Editor-in-Chief Dan Hunt explores the benefits and dangers of vegan dog food

Written by Dan Hunt

In recent years, amid a growing number of humans turning to veganism for ethical, environmental and health reasons, many pet owners have been seeking vegan foods for their dogs too.

How is it possible for dogs to eat vegetables instead of meat? The quick answer: domestication. Non-domesticated wolves have only two copies of the AMY2B gene which allows the digestion of starchy, plant-based foods. Dogs, on the other hand, following thousands of years of selective breeding, have evolved to have anywhere from four to thirty copies of the same gene, allowing them to digest more starch-rich diets. It is believed that the duplication of this gene dates back at least 5,000 years, meaning our furry friends have long been adapting to humans’ plant-heavy diets.

Our furry friends have long been adapting to humans’ plant-heavy diets

So, domesticated dogs can digest plants. But what is in vegan dog food? Unsurprisingly, a dog’s need for protein means vegan dog food tends to contain ingredients such as: chickpeas, soybeans, rice and lentils. Soybeans, in fact, contain all the essential amino acids a dog needs. Despite this, a 2015 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Animals found that of 26 available vegetarian dog food brands in the United States, 25% failed to meet the required level of nutrition set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, so owners are recommended to provide supplements for their dogs in some cases. Ingredients such as nutritional yeast, vegetable oil, and seaweed are often used to improve the smell of the food and increase palatability. 

Dogs can eat vegan pet food, but is it healthy for them? Dietary changes always carry risks. A vegan diet means dogs are more susceptible to malnutrition, but also alkaline urine, whereby the plant-based proteins contain fewer acidic amino acids that are released by the bladder, resulting in urine with a pH higher than 7. This sounds innocuous, but may result in struvite crystals and blocked urinary tracts. This can be prevented with vitamin C, Potassium chloride and cranberries.

Dietary changes always carry risks

In fact, there could actually be some health benefits. One study of 2,536 dogs found that only 36% of dogs being fed a vegan diet suffered from health disorders, compared to 49% who were on a regular diet. It also found that a lower proportion of vegan dogs went to the vet four or more times in the space of a year.

With 3% of the UK population being vegan in 2021, up from 2% in 2020, this £6.9 billion dollar industry (vegan pet food alone) is not going away in a hurry. And so long as owners ensure their dogs receive the right amount of nutrition, they could be barking up the right tree.

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