Vegan Dog Food Is On The Rise But Veterinarians Give One Reason To Avoid It
Goodbye chicken, hello pea protein.
Dog people love their dogs. They buy them shelves-worth of dog training books, bowties that match theirs, and find groomers that provide complementary canine cologne.
They also want the very best food for their beloved pups. Decades ago, that choice was easy: Pick any of the nearly-identical kibble or canned food from the grocery store. Today, there’s a gazillion more options out there, with many of them touting themselves as fresh and “human-grade.”
Among those fresh options, an underdog is rising to prominence: vegan dog food.
“Vegan dog food has boomed in popularity in recent years, driven by increasing consumer concerns about the health of their pets, and the environmental sustainability and ‘food animal’ welfare impacts of meat-based pet food,” Andrew Knight, a veterinary professor of animal welfare at the University of Winchester in the UK, tells Inverse.
“The global vegan pet food market is growing at around 8% per annum, and expected to reach US $16 billion by 2028.”
Why is vegan dog food so popular?
The growing popularity of vegan dog food might come as a surprise to the average pet owner. Afterall, aren’t dogs descended from meat-eating wolves? Kelly Swanson, a professor of animal and nutritional science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, tells Inverse the answer is yes – but also no.
“Dogs are really omnivores,” Swanson says. “They evolved from carnivores, but they're not wolves. If you go back to the basic nutrition principles… you can create vegan diets or vegetarian diets, but you have to be more knowledgeable and more careful.”
As for why owners might turn to vegan dog food in the first place, it may have more to do with the trends of our own diets than any new or groundbreaking animal nutrition science.
Alexandra Horowitz is an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Barnard University with a focus on studying canine cognition. She tells Inverse that pet food trends are often driven by how owners humanize their pets.
“We absolutely anthropomorphize in extending our ideas about what is desirable or necessary for humans to dogs. Witness: dogs in raincoats. Food is no different,” Horowitz says. “We absolutely use ideas about what we want as humans and about what we think dogs need as relatives to wolves to motivate our food choices.”
While they may be marketed for our dogs, the variety of dog food options are really looking to feed into human imaginations instead, she says. Raw meat diets, for example, fuel the idea that our dogs are ruthless, meat eating wolf descendents. On the other hand, vegan diets paint a picture of a thoughtful, intelligent, and Earth-loving companion.
“In both cases, the dog can handle the diet, as long as the food is nutritionally balanced. Vegan food is no more an anthropomorphism than the idea that they want a "dinner" like we would have on our plates,” Horowitz says. “I don't see a huge problem with this, as long as people realize what they're doing, and do it intentionally and with reflection and understanding of the dog's needs.”
Is vegan dog food healthy?
Despite its growing popularity, the nutrition and health benefits of vegan dog foods are actually under studied, Swanson says.
Swanson is a senior author on a paper published this March in the Journal of Animal Science investigating the digestible and fecal production (i.e. how smelly and how large a dog’s resultant poop is) of two vegan dog foods compared to traditional kibble. Likewise, Knight is the first author on a paper published in 2022 in the journal PLOS ONE on the owner-perceived health improvements of plant-based animal foods. Both studies found vegan food to be a healthy option.
However, both studies were also funded by a vegan dog food company and a pro-vegetarian/vegan organization respectively. Part of the reason why, explains Swanson, is that there is little to no government funding available to carry out such studies independently.
When it comes down to the brass tacks, Swanson says their and other similar work have found that vegan diets can be as nutritionally balanced as more traditional diets. However, crafting the right balance of proteins using only plant based sources can make the process a little more challenging.
“There's roughly 45 different essential nutrients [to include] when you think about the amino acids, fatty acids and vitamins and minerals,” Swanson says. “And I'll say that it's just easier to meet those needs if you have animal based products. In a vegan formula you really have to be kind of careful using complementary protein sources.”
Without using meat as a vitamin and protein source, Swanson says that these foods instead rely on things like yeast and vegetable protein sources, such as soy or peas, to close those potential nutrition gaps.
“Any animal fed a nutritionally deficient diet, vegan or meat-based, will eventually suffer deficiencies,’ Knight says. “Any fed a nutritionally sound diet, vegan or meat-based, should not suffer nutritional deficiencies…There is certainly no evidence that vegan pet foods are more likely to be nutritionally deficient or of lower quality.”
As for whether vegan dog food is healthier than meat-based options, it’s likely too soon to say. Knight’s study reported health benefits, but those were self-reported by owners. Similarly, Swanson’s study showed that vegan food slightly outperformed a meat-based food option, but the vegan foods were human-grade while the meat-based food was a kibble option.
What pet owners should know
At the end of the day, should you feed your dog a vegan diet? Sure. Should you feed your dog a diet including meat? Also, a fine option.
As long as you buy from a reputable company, a vegan or meat-based diet can be a completely safe option for your pet, Swanson says. However, making your own vegan dog food at home could carry more risk because ingredient quality and complementary pairing of protein sources can be more difficult to achieve. For this reason, Swanson recommends against a DIY approach to vegan dog food.
To better emulate the human nature of our pets, Horowitz also suggests a hybrid approach: letting your pet choose for themselves.