Factory farming and the climate crisis have spoiled many people’s appetite for meat. According to figures from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 14 percent of people in Germany were vegetarian or vegan last year. But when it comes to their pets, owners can quickly be faced with a dilemma: How can you justify bringing in pounds of dog and cat meat that you yourself reject for ethical or other reasons?
Dogs once had to be content with leftovers. Today there are foods specially adapted to the needs of the more than ten million dogs in Germany, some of whose ingredients resemble those of a human dish and which also take into account different nutritional philosophies: There are foods made from organic ingredients, from insect puree, among other things, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan food.
Vegan nutrition for dogs in particular is received with great reservations by experts and dog lovers. “Many still see the wolf in the dog, but they don’t know that the wolf didn’t just eat meat,” says Volker Wilke of the Institute for Animal Nutrition at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover. Therefore, the dog is also not a pure carnivore. “During the thousands of years of domestication, it fed like an omnivore and sometimes had a lot less meat than it does today,” Wilke emphasizes.
How healthy are dogs on a plant-based diet?
But is plant-based food enough for a healthy dog diet? A study recently published in the journal “PLOS ONE” provides initial indications. British and Australian researchers asked more than 2,500 owners about their dogs’ health and compared how often they had to go to the vet, for example, or if they received medication. 54 percent fed their dogs conventional food, 33 percent relied on raw meat, and 13 percent fed their dogs vegan food.
The result: Dogs fed classic food appeared to be the least healthy, the scientists report. Dogs that ate raw meat were said to be slightly healthier than vegans. The differences between these two groups could also be explained by the fact that the dogs that ate raw meat were on average younger than the vegans and that their owners took them to the vet less frequently. Previous studies have also shown that the risk of malnutrition and pathogen ingestion is higher with a diet containing raw meat. Collectively, the experts conclude that a balanced vegan diet is the healthiest and safest for dogs.
The study was funded by the organization ProVeg International, which claims to be committed to animal-free feeding. Ellen Kienzle, Professor of Animal Nutrition at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, considers that the validity of the study is limited: “It was about subjective perception. As long as a dog does not show clear symptoms of illness, the owners cannot assess whether the dog he’s sick, she says.
Animal nutrition professor skeptical: “Vegan nutrition is purely a matter of sensitivity”
Feeding vegan dogs: Kienzle doesn’t believe in that at all. “No one knows how nutrient availability changes as a result of a vegan diet, and we know it changes.” Until now, only a few studies have been carried out on this. However, for accurate claims, studies on each individual nutrient would be required. But even if you take blood from a dog for research, that’s considered an animal experiment that requires approval. “You have to show that the project is indispensable,” emphasizes Kienzle. And it is not essential.
From his point of view, as long as people eat meat, there will be enough leftovers, such as organs and bones, that can only be used in animal feed. “So the vegan diet is pure sensitivity, a transfer of your own attitude to the dog, and that’s not fair,” he says. According to previous studies, people who don’t eat meat come up with the idea of feeding their dog a vegan or vegetarian diet.
At the Volker Wilke Institute, researchers have been working on meat-free nutrition for dogs for some time. “Previous studies indicate that the dog can also receive all the necessary nutrients through a plant-based diet with certain additives,” he says. However, a vegan diet is also more difficult to produce and requires a lot of specialized knowledge to meet the needs.
Do dogs like vegan food?
But do dogs that have been fed conventional food try vegan food? Volker Wilke wanted to test this in a blind study involving 24 students and their dogs. Some fed the dogs vegan dry food from two manufacturers, while a control group continued to feed them food containing meat.
For two weeks, owners in the study were asked to record whether their dog liked the food and what the composition of its feces was. “There were three dogs with the animals on vegan food that refused. As a result, the acceptance wasn’t significant, but it tended to be a little lower,” Wilke says. “But the others ate it with relish.” However, the study was not representative due to the small number of participants.
Beware of vegan diets for cats: They are pure carnivores
According to Wilke, vegan dog nutrition remains a niche topic. But she points out that interest in him is increasing, also in science. But in order to be able to assess exactly how dogs acquire it, long-term studies are needed that examine several objective health parameters, such as certain blood values, effects on the condition of the coat or, if necessary, the fitness of the animals. .
By the way, the situation is completely different with cats: they are pure carnivores and cannot be fed vegan, warn both Wilke and his colleague from Munich Kienzle.