by Colin Goldner, Ph.D.
I’m going to talk to you about vegan dog nutrition. Well, let me summarize it in one line: it is possible to feed dogs purely vegan without doing any harm to them, therefore it should be mandatory for anyone living with dogs, to do so. Unfortunately not everyone living with a dog sees it this way. Not even folks who regard themselves as animal rights advocates or animal rights activists. Strangely enough – as vegan dog nutritioners we get as much opposition from them as we get from hunters or dog breeders or dog food producers.
Being vegan myself for about 25 years – before that I used to be vegetarian for another 15 years - I decided to feed the dogs I’m living with since the late 80s, vegan too. I’m living with great danes (one of them is with me here at the conference, you might have seen him already, an old chap named Butch who loves travelling with me in my Volkswagen van, so he came here, too. He was confiscated aged two and a half by the police in a Munich beergarden, where he was fed with chickenbones and leftovers of roasted pork hocks and stuff like that. Since he was heavily mistreated by his former owner – the asshole extinguished cigarettes on his ears to make him aggressive -, he was confiscated and so he came to us. We put him on vegan diet from the very first day he was living with us, and we never encountered any problems, doing so. In the beginning we gave him extra large portions of smoked tofu every day, which he loved – it smells a bit like gammons (smoked ham), so he got used to vegan food. I guess he would immediately return to the pork hocks if he was offered one, no doubt about it, but he seems to be happy with what he gets, too. As do the other Great Danes, living with me, and did the ones I had the blessings to live with, in the past.
In the beginning, some 25 years ago, there was not so much literature available regarding vegan diet, and no literature at all regarding vegan nutrition of dogs. And there was no internet to see if anyone had experience with vegan dog food anywhere in the universe. So what I did with the first dogs I switched to vegan nutrition was, to observe them very cautiously – their weight, their appetite, their bowel movements, also the condition of their fur, their, teeth, their overall performance. Plus: I brought them to a vet clinic regularly, every six months, to get them checked professionally, and, in particular, have their blood screened. If at all their would have been anything conspicuous, I would have terminated the whole thing right away. But, to the vets surprise, who had never seen vegan dogs before, let alone vegan great danes, weighing an average of 75kg, literally all parameters proofed to be in their absolute optimum. And as compared to dozends of great danes I knew from a shelter for big dogs, I’m involved with for almost 30 years now, my vegan dogs seemed to be healthier in many respects and somehow more “radiant” and vital than all the other dogs in the shelter, being fed with regular dog food.
So I continued with my great dane vegan nutrition experiment. Let me repeat: I would have stopped the whole thing the moment I would have encountered any strange phenomenon. But so far, for more than 25 years: no problem whatsoever with vegan dog nutrition - quite the contrary.
Why did I start feeding my dogs vegan food, in the first place:
Well for myself it is mandatory from an ethical as well as an oecological perspective to completely refrain from any animal based products – milk, cheese, eggs and so forth.
Just by looking at the intensive livestock farming and the emission of climate damaging greenhouse gases that are associated with this kind of farming nutritional habits have to be transformed radically: which means on all levels and worldwide:
It is absolutely indispensable to get away from the insane consumption of meat in giant quantities, that kills billions of animals every year and destroys the very basis of existence on this planet by poisoning or wasting air, water and soil.
Also regarding dog nutrition there can be – and therefore has to be - a radical change of mind: in Germany, where I come from, we are talking of 5,5 Million dogs, maybe even 6 Million, living these days. All those dogs - except the very few vegan or vegetarian ones - eat about 3000 tons of meat or meat containing food every day. An eqivalent of 3000 bullocks every day., more than 1 Million bullocks a year, just devouered by German dogs. (Of course, I know they don’t eat complete bullocks, but remnants or leftovers from the slaughtery process for human consumption, but still, the amount of a Million tons of animal product per year, just for German dogs stays the same.)
The stuff, most dogs are fed with, comes in cans or bags. This so called food - moist or dry - consists mainly of so called “by-products” of the meat industry, that is: waste products of the slaughtery process, meaning:: parts of the slaughtered animal that are not suitable or not permitted for human consumption, which is: bones of all kinds, cartilages like noses, ears, all kind of soft tissues and fascia: eyes, intestines, genital parts and so forth also blood of course, plus everything else that is called waste: claws, hoofs, feathers, bristels and so on. All this so called waste or scrap material - which makes up to 50 percent of the slaughtered animal - is sold cheaply to the pet food industry where it is processed, canned and sold as dog-food or cat-food. It’s a Billion-Dollar-business, that promotes itself with high cost propaganda in all and every pet magazin and TV-show, including the prayer mill like allegation, dogs need animal protein to survive: after all they are descendants of wild wolfs. (I come to that later)
There are - understandingly from their perspective - no alternatives being offered by the producers of pet food. Amongst fifty or so brands of pet food available in Germany, there are only three offering vegetable or vegan dog food, two of them (Yarrah and Amidog) are hard to find in regular pet food stores, most of them don’t carry it in their supply, the other one (PittiBoris) is not available at all in regular stores, it can be purchased directly at the factory or through online outlets, only.
So if you talk to people why they feed their dogs with meat or meat containing products, they would answer - besides the wolf argument, including the teeth- and intestines-argument and so forth (which I talk about later) -, they would answer, that they don’t see any alternative. Most don’t even know that ready made vegetarian oder vegan food is already available, which would make it more than easy to shift. Some would also answer, that canned pet food or dried pet food is produced from waste or by-products of the slaughtery process, that is: no animal had to die just for the production of pet food, therefore it is ethically justified to use it.
To me this is not true at all. The fact is, that the use and utilisation of the so called waste or by-products of the slaughtery process makes the slaughterhouse horror even more profitable than it is in the first place. It’s the easiest way to dispose of waste to just sell it. (If it could not be sold to the pet food industry it would have to be disposed of in another way, meat therefore would become more costly, so less would be consumed.) The fact is: The pet food industry is an integral part of the meat industry. Buying meat containing pet food is supporting the meat industry - therefore supporting the suffering and death of billiones of animals per year -, just as does the so called BARFing concept – B.A.R.F. is an acronym for Bones And Raw Foods - which is supposed to be the „most natural“ concept of dog nutrition: as the name says: bones and raw meat including innards and gibs and all the other so called waste stuff of the slaughtering process. BARFing therefore falls under the same critique as feeding the dog with meat containing can or dry food.
If we don’t want to be part of the killing of billions of animals for meat production we have to change our nutritional habits, also regarding the dogs we are living with. Provided it’s not doing any harm to them, and there are lots of indications meanwhile - not just my personal experience of 25 years, but tons of reliable evidence, that it is possible. There are thousands of testimonials of other folks worldwide feeding their dogs vegan – plus: meanwhile we have a nice body of scientifically based literature -, that it is not only doing no harm to the dogs but might even help to prevent a whole lot of diseases, common in dogs: allergies, digestive disorders, joint problems, even tumors.
Even if we don’t have sufficient scientific proof yet for the advantages of vegan dog nutrition in regard to health promotion or disease prevention – since there is no long term studies under controlled conditions, that have been done so far -, what we do have is clear indications pointing to the fact, that it’s definitely good for the dog to be fed vegan. (For cats vegan nutrition it’s supposedly more difficult, but that’s another issue, I don’t know too much about it. For dogs – the only animals anyway, humans can and should live with, it is possible.)
By the way: there are several discussion groups in the internet where people from all walks of life share their experiences with vegan dog nutrition. So we are not completey alone with the idea of an ethically decent way to feed our dogs. In those discussion groups you can also find solutions in case your dog does not appreciate the vegan food you offer him and rather starves to death than touching the new stuff. Some dogs, as I understand, are really picky and insist on getting what they were used to get before (if they come from a shelter for instance, having had someone else they lived with before). With my dogs I never had these problems, despite all of them coming from shelters or consfiscations, but they might occur. I would say, you cannot (and of course should not) coerce or force a dog to eat what he does not like, but there are so many ways to gently persuade him. If nothing works, however, and he still insists on his canned food or BARF-stuff – what to do? I don’t know, but I’ve never heard of a case like that in 25 years, provided the dog gets enough time to adjust and he is not pressured. In those discussion groups you also get advice what to do if a dog shows allergy symptoms to any of the grains in the vegan food you give him (wheat for instance): there are always solutions to be found, substituting one grain with another. Veterinarians, by the way, are in most cases not very helpful: I know only about a handful of vets worldwide who really know what we are talking about when it comes to vegan dog nutrition. Sometimes I have the feeling their whole studies at the university are co-financed or sponsored by the pet food industry (which I know is not true, but sometimes it seems like it).
What in particular do I feed to my dogs:
The basis of their daily dishes – they are fed three times a day - is vegan dry food, produced by a company called Pitti Boris (I use this food for reasons of conveniance, since I don’t have the time, to fix meals from scratch every day, which would be possible, but needs a whole lot of expertise and time. (I did it for some time, means: I was pre-cooking for a whole week, freezing the stuff, and just defrosting the amount needed each day. The food I composed was based on lentils, rice or potatoes, enriched with broccoli, sweet fennel, spinach and other cooked vegetables, plus soja, rice or oat milk, olive oil and a complex of vitamins and minerals [from late 90s on there was a ready made vitamin and mineral mix available, that goes by the name Vegedog, in Germany]. But, for reasons of convenience (or lazyness) since about 10 years I use as a basis ready made dry food, that consists mainly of different kinds of cereals – maiz/corn. maiz gluten, rice, barley, oat and sugar beet. It contains just the right amount and the right composition of proteins, carbon hydrates, fats, trace elements and vitamins, required for a balanced dog nutrition, plus: it is fortified with yeasts, folic acid, Biotin, Mangan, copper and zink plus an extra amount of the vitamins A, C, synthetically produced D3, E and a B-Komplex. So, all of that is based on scientific nutritional knowledge. And you can hardly do better fixing all of it yourself.
Above all that however my dogs get fresh fruits on a daily basis (mainly apples or carrots, strawberries, sometimes bananas) which I mince and mix it into their dish. In the same way I use wild herbs – fresh or dried – like stinging nettle or yarrow. Also they get rice, potatoes, noodles, and vegetables of any kind from my own dish - whatever I eat myself that day, unsalted and unseasoned, of course. They also get soja milk, soja joghurt or smoked tofu, regularely. The cereals and dry herbs will be dashed with hot water so they can swell up in the bowl (and don’t do that in the stomach) After the cereals have cooled down, everything will be mixed and than it will served to the dogs, along with a big bowl of fresh water, of course, that is available to them 24 hours a day.
To be completely on the safe side I supplement the dogs dishes ever since with synthetically produced Taurin, a metabolic product of two amino acids Cystein and Methionin, and L-Carnitin, a compound of another two amino acids (Lysin und Methionin). These substances, known to prevent heart diseases, being prevalent in big dogs, are rarely to be found in vegan components. Since we don’t have enough scientific data yet about vegan dog nutrition in general I go for the supplementation. Maybe it’s not even needed, but we just don’t know yet.
Regarding the vitamin B12 issue, we all are frequently confronted with in discussions about our own nutrition, my position is this: It’s true, a purely vegan diet might constitute a lack of vitamin B12. We are aware of that. In this case, the folks who advocate a meat based nutrition for the dog, are correct: there is no naturally occuring source of B12 in a vegan diet. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the fact that B12 is not a naturally occuring vitamin in animal products either.
B12 is a water soluble vitamin that helps maintain normal brain and central nervous system function. While B12 is found in animal products – particularly in the liver -, it is only because animals consume B12 from the food they eat that is contaminated with B12 from the soil where a particular type of bacteria creates the vitamin. So what can we do in the case of vegan dog nutrition? We can supplement synthetically produced Cyanocobalamin – means B12, which comes in pills or vials. To my understanding however this is quite unnecessary, since dogs have their noses on bacteria contaminated soil all the time, therefore we can assume they have enough B12 producing microorganism in their intestines anyway. If we want to be on the 100% safe side we can rely on nutritional yeast. Other options, spirulina alga for instance, are not very likely to please our dogs. To my experience they don’t appreciate green stuff very much, at all.
The option I personally prefer is, as I mentioned already, resorting to ready made vegan dog food that is fortified with yeasts and with synthetically produced Vitamin B12, already. (If anyone decides to do the preparation work on him- or herself: there a several collections of well proven resipies to be found in the internet).
To take care of the teeth of my dogs they get sturdy cornchips and a specific kind of extra hard bread every day, to chew on. (And, of course, I still take each single one of them to vet clinic regularly, to get them checked.
So, let’s have a look onto the arguments people come up with against vegan dog nutrition. Mostly it’s the same arguments we hear against vegan nutrition of humans as well: vitamin B12 stuff and the like.
But there are also dog specific objections, mainly the argument, vegan nutrition would be “unnatural” to the dog, since his ancestors were carnivorous wolfs equipped with a predators dentition and a meat digesting intestinal system; some call it even abuse or torture, if this kind of “unnatural” nutrition is imposed upon the dog.
Yes it’s true, dogs are descendants of wolfs. but they are just no wolfs anymore: since about 20.000 years they are living in close campagnionship with men, living the life he lives, staying where he stays and eating what he eats or what he decides to give them for food. Dogs nowadays are no wild wolfes anymore but rather “cultural creatures”, nothing is “natural” to them exept the ability, they acquired through centuries of domestication, to adapt perfectly to any given circumstances - just as humans are able to -, means: they can cope with virtually everything they are confronted with. Therefore they can even cope with eating waste material from a slaughterhouse, that comes to them sterilized and pasteurized in tiny tin cans (provided someone opens it for them).
So, is this “natural”? No, but that’s not even the point. We as humans are responsible for the good health and the wellbeing of animals we take in our custody or in our compagnionship. I am responsible, that my dog get’s everything he needs and that he feels happy. Whether it looks “natural” or not I don’t care. It doesn’t look natural to me either, when a dog wears a collar or a harness (which is much better, by the way, for their throat and spine); it's not natural, when they sleep in a cushioned basket (but still it's absolutely o.k., my dogs even sleep on my bed, sometimes); not to speak of silly hair-dos they get, or the breeding crimes that are done to them: shortening their noses and jaws for fashion purposes, so they have breathing problems their entire life, or cutting off their ears or tails. That’s unnatural to me, also abusing them for sports or so called fun activities (agility, dog dancing and nonsense like that).
The dog is my compagnion, not my toy or my sports equipment, nor is he there to compensate for whatever social or personal problems or needs I might have. The very term “compagnion”, by the way, refers to his nutrition: a compagnion is one I share my bread with: it comes from latin: “cum pane” which means: with bread, having a relationship by sharing bread with one another. (It doesn’t say, sharing a dead animal with the other)
In regard to my dogs’ nutrition I have only two parameters:
1. does the food contain everything in proper amount, quality and composition the dogs organism needs to stay or get healthy? (proteins, carbon hydrates, vitamins and so forth)
2. does the dog like the taste and the texture of the food to an extent that he eats enough of it, to stay or get healthy?
No more is needed, and both can be managed perfectly by vegan nutrition.
From the perspective of responsibility I have for my dog, I cannot leave it up to him to decide, what to eat and what not, as some folks demand, who go for “natural nutrition” for the dog (folks who might not have any problem feeding him with canned waste stuff, that comes with chemical attractants, flavor enhancers, preservatives and tons of sugar, thinking this is natural; or BARFers who think raw slaughterhouse-leftovers from animals who were filled up in their lifetime with antibiotics, beta-blockers and growth enhancers, are even more natural.)
If I put a carrot, a sausage and a chocolate bar on a table, my dogs - even after been fed vegan their entire life - would most definitely probably grasp the chocolate first, than they would take the sausage and leave the carrot. But: as we all know, chocolate, means: the cocoa, is highly hazardous for the dog. I have to prevent him from eating it, just as I prevent him from eating a dead bird he might find in the forest, no matter how much he would like to knibble on it. A good point, by the way, against the constant argument, dogs have the dentition of a carnivorus predator, also the the intestinals system, the claws and so forth, what makes them born meat eaters: The great panda bear is, by all physiological means, a carnivorous predator with fangs, sharp claws and short intenstines, just like a tiger, but still he is completely vegan, eating nothing but bamboo shoots.
Again let me summarize in one line: Yes, it is possible to feed a dog purely vegan without doing any harm to him, therefore it should be mandatory for anyone living with dogs.