Vegetarian Diets: A Thorny Issue

There are a lot of sound, even honorable, reasons for a person to follow a vegetarian diet. These include the belief that it’s wrong to eat other animals; the desire to reduce the risk for diseases associated with diets high in animal foods, including heart disease, hypertension, and prostate and various other types of cancer; and a wish to eat in a way that’s easier on the planet. Growing plant foods takes much less of a toll on the land than raising cattle, chickens, and hogs.

We support any person’s decision to go vegetarian. But their concerns do not make good reasons for keeping meat out of a dog’s diet. Dogs, much more than people, require a meat-based diet to maintain their health. While not impossible, it is extremely difficult to keep a dog in the best shape on a diet that eschews all meat.

Meat-free diets, even ones that are commercially available, have been found to be deficient in a host of ingredients essential to healthy canine living, including the protein building blocks taurine and carnitine, among others. In one study of two commercial vegetarian foods meant for cats (but with similar implications for dogs)

Dr. Freeman and colleagues found numerous deficiencies of amino acids in addition to vitamins and minerals—despite claims from the manufacturers that the foods were complete and balanced and formulated to meet the required AAFCO profiles! Such deficiencies leave older dogs particularly vulnerable to everything from heart disease to anemia, skeletal problems, and skin disorders.

Consider, too, that dogs do not have the same health concerns that drive some humans to give up animal foods. For instance, while they get certain forms of heart disease, their arteries do not clog as human arteries do, so it is not necessary for them to avoid the saturated fat in animal foods that helps make the “gunk” contributing to blockages in human blood vessels.

On the contrary, we have seen dogs develop heart disease because they’re eating a vegetarian diet that does not adequately support the functioning of the heart. One Rhodesian ridgeback, Sadie, had progressed to heart failure by the time she was brought to our offices after an extended time on a vegetarian diet that her well-meaning but misguided owner fed to her.

The bottom line: while health and ethical concerns and even a particular philosophy can validly inform a person’s decision to become a vegetarian, health in itself is a matter of science, and “vegetarian” and “healthy” do not go together for a dog.