Dog stands behind owner as he cooks

Vetstreet’s Dr. Ernie Ward gives his opinion on a sensitive topic: Whether a vegetarian — or even vegan — diet is a good idea for pets.

As a long-time vegetarian vet, I’m often asked whether I feed my pets meat. I’m never certain whether it’s an honest question or an attempt to trip me up. It’s similar to being asked, “If you don’t eat meat, where do you get your protein?”

My protein comes from the same place the animals people eat happen to get theirs — plants.

Can Your Cat or Dog Be Vegetarian or Vegan?

The simple answer is that dogs can do just fine on a carefully balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, while cats cannot. Sure, you can try to work around the whole cats-are-obligate-carnivores thing by supplementing certain synthetic amino acids, but it gets tricky — not to mention dangerous to the cat’s health.

So the answer is yes for dogs, but no for cats.

The comment that I most often hear after I state that dogs can be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet is that canines do better on a meat-based diet. Again, I’m not going to argue. There aren’t any studies that I’m aware of that have compared longevity and disease occurrence in dogs who’ve been fed meat versus canines on vegetarian diets.

Interestingly, one of the world’s oldest dogs, Bramble, who lived to a reported 27 years old in the U.K., was never fed an ounce of meat by her strictly vegan owner.

Animals Who Are Omnivores

I’ve heard it all before: “Dogs have obvious carnivorous traits.” So do humans. “Their teeth are different.” True again. “They’re in the order Carnivora.” So are panda bears, and the last time that I checked, they’re herbivores who munch on bamboo to live.

You see, the real difference between an omnivore — a category that applies to both humans and canines — and an obligate carnivore is that a carnivore must obtain essential nutrients found only in meat. Omnivores can obtain essential nutrients from a wide variety of sources. Cats must consume certain essential amino acids found only in meat or they will die, but this is not the case for dogs — or humans.

What Should You Do About Your Dog’s Diet?

I became a vegetarian for two main reasons: my health and my beliefs. As a member of a long line of Southern males who were overweight and died at early ages from coronary heart disease, I started to look for ways to avoid that fate. My beliefs coincided with my health revelation, when I became increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of eating my friends. (I’m not a wacko extremist; I’m simply concerned with how animals are treated.) But do these reasons apply to my dogs?

Point One: Is it healthier for my dogs to be fed a vegetarian diet? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s simply not enough scientific data on canine vegetarian diets.

Point Two: Does my dog care how food animals are treated? Probably not, so I apply the same logic to them that I apply to young children — I must make that decision for them.

Garbanzo Beans

And here’s where the real dilemma begins: At this time, we really don’t have great choices when it comes to vegetarian or vegan diets for dogs. Sure, you can cook excellent vegetarian meals for your dogs, but it takes more than just time — you also need to commit to learn what will truly give your dog all the nutrients that he needs, and then properly follow through to ensure that he gets them. Without the guidance of a veterinarian, creating a fully balanced diet for your pet can be difficult.

I feed my dogs what I’ve been calling the "hybrid menu" for the past 14-plus years. I cook vegetarian meals for them one to three times a week, and then I feed them from a bag or a can the other days. Some excellent nonmeat protein sources for dogs include quinoa, rice, lentils, potatoes, soybeans, garbanzo beans, spinach and broccoli, to name a few.

Humane Feeding Practices Benefit All Animals

I think pet owners should be more supportive of pet food companies that take a stand on the environment and humane farming practices by using humanely raised, free-range protein sources in their foods. Of course, this also means that consumers should be willing to pay more for such food.

This issue isn’t just about what I feed my dogs. It’s also about how we impact our world with the choices that we make to feed our pets and ourselves. If one person thinks about what they’re pouring into their pet’s food bowl after reading this, I’ll be happy. If one person contacts a pet food company to check where it get its meat, I’ll be ecstatic.