The Potential Risks Of A Vegetarian Dog Diet

Vegetarianism  the practice of abstaining from consuming meat is becoming more and more popular in our culture. A stroll around most grocery stores will reveal entire sections of meat alternatives, not to mention items that contain no animal byproducts at all (that’s vegan territory).

And for many people, vegetarianism is more than just a diet; it’s a way of life, an issue they are passionate about, and something they want to share with those around them — including their pets. But is it appropriate to put your pet on a meat-free diet? It’s a controversial topic, and there are many varying opinions. Here we’ll look at some of the arguments for and against vegetarian pets.

The Potential Risks Of A Vegetarian Dog Diet

Just like for people, vegetarian diets for pets need to be managed carefully in order to ensure that the animal is getting all of the nutrients they need. Pets, for example, require high levels of protein; the Association of American Feed Control Officials — an industry that establishes pet food standards — puts an adult dog’s protein needs at 18% and a cat’s at 26%.

And while vegetarians may argue that proteins can be found in the plant world, not all proteins are created equal. Different protein sources contain different levels of amino acids that are essential for overall health. Taurine, for example, is an important amino acid that dogs can synthesize if provided with the right dietary protein. Cats, however, cannot synthesize taurine, and thus must take it in through their diet (it is usually found in meat and fish). When a pet does not get enough taurine, they can suffer from taurine deficiency, which can result in heart disease and other serious medical issues.

In addition, a vegetarian diet may be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. While supplements are available, some vets dislike the idea of replacing naturally occurring nutrients with chemically synthesized ones.

Most opponents will at least agree, however, that a vegetarian diet is possible for dogs, just not ideal. Cats, on the other hand, are not as well cut out for it. This is because cats are obligate carnivores who have higher protein needs and require meat to take in key nutrients that they can’t synthesize on their own.

Of course, the debate rages on, and we’ll look at other opinions in the next section.

Should Your Pet Go on a Vegetarian Diet?

The risks of feeding vegan or vegetarian diets to your pet.

Vitamins A and D: Dogs and cats cannot make vitamin D in their skin, so it needs to be in their diet. And the vitamin D needs to be D3, which comes from animal sources, not D2, which comes from plant-based sources. “People and dogs can use D2 to some extent, but cats really need D3,” Heinze says.

Taurine. Dogs can make taurine if provided the right building blocks through dietary protein. Cats cannot make their own taurine at all, so it is regarded as an essential amino acid in this species and must be present in adequate amounts in the diet. Both species can suffer taurine deficiencies.

Potential Problems

The risks of feeding dogs or cats vegetarian or vegan diet include:

Inadequate total protein intake (less than the 25 grams per 1,000 calories recommended)
Imbalance of the certain amino acids, such as taurine and L-carnitine (dogs and cats) or essential fatty acids arachidonic acid (cats only), in particular
Deficiency of vitamins and minerals (such as B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, and iron) that are obtained ideally, or only, through meat or other animal products

If allowed to continue long enough, these dietary problems can lead to serious and sometimes irreversible medical conditions. The one veterinarians mention most often is taurine-related dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart with weak contractions and poor pumping ability). Low taurine can also lead to reproductive failures, growth failures, and eye problems.

“We did see a case of a cat that almost died as a result of taurine deficiency,” says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, Ph.D., board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of California, Davis veterinary school. “The owners were feeding a vegan cat kibble, so a commercially available vegan diet, and they were mixing that diet with cooked chicken breast, for some reason, but it was not enough taurine for the cat, obviously, and it resulted in a near-death experience for this animal.”

“I can tell you the people who almost killed their cat felt incredibly guilty and incredibly angry, as you can imagine,” Larsen tells WebMD. “They were not feeding that diet to be malicious or to harm their cat, but that’s what happened.”

Before You Put Your Pet on a Vegetarian Diet

Every pet is different, and what may be appropriate for one pet may not be for another. Before changing your pet’s diet (whether it is to vegetarianism or something else), always consult your veterinarian. They will help you decide what and how to feed your pet, and let you know about any potential risks or benefits.

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