How to safely feed your dog a plant-based diet

From health benefits to environmental sustainability, there are a lot of perks to plant-based diets. But can our dogs thrive without eating meat or other animal products?

“Can my dog be vegan?” Though many experts are hesitant to admit it, the answer to this increasingly common question is yes. But hold the phone…it’s not quite that simple.

Sure, in theory many dogs can thrive on a vegan diet. The trouble is, meeting your pup’s nutritional requirements on plants alone is a lot easier said than done. In fact, the reason many people fail to keep their dogs healthy sans meat is because they don’t adequately replace meat-based protein sources with plant-based ones, which leads to major dietary deficiencies. In other words, you can’t just toss Rover a salad and expect him to prosper – you have to determine exactly what his needs are and be prepared to go out of your way to meet them.

The perks of plant-based

If you’re feeling less optimistic about switching your dog to a vegan diet – good. It’s not something to be taken lightly. That said, once you figure out how to do it right, and wrap your head around incorporating some animal-based ingredients, there are numerous benefits to reducing your pup’s meat consumption. Let’s take a look at “the big three”:

1. A smaller environmental footprint

From greenhouse gas emissions to water usage, the meat industry takes a heavy toll on our planet. By switching your dog to a plant-based diet, you’ll contribute to conserving resources and reducing pollution.

2. Less animal cruelty

The ethical benefits of consuming less meat are obvious, and are the number one reason people modify their own diets – and their dogs’ – to be more plant-based. In short, fewer animal products consumed equals fewer animals killed and exploited.

3. Health perks

There’s no shortage of evidence that plant-based diets offer countless health benefits to humans. If you’re looking to lose weight, improve your heart health, or lower your risk of diabetes, eating fewer animal products might be the way to go. While dogs have different nutritional requirements than we do, some recent studies support the idea that dogs, too, can thrive on a vegetarian diet. For instance, a 2016 comprehensive study published in the Animals journal by veterinarian Dr. Andrew Knight demonstrates that feeding dogs vegetarian diets long-term has been associated with improved coat condition, allergy control, weight control, increased overall health and vitality, arthritis regression, diabetes regression, cataract resolution, and decreased incidence of cancer.

Making the transition

So, you’ve decided to reduce your dog’s meat consumption. Now what?

The first step is to replace those protein sources with some healthy plant-based alternatives. If you’re opting to feed him a store-bought vegan or vegetarian diet, most of the work will be done for you. Formulated plant-based diets for dogs are becoming more and more popular and most are balanced with all the nutrients your pup needs. Since this option takes the guesswork out of transitioning to plant-based, it’s not a bad way to go.

If you’re opting to home-prepare your pup’s meals, get ready to put in a lot more legwork. Before you do anything, book an appointment with your vet to get his or her support, and ask any questions you may have about your dog’s nutritional needs. Chances are your vet will send you home with some supplements, since certain nutrients such as amino acids and calcium are much more available in animal proteins than in plants.

…dogs fed plant-based diets often require supplementation to get the nutrients they require.

Once you’ve consulted with an expert, it’s time to figure out what ingredients will make up your dog’s plant-based diet. Your goal is to make sure that he’s getting the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals which, for some dogs, might mean incorporating some animal ingredients (see below).

Selecting plant-based proteins

Though protein requirements vary depending on a dog’s age, lifestyle and other factors, the Association of American Feed Control Officials suggests that adult dog food should contain a minimum of 18% crude protein. Beans and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, peas and edamame are among the most protein-packed plant-based options, followed by certain grains like quinoa, oats and kamut. Algae also contains adequate amounts of protein, as do vegetables such as broccoli, kale and mushrooms.

Avoid empty carbs and fillers

This applies no matter what you feed your pup, but it’s especially important if you’re switching him to a plant-based diet. Consuming fewer animal products means your dog needs all the nutrients he can get from the other ingredients, so if his meals are packed with empty carbs and fillers with little to no nutritional value (like corn, white rice and wheat) his health is sure to suffer.

Supplement wisely and get his levels checked!

As with humans who refrain from eating meat, dogs fed plant-based diets often require supplementation to get the nutrients they require. As mentioned, your vet will likely recommend a few when you chat with him or her about your pup’s dietary needs. Be prepared to pay for these on an ongoing basis, and for the time it will take to add them to your pup’s daily meals.

If you’re planning to transition your dog to a plant-based diet, the importance of semi-annual blood tests can’t be overstated. Regular blood panels will determine if your dog needs more or less of certain nutrients immediately after you switch him to a plant-based diet, and will help you monitor these needs as time goes on.

Can a plant-based diet include some animal products?

Absolutely! Unlike a vegan diet which contains no animal products (meat, poultry, fish, dairy or eggs), a plant-based diet only consists mostly of ingredients from plants. When it comes to your dog, this is probably the healthier option, and certainly the easiest.

…adult dog food should contain a minimum of 18% crude protein.

To reduce your pup’s meat consumption without going full vegan, invest in a high quality vegan food (or make it at home), and top his meals with eggs or fish. You can even pick up some organ meats from your local butcher – chances are these would be thrown out anyway, so your ethical and environmental impact will be minimal.

You might not be able to call him a vegan, but by compromising in this way your pup will still reap all the benefits of veganism to some extent. And more importantly, he’ll be more likely to have all his nutritional needs met.

A balanced, plant-based diet comprised of whole foods is a much healthier choice for your dog than some of the meat-based commercial diets out there. The key is to do your research, work with a vet or canine nutritionist, and become an expert on your companion’s individual needs. Do it right, or don’t do it – it’s that simple!