Trigger warning: if you’re already irritated by the number of people around you going plant-based for Veganuary, look away now. Because there’s a growing argument that the UK’s nine million dogs should be joining them.
Now get ready to get really annoyed, because I’m proud to report that my six-year-old cockapoo Honey is already among them and hasn’t eaten meat for 18 months. Not that she knows the difference. She still gets sausages, dog treats and a mix of dry and wet foods, certified to contain the same range of nutrients and vitamins as the meat-based versions she used to eat.
These foods look, and presumably taste, the same, as she gobbles them up with the same gusto. Plus she has the thick, glossy coat and puppyish bounce she’s always had. The only difference is that what’s in her dog bowl is not the rendered remains of some poor beast, like a pig, who may be more intelligent, but ended up on the losing side of our confused attitude to animals.
Despite the fury the subject of vegan pets incites, it seems I’m not the only dog-lover questioning the oft-repeated mantra: “Dogs need meat to live.” Last year, a survey of 3,673 pet owners from around the world by Canada’s University of Guelph found that over a third of them were interested in switching their animals to a plant-based diet.
But even with the statement last year from the RSPCA that: “Dogs are omnivores and can… survive on a vegetarian diet as long as the diet is well-balanced,” it remains a highly-charged issue.
From experience, I know there is no subject – Brexit and Megxit included – that triggers more extreme reactions, from eye-rolling to frothy rage. One friend practically banged her fists on the table when it came up at dinner, declaring me: “very, very selfish".
Yet, as someone who gave up animal products because I didn’t want to hurt animals, I would never deliberately put the health of my adored dog at risk. Indeed, for the first three of the four years I have been vegan myself, I gave Honey meat-based foods – although I could see the contradiction in feeding her slaughtered animals, I wasn’t sure how to bridge it. Also, I didn’t realise there were alternatives.
I, too, had been sucked in by the marketing message that meat was “the diet of her ancestors” – when in reality, pet food has evolved to become a handy dumping ground for the least palatable by-products of our insatiable lust for chicken, beef, lamb and pork.
In fact, commercially prepared pet food was invented by a Victorian electrician, James Spratt who spotted a gap in the market in 1860. After seeing street dogs gobbling up discarded biscuits in the East End docks, he started selling his own version; a blend of wheat meal, vegetables and beetroot, mixed in with a little beef blood.
For more 20,000 years before that, humans had happily domesticated dogs from wolves by letting them chow down on our left-over scraps. As meat was a rare treat for most people, there was unlikely to have been much going spare for Fido, bar the odd bone.
However, as our meat cultivation has become more intensive and industrialised over the last 150 years, our consumption has sky-rocketed – and so has our dogs’.
According a study published in the journal, PLoS One (2017), dogs’ and cats’ meat-based pet food is responsible for a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production – U.S. dogs and cats, alone, are equal to the fifth largest country in terms of animal protein consumption.
Veterinary scientist Dr Ernie Ward, himself a vegetarian and vegan for over 30 years, is co-author of a new book, The Clean Pet Food Revolution – How Better Pet Food will Change the World, which questions our basic assumptions about what’s good for pets and for the planet.
“The fact is, the marketing line that ‘dogs crave meat’ is completely unsupported by science, and frankly, has potentially ruinous effects on the health of our pets,” says Dr Ward. He points out that the latest advances in vet nutrition and food tech means that plant-based pet foods can be manufactured to meet all their nutritional needs.
Of course, Honey doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about the suffering of farm animals or climate catastrophe. But I’m pretty sure she wants to feel energetic and live a long life. Ward points out that a growing body of research is finding that plant-based diets not only cut the risk of cancer in dogs – half of all domestic canines will develop these after the age of ten – but also increase longevity.
Indeed, in a 2016 review of studies in the journal Animals, Andrew Knight, a vet and professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester, found that both dogs and cats can thrive on nutritionally complete vegetarian diets
“I’ve trawled through the scientific literature,” Professor Knight says. “Oddly perhaps, given the strength of ‘urban wisdom’ on this issue, I’ve struggled to find any scientific evidence showing that cats and dogs fed well-planned and nutritional vegan diets are less healthy than the norm. But I have found more than ten published studies documenting the hazardous ingredients in commercial meat-based diets, or the adverse health effects in cats and dogs kept on them.”
Furthermore, says Professor Knight: “After examining and treating many thousands of animals for around a decade, I’ve become convinced that rates of diseases such as cancer, kidney and liver disease are far higher for animals fed meat-based commercial diets than would happen naturally.”
A scan of the permitted ingredients for the pet food industry, listed by the Government, makes for grim reading. Slaughter-house left-overs which can be used include, “hides, skins, horns, feet, pig bristle, heads of poultry, hatchery waste, day-old chicks and blood, placenta, wool, feathers, hair, hoof cuts.”
So why do we insist that feeding our dogs meat is the only way? Psychologists offer four ‘N’ explanations: it feels “natural”, even though, as we’ve heard, most dog foods are anything but. We believe our dogs must think meat is “nice” because they drool over it – nevermind that they also salivate over chocolate, which is highly toxic to them. To most dog owners, it also feels “normal”, in that you risk being attacked by other dog lovers if you don’t tow the line. And finally, feeding pets meat is still seen as “necessary” – even though it’s not.
While it’s true that there are ten amino acids dogs can’t make themselves, Dr Ward points out that meat is far from being their only source: high quality plant, fungal, bacterial or algae sources can also provide the 22.5 per cent protein that should make up their daily diets.
And what of Honey’s health after 18 months on a vegan diet? This week, just to make sure she was suffering no ill-effects, she had a vet’s check-up and blood tests. Her iron and Vitamin B levels – which many people erroneously believe can only be topped up by meat – were all found to be normal.
According to vet Allan Rapley of Highgate Vets, north London, who examined her: “While there’s a limit to what we can test, there were no abnormalities detected in Honey’s blood and nothing to indicate she’s anaemic.”
As long as I didn’t try to prepare her vegan meals myself (not something that I would ever try) Rapley said he was happy for her to continue with her specially formulated, nutritionally complete vegan dog foods.
Indeed, it seems that they’re set to become an increasingly large part of the market. Last month, it emerged that Mars, the company that owns Pedigree Chum and Whiskas, is developing meat-free pet food. It has invested in the US company Wild Earth, of which Dr Ward is chief veterinary officer, and which uses Japanese fungus, Koji (used to make sake, soy sauce and miso) to make protein.
And in a statement, the UK’s Pet Food Manufacturing Association says it’s also moving with the times, telling me: “Dogs are omnivores and can adapt to a well-balanced vegetarian diet.” While claiming that pet food helps reduce food wastage, it added: “There is a wide range of commercially prepared ‘complete’ vegetarian dog foods available and for the majority of owners this is the safest way to feed a vegetarian diet.”
Of course, Honey is blissfully unaware of the controversy. Yes, she will still chase a squirrel in the park, not that she ever has ever caught one. All she knows is that she has a cupboard stuffed with foods she loves, and while she doesn’t have to worry her furry little head about her health or the future of the planet, I feel that I certainly should.
by Ernie Ward, Alice Oven and Ryan Bethencourt (Lantern, £20.99) is published on 23 January