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Should your dog be vegan? Experts weigh in on the pros and cons

Some experts believe dogs can get by on a vegan diet. Others aren't so sure. | Stock.Adobe.com

Some experts believe dogs can get by on a vegan diet. Others aren't so sure. | Stock.Adobe.com

Some people will do just about anything for their pets. So when I overheard a friend talk about her dog’s vegan diet, I had to ask.

“Why?”

She replied, “I can’t feed my dog something I wouldn’t feed myself.”

So vegans are now raising vegan pets. But is going totally meat-free the best choice for an animal’s nutritional health?

“I used to joke that if you want to start a bar fight or restaurant fight, just simply ask someone what they feed their pet,” said Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. “There is no right or wrong, what is right is to find the diet that fits not only your own personal beliefs, but also your dog or cat’s best health.”

Ward, who is also the chief veterinarian officer of Wild Earth, a biotech startup developing clean, high-protein pet foods, said there is no “one size fits all” with animals, but he thinks dogs don’t need meat in their diets.

“I am against meat but I also respect people’s right to choose,” Ward said. “There are going to be some dogs that thrive on certain diets, but I would argue that probably given the chance, if they tried an alternative protein source they would probably thrive just as well.”

Dr. Barbara Royal, founder of the Royal Treatment Veterinary Center of Chicago, disagrees.

“Dogs are scavengers,” Royal said. “I really believe dogs need their protein to be coming from a meat source to provide the appropriate amount of taurine [an amino acid] in their system or you will have heart problems. You will have vision problems. Those are immediately obvious and as a veterinarian I see that.”

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

While Ward and Royal may disagree about meat, they both agree that a majority of dry brands or “kibble” are processed foods that could cause allergies, irritable bowel syndrome and even cancer.

“Ninety-five percent of all kibble that’s out there is high heat processed, so every time you feed a mouthful of kibble, you’re feeding a high-heat processed food that will contain, because of that processing, two potent carcinogens,” Royal said.

Ward said, “When people come to me and say they put their dog on a vegan diet and their skin problems went away or they fed their dog a raw food diet and the digestive problems were eliminated, what I think they eliminated was something in the processing.”

Here are some best practices for feeding your pet:

Don’t be afraid to switch things up

“One of the things that I’m known for is the rotational diet,” said Ward. “I really like to mix protein sources. A lot of vets don’t like this, but I do believe in a variety of proteins in particular. … Changing brands, formulations, add whole foods whenever possible like whole carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes. Really mix it up.”

Make sure your meals are balanced

Royal, who provides recipes on the Royal Animal Health University website, said cooking balanced meals from home is easier than many think. Just be sure to add a source of protein with your carbs.

“Carbs turn into sugar and sugar is not a good food source for pets,” Royal said. “A lot of people don’t realize that fruits are actually carbs, so if you’re looking at the label and you see blueberries, sweet potatoes and lentils, you’re getting a lot of carbohydrates without the balanced protein. Make sure the carbs are not 50 percent of a total meal, but more like less than 25 percent.”

Be an advocate

“I would love it if everyone would call their pet food company and ask, ‘Can you tell me where you source this from? Are the animals pasture raised or from industrial farms?'” said Royal. “Tell them that you care about the quality of food that is getting to your pets. If the industry started to hear that people cared about that, it would be a huge shift.”

Get a second opinion

Before putting your animal on any medications, it’s important to do some research.

“We have animals with these chronic conditions like humans, with IBS and there are some who say this is only solvable with a steroid or other medication … We have an incredible epidemic with these problems,” Royal said. “I really believe 95 percent of the time, it’s just the body saying, ‘Wrong food. Don’t eat that.'”

“I see people who have put their pets on five different drugs and nothing is working, yet they won’t try a different diet,” Ward said. “There are a lot of veterinarians out there who are deeply passionate and educated and willing to help.”

Jenniffer Weigel is director of community relations for the Sun-Times and has had a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.