Is it Ethical to Make Your Dog Vegan?

Short answer: sort of.

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01 March 2019, 12:43am

Image by Ben Thomson

In December, Economist correspondent John Parker predicted that 2019 would be “year of the vegan.” He argued this would be "the year that veganism goes mainstream” and pointed to McDonald’s serving McVegan burgers as proof, suggesting we’re about to see a myriad of environmental and social ramifications.

One such ramification, presumably, is that more pets will also end up on vegan diets. And the owners of said pets are arguing that as dogs can happily digest plant-based supplements, there’s no reason to feed them meat. But is that true? And is it, you know, ethical?

“I personally want my dog to be the healthiest, fittest, and happiest he can be, which I know a vegan diet doesn’t facilitate,” says Clare Kearney, an Australian-based holistic animal nutritionist. She agrees that dogs can indeed survive without their beloved chicken necks and cans of Chump—but she questions whether survival is really the standard we’re aiming for.

“Realistically, it's very difficult to create a nutritionally robust vegan diet for a dog, particularly without the addition of many synthetic nutrients. I definitely wouldn't recommend trying to do it at home without the guidance of a nutritionist because you will almost certainly fail,” she says.

So: a fairly negative response from Claire, but she did say it was possible. And what she’s referring to is the fact that dogs’ stomachs come equipped with two enzymes—amylase and maltose—that are able to digest starchy plants such as potatoes and legumes, as well as leafy greens, without difficulty.

While dogs can digest plants, however, their bodies require more protein. For this reason, transitioning a dog to a vegan diet can deprive them of collagen, elastin, and keratin proteins that are essential for a dog’s skin, muscles, and joints. These proteins are available as supplements, but a quick search reveals that they’re all painfully expensive.

For a single bag of a vegan meat substitute called “dog kibble,” you’re looking at around $55 from Hill's Pet Nutrition. As a quick comparison, a similar sized back of Pedigree dry dog food costs $8.50 from Woolworths. And therein lies another inconvenience. Because while most towns have a Woolworths, you still need to go to a specialty pet store to find vegan supplements. And even an internet search of major pet food retailers such as My Pet Warehouse and Pet Circle comes up with nothing.

While you're here, check out a video about a woman who keeps crocs in her suburban home:

These are all logistical problems, though, that don’t get to the heart of the issue: is it ethical? Because unlike humans who choose our own dietary intake, dogs obviously lack this ability. Is it therefore fair to force our own personal ideologies onto our pets?

According to Peter Wedderburn, who is an Ireland-based vet, vegan dog owners are sometimes being cruel in ways they don’t realise. The main one is that a dog’s diet can’t be just nutritionally adequate—meaning formulated by a professional and not just cobbled together using the collective wisdom of vegan bloggers—but it also needs to be varied and interesting.

“For all sentient beings, eating should be pleasurable,” he explains over email. “Dog owners have that duty to find a diet that their pet enjoys eating.”

He says, however, that this is achievable. “Try offering mashed potato to a dog and watch them wolf it down… dogs do not need meat in their diet to enjoy eating.” He also stresses that just mashed potato is inadequate, however, and proper variation requires effort and planning.

At this point it's worth highlighting, however, that the industrial meat business is awful on nearly all metrics. While it's true that carefully planned canine veganism is expensive, complicated, and inconvenient, the same can be said of global warming. Because as the New York Times reports, around eight percent of the United States' total greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle. And if that isn't enough of a justification, then just consider that dog food is primarily a product of factory farming: arguably the most grotesque and ethically reprehensible industry on the planet.

In summary, pooch veganism is probably a good idea... except that it's a pain in the ass. So if the thought of making your dog vegan seems complicated, Clare has one last piece of advice: “maybe it’s best to just get a rabbit.”

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