Can Dogs Live on a Vegetarian Diet?

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If you're one of the growing number of Americans who identify as vegetarian or vegan, the thought of feeding meat to your dog might be enough to turn your stomach. And that's before we even get to the ethical concerns you might have about treating Fido to a bowl of meat when you've decided to live in a meat-free household.

At the same time, as a dog lover, you want to be sure of giving your furry friend the best possible nutrition, which most of us are pretty sure involves meat.

However, you might be surprised to learn that dogs can actually live on a vegetarian diet, provided that you're very careful to ensure that they get the perfect balance of nutrients. If your dog isn't given all the nutrients he needs to be happy or healthy, the consequences can be life-changing.

Introduction of Can Dogs Live on a Vegetarian Diet?

Signs Your Dog Needs a Change in Diet

Regardless of whether you feed your furry friend meat or a vegetarian diet, it's important that you always monitor his health to make sure he's getting the nutrition he needs to stay healthy. If the food you're feeding doesn't meet his dietary needs, there are several signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for.

One of the first ones is weakness, which may also present as tiredness, lethargy or a reluctance to exercise. If Fido isn't getting sufficient calories to fuel his active lifestyle, his energy levels will suffer.

Your dog's general body condition is also a reliable indicator of the suitability of his diet. If he doesn't have a waist and he's starting to struggle to move around, your pet might have had too much of a good thing; if he's looking gaunt and his ribs are overly noticeable, there might be one or more important ingredients lacking in his diet. Patchy hair or a coat that's lacking shine could also indicate nutritional deficiencies.

One other simple way to check on your dog's overall health is to monitor his bowel movements. Yep, we know it's a gross topic and one many of us are happy to delegate to another family member, but staying on top of your poop-scooping duties can yield interesting results. Diarrhea or loose stools, for example, could indicate that your pet is having trouble digesting his food, while constipation could also be an indicator that all is not right with your pooch's chow.

Body Language

Your dog might use his body language to let you know he's not getting the right balance of nutrients from his diet. Body language symptoms include:
  • Whining
  • Shaking
  • Panting
  • Ears drop
  • Weakness

Other Signs

Other signs of a dog that's not getting the right nutrients can include:
  • Being Underweight or Overweight
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of Appetite

The History of Vegetarian Diets For Dogs

History of Can Dogs Live on a Vegetarian Diet?
Plant-based dog diets are a relatively recent arrival to the canine nutrition scene. It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that vegetarianism gained traction as a potentially healthy dietary alternative for humans, and it was even later in that same century that the idea of vegetarian diets for dogs first made an appearance.

Barbara Lynn Peden is often credited as being one of the pioneers of plant-based diets for pets. Her 1988 book, Dogs & Cats Go Vegetarian, introduced the concept of a vegetarian diet for pets.

Moving into the 21st century, vegetarianism has become an increasingly popular way of life for people all around the world. As the desire to go meat-free for ethical reasons has spread through many areas of society, some pet owners have started sharing their vegetarian diets with their canine companions.

Another factor contributing to the rise of plant-based doggy diets has been a desire among some owners to steer clear of processed commercial pet foods. If your pet has an allergy to a protein source such as beef or chicken, proponents of vegetarianism claim that switching to a vegetarian diet may offer an alternative solution to your pooch's problem, giving the nutrients he needs and reducing the itchiness and discomfort associated with food allergies.

The Science of Vegetarian Diets for Dogs

Science of Can Dogs Live on a Vegetarian Diet?
If dogs are descended from wolves, and wolves are carnivores, how can a dog possibly survive on a vegetarian diet? Well, while it's true that our canine companions are classified as belonging to the order Carnivora, over the years they've evolved biologically as omnivores. This means that their bodies can derive nutrients not just from animal products, but also from fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.

A 2016 study by the Centre for Animal Welfare at the University of Winchester, UK, compared vegetarian and meat-based diets for companion animals. It found that "dogs may thrive on vegetarian diets, but these must be nutritionally complete and reasonably balanced".

It's this last caveat that has many veterinarians worried about the rise on vegetarian diets, however, as it's extremely difficult for the average person to create a balanced diet that contains all the nutrients a dog needs for their life stage.

There are commercial vegetarian and vegan pet foods available, but some of them also have their downsides. For example, a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association examined vegetarian commercial pet foods and found that of the 24 foods tested, most didn't comply with the minimum labeling standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

How to Feed Your Dog a Vegetarian Diet

Training of Can Dogs Live on a Vegetarian Diet?
The best way to give your dog all the nutrients he or she needs is to feed a premium-quality pet food that's specifically designed to satisfy the nutritional requirements of a dog of his age, breed and lifestyle.

Having said that, we also understand that, for ethical reasons or otherwise, some dog owners want to feed their canine companion a meat-free diet. If that's the case, the first step you should take is to talk to a trusted veterinarian about your dog's nutritional requirements and how you can meet them. He or she will be able to offer their recommendations on the best diet for your pet, and also advise you on how to switch your dog over from their current food to a plant-based option.

It's worth reiterating that if you're preparing all your dog's meals yourself, unless you have an in-depth knowledge of canine nutrition it is extremely difficult to give your pet the right balance of nutrients. It's a good idea to ask a qualified dog nutrition expert to help you put together a diet and eating plan for your furry friend.

Alternatively, consider a commercial vegetarian pet food that has the AAFCO seal of approval.

How to Safely Feed a Vegetarian Diet

  • Ask your veterinarian. Speak to a veterinarian you trust about whether or not a vegetarian diet is a viable option for your dog.
  • Get the right advice. If you want to prepare your dog's food yourself, make sure you get advice from a properly qualified expert in canine nutrition.
  • If you feed a commercially-produced vegetarian pet food, make sure it has gone through feeding trials and meets the AAFCO requirements.

We Want to Hear About Your Dog's Vegetarian Diet!