Are Dogs Obligate Carnivores?

Perhaps we hate animal cruelty in the meat-production industry. We might also want our dog to join us in saving the planet. Maybe as vegetarians we grimace at the heavy meaty smell as we open a can of dog food each morning. But the last thing that we want is to risk the health of our dogs and puppies. The following considers how we can approach this moral conflict in a balanced and informed way towards looking after the planet and our pets.
Dog Eating Vegetables

Are dogs obligate carnivores or potential vegetarians?
Can my dog be more vegetarian?
The complexities of a fully vegetarian diet for your dog
Thinking about your own motives
Meeting meat half-way and researching ethical foods
Are dogs omnivores or carnivores?
Conclusion – More plant power for puppies?

Can my canine companion be vegetarian or are dogs obligate carnivores?

Are dogs obligate carnivores? Dog unimpressed with veg-filled bowl
Are you serious?

Nearly all dog owners love animals.  Also most of us want to save the planet.  Many of us, me included, are vegans and vegetarians.   So inevitably we ask ourselves a difficult and vexed question: Can my dog be a vegetarian or do I need to provide meat? 

The answer, for most of us who are not nutrition experts, would be no. For anyone considering a vegan diet for their dogs, an even more emphatic no. Dogs, along with other canids, are considered by some experts to be obligate carnivores.  They need nutrients and proteins that are derived from meat.  

But at the same time through physical morphology over thousands of years, canis familiaris or the domestic dog, has undergone changes in their digestive system and their dentition or teeth. They can gain far more nutrition from plant-based foods than their wolfish ancestors. Other experts therefore define them as omnivores.

Another term bandied around is facultative carnivore. This really falls into the middle ground between the two views. A facultative carnivore does have the ‘ability’ or option to eat non-animal based foods, but its physiology is still largely optimized for eating meat.

But the nearest thing to consensus among veterinarians and nutritionists is that even if you allow that a vegan or vegetarian diet can be possible, depriving them of meat could potentially pose a ‘risk’ to a dog’s health[1].

This will lead many of us who don’t want to introduce any form of risk to our dog’s health to a differently phrased question.

Can my dog be more vegetarian? 

Are Dogs Obligate Vegetarians?  Can my dog be vegetarian?
I like food that doesn’t run

This is arguably a much better question to ask. The answer for most dogs without specific health conditions, is yes.  This provides the safest way of bridging our own morals while at the same time protecting the well-being of our dogs.

Vegetarian dog food and other plant-based food can make up a proportion of a healthy, balanced diet for your dog. We can therefore reduce our carbon ‘paw print’. At the same time we avoid the risks entailed in completely depriving our pets of meat.

The complexities of turning your dog fully vegetarian

Are dogs obligate carnivores?
Please tell me dough-nuts are part of my vegetarian diet

Providing a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet for your dog is incredibly complex.  This is amply demonstrated in a study by The Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA).  They surveyed 86 vegetarian dogs in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.   The findings were stark as ” over 50% of the dogs were fed diets deficient in protein, essential amino acids, calcium, zinc and vitamins D and B12” [2].

In your decision-making always research a range of commercial vegetarian dog foods.  Read reviews and carefully check the nutritional claims made on labels and packages. This is advisable even if you are only considering a partial change to your dog’s diet. A vet or animal nutritionist can recommend whether products offer a fully balanced, healthy diet.

Also bear in mind that a diet based on home-made recipes alone is very unlikely to provide the nutritional balance upon which your dog’s well-being depends.

Some owners even consider vegan diets for their dogs. Organizations such as the PFMA advise extreme caution in considering this more drastic step.

You must also be sensitive to any specific health conditions affecting your dog.   Always speak to a vet or an animal nutritionist before introducing your dog to a vegetarian diet.    Any change in diet should include monitoring your pet’s health including being sensitive to any changes behavior, temperament or weight. All of these could indicate an emerging dietary or health problem.  If this occurs, immediately review the diet in consultation with your vet. 

Why do I want my dog to be vegetarian?

Are dogs obligate carnivores?  Protecting the planet and reducing the carbon paw print
Protecting the planet and reducing our carbon ‘paw print’

This becomes an important question in planning any changes to your dog’s diet.

Some owners might think it will improve their dog’s health. But even studies that are generally favorable to plant-based diets are inconclusive on the health advantages of an entirely vegetarian diet and acknowledge the need for more data-led research [3].

A more common reason will be that you and your family are vegetarian or vegan.    I myself declare an interest here.  I have been a vegetarian for many years.  It is natural to want to extend ethical eating to our pet-food selection.  The ethics become a more pressing concern as pet ownership grows.  Lockdowns have recently contributed to a spike in pet ownership in many countries.   Obviously we all love to see more pets going to good homes.  But increases in the demand for pet food inevitably result in a larger carbon footprint.

This creates a dilemma.  The last thing we want is for our dog’s health to suffer in any way because of our moral choices.  

But, does it have to be all or nothing?  Can we balance ethics with our dog’s health?

Meeting meat half-way

Are dogs obligate carnivores?  A balanced approach
Meat and two veg?

Many people adapt to a vegetarian diet in stages.  Or, simply reduce the quantity of meat in their diets.  This is still a huge positive for the environment.  So why not consider a similar approach to dog food?    Even passionate advocates of shifting dogs to a full vegetarian diet acknowledge the need for a transition period.  

Indeed well-reviewed and reputable providers of vegetarian dog food explicitly state that their products are ‘part of a balanced diet’, and ‘not an alternative to meat’. This well-reviewed product by ‘Barking Heads’ is just one example.

Be wary of any product that claims to completely replace meat. Do your own research, but also consult a vet or a animal dietician on the ingredients being offered. Ensure that the product has a number of reputable reviews. As Knight concludes in his detailed research on vegetarianism and companion animals, it is crucial to double-check ‘claims of nutritional adequacy’ [4].

Also meat-based or raw-hide chews have benefits to dogs beyond nutrition.  Dogs find chewing to be a very pleasurable and calming activity.  It is known to contribute to positive behaviors alongside dental benefits.   Chewing can help distract dogs at times of potential stress, such as being left alone and is bones and chews are one useful tool in mitigating separation anxiety.  It would be a shame and potentially harmful to deprive your dog of such therapeutic opportunities.

Researching ethically produced meat-based foods

But an acceptance of meat in your dog’s diet does not mean casting away your morals or a more ethical approach to sourcing your pet’s food. You can invest time in researching high-quality, more humanely-produced meat-based food. Here is just one website detailing some options and advice [5].  Those foods marked as free-range may be more expensive, but they will also be far more ethical.   Where possible buy from local sources as you will have the benefit of knowing where it is produced.  At the same time you limit any associated carbon footprint.

You could also consider ethically-sourced fish content in your dog’s diet.  Once again you must remember that a dog’s physiology is different from ours.  It is important to avoid any fish that has a high level of mercury, such as tuna which is toxic to dogs. Also be aware that fish bones can be dangerous.  Ensure also that any fish has is not prepared using fatty oils.

So are dogs omnivores or carnivores?

Are dogs obligate carnivores? Omnivores or carnivores?
Dogs have become brilliant at begging – even evolving sad puppy eyes

Wolves are carnivores, but their canine descendants are biologically omnivores . 

Remember that the genius of dogs lies in their ability to adapt.

One of the things that makes dogs such awesome creatures is their ability to adapt.   It is the reason that they have walked beside us as loyal companions through much of our history.    Incredible new genetic evidence has emerged that man may have been domesticating wolves as long as 100,000 years ago [6].

In that time dogs have  effectively evolved a biological safety-net.  Dogs are still broadly classed in the order of Carnivora. But they have adapted to gain nutrition from other sources, should meat be scarce.  They are, in effect, opportunity omnivores, but can subsist on meat alone as well as any wolf.

In this time dogs have modified a range of  behaviors in adapting to successful cohabitation with humans.  At the same time their physiology has also altered.  As scraps fell from our tables, their digestive system adapted to gain nutrients from a wider variety of non-meat sources.

My personal favorite adaptation is the way they these clever dogs have evolved muscles around their eyes.  This allows them to form “puppy-eyes’ for the purposes of begging and gaining favor with humans[7].

Dogs can also produce an enzyme called amylase.    This facilitates the digestion of starch allowing dogs to digest grains and cereal based foods.  Another enzyme called maltose is also present in modern dogs which is more characteristic of omnivores such as humans and is even found in herbivores such as cows.  

Other developments include dentition, or the structure of the teeth.  Clearly they still have sharp canines for ripping into meat.  But at the back of their mouths they also have flat molars.  These are are designed for grinding down plant material prior to digestion [7].

In the area of food, as in all other areas, the humble dog has adapted to become our trusted companions. They are still optimized for a carnivorous diet, but have developed an omnivorous safety in order to survive beside our tables.

More plant power for puppies? Yes but don’t make the mis-steak of dropping meat completely

Are dogs obligate carnivores?  Don't drop meat completely
I’m not dropping this for anyone

In conclusion food technology is evolving and it has reached the point where vegetarian dog food can comfortably become part of your dog’s diet.  But any introduction of veganism for your dog is still something that the vast majority of nutritionists caution against.

Many of the vegetarian dog foods available contain egg and dairy products. These ingredients include animal protein and the important vitamin B12.  Neither of can be gained from plant sources.  This makes any consideration of a vegan diet highly problematic.

Just vegetarianism for dogs is complex enough with elements of risk.  It requires a constant alertness to the nutritional content of meals.  Research and expert consultation are essential. 

Also there is not yet enough solid evidence of any health benefits.  At the same time the PMFA report highlights the significant risk of dietary shortcomings.  

Additionally any new food needs to be palatable for your specific dog. Otherwise this could cause additional stress to your dog.

Ellen DeGeneres said “Life is about balance.”  This is also good advice for your dog’s diet.  Find a balance that works both for your laudable ethics and your dog’s health.   But always prioritize a healthy, complete and fully balanced diet for your dog, consulting a vet or animal nutritionist on any significant changes rather than just accepting the food advertiser’s claims.

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Barbecue food is definitely not part of a well-balanced diet for anyone, including your dog, although a lot of fun. Click here for information regarding keeping your dog safe at barbecues.

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