With thousands of picture perfect recipes plastered all over Pinterest and Instagram, Vegan lifestyles have taken the internet by storm. Usually adopted for the health benefits and the reduced ecological footprint, numerous people are incorporating plant based diets in the USA and UK. Major pet food companies Purina, V-Dog, WildEarth, Natural Balance, Pedigree, and PetGuard have begun offering alternative plant based products- some vegetarian, and some vegan.
Photo by | GoodStuffPartners-VDog and SFChronicle
With 60.2 million dogs and 47.1 million cats constituting the pet population in the US [2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey] and UCLA researcher Gregory Okin finding that dogs and cats ate approximately the same number of calories as 62 million Americans in 2017 alone [Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats], transitioning pets to vegan diets can greatly reduce the collective ecological footprint.The raised awareness on environmental impacts and the ethics of the meat industry has brought forth the iconic question, can household pets also live a vegan lifestyle just as humans can?
To this, many scientists and nutritionists continue to carry out in depth research.
One promising stable called Koji, and is the center of the vegan pet food explosion. Koji, a principal component of the asian diet, is the primary source of protein in the majority of proposed pet foods. Koji is often compressed into kibble to create solids. Koji solids contain a substantial amount of protein (50%) compared to steak which contains significantly less protein(30%). Other nutrients and vitamins can also be added to Koji solids to ensure they are successfully meeting the dietary requirements of pets. Koji is an attractive protein source for animals and is capable of satisfying dogs’ dietary needs for protein and is also being plant based. Dogs mainly require 20-35 % of their calories from protein, which can be fully met by a vegan diet with Koji.
Other sources of protein found in yeast, fungi, algae are also great plant based protein alternatives. Yeast is a very attractive choice as it provides high quality protein, probiotics, and the 10 amino acids a dog needs.
A common misconception about dogs is that as descendants of carnivorous wolves, dogs require a diet constituted of meats. However, as dogs have evolved, they have evolved amylase genes and thus have developed the ability to better digest carbohydrates. Hence, dogs are classified as omnivores and possibly can adopt vegan or vegetarian lifestyles.
A 2009 study by The British Journal of Nutrition observed the red blood cell counts and performance of Siberian huskies after placing them on meat free diets. The study established a control group (six dogs on a meat inclusive diet) and an experimental group (6 dogs on a meat free diet) and observed both through and after 16 weeks of maintenance. Researchers also incorporated two weeks of training, ten weeks of competitive racing, and finally four weeks of rest during the 16 weeks. After the duration, they found that both groups were in excellent physical conditions and that red blood cell counts actually increased over the duration of the study. This brought forth questions regarding the possible advantages and benefits of vegan diets for dogs.
Common advantages of vegan diets [in dogs] include healthier coats, weight control, increases in vitality, diabetes and arthritis regression, decreased allergies, and better bowel movements. Even with the advantages, owners still need to implement vegan diets responsibly. The primary concern for these vegan diets are owners not conducting thorough research and hence not providing nutrient dense foods to meet nutrient requirements, or choosing plant based foods which are hard for dogs to digest properly. Regardless, the future still looks bright.
While the vegan possibilities fare well for dogs, they do not for cats. Carnivorous household cats require certain nutrients such as arachidonic acid and taurine which are present only in meat. These nutrients are necessary for proper function, and cats can die without them. Without taurine, cats can develop DCM, a condition in which their heart weakens, preventing them from efficiently distributing blood and oxygen to their organs. DCM can be fatal if not treated early on.
Cats are also not adapted to plant based diets, and may have severe digestion issues. Hence, whether cats can safely adopt vegan diets remains uncertain. Cat owners may still integrate more plant based foods into their cats diets, but they must remember that cats still need more fats and proteins than both dogs and humans. However, as research continues to be conducted, researchers may possibly find ways to create a feasible vegan cat diet.
With this vegan surge being fairly recent, researchers have yet to observe the long term impacts of vegan food on pets. This makes any possible long term disadvantages of a vegan lifestyle blurry for the time being. Despite this, vegan diets have not been found to induce any health risks at the moment.
It still remains unclear whether cats and dogs may adopt vegan lifestyles, however dog owners may consider simply integrating more plant based foods into their diets and testing the waters (all with guidance from a veterinarian of course). Regardless, the underlying message is still clear, to ensure through whatever diet taken, that one’s pet is obtaining all the necessary nutrients and vitamins.
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