Three Veterinary Views on Non-Meat Pet Diets

Since this subject has come up in the comments recently, and since I’m a food wonk (and a vegetarian, of sorts), I wanted to gather some info from my bookshelf on the subject of vegetarian and vegan diets for pets.

The first important point is to make distinctions between the two as some people use them interchangeably when they are actually two different diet plans.  That said, I’m giving my own simplified definitions here (with a Wiki link!) based on my understanding of the most widely accepted terms.

A vegetarian pet diet would include plants and foods derived from plants (e.g. rice, tofu) as well as some foods from animals (e.g. eggs, yogurt).  It would specifically exclude foods derived from slaughtered animals such as meat and bones.

A vegan pet diet would be plants only – all foods derived from animals would be excluded.

I’m using 3 pet diet books written by veterinarians for this post:

Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets by Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, PhD

Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD & Susan Hubble Pitcairn

The Nature of Animal Healing by Martin Goldstein, DVM

Dr. Strombeck

Page 133:

Dogs and cats are not anatomically and physiologically designed to be vegetarians.  Cereals are also not nutritionally adequate because they do not satisfy some essential amino acid requirements.  Thus, dogs and cats are not designed to consume vegetable or cereal products as the most significant parts of their diets.

I’m guessing here that Dr. Strombeck is possibly against vegan pet diets even though he used the word vegetarian.  The reason I make this guess is because he does provide a number of vegetarian recipes for pets in the book and in fact states on page 90:

Completely balanced vegetarian diets can be fed to dogs without fear of causing any nutritional deficiency.

He goes on to note that vitamin B12 is found only in foods from animal sources and must be added weekly to a vegetarian dog diet.  I did not find any references specifically to a vegan pet diet in the book.

Regarding cats, page 112:

[Cats] have some unique nutritional needs that a strictly vegetarian diet cannot satisfy.  […]  If a cat is fed a vegetarian diet appropriate for human beings, it is likely that signs of a nutrient deficiency will eventually develop.

Dr. Pitcairn

In summary, Dr. Pitcairn is a no on vegan dog diets and a NO on vegan cat diets.

Page 76:

My observation is that problems arise mostly when owners exclude all animal foods, including milk products and eggs, from their pets’ diets.

Regarding vegetarian dog diets, he is a yes – while cautioning that you must be careful with the nutrients – but no for vegetarian cat diets.  He does encourage reducing the meat in pet diets as a generally good thing to do.  Besides the global, ethical and environmental considerations about feeding pets diets that are high in meat, he adds on page 71:

Our primary health concern about feeding meat […] is that meat is now the most polluted food source on the market.

Dr. Goldstein

Dr. Goldstein states on page 59 that he is a vegetarian himself but believes that dogs and cats need meat in their diets:

Specifically, they need more protein and calcium than a vegetarian diet can provide – which is also to say more protein and calcium than humans need.

He goes on to relate the story of a dog on a vegan diet who came to him in very ill health.  He tested her blood and found that her immune system was draining protein from her muscles.  She died very shortly after her visit.

This post is intended merely to share 3 individual opinions on meatless pet diets.  It is not presented as the final word on the subject by any means.  If you have an opinion on, or experience with, feeding a meatless (or even reduced meat) pet diet, please share in the comments.

I am hoping one day to keep some egg laying chickens as pets.  I’d like to rely on them to supply a significant (but not exclusive) protein source for my dogs.  I like the idea of knowing for certain that the eggs I’m feeding came from well cared for hens and that they are fresh.

24 thoughts on “Three Veterinary Views on Non-Meat Pet Diets

  1. The other advantage of backyard eggs is the Omega-3 fatty acids provided by all the grass and weeds they nosh on.

    Good for you, good for the dogs.

  2. I think we need to be careful here. Just read Christie Keith’s posts against vets who condemn raw diets and make similar claims, which she has pretty convincingly argued are largely made up.

    In terms of personal experience, my two large dogs have been vegan for all their 12 years, one is still mistaken for a young puppy because of his thriving energy levels, and the other while looking his age, is still as mischievous as he was 10 years ago. There are also plant-based taurine-supplemented vegan cat foods, which is the concern on the feline side. And because I travel in those circles in terms of friends, I am not alone in my experience.

    While I am not suggesting we draw conclusions from that evidence alone, it is probably worth noting that these claims were also made about vegan diets for people and suggested B12 and other supplements because people and growing kids allegedly needed milk, eggs, and meat, which turned out to be all false.

    Like our two dogs, our two kids have been vegan since birth and again, because we travel in those circles, we are not alone. In fact, we call our daughter Riley, who is now 12, “Iron Riley” because she never gets sick, even when her playmates are catching colds all the time.

    FYI, we feed our dogs “Evolution” pet food, which you can find on Amazon. We feed our kids a balanced vegan diet, which you can find at Whole Foods. All four–the two dogs and the two kids–are not just surviving, they are thriving.


    1. I know for myself that personal experience does weigh heavily in my considerations. Perhaps that is true for many people.
      I always enjoy reading Christie’s food posts and absolutely agree that the idea that some vets say one could never satisfactorily clean a dog bowl that’s had raw meat in it seems counter-intuitive since many people prepare and cook meat for themselves.

  3. On re-reading my post, I think I addressed the vegan vs. vegetarian diet for pets in Dr. Strombeck’s book in a perhaps misleading way.
    I should have said that he provides many recipes for dogs that would in fact qualify as vegan, if not for the bonemeal and B12 supplements he specifies are required in these recipes. He relies on tofu, lentils, black-eyed peas and soybeans for the main protein sources for these recipes.
    There are also a number of recipes which include meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. I’m sorry for any confusion.

    1. No worries on this end. The reality is that this is an important discussion because there are voices that suggest dogs cannot be vegan, and they don’t even qualify it like Strombeck who says, just add B12 or other supplements. I’ve heard more than once that if people want a vegan pet, they should get a rabbit. So I am glad you brought up the discussion.

      1. I have thought about getting a pet rabbit for this reason – no controversy over the non-meat diet! Also, the extreme cuteness thing.

  4. I’m of the mindset that dogs are incredibly adaptable animals. In order to live alongside us for thousands of years, they had to be! I used to be much more of a food nazi (an arrogant one at that). I’m not so much anymore. :) It makes feeding the dogs so much more relaxing and fun.

    My current vet, who is also a holistic/traditional vet, is fine with vegan diets for dogs. She’s been helping me with the dogs’ diet. She is also a proponent of raw meat diets. My previous vet was the same as well. Both felt my dogs could get enough bio-available nutrients from a vegetarian/vegan diet. Because I do work for a farmed animal sanctuary and there are some seriously happy chickens, I’m fine feeding my dogs their eggs. Neither are actually on a completely vegan diet, but I’m feeding A LOT less animal products than previously. They’re healthy, happy. I’m a little happier as well. :)

    1. I don’t think there are any humble food nazis, heh.
      I too think that dogs are highly adaptable. In addition, I can’t help questioning the appropriateness of comparing dog diets to wolf diets. We have changed the outward appearance of the domestic dog so drastically, that no one – including canids themselves – would mistake a Westie for a wolf. Just because their DNA is nearly identical, obvious changes have been made on the *outside* so who’s to say some major changes haven’t occurred on the *inside* as well.
      Domestic dogs and wolves are not 100% genetic matches – there are differences, albeit few. But domestication – especially surviving on food scraps of humans – may well have made some changes to dog digestion and absorption I think.

  5. Sorry, but I agree with the most common phrase found in the vegan discussion – if you want a vegan pet, choose an animal that was born to eat that diet.

    These animals are carnivores, or at best, omnivores. Frankly, I have nothing but pity for an animal who is at the mercy of their vegan owner. It is a well known fact that the majority of vegetarian/vegan foods on the market today fail to meet AAFCO standards. Pet food companies employing canine/feline nutritionists can’t even get it right.

    BTW, the Evolution Diet is a soy/corn based product – two of the most genetically modified plants on earth. Also, the Evolution Diet for cats has been shown to be grossly undersupplemented and does not meet AAFCO’s minimum standards.

    Honestly, check out their website – it’s a joke. You’ll also notice they don’t provide any nutrient analysis beyond what is mandated by law. Most veggie formulas at the very least list amino acid concentrations. Having dealt with the diets of literally thousands of dogs, I call bullshit.

    1. If dogs are, at best, omnivores then they can do fine on a vegetarian diet. That’s sort of the cool thing about omnivores.

      The following dog food companies state on their products that their dog food meets the AAFCO nutritional standards (and it’s the same language used on meat-based dog foods):
      Natural Balance (vegan)
      Royal Canin
      Avoderm (Vegan)
      PetGuard organics (vegetarian)
      Evolution Diet (one study showed a cat formula did not meet AAFCO standards)

      V-Dog and Nature’s Recipe did not appear to make AAFCO claims. Neither did Blue Buffalo, which is considered a higher-grade meat kibble. I mean, technically they all have to meet the minimum standards set forth by AAFCO. If you believe stating “meets AAFCO standards = okay”, then the foods above are okay. If you don’t believe that, then all the meat-based kibble w/ similar statements should be suspect. Which is fine if you believe that, just asking for some consistency.

      1. “they can do fine on a vegetarian diet”

        I don’t want my dogs to survive, I want them to THRIVE.

        “If you believe stating “meets AAFCO standards = okay”, then the foods above are okay”

        AAFCO standards = BARE MINIMUM. If you can’t even meet AAFCO standards (which are not that extensive) you shouldn’t be on the shelf. Don’t make giant leaps in your conclusions to suit your argument – you only end up looking silly.

        Vegan activist Joanne Stepaniak wrote “… If we [believe] that it is wrong for natural vegetarians to be force-fed meat, the inverse should be equally morally objectionable”

        I also find it hilarious that so many vegans use the green earth argument – when it could be argued that the energy required to create the individual vitamins, minerals and amino acids necessary to make what is essentially a bag of chicken feed nutritionally suitable for a dog or cat – added to the shipping energy used – makes your bag of Vegan food just as energy expensive as my bag of meat based foods sourced from local providers. The new food out by HSUS is a perfect example.

        Not to mention the amount fed – Royal Canin is a great example. In order to meet nutrient requirements, my dogs must eat almost 4 cups each – where they are currently eating ONE. That’s more waste, more energy spent digesting food, and more resources used overall. Not to mention the number of calories that must be consumed to meet nutritional minimums.

        And no, I don’t believe all meat based products are created equal either. Although since by-products are essentially waste produced by our meat industry that would otherwise be wasted nutrients and calories, if your goal is the smallest carbon footprint possible you would be much better off feeding a by-product based food that is much more nutrient dense and requires fewer supplements.

        Where there are supplements, there is human error. The more supplements (and the more critical they are) the greater the chance for error. Look at the last year, in which we have seen two huge companies recall cat foods for a thiamine deficiency.

      2. Related: From Dr. Strombeck’s book, page 96, regarding puppy diets: “Because vegetable and cereal proteins are not as well digested as animal proteins, vegetarian diets need greater amounts of proteins than diets based on animal proteins.” Looking over the puppy recipes, it seems that 1/2 pound (raw weight) of meat is roughly the equivalent of 2 cups of vegan protein (soybeans, for example).

      3. Kim:

        I never stated any personal opinions about AAFCO. I responded to the erroneous claim that the majority of vegetarian diets don’t adhere to AAFCO standards. According to their labels, they do. Maybe leave aside emotional rhetoric and ad hominem attacks on this one, mkay? Thanks.

        My dogs thrive. They will continue to thrive. They’ll remain on their cooked, home-prepared diet that is mostly plant-based with a little bit of animal products. If they stop thriving, I’ll re-adjust, just like I re-adjusted when one of them stopped thriving on kibble and then on a raw meat diet.

        I know it may seem crazy to you, but I judge a dog’s diet on whether it helps or harms the dog. If my dog is harmed by a kibble diet – scrap it. If my dog is harmed by a vegan diet – scrap it. If my dog is harmed by a raw meat diet – scrap it. That is just how I roll and, so far, my dogs aren’t zombies. You will be the first to know if that changes.

  6. Like I said, my dogs have thrived for all of their 12 years and they are still going and going strong. Pickles runs 3 miles a day and has never had any issue requiring veterinary intervention. Topham is showing his 12 years more than his brother, but also doing well for his age. They sleep on the bed, I work from home so they are with me, my wife, and kids all the time, when I am out of town, they are with my wife and kids (who are home schooled), they go for runs, walks every day, and we do off leash hiking in a sequoia grove every weekend. Sorry Hamilton, they don’t want or need your pseudo-pity. You want to be doling it pity, give it to the cows. They are the ones who deserve it.

    1. “You want to be doling it pity, give it to the cows. They are the ones who deserve it.”

      No doubt – they’re being forced to eat a biologically inappropriate diet as well!

  7. Thanks for the discussion, this is such a touchy topic, and it’s nice to see that it stayed civil for the most part.

    My dogs and fosters eat a vegan diet of kibble, supplemented with home cooked food. Every dog we’ve had on it has THRIVED, including the emaciated and ill fosters we’ve had. I certainly didn’t undertake the dietary change lightly. I consulted my vet (who I trust) and started the dogs out on a vegetarian diet, then later switched to a wholly vegan diet AFTER a friend showed me a meta analysis of studies on vegan and vegetarian dogs which convinced me that my dogs would be no worse off than dogs eating a meat-based diet are. There are more studies on this particular diet than on raw diets, which was my other choice. I have yet to see a dog do poorly on a vegan diet, where I have seen dogs do badly on a raw diet. In fact my friend’s dog Cassidy had horrible dietary issues on every diet she’d been put on until she was switch to vegan food.

    All dogs are different. If my dogs were not thriving on their diet, I would take steps to change it. I care deeply about my dogs. I also care deeply about cows, pigs, chickens and the other sentient beings who would have to die to feed them. As long as my dogs stay healthy, I will balance the two. I certainly don’t freak out if one of my dogs happens to eat something non-vegan – they are allowed to have non-veg treats from other people, etc.

    No one has really commented on cats + vegan diets, and I can’t really either since almost no research has come out about it, and I don’t have cats. I will say that most of the taurine found in cat kibble is synthetic because most of the natural stuff is removed during processing. I know that UTIs supposedly occur more frequently in vegan cats tho.

  8. Guess what, I have a 12 year old Aussie that runs around like a puppy. Nobody that meets him for the first time can believe he’s 12. You could say he is “thriving”. He had a heart murmur as a puppy that he grew out of, which has returned in the last year and turned out to be mitral valve degeneration. I was told he may or may not at some point need medication for it, but not yet.

    What do I feed him? Whatever is on sale. Currently him and the new Basenji Costco brand. I usually try to avoid the cheapest stuff from the grocery store, but I also avoid anything expensive. I have been a vet tech for 25 years, and I’ve heard all the claims about nutrition–from the superiority of the BARF diet, to all raw meat, to home made, vegetarian, etc., etc. What have I noticed? People who don’t let their dogs get obese usually have longer lived dogs–fat dogs die young. My theory is that it doesn’t matter what you feed them–genetics has more of a say about the length of life than anything–and keep them from getting fat. Stop feeding them all those treats unless they work for them first.

    Oh, and cats? Cats are obligate carnivores. It’s not just taurine–it’s the relationship of taurine and arginine together. Cats cannot process or use plant based taurine–they must get it from meat sources, preferably organ meats. Feed a cat a vegetarian diet and you will kill them. I feed my cats quality kibble as a conveiniance but supplement with raw meat, because cats have a harder time digesting plant sources. They are a true carnivore.

    1. I think Jennifer that you are right in the sense that genetics plays a greater role in longevity than nutrition. It is only through a commitment to increased expenses and kitchen labor that I’m able to feed my dogs primarily home prepared food. I don’t do it because I can easily afford it or because I’m not lazy (I AM lazy!). I do it in part because I believe good food can play a role in health and longevity – not a more significant role than genetics but still a factor. And for those of us unlucky enough to have “genetically challenged” pets, we can use any possible benefits we can get. Who knows, maybe all this expense and effort only amounts to one extra afternoon of snoozing in the sun at the end of a good dog life. But yeah, that would be worth it to me.

  9. Jennifer – I think you’ve taken the fact that dogs can survive on some pretty incredible crap and confused it with a diet that promotes optimum health.

    “My theory is that it doesn’t matter what you feed them”

    Really. You also state that a well balanced raw diet has no change on their state of health – and then admit that commercial kibble for cats is not ideal for optimum health by feeding them raw meat (btw, a recent study done on cats with IBD suggest that modern meat is lacking in taurine. I would recommend sticking to chicken hearts which are cheap, bite sized and rich with natural taurine rather than muscle meat that costs more money and is less nutritious).

    So which is it?

    1. Dogs are a great deal more flexible than cats are in regards to diet. Cats have some very specific needs that cannot be supplied by plant sources and have to be in the right proportions to be healthy. Even today I don’t think that nutritionists fully understand the dietary needs of cats. (BTW–“modern meat” is not lacking in taurine. Taurine is found in low amounts in muscle meat and higher amounts in organ meats. Rabbit meat overall is too low in taurine to provide a full diet in cats–cats fed primarily rabbit meat suffer from taurine deficiency. So, if you are feeding your cats primarily muscle meat only or primarily rabbit, yes, you will see deficiencies in taurine.)

      Dogs have been domesticated for a great deal longer than cats, and seems to more flexible in many ways. Both genetically and nutritionally. For instance, I don’t think we will ever see the Mastiff-Chihuhua size difference in domestic cats that we see in domestic dogs (not to mention that a Mastiff sized domestic cat would be a terrifying sight). In the same way, I don’t think that what they eat is nearly as important as how much they eat.

      For instance, I have a good friend that is also a tech that always has a Dalmation around. Dals have a tendency to get bladder stones–it seems to be a genetic tendency. After having to have surgery on one of her dogs, the vet told her to feed her Dal the cheapest food she could find. Apparently the lack of bioavailability of certain minerals in the very low quality dog foods help prevent the buildup of mineral based bladder stones in Dals. Her dogs always lived into their teens and always seemed pretty healthy otherwise–no real problems after she switched foods. I think many of the modern convienience foods are too rich for dogs in general, both in terms of calories and minerals and amino acids. The dietary flexibility of the domestic dog is what I think made it able to live with man as long as it has.

      I hope that answers your question.

  10. I’ve made that crack before about vegans who want to force their lifestyle on their dog to trade it in for a rabbit. I think I may refrain from doing that in the future.

    You have to admit that the idea of a vegan dog – or worse, cat – is very counter-intuitive. But it’s hard to argue with thoughtful vegans like Rinalia and Winograd if their animals really are thriving… go for it, why not. Everyone forces some kind of odd lifestyle choices on their pets.

    1. Well, if you try to force your cat to be vegan/vegetarian, you will kill it. While I can see how a carefully crafted vegetarian diet is possible for dogs (though I am still not convinced that it’s better than, or even as optimum as a meat based diet), cats MUST have meat protein to live. So, for cats, it’s more than just an odd lifestyle choice.

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