Feeding a Vegetarian Diet

Dogs can exist as vegetarians, but making the diet complete and balanced" requires owner commitment and diligence."


Tamara McFarland, a dedicated vegetarian, spends several hours each week cooking up giant pots of barley or whole grains. She adds chopped tomatoes, avocados, sprouts, and other vegetables. Or she’ll try different kinds of rice, wheat bran, or oatmeal. But no matter the mix, she and her three dogs love the meals.

Oh, didn’t we mention that? Her three dogs are vegetarians, too.

vegetarian dogs

McFarland – who recently went vegan, which means she eats no dairy, eggs, or flesh – is one of a growing number of dog owners who think that a meatless diet is right for their companions. She transitioned her dogs to a vegetarian meal plan a few months ago after extensive research convinced her it could work.

“I found enough information out there that I thought it would be safe,” says McFarland, the executive director of Friends for Life Animal Rescue in Eureka, California. “I could tell it would be more work than just feeding high-quality dry food, but I decided it was worth it. If I cared enough for my convictions and thought it was safe for my dogs, why not do it?”

She says her dogs – Hazel and Otis, who are 4-year-old Weimaraner mixes, and a 7-year-old Rottweiler mix, Rowdy – are doing very well on the diet. She says Hazel had always been a picky eater until she began eating vegetables – “I think for her it’s more than the taste, it’s the variety” – and Rowdy has shed a few extra pounds.

For some owners, like McFarland, feeding their pets vegetarian fare is a choice based on ethical beliefs. Horror stories about inhumane treatment of slaughter-bound animals are perennially leaked from the meat-packing industry, and many people are loath to support those processes, even through dog food. For others, its about health; they fear that the meat that finds its way into commercial dog foods may pose health risks to their pets.

It’s long been known that some of the meat found in pet foods (especially low-cost products) comes from animals that are known as “four D”: dead, dying, diseased, or disabled animals unfit for human consumption. Chicken legs marred by tumors, for example, can’t be sold at your supermarket meat counter – but they can provide fodder for dog food.

In addition, many meat-based pet foods contain trace amounts of the same hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics that are found in commercial meat products for humans. People who avoid such substances out of concern about potential health problems may want their pets to avoid them, also.

Not obligate carnivores
Still, at first blush, the idea of a dog feasting on tomatoes and rice might seem ludicrous. There’s a pervasive notion that dogs are carnivores and require meat for optimal health. However, that conventional wisdom doesn’t hold water, say some veterinarians.

“Dogs originally were carnivores, but we’ve evolved them to be omnivores,” explains Jean Dodds, DVM, an expert in canine nutrition and holistic medicine based in Santa Monica, California. “It’s possible for a dog to be a vegetarian, just as it’s possible for humans to be.” (The same cannot be said of cats, who are true obligate carnivores.)

Also, the belief that there are certain proteins that can be found only in meat is a fallacy.

“All meat and vegetable proteins are broken down in the gut into amino acids; it’s the amino acids that are absorbed,” says Tony Buffington, DVM, Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital. “It doesn’t matter where the proteins come from, and most vegetarians are very good about combining foods to create complete proteins.”

Allergic to meat
In fact, for some dogs – namely, those who have allergies to meat or other problems with a meat-based diet – vegetarian can be the best way to go. For example, Dr. Dodds recommends a vegetarian feeding plan for dogs suffering from inflammatory bowel disease.

“For bowel disease we use black-eyed peas or beans as a good protein source, multivitamins, plus a basic cereal (home-cooked rice or unusual grains, like flax, quinoa, and so on). Our classic inflammatory bowel disease diet would be a ratio of two-thirds white potatoes mixed with sweet potatoes or yams, with the other third (comprised of) vegetables with fish or eggs, cheese, black-eyed peas or beans, and a multivitamin,” describes Dr. Dodds.

Bones do, however, provide key nutrients that might be difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities in a completely flesh-free diet, says Dr. Dodds. As a compromise, some owners add supplements or feed their dogs a mainly vegetarian diet but include raw, meaty bones.

“That’s especially important for young, growing animals,” says Dr. Dodds. “I’d be a nervous if a large-breed, rapidly growing puppy were to go completely vegetarian.”

Covering the bases
Vegetarians, especially vegans, know it can be difficult and time-consuming to prepare well-rounded meals for themselves. It requires just as much work to give your dogs a healthy diet – and despite your best efforts, you can still leave gaps.

To fill the void, owners often turn to supplements. Dr. Buffington uses vitamin/mineral supplements intended for humans; “I usually use the one for 2- to 3-year-old children, but for a big dog an adult level is fine,” he says. Some companies have begun marketing canine-specific additives in liquid or powder form that can be mixed in with your dog’s meals to help shore up nutritional requirements.

James Peden owns Harbingers of a New Age, a company in Troy, Montana, that makes and markets the VegeDog supplement. He says adding nutrients to your dog’s diet is essential.

“Dogs have such different nutritional needs,” he explains. “If you feed them a vegetarian diet without supplementing it, chances are they won’t have enough minerals to keep their bones strong.”

Peden, a longtime vegetarian, created a supplement called VegeCat in 1986 after doing a year of research on animal nutrition at the University of Oregon at Corvallis. Shortly thereafter, he developed VegeDog.

“There were a little over 50 nutrients we’d try to meet requirements for,” he says. His findings were based in part on the National Research Council’s nutritional tables for dogs, published in 1985. He’s planning to update his formula when the new tables are published this year, he says.

Help is available
But while supplementation might help fill some gaps, it still can’t guarantee optimal nutrition. Some vets fear that a vegetarian diet, even coupled with supplemental vitamin and mineral pills, will fall short. And shortfalls in nutrition might not be readily apparent in the dog’s health. Dogs can adapt very well to a poor diet, says Dr. Buffington, whether it’s meat-based or vegetarian. He recalled once offering a colleague, whose dog was on a cottage cheese and rice diet, a vitamin and mineral supplement that he’d designed. When he asked how her dog was doing, she told him the animal was in great health. He observed that the dog must only have been on the diet a short while. “Oh yes,” she replied, “only about four years.”

Which goes to show that dogs, he says, can survive on just about anything. “There’s so much biological adaptivity built into the species that they can deal with almost anything we do to them, nutritionally,” he says. And that makes it hard to tell if your dog is really getting what he needs in his diet.

One valuable tool for helping dog owners put together a complete and balanced meat-free diet for their dogs is Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, by Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, Ph.D. (1999 Iowa State University Press). Dr. Strombeck practiced as a small animal clinician for more than 40 years, and is professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. He has received numerous awards in his career, including the Ralston Purina Award for research excellence for his work in gastroenterology.

In the preface of his book, Dr. Strombeck says that diet is the most important consideration is a pet’s care, determining both health and life expectancy. Further, he says, the pet food industry “believes that average owners cannot prepare and feed their pets a complete and balanced diet. Unfortunately, commercially prepared diets are not always complete and balanced, and just as important, they offer no choice about quality and wholesomeness, which are of the utmost importance.”

Dozens of complete and balanced diets that dog and cat owners can prepare at home are published in the book, each formulated by Dr. Strombeck, and each listing the diet’s caloric, protein, and fat content. This includes a number of vegetarian diets, as well as diets specifically formulated to benefit animals with special health considerations, including young animals and pets with skin problems. He also offers diets that can help with the management of gastrointestinal, renal, urinary, endocrine, heart, pancreatic, and hepatic disease.

Help in formulating a complete, healthy diet for your dog can also be obtained from university veterinary colleges. Some, including the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis, will actually customize a diet for your dog’s needs, for a reasonable fee ($100). You have to seek this option through your veterinarian, however. For more information about the program, call the small animal hospital at (530) 752-1393 and ask for “Nutrition Services.” Or see vmth.ucdavis.edu/vmth/services/nutrition/nutrition.html.

Do vegetarians live longer?
It’s easy to find owners who say a vegetarian diet results in great health improvements in their dogs. McFarland says Hazel, one of her Weimaraner mixes, hasn’t had a flare-up of her arthritis since switching to a meatless diet. Peden relates how his Yorkie, adopted two years ago, slimmed down from a hefty 17 pounds to 11 pounds and overcame extreme halitosis. And some credit unusual longevity to a diet focused on greens and grains.

Stephanie Burns of Traverse City, Michigan, celebrated her dog Tykie’s 24th birthday on March 15, 2003. The 25-pound, Terrier/Schnauzer/Husky mix has been the recent subject of the media spotlight, earning mentions nationwide as one of the oldest dogs in the United States. Burns credits Tykie’s diet – he’s been a vegetarian since he was 8 weeks old – and plenty of exercise as the keys to his longevity. And in addition to being old, she hastens to add, he’s still healthy.

“His eyes are clear, his bloodwork is perfect, he has no tumors,” she says. “He’s deaf, so I have to use sign language, and he has a little arthritis, but other than that he’s in great shape.”

Tykie’s typical diet includes rolled oats and bulgur wheat, shredded carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and ground nuts. Burns also adds a variety of enhancements including molasses, ginger, garlic, lecithin, yeast, flaxseed, and wheatgrass.

A pooch thought to be the oldest dog in the world – a Border Collie in England named Bramble, said to be 27 in news reports last summer – is a vegan.

But all the owner testimonials in the world won’t convince Lisa Freeman, DVM, an associate professor of clinical science at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). Freeman is a vegetarian herself but doesn’t recommend vegetarian diets for dogs. “There are lots of anecdotal reports, but it’s very easy to point out examples of anything,” she says. “What really needs to be done is a scientific study.”

A 14-year study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (May 1, 2002) did find that a calorie-restricted diet in dogs resulted in an increased median life span. The study did not examine vegetarian diets, although proponents of plant-based diets are quick to point out that they tend to be lower in calories than diets that incorporate meat.

This brings up a final caution for owners considering going green: There are no formal studies that examine vegetarian diets over the long haul. And informally, commercial, meat-based foods have been tested in the real world much more extensively than vegetarian diets.

“Commercially prepared (meat-based) diets in the United States are tested on 60 million dogs a day,” says Dr. Buffington. “Vegetarian diets are probably tested on 6,000 or 60,000 or whatever, so there’s an order of magnitude there. We know more about the effects of commercially prepared foods than we do about vegetarian food.”

While there are plenty of caution signs out there when it comes to feeding your dog green, owners like Tamara McFarland and Stephanie Burns are convinced they’re doing the right thing. In fact, spurred by numerous requests about Tykie’s diet after he became famous, Burns is planning to market her own line of ready-made, vegetarian meals for dogs.

Meanwhile, McFarland is making up another batch of barley. She says switching her dogs to a meat-free diet has been one of the best things she’s done for them.

“I’m definitely happy I did this, and I think the dogs are happy too,” she says. “They really seem to enjoy it and are the better for it.”

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Veterinarian-Prescribed Dog Foods”
Click here to view “Meat and Meat Meal: Sorting Through Animal Protein Sources”

C.C. Holland is a freelance writer from Oakland, CA, who enjoys applying what she learns about canine health and behavior to her own mixed-breed dog, Lucky.