This is a highly controversial topic, though it tends to be a more sensitive topic for people who aren’t vegan than those who are. Relatively few vegans feed their pets a vegan diet, but those who do are often accused of animal abuse and are the subject of a lot of derision. Since many vegans do disagree on this, I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all vegans or even on behalf of mainstream veganism, all I can offer is my own, unqualified perspective on the matter.
Firstly, it is important to understand the context in which discussions on plant based diets for pets take place. Many, I’d in fact argue most, meat based pet foods are made from low quality meats which are often leftovers from slaughterhouses, or parts of animals which humans don’t generally eat. Some of this is not only incredibly low quality and nutritionally poor, but dangerous and unsanitary. Pet food recalls due to the use of dangerous meats or “ingredients of undeclared origin” are still shockingly common, and the use of non-slaughtered animals is a recognised concern in the industry. In this context some will argue that whole foods, plant based diets for omnivorous animals are in fact less risky for their health than meat based commercial foods are.
The most pressing concern for vegans however, is an ethical one, mainly regarding how the food they are feeding their companion animals is contributing towards the meat industry. Though many of the meats used in commercial pet foods are leftovers from slaughterhouses, purchasing this meat nonetheless does help make the rearing and slaughtering of animals a profitable concern. Vegans want to boycott the meat industry, so some will extend that to everything they purchase, including purchases made on behalf of their pets. The environmental concerns behind feeding the vast number of domesticated pets meat based diets is also not inconsiderable, and this will factor into many pet owner’s decisions on what they choose to feed their animals.
In terms of the suitability of these diets, the least controversial animals are those who are already primarily herbivorous and those who are completely carnivorous. In the case of herbivorous animals, or those who can and do survive herbivorously in the wild, feeding your pet a plant based diet will cause no issues for their health. I would caution doing your research before acquiring an animal you think is herbivorous, as there are some misconceptions around the diets of certain animals, especially in the case of reptiles. For carnivorous animals like cats, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that these animals cannot and should not be fed on a vegan diet. Though synthetic alternatives exist, they should only be used in cases of diagnosed health issues and under advisement from a vet. There is no significant research to suggest that cats, or indeed any obligate carnivore, can be healthy on a vegan diet, and no responsible animal care professional will recommend it for a healthy carnivorous pet.
More controversial is the case of omnivorous animals, such as dogs. It is important to acknowledge that whatever views you have on dogs being fed a plant based diet, some dogs do subsist on diets like this and they are by all appearances and blood work, healthy animals. Vegans who claim to look after vegan dogs who have been healthy for many years are not just lying, nor are the vets who monitor these animals. The claim that it is impossible for an omnivorous animal to survive on a plant based diet is therefore a falsehood. Vets can and do recommend plant based diets for certain health conditions, and there are fully tested and nutritionally balanced plant based dog foods available online and in many stores, a short list of the best selling brands can be found here. If your vet has approved or even suggested a plant based diet for your dog and you are making sure that they are having frequent checkups and blood work then there should be no cause for concern.
However, whether they can eat plant based and whether they should are different questions entirely. While anecdotal evidence and testimonials from vets shows us that at least some dogs can be healthy on plant based diets, there does not yet exist a significant body of research to suggest that there is no risk involved in this, or that it will be appropriate for all breeds of dogs at all life stages. That it has worked for some dogs is no guarantee that it will work for yours, or that there will be no risk of causing them real harm or discomfort. In the absence of any significant, peer reviewed research on this there absolutely is still a risk involved in any significant alteration of your pet’s diet, which is why I cannot recommend that it be done unless under the advisement of a veterinary professional.
Regardless of my own views on the matter, I know that this is something many will still choose to do, so I just want to take the time to emphasise that significant changes in diet must be discussed with your vet before you begin the process, not just to make sure there has been no harm caused after the shift has already taken place. If your vet advises against doing it, then please listen to them, they are likely far more qualified in animal nutrition than you are, they know the condition and needs of your specific animal and you should trust their advice. If you are set on doing this and have gotten the support of your vet, then take care to follow these guidelines set out by Pets WebMD:
- Never feed vegetarian or vegan diets to puppies and kittens or to dogs and cats you plan to breed. (Though as a vegan you shouldn’t be breeding any kind of animal regardless).
- Only consider or feed commercial diets that have gone through feeding trials and meets the requirements for AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) compliance.
- Consult with a veterinary nutritionist who can analyze your commercial or homemade vegetarian pet diet and make recommendations for additional health safeguards.
- Schedule more frequent wellness exams, including blood work, with your family veterinarian — at least twice a year, even for young pets eating vegetarian diets.
As pet owners, our primary concern must be the welfare of the animals in our care. We have a moral responsibility to look after their best interests, which includes providing them with a balanced, nutritionally adequate diet, irrespective of our feelings on the matter. If you are already feeding your dog a plant based diet, they are clearly healthy and are being monitored closely by your vet then you are properly looking after their welfare. Choosing a diet which is in their best interests is ultimately your responsibility and your decision to make. If however, you are in some way uncomfortable with feeding your companion animals meat and have no intentions of doing so regardless of what your vet might advise, then my suggestion would be to adopt or rescue a herbivorous animal instead, so that there is no chance of your moral objection to animal products compromising the health of an animal in your care.