Since becoming vegan six years ago, I’ve got used to handling questions from sceptical meat-eaters, such as “Where do you get your protein from?” Thankfully, that line of questioning has dwindled since it’s become apparent the UK’s 600,000 vegans aren’t exactly wasting away.
However, I’ve noticed the query comes in a far more accusatory tone when people find out that, along with me and my daughters, my dog is also vegan.
It’s been four years since my cockapoo Honey ate meat. As she’s nine, that’s almost half her life.
At first I was unsure what to do about the fact that while I had stopped eating meat, I was still feeding her the remains of cows, sheep or chickens, putting me on the wrong side of our confused attitude towards animal ethics.
So as soon as I researched the subject and discovered there were nutritionally complete plant-based alternatives that would be safe for her, I switched Honey, too.
I still feel good about the decision. It’s not just the fact Honey’s never had anything seriously wrong with her – except for a sprained paw. Last week, there was further evidence that dogs do not only thrive only on a meat-free diet. They may even live longer on one.
A study in the journal PLOS One of 2,500 dogs found that while feeding them plant-based may not fit our image of them as red-blooded hunters, it could cut down their risk of ill health by a third.
PLOS One is a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science since 2006
Even so, there are a few topics more likely to trigger fury from other dog owners. Over the years, I have variously been told on social media that I am “forcing” my beliefs on my innocent pooch, that I am feeding Honey “muck” and that the only pet I should own as a vegan is a rabbit. One friend was so incensed they banged their fists on the table and declared me “very, very selfish”.
But though it may be a wrench, isn’t it time for a radical rethink about what’s really “best” for our dogs?
I would do anything to avoid harming my dog. For one thing, I went vegan in 2016 because I love animals. I followed my elder daughter Lily, then 14, after she showed me YouTube videos revealing some of the truths about factory farming that I’d managed to ignore.
And Honey isn’t left moping miserably over a bowl of limp lettuce and carrots. In the same way I can eat a burger – or a vegan version of any type of meat – that looks and tastes like the real thing, her wet and dry foods also look the same as the canned meat and kibble she’s always eaten.
Honey certainly doesn’t appear to know the difference because she eats it with the same gusto (and this week staged a daring raid on our pet food cupboard to chew her way into a new bag)
Dogs need protein, but as any vegan can tell you, protein doesn’t just come from meat. Honey’s food is made from other sources such as beans, nutritional yeast, soya and rice – and we only buy products which have been formulated by animal nutritionists to contain all the amino acids, vitamins and minerals a dog needs.
In fact these plant-based dog foods are not unlike the majority of meat-based versions: many commercial dog foods also need to contain supplements because the rendering and heating processes during manufacturing destroy some of the key nutrients. So meat-based dog foods are already different from the diet of our pets’ ancestors.
Vet Ernie Ward, co-author of The Clean Pet Food Revolution, points out that modern dogs are as similar to packs of wolves as we are to our Neolithic ancestors. When humans developed agriculture and moved to more grain-based diets, he says, the dogs who lived with us developed a gene mutation which meant they became much better at digesting carbohydrates. Indeed, the RSPCA has also acknowledged that dogs are now omnivores.
We also tend to forget that through most of history, meat would have been an occasional treat for most humans. So the most Fido would have got was an occasional bone to chew on. That is until an enterprising Victorian marketing man spotted a gap in the market in 1860 and invented the first commercial pet food.
However, as our meat cultivation has become more intensive and industrialized over the past 50 years, our meat consumption has been sky-rocketed – and so has that of our dogs. It is now estimated that a fifth of the meat globally is consumed by dogs and cats.
Pet foods are responsible for a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production, according to a study in the journal PLOS One (2017). And with an estimated 20 million pets in the UK alone, analysts say we won’t meet our greenhouse gas targets unless we reconsider what our furry companions are eating.
What about cats?
Cats have evolved to eat whatever small prey they can get their claws on. While they are able to eat a variety of food groups, to be healthy they MUST have certain nutrients, such as essential fatty acids and certain amino acids found in animal proteins.
Accordingly, cat owners should never launch their cat on a vegan diet without the help of a specialist pet nutritionist.
But as supplemented vegan pets foods made especially for cats are also coming onto the market, with synthesized versions of these nutrients, more owners are also making the switch.
One such owner is Joanna Farr, 43, from Lincoln who works for a local authority finding accommodation for homeless people.
Her vegan cats are Quinny, who is six, who she has fed as a vegan since adopting her three years ago and Roman and Rocky, 13-year-old brothers who she took in last July.
Farr says: “I feed them all on a nutritionally complete vegan cat food which Quinny in particular likes so much that her only health problem has ever been that she is a little bit overweight! The boys also didn’t mind at all when they switched although I have noticed their bladder problems have cleared up.”
But then, as Farr points out: “I am not feeding my cats lettuce, but on nutritionally complete cat food. Now there’s a choice between that and food which contains animals subjected to the animal agriculture industry, it’s a no brainer for me.”
Still, in her recent statement on the subject, British Veterinary Association president Justine Shotton maintains there still isn’t enough scientific evidence to condone a vegan diet for dogs.
“While it is theoretically possible, the BVA does not recommend giving a dog a vegetarian or a vegan diet as it is much easier to get the balance of essential wrong nutrients than to get it right.”
Instead Shotton says that the meat used in pet foods is “often that would never end up in the human food chain in this country, as many consumers don’t like to eat those parts of the animals – for example, tripe, pig’s trotters , udders and chicken feet.
“Pet food is a useful way to use this nutrient-dense food without it being wasted, which is important both from a sustainability and an ethical perspective.”
This is true. Far from being made of the juiciest cuts of meat, as the most ads might suggest, the Government list of approved ingredients for dog foods includes day-old ground up male chicks, not needed by the egg industry, as well as hooves, feathers, pig bristle, horns and wool.
While this may be a way of recycling every last scrap of the animals we kill, is this really what you want your beloved hound to be chomping on?
Andrew Knight, a vet and professor of animal welfare and ethics at Winchester University, says the fact there’s a handy market for the meat industry’s less palatable products is helping keep it profitable in the first place.
Knight says dog owners wanting to switch their pets to a vegan diet should choose a reputable vegan dog food brand and never try to fashion a vegan diet for the dog themselves, even with added dog vitamins.
“The bulk of a dog’s diet needs to be nutritionally complete. There are too many studies showing that home-made diets with vitamins added are not nutritionally sound,” he says.
He adds: “When moving over to a plant-based diet, don’t switch them overnight. Do it gradually over one to two weeks. It gives their bodies time to adjust.”
From experience, my own advice would be to get ready to argue. If you feel like having to defend your decision against other dog owners or resistant family and friends, vegan vet Arielle Griffiths recommends telling others you have decided to give your pet a hypoallergenic plant-based diet.
“The word vegan represents deprivation and what has been removed from the diet. The words ‘plant-based’, sustainability and wholefoods show how much has been added.”
The good news for the planet, and our pets, is that there’s never been more choice of plant-based alternatives. When I checked this week, I found more than 10 plant-based dog food brands. Customers aren’t just vegans but also owners who choose a dairy-free diet are less likely to trigger allergies.
So Honey has a range of brands to choose from – and generally they are around the same price as the premium brands we’d be feeding her anyway.
For example, a bag of Yarrah Organic vegan dry dog food is listed as between £5.50 and £6 a kg on Amazon, around the same per kilo as Forthglade dry food, and less than Lily’s Kitchen meat and fish-based choices.
Even so, Honey is not so vegan that she won’t dash after a squirrel in the park. But she’s never yet caught one.
And although Honey may be blissfully unaware of the debate swirling around her dog bowl, the environmental effect means I feel we owners have to be.