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My border collie Levi's 9th birthday was the first time I really thought about how old he was. Of course, most people dread the day when their pets "move to live on a farm" - as in, for good. But it's an idea you push down for the majority of your puppy's existence.
But when Levi entered his ninth year of life (get it? ), I couldn't take it anymore. I could see he wasn't in the best of health. He was being treated for infections in both ears and had early arthritis. He didn't jump up into the car or into the bed as he used to since he didn't have as much energy as he used to.
I was doing everything I could to ensure that he had a happy and healthy life. However, I was aware that many dogs do not live to be 10-12 years old. And I was eager (or desperate?) to come up with fresh strategies to improve his chances of surviving longer.
Over the course of several nights of research, I kept coming back to a concept I'd always questioned and dismissed: a vegan diet for dogs. I'm a vegan myself, but I've never considered making Levi go vegan. I only want the best for him, as do most pet owners. But then I found myself reading about the dangers of feeding meat to your dog, rather than the other way around.
I'm not here to persuade you to feed your dog a plant-based food. I will, however, share some of the information I discovered when researching this topic further.
Can dogs be vegan?
It's debatable if dogs can be vegans. It's easy to mistake dogs for carnivores at first glance — the teeth, for example, are deceiving. Domestic dogs, like humans, chimps, bears, and pigs, are omnivores (to name a few).
An omnivore is a creature that can eat both plant and animal-based meals to thrive. As a result, dogs, like many other omnivores, can eat a completely plant-based diet.
Benefits of a plant-based diet for dogs
Many people report improvements in their dogs’ health after switching them to a plant-based diet. Credit:Adobe. Do not use without permission.
It didn't take long for Levi's health to improve once he switched from commercial meat-based chow to a vegan recipe. It's been over two years, and he's in better shape than he's ever been. Since he started eating meat, he hasn't had any infections, and his arthritis symptoms have considerably improved — he's no longer leaping into cars, onto beds, or all over people. He is constantly mistaken for a young puppy, despite the fact that he is 11 years old.
It's a topic I've heard many times, particularly on the Vegan Dog Nutrition Facebook page, which has over 17,000 members. Anecdotal evidence isn't enough, of course. These testimonies, however, are backed up by science.
Companion dogs can ‘thrive' on a meat-free diet, according to research published in 2016. According to the journal study, “such diets have been linked to benefits such as enhanced coat condition, allergy control, weight control, increased overall health and vigour, arthritic regression, diabetic regression, and cataract resolution.”
There were also fewer cases of cancer, infections, hypothyroidism, and ectoparasites (fleas, ticks, lice, and mites), according to the study.
It was clarified that pets eating a meat-free diet can still have health issues. According to the study, “such diseases are also frequent among the typical domesticated companion animal population.”
In a second 2009 study, researchers looked at the diets of highly exercised dogs to see if they might stay healthy on a meat-free diet. The experiment lasted 16 weeks and included 10 weeks of competitive racing using sprint-racing Siberian huskies. On a plant-based diet, the dogs stayed in ‘excellent physical condition.'
Plant-based diets have been utilised to help pet patients manage dangerous health concerns, according to Dr. Debra Voulgaris, who holds a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). “As an ethical veterinarian, I have a responsibility to propose balanced and healthful foods to my patients. I have a responsibility as an ethical vegan to encourage compassion for all animals, not just my patients. V-dog, a plant-based dog food business, allows her to do both, she claims.
“V-dog has helped many of my patients manage allergies, gastrointestinal problems, and other systemic illnesses.”
Dr. Jena Questen, who runs her own animal rescue and veterinary clinic, is another proponent of meat-free dog meals. “Why do I recommend a vegan diet for dogs?” she said. Because research has proven that humans and dogs are both omnivores. 2) The best diet for human health and longevity is a plant-based diet. And, because I want my animals to live as long and as healthy as possible, I feed and promote a plant-based diet, which has had fantastic results!”
Bramble, the 25-year-old vegan dog
Bramble, the legendary border collie, must be mentioned when discussing vegan pets. Bramble lived for just over 25 years, or 189 years in dog years. She was even the world's oldest dog at the time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Anne Heritage, an animal rights activist, spoke with V-Dog about Bramble and her other puppies.
“I've had seven dogs, three of whom survived to be 19 years old, one to be 20 years old, and Bramble to be 25,” she said. They were all vegan.
“Because of their plant-based diet, I was able to appreciate my dogs for much longer — we were able to enjoy each other. “I believe that with the proper care and nourishment, you can extend the life of your dog,” she stated.
“Every day, [Bramble] walked for nearly two hours. Her muscles and endurance were greatly improved as a result of all of this action. Bramble's veterinarian also said that she had the greatest teeth she'd ever seen. Her teeth were pearly white and incredibly strong.” (It's worth noting that several vets have stated the same thing about Levi's teeth, though I can't say whether it's because of his diet.)
Dangers of feeding dogs meat
Meat-based dog food can contain harmful bacteria. Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
The discovery of the (many) health risks associated with meat-based dog food prompted me to make the switch for Levi.
It's also what prompted the establishment of certain plant-based pet food companies. Take, for example, Wild Earth. Concerns over tainted dog food prompted the company's establishment.
“Most of the major brands have meat scraps from the ‘4D animals’—dead, dying, diseased, or disabled—so there could really be anything in there,” CEO and co-founder Ryan Bethencourt told Wall Street Journal. Raw 4-D meat, according to the FDA, ‘may present a potential health hazard to the animals that consume it and to the people who handle it’.
Bethencourt continued: “We’ve taken an easily accessible vegan product that we can easily scale through biotechnology, not factory farming.”
Another meat-free pet food brand, V-Dog, has similar concerns. On its website, it points to data from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, which shows that in February 2018 alone, 38 pet food products were recalled for contamination, mostly from pentobarbital (a euthanasia drug) and Salmonella contamination.
Multiple popular dog food brands were among those recalled. These included Ol’ Roy, Skippy, and Gravy Train, which is owned by $14.34 billion manufacturer Smucker’s.
Raw meat risks
Raw meat-based dog food can be even more damaging. A study published in July examined the health risks of raw meat-based dog food by testing samples for the bacteria Enterococci. Enterococci that spreads to the wrong areas of the body can cause serious infections, including abdominal, wound, oral, and urinary tract infections.
Researchers looked at 55 samples from 25 brands (most of which ship worldwide). More than half (54 percent) of samples contained the bacteria. And more than 40 percent were resistant to multiple antibiotics.
The findings posed risks, not just to the dogs consuming it but to humans, too. “The close contact of humans with dogs and the commercialisation of the studied brands in different countries poses an international public health risk,” said study researcher Dr Ana R. Freitas.
“European authorities must raise awareness about the potential health risks when feeding raw diets to pets and the manufacture of dog food, including ingredient selection and hygiene practices, must be reviewed.”
Plastic in dog food
Stepping away from bacterial concerns, there are other ways using animals for pet food can be harmful. Former employees in the pet food industry have revealed that plastic ear tags from livestock can be processed along with the meat and ultimately, end up in dogs’ bowls. Spoiled supermarket meat can also be used in batches, sometimes without removing the styrofoam packaging.
Some employees spoke to ABC about the issue. A former rendering plant operations manager revealed: “There would be plastic. Butchers would be getting rid of their material and they don’t care what they’re putting in the bin — plastic, cans, all those sorts of things you would see.”
Environmental impact of dog food
The meat used to make pet food causes a great deal of environmental damage. Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
One of the primary reasons I went vegan was due to concerns about the planet. If you’ve read the news lately, you’ll know that the climate crisis is taking its toll all over the world, manifesting as floods, droughts, and wildfires (read more about the climate crisis here).
Of course, a lot of variables are at play. But an undeniable one is diet. The production of meat, dairy, and eggs is a leading driver of deforestation, ocean dead zones, and rising sea levels. Animal products (especially beef) are huge generators of greenhouse gas emissions. And research has shown over and over again that plant-based foods have a lower impact on the planet.
In 2019, researchers from Oxford University analyzed the impact of the food system on the planet. The study was the most comprehensive of its kind to date. Joseph Poore, who led the study, concluded: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
“It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, since these avenues mostly target greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this.
Venezuelan surgeon and veterinarian Dr. Simon Fit believes it is our ‘duty’ to work toward minimizing our pets’ environmental impact.
He said: “I also think that it is a duty of all of us who love animals and the planet to minimize the suffering of others and reduce the environmental impact that we produce with our food. The food that our dogs and cats consume produces more than 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – that’s the equivalent of driving more than 13 million cars.”
Growing numbers of vegan dogs
A rising number of people are raising their dogs on a meat-free diet. Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Vegan dogs are a minority, but a growing one.
In 2019, researchers from U of G’s Ontario Veterinary College conducted a survey to examine what foods people are feeding their pets.
Just under six percent of participants were vegan. More than a quarter (27 percent) were feeding their dogs a plant-based diet, too. Among the rest of the vegan survey respondents, 78 percent were interested in adjusting their pets diet to be plant-based if it met their needs
Lead author Dr. Sarah Dodd commented: “That percentage, 27 percent, might sound like a small number, but when you think of the actual numbers of pets involved, that’s huge, and much higher than we expected.”
All up, 1.6 percent of dogs from the survey were plant-based. A further 10.4 percent of dogs were ‘intermittently fed vegetarian diets or plant-based foods’.
Moreover, 35 percent of pet owners whose companion animals currently ate meat were interested in switching their pets’ diet to a plant-based one.
“People have been hearing about how vegan diets are linked to lowered risks of cancer and other health benefits in humans. There is also growing concern about the environmental impact of animal agriculture,” Dodd said.
“Previous studies have also shown that pet owners tend to offer the same kind of diets to their dogs and cats that they adopt for themselves. So, while only a small proportion of pet owners are currently feeding plant-based diets to their pets, it is safe to say that interest in the diets is likely to grow.”
If you’re interested in knowing more, see here for some information on vegan dog food brands