It’s 2020, and the world is going meat-free. Gone are the days when vegans and vegetarians were considered no-fun, eco-bothering do-gooders. These days, it’s cool to be veggie, with committed carnivores increasingly tarred with the same brush as smokers, drinkers, and the otherwise delinquent. But while it’s all very well and good to stick to greens ourselves, is the same true of our dogs? Is it fair (or indeed healthy) to kick the meat from our dog’s diets as well as our own? Are we saving the earth at the cost of our own pets?
Conventional Wisdom Vs New Age Ideas
Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves eat meat. It stands to reason, then, that dogs need meat in their diets. Right? According to conventional wisdom, most certainly. Dogs need a high percentage of protein in their diets to keep them lean, healthy, and full of energy. While protein can be found in plants, only animal protein contains the full spectrum of amino acids that make up a “complete” protein. Robbing them of meat, then, will surely rob them of the vital nutrients they need to stay fit and healthy. So says tradition, and so, until now, have we. But just as we’re seeing more people adopt a meat-free diet, so are we seeing more dogs do the same, whether by their own volition or not. But is it really wise to foist our own dietary choices on our pets? And can it ever truly be healthy?
According to the ever-growing number of pet owners feeding their dogs a meat-free diet, the answer is a resounding yes. If they’re to be believed, a veggie dog isn’t just a happy dog, it’s a healthy one. Keen to dispel the idea that a meat-based diet is the most biologically appropriate, a growing band of animal owners are taking to the streets (well, social media, at least) to promote their veggie wisdom… but for every believer, there’s a doubter, and as with anything that involves the things we love most (in this case, our pets) there’s no shortage of heat being generated between the two sides. Unfortunately, a lot of the science is being lost in the debate, with actual facts being replaced with half-truths, myths, and in some cases, downright lies. So, what exactly is the truth?
A Healthy Balance
The truth, as ever, is not clear cut. For every dog that responds well to a meat-free diet, there’s another that doesn’t. But does this signify a problem with the very principle of meat-free diets, or more with its application? According to PetMd, it’s likely to be the latter.
Eating meat-free doesn’t, by itself, indicate a good diet. After all, donuts, beer, chips, fries, and cake are all meat-free, but you’re unlikely to do either yourself or your waistline any favors by basing your diet on them. On the other hand, fill your dish with a balanced ratio of fats, proteins, and carbs, and you’re unlikely to feel any negative effects from your veggie lifestyle.
So holds true for humans, and so, it seems, holds true for dogs. Granted, protein is an essential part of a dog’s diet, but the idea that only meat can provide them with all the essential amino acids they need is simply not true. Vegetarians of the human variety get all the protein they need by carefully combining different plant-based proteins (e.g. beans, corn, soy, and whole grains). Adopt the same careful combinations in your dog’s diet, and they’ll ultimately end up getting all the protein they need without a flake of meat in sight.
Carnivore vs Omnivore
As long as we’re careful, dogs can get all their protein needs on a strictly vegetarian diet. So, problem solved, right? Feed them a healthy diet, and regardless of whether it’s full of meat or free from it, there should be no discernible difference in their health. You’d have thought the argument would end there, but no. The battle still rages, and it all comes down to two little words… “biologically appropriate”.
Those in favor of a meat-heavy diet cite the evolutionary relationship between dogs and wolves as the basis for their argument. Dogs and wolves share 99.8% of their DNA. Wolves are carnivores, and as a dog’s internal physiology is the same as a wolf’s, their nutritional needs must be the same. Those who say otherwise are ignoring basic biology, while those who insist on feeding their dog’s a meat-free diet are putting the health of their pet in danger by ignoring the benefits of a biologically appropriate diet. Or so the argument goes.
While there’s some truth to the claims (dogs do descend from wolves, for one), there’s also some thinly veiled half trues and misrepresentations. As Clinical Nutrition Service notes, there’s a significant genetic difference between wolves and dogs- namely, dogs have evolved to digest starches (or in other words, carbs) better than wolves. The argument that dogs are biologically suited to eat the exact same diet as wolves, then, is based on a faulty premise.
Yes, dogs are classified in the “Order Carnivora”, but given that distinction also goes to animals like bears, raccoons, and skunks (all omnivorous) not to mention the giant panada (100% herbivore), that, by itself, is no indicator of carnivorous habits. Compared to true carnivores like cats and ferrets, dogs produce higher quantities of starch digesting enzymes. Their protein requirements are also lower, while their ability to convert vitamins A and D from plant sources is just as good as ours.
So, as with all things, there’s not a definite yes or no to the question of whether feeding your dog a diet of meat-free alternatives is safe. If you plan on taking away their meat and replacing it with cheese toasties and fries, probably not. If you plan on adopting a careful, balanced diet full of fresh fruits, veggies, and plentiful supplies of plant-based protein, you’re unlikely to see any ill effects. The answer, as with everything diet-related, is balance, moderation, and plenty of good planning.