We were lucky to speak to Dr. Lorelei Wakefield, a dedicated vegan veterinarian. We understand well the concerns of well-meaning pet owners who are considering feeding their beloved dogs a plant-based diet, even just in part. So we asked Dr. Wakefield all of the questions that pet owners might ask, and she addresses just how healthy feeding dogs more plants and less meat can be!
What is your background?
I’m a 2006 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. I published a study of vegetarian cats for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. I then completed an internship at the ASPCA in NYC. Currently, I work as a relief veterinarian and consultant, including nutritional consulting.
Can dogs eat a plant-based or primarily plant-based diet?
They can. The reason is that they are physiologically omnivorous. So even though they are in the Order Carnivora, their dietary type is omnivorous.
So to clear up the confusion around this subject, dogs are physiologically omnivores?
What does it mean to be an omnivore?
An omnivore is an animal that can consume both plants and meat. Whereas, a carnivore is an animal that necessarily subsists on a diet consisting mainly of meat because it does not possess the physiology to properly digest vegetable matter. So to be an omnivore means that you’re physiologically able to turn both plant-based nutrients and animal-based nutrients into energy that is useful for your body.
Do omnivores need both plant-based and animal-based nutrients?
No, omnivores can be entirely plant-based. They can utilize the nutrients in plants. You have more flexibility in what nutrients can be absorbed, so omnivores can be both plant- and animal-based, or one or the other.
There’s a lot of marketing in the pet food industry about dogs being descendants of wolves, sharing their ancestral DNA and needing to eat like their ancestors. Do dogs need to eat meat like their wolf ancestors?
That’s a good question. Dogs are now a different species from wolves and are definitely distinct from their wolf ancestors. Especially with respect to diet, there was a recent study that looked into the genetics of dogs and wolves and found that dogs are much better able to digest carbohydrates than wolves.
People think that wolves need to eat meat therefore dogs need to eat meat. It turns out that dogs have evolved alongside humans eating human food and so dogs adapted to eating carbohydrates by natural selection.
Those who think that dogs can’t do well on a plant-based diet believe it’s because they are not able to absorb and use plant-based nutrients, but it turns out that they are able to absorb those nutrients. They have increased starch digestion, relative to their wolf ancestors, so most are able to thrive on a plant-based diet.
If pet owners want to feed their dogs a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet, how should they go about doing so?
They should either use commercially available prepared food or if they are going to home cook they should carefully choose a recipe that is fully supplemented. Otherwise, you could end up with nutrient deficiencies.
A lot of pet owners add fresh food to kibble, what do you think about that?
It’s great to add fresh food to kibble, but it shouldn’t be a high percentage of the diet. If pet owners are mixing fresh food that makes up over a third of the diet, then it needs to be carefully supplemented because we don’t want the dogs to become nutrient deficient. Just adding fresh vegetables to a dog’s diet, while well-intended, could lack in the amino acids that dogs require.
It’s ok for dogs to be plant-based, but can they thrive?
Absolutely. A lot of dogs have improved health on a plant-based diet. Part of the reason being that with a plant-based diet, you don’t have antibiotic or hormone residues found in commercially processed meat, which can be toxic or can cause antibiotic resistance. So dogs can thrive on a plant-based diet, in part, based on what you’re taking away. The other part is what they are getting. Plant-based diets tend to be more hypoallergenic. Dogs are often allergic to specific animal-based proteins, which can cause skin eruptions or inflammatory bowel-type reactions, and there are less possible allergens in a plant-based diet.
Overall what is the takeaway?
People can feel comfortable feeding their dogs a plant-based diet or at least reducing the amount of animal-based protein they feed their dogs. With just reducing the amount of meat, you’re still making a difference. And because dogs are omnivorous, they don’t require animal-based protein like an obligate carnivore. So dogs can do well on a diet consisting of more plants and less meat.