Vegan Diet Better for Dogs, UK Study Suggests; Vets Not So Sure

It’s been pretty well established that a vegan diet is healthier for  most humans than a typical meat-heavy diet. But is the same thing true for dogs? A new British study says it is, although veterinarians urge caution.

The study followed more than 2,500 dogs for a year and looked at the number of vet visits, incidence of 22 common illnesses and other general indicators of health.

“Our study is by far the largest study published to date,” said Andrew Knight, a professor at the University of Winchester, UK, who led the project. “It revealed that the healthiest and least hazardous dietary choices for dogs are nutritionally sound vegan diets.”

The study, published in the journal Plos One, analyzed surveys completed by 2,536 dog owners about a single animal. Just over half ate conventional meat-based diets, a third were fed raw meat and 13% had vegan diets.

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Some vets cautious

Veterinarians were not quick to embrace the study, however.

“Although we would not recommend it, it is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but owners would need to take expert veterinary advice to avoid dietary deficiencies and associated disease,” said Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association.

Perhaps significantly, dogs fed a raw meat diet in the UK study came out marginally better than some other dogs studied. But Knight said those dogs were younger, which might have given them an advantage. And he cautioned that raw meat diets “are much more contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and parasites.”

The percentage of dogs reported to have suffered from health disorders was 49% for the conventional diet, 43% for the raw meat diet and 36% for the vegan diet.

While the study did not establish the cause of the different outcomes, Knight suggested the findings echoed human experience.

“One of the most common health problems for dogs is being overweight or obese and it is unfortunately common that when we do tests on the commercial meat-based diets, there are more calories,” he said in a report in The Guardian.

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What would your dog think?

If you’re thinking this is all well and good but your dog would never put up with a vegan diet, think again. A separate study in 2021 concluded that dogs found vegan diets just as tasty as regular dog food.

And as for the oft-heard assertion that dogs, like cats, are carnivores who must eat meat to survive, a Tufts University scientist says it’s just not so.

“Dogs are classified in the Order Carnivora, but other species included in that group include omnivores such as bears, raccoons, and skunks as well as the giant panda, which is a strict herbivore, said of Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service.

“One of the major genetic differences between dogs and wolves is that dogs have evolved to better be able to digest starches (carbohydrates) than wolves,” Heinze said in a web posting.

That doesn’t mean you should just start whipping up a vegan diet for your dog, though, according to Heinze and other veterinarians  

“Home-prepared diets always fare worse as the vast majority of home-cooked meat-based diets dog owners are feeding lack essential nutrients and the vegetarian and vegan ones typically have all the same deficiencies and then some additional ones, such as protein,” she said.

Dog owners who want to feed a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet should seek out an experienced veterinary nutritionist to discuss their dog’s needs and develop a diet plan that minimizes health risks, Heinze cautioned.