In their book, Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, authors Robert and Brenda Vale compare a medium-size dog’s carbon foot (paw) print to a large SUV. Scientists agree with the comparison. A study in the journal, PLOS ONE, found our furry friends’ diets cause between 25 and 30 percent of damage to the environment.
That environmental harm stems from factory farms. So should you include oats in your pet’s food bowl or replace meat diets with grains? Benefiting the planet is one issue. Your pet’s health is another.
After a bout with intestinal bowel disease, Jen Reeder, former president of the Dog Writers Association of America, changed her dog’s diet. “Rio ate meat his whole life and now eats a special hydrolyzed protein diet,” she explains. “It’s super clean and plant-based.”
It seems to be helping since “he’s thriving on it so far,” she says.
Grain free dog foods are wasteful
Years ago, the majority of dog and cat foods, depending on the brand, listed meat by-products as the first ingredient. Meat by-products are parts of slaughtered animals that include a variety of organs such as lungs, kidneys, brains, livers, intestines—you get the idea. Many of these foods also contained corn, rice, wheat, and barley.
Then we, humans, ditched grains. Well, not all of us; many food manufacturers introduced numerous varieties of gluten-free foods. The pet food industry followed. A number of pet foods, dry kibble and wet dog and cat foods, nixed wheat, corn, and other grains. Some of you may not eat wheat or corn because of allergies. Dogs and cats can have these allergies, too. However, if your dog or cat isn’t allergic to wheat, corn, or other grains, it’s okay if their pet food contains these ingredients.
Grain-free pet foods list meat as the first ingredient. That can include chicken, salmon, turkey, lamb, or beef. The latest trend is plant-based dog food with no meat.
What about cats?
The biggest caveat is cats need meat in their diets. A diet without arginine and taurine, both found in meat, can harm your cat’s health. Cats lack an enzyme needed to make arginine, which is why it’s needed in their diets. Arginine breaks down proteins and removes waste.
Without taurine, cats can suffer from retinal degeneration and can lose their eyesight. A taurine deficient diet can also lead to an enlarged heart.
Dogs, on the other hand, aren’t obligate carnivores, meaning they can eat a plant-based diet. Hold on! This depends on who you talk to!
Can your dog eat a vegan diet?
“Dogs should never be fed a meat free diet unless a veterinary nutritionist advises you to and sets up a specific diet plan for your pet,” Megan Conrad, BVMS at Hello Ralphie, a telehealth veterinary medical service. “Dogs need the nutrients that are in meat in order for their bodies to thrive especially when they are puppies as animal based protein is essential for muscle growth. Some grain free diets have been linked to heart disease in dogs and cats due to their nutritional makeup. Meat by-products are also not something that should be avoided. Meat by-products are simply every organ in the animal, not just the normal meat coming from the muscle of the animal.”
Johnna Devereaux, clinical pet nutritionist, vice president, and director of Nutrition and Wellness at Bow Wow Labs, agrees. “Although the canine body is adaptable and may survive in the short term on plant-based dog foods, it will not thrive,” she explains. “The long-term effects of feeding plant-based food has been proven to be detrimental to overall health and is a segue to chronic disease. Oftentimes, dogs have dull coats, develop strange illnesses, and can even exhibit behavioral issues. I would never feed a wholly plant-based diet to my dogs. I will add low-starch vegetables and fruits to provide polyphenols and antioxidants to their meat-based food, but carbohydrates should never be the mainstay of a carnivore diet.”
More than a moral dilemma
“Pet owners are, almost inevitably, animal lovers,” Sarah Reidenbach, DVM and CEO at Ruthless Kindness, says. “So, it presents a moral dilemma to many to feed a carnivorous diet that harms some animals to others. While this may be the ‘way of the wild,’ we’ve evolved into more compassionate options, and the wild certainly didn’t include factory farming and greenhouse gas issues. Most conscious consumers are also becoming aware that meat and dairy are in the top three of the worst offenders to the environment. Meat and dairy account for around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization. It makes sense that smart and sensitive animal lovers are thinking about this issue.”
Reidenbach believes plant-based options are good for dogs. However, it’s still novel. “Pets tend to eat the same meal every day,” she says. “Therefore pets are more prone to dietary deficiencies. The nutritional deficiencies that we think about most when avoiding meat in an animal’s diet are amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, B12, and D. Regarding protein, protein content is different in plant versus animal sources. However, soy meal and sunflower oil, as well as Brewer’s yeast, contain total protein comparable to animal protein.”
Ask your veterinarian
With no shortages of recipes and suggestions online, it’s best to consult with a veterinary nutritionist. “Some owners prefer a home-cooked diet which offers more control and variety,” Reidenbach explains; ‘however, home-cooked meals are likely to have deficiencies unless formulated by a veterinary nutritionist.”
High protein, no meat
After a year of launching Wild Earth in 2019, Ryan Bethencourt, CEO, surveyed 3,000 of his company’s long-term customers and asked them how their dogs were doing on Wild Earth’s plant-based diet. The survey detailed everything from taste to energy, joint health, digestion, and stool quality. The results were positive. Of the 425 customers who completed the survey, 77 percent said they fed their dogs a meat-based diet before introducing them to Wild Earth’s plant-based dog food. “Eighty-six percent of them reported a positive health benefit,” Bethencourt says.
He created Wild Earth because he wasn’t satisfied with the dog food options for his 12-year-old German shepherd, Lady. Bethencourt eats a plant-based diet. “I wanted to create a plant-based dog food that was healthier for your pet, better for the environment, and more humane than conventional products,” he says. “We’re a mission-driven company that is reinventing pet food with science.”
When creating Wild Earth, he consulted with several veterinarians and called on Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT, and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention for his expertise. “We’ve taken a high-quality, sustainable protein source and combined it with superfoods like chickpeas, sweet potatoes, spinach, and blueberries to create a high protein plant-based dog food,” Bethencourt says. “It’s every bit as nutritious as meat-based food, with none of the downsides.
Jiminy, crickets in dog food
Would you feed your dog pet food made with crickets? Jiminy’s, a pet food company, replaces traditional animal protein with insect protein that uses less land, emits almost no greenhouse gases, and requires less water. According to Jiminy’s, cricket protein has:
- 4x more protein than beef
- 2x more iron as compared to spinach
- 10 percent more vitamin B12 than salmon
- It contains essential amino acids.
- It’s hypoallergenic.
Other companies are experimenting with insects, mainly crickets, for dog and cat food. It’s still in the early stage since there aren’t many insect-based products on the market. I talked to an entomologist from South America who said, “We’d solve a lot of the food shortage problems in the world if we all added insects to our diets.”
He added that many people outside of America enjoy eating insects, which is true. “Except, you Americans have an ‘ick’ factor when it comes to eating bugs. I don’t see you changing your minds.”
I think he’s correct. And there’s always the option of mice. Yes, mice.
It’s no secret, some cats eat mice. Because, Animals is a pet food company that cultivates cells from mice to create cat food. They also make cultured meat for dogs. Cultured meat is not vegan and is not plant-based. It’s 100 percent real meat grown from a small sample of humanely harvested animal cells. You can learn more about it by watching their video.
The options are abundant and the industry is changing. On the positive side, some companies are working to reduce waste and create products that benefit the planet.