Dog diet: vegan to raw meat

Article about the BARF and vegan diets for dogs.
By Laure-Anne Visele, August 2012

Dog nutrition?

I have been having this nagging feeling that I am not doing right by my dog by feeding him his good old kibble (premium brand, mind).

So, after the so manieth pet food recalls, I buckled up and started to follow a canine nutrition course.

 

Fructidog

I had to write an essay on vegan/BARF diets for dogs. Here’s what I found out from my background research on the stuff. Enjoy!

BARF diet

BARF has been a bit of a craze over the past few years. It stands for “Bones and Raw Food”.

Some pros about BARF (in my experience):

  • I have anecdotal reports from tons of people that it promotes calmer behaviour, vitality and a beautiful coat.
  • I also have anecdotal reports that it has completely eliminated their dogs’ food allergies.
Before you go all BARF on me, bear this one in mind: many veterinarian associations have published position papers strongly against BARF.

Common objections:

  • Concocting your dog’s diet yourself (i.e. as a non specialist) may leave him with nutritional excesses and shortages. Having said that, BARF food does come in packaged form too nowadays, but then you’re back to trusting the manufacturer.
  • BARF food is more at risk of biological pathogens (i.e. parasites and bacteria) than processed food.
  • Bones, if splintered, could cause lethal damage to your dog’s digestive system. Use large uncooked bone might be safer, but not 100% so.
  • Pre-packaged BARF food is more expensive, at least at the moment. And again, you’re back to trusting the manufacturer, so it’s catch-22.

Vegetarian diet for dogs

Believe it or not, some people feed their dog a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet. To remind you, vegetarian means no meat, and vegan means no animal product or derivative (so bye bye eggs and dairy too).

Incredibly enough, from a nutritional perspective, a vegetarian diet for your dog is not all that insane (with some caveats).

Emotional objections and fallacies

“What!? But dogs are carnivores. They are in the family “Carnivora!”. I have heard that one so often. So allow me to be a little pedantic here:

  1. First off, it’s not a ‘family’, it’s an ‘order’. Their family is Canidae, their order is carnivora. Not that it matters that much, but hey, seen as I am dealing with the details…
  2. Give a Big Mac to a panda bear and see how it works out. Yup, pandas are also phylogenetic carnivores but ecologically, they’re hardcore veggies.

Using something’s name to derive any kind of argument is actually a fallacy (the nominal fallacy). A name does not carry any logical weight, particularly when you consider how little care goes in naming most things. Mostly things’ names are accidents of history.

But aside from the nominal fallacy, bear in mind that today’s biological nomenclature was designed by Linnaeus in the… 1700’s. It’s damned elegant from a organisational perspective, but waaaaay out of wack on finer points. So there you have it: 300-year-old names should not be taken literally.

But it’s not natural

This is the very thought I had when I started to think about vegan dogs. Sure it’s counter-intuitive, it feels icky. But that does not mean that it’s unsound. This is the naturalistic fallacy: not everything that’s natural is good and not everything that’s artificial is bad –aspirin = good but artificial; poison ivy = bad but natural.

Here’s a couple of objections that are similar to the naturalistic fallacy:

  • Status quo bias: We assume that things are always better unchanged, that we shouldn’t rock the boat.
  • Counterargument: Aren’t you glad we started using the wheel?
  • Appeal to tradition: We’ve always done things that way, so it must be the best way.
  • Counter-argument: How about slavery, and homophobia, and racism, etc.

Conservative thinking doesn’t leave any room for progress, for cultural shifts. Today’s unacceptable is tomorrow’s normal, and I like that. Sure an unfamiliar idea brings me out of my comfort zone, but does that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

The whole “If it aint’ broke, why fix it?” approach is also far from perfect, because it IS broke. Are you 100% confident in the pet food manufacturers who have claimed to make safe and healthful and complete food for our dogs won’t let us down again?

And now, the final nail in our conservative coffin: canids consuming plant matter are more natural than you’d think. Greek researchers found a huge proportion of plant matter in wolf stomachs (Papageorgiou, 1994), and wolves are a lot more committed to the carnivorous lifestyle than dogs are.

Nutritional stuff

So, if dogs aren’t straight-up carnivores, what are they? They are adaptable, flexible carnivores, not ‘obligate’ ones. They, unlike cats, can derive essential nutrients (including proteins) from plant matter.

What makes the dog more omnivorous than you’d think:

  • Long small intestine (4x longer than cat’s, relatively);
  • Dogs secrete amylase (enzyme used to break down starch). Last I looked, there was no starch in meat;
  • Dogs secrete their own taurine. As taurine is not found in plant material, animals that do not routinely eat meat synthesize their own. Cats get all their taurine supply from ingesting meat (remember, they are ‘obligate carnivores’).

Evolutionary ecology of pet dogs

And, I have to disappoint all of you who still entertain the romantic notion that dogs are wild predators. They are opportunistic feeders–we’re talking bin scavenging here, not pack hunt. They split off from wolves around the time humans started settlements (we estimate the speciation event to have happened 15,000 [archaeological records] to 100,000 years ago [mitochondrial DNA records]).

So I can switch my dog over to a vegeterian diet?

This is where I’m going to stop you. I am not keen (emphasis on I. Just personal opinion, am no expert). Here’s why:

  • Larger dogs occasionally suffer from taurine deficiency, especially if they do not get enough meat;
  • Dogs that exercise a lot need A LOT of protein. There is undeniably less protein in plant matter (not none at all, just less), and plant-based protein is  less bio-available meat-based (not completely unavailable, but less available). Sure dogs have longer intestines than cats, but they’re not cows either. So you would need to give much larger quantities of the right kind of plant to be on the safe side.
  • From where I’m standing, it would take quite a bit of research (beyond a quick Google search) to get to a balanced vegan/vegetarian diet for your dog. I don’t even have time to stop for coffee most days, so no way would I want to take this on.
  • I don’t trust vegetarian kibble manufacturers any more than other kibble manufacturers, and at least my vet is behind my choice on the meat front. So if you want doggie to go veggie, get a canine nutritionist on board.

At this stage, and to quote a friend: “If you want to feed vegan, get a rabbit“. Once commercially available, nutritionally complete, and as-pathogen-free-as-humanly-possible kibble is on the market for veggie dogs, I might consider it.

I for one am not going to get a PhD in canine nutrition just so I can research this property, and I am going to have to trust the manufacturers.

Conclusion

I am a veggie myself, but my dog is still on his (meaty) premium brand kibble. The plague of dog food recalls is really bugging me, so I am starting to find out about alternatives. I haven’t taken the plunge one way or another yet as I find the BARF and vegetarian alternatives too extreme.

Further reading

If you’re interested in finding out more about canine nutrition:

Comments

I love to read your comments, so do leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you have a view to share about:

  • BARF, vegan, or vegetarian diets; and/or
  • A diet that worked on your dog for allergies; and/or
  • Packaged food recalls.

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