For humans, a vegetarian or vegan diet offers a variety of health benefits. According to Mayo Clinic, a plant-based diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers. But when it comes to your four-legged friend, you should steer clear of feeding them meat-free meals, says Katy Nelson, DVM, an associate veterinarian at the Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Alexandria, VA, and a resident vet at Freshpet.
"Dogs can definitely survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, but they’re not necessarily going to thrive on it," she says. The reason? "Their bodies require proteins and essential amino acids that are derived from meat—and that’s just all there is to it," Nelson says.
Indeed, Nelson's explanation echos a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that evaluated the health of dogs on plant-based diets. The authors note that their "greatest concern for strictly plant-based diets is the sufficiency of essential amino acids and nutrients that are primarily derived from animal ingredients." Some of those nutrients include total protein, and vitamins A, B12, and D.
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Although yes, you can add these compounds from an "outside, synthetic" supplement, Nelson isn't fond of that idea. "It’s concerning to me that while we’re trying to get more holistic with our food, and we’re trying to get more organic, that by doing something like this, we’re actually having to bring in artificial sources," she explains. She recommends buying pet foods that are high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and have some fruits, greens, and grains. She believes dogs are best fed as carnivores, though, she notes, they are technically omnivores.
"I think we need to get back toward the middle of our feeding philosophy, sticking with what we know works, and that is a meat-based diet with greens, grains, and fruits, and trying to stay away from all the chemical additives," she says.
Nelson admits she has seen an increase in interest in plant-based diets for dogs recently. She believes it first started with animals who are allergic to the usual proteins found in pet food, which is fish, chicken, beef, and sometimes lamb. However, Nelson notes that even in these cases, there are other options for them to try that don't cut out meat. "I’ve been a veterinarian for 18 years, and I have never recommended a vegetarian diet for any of my patients," she reveals. "If my patients do have severe allergies, I will generally look into either a novelty protein source for them or a prescription diet."
Whether you think your pooch might have a food allergy, or you're interested in introducing new nourishment into their diet, Nelson says it's imperative to consult your veterinarian first and work with them. "There’s no perfect diet out there, but there might be a perfect one for your pet," she says.