriving nutritional value from plant matter.
Nutrient Production versus Intake
This is not to say dogs cannot get nutrients from plants; they can. But they must get certain amino acids and other nutrients from their diet, some of which are very limited in, or absent from, vegetarian diets.
For example, canines do not naturally produce 12 of 22 essential amino acids, leaving 10 that they must obtain from dietary sources; animal-based foods are the easiest – but not the only – way to get these amino acids. Dogs can make taurine in limited quantities if provided with all the necessary building blocks, but they can easily develop a taurine deficiency without meat. Dogs also require vitamin D from external sources because they don’t manufacture it through their skin like humans do. While vitamin D2 is somewhat useful to dogs, D3 is more important and is usually found in animal-based foods. However, there is, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group Blog, a way to produce a “mutant yeast-derived provitamin D3” by combining petrochemical materials with the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. This product is used in Vitamin D3 supplements which are labelled “vegetarian”.
Making a Vegetarian Diet Work for your Dog
With a bit of planning you can provide your pup with adequate nutritional supplementation to allow you to feed your dog a vegetarian diet. Here are a few key things to keep in mind. Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality complete protein and most other nutrients your dog needs, and can figure prominently in a vegetarian – as opposed to vegan – diet for your dog. Additional nutritional supplementation may be necessary to prevent nutritional deficiencies, especially if eggs are not included in the diet. A tailored selection of the right whole grains and legumes can also supply the full spectrum of amino acids. Dogs on vegetarian diets can suffer from an imbalance of amino acids (particularly taurine and L-carnitine), as well as deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, especially B and D vitamins, calcium, iron, and phosphorous. You will therefore want to supplement with these amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Young dogs with these or other nutritional deficiencies will not thrive or develop properly. There is much more agreement among experts that puppies should generally not be fed a vegetarian diet, nor should dogs intended for breeding.
If you do decide to provide your dog with a vegetarian diet, take into consideration the fact that providing vegetarian replacements for meat-based nutrients may also mean that you are introducing a variety of synthetic chemicals into your dog’s diet. Finally, a vegetarian diet may necessitate more frequent veterinary exams and bloodwork to monitor your dog’s nutritional health.
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The Vegetarian Resource Group Blog