Husky trial shows dogs can thrive as vegetarians

Published 18 December 2009

dogScientists monitoring the health and performance of Siberian huskies over a 10-week sled-racing season have shown that hard-working dogs can perform just as well on a meat-free diet as they do on a meat-rich diet.

Their results, published earlier this year in the British Journal of Nutrition (Vol 102, pp 1318-1323) add to the evidence that dogs fed an exclusively vegetarian diet can be just as healthy and happy as their meat-eating relatives.

Dr Wendy Brown, the canine nutritionist from the University of New England who led the husky trial, is confident that dogs can thrive on a meat-free diet. She warns dog owners, however, that preparing an adequate vegetarian diet for a dog is more difficult and time-consuming than they might think.

Dr Brown has concerns, too, about some of the vegetarian dog foods that are becoming commercially available in growing numbers. Many of these, she said, are untested. “People manufacturing and buying vegetarian and vegan pet foods are often totally against testing, believing that even feeding trials are cruel. But feeding trials can be done in a friendly way. For my own trials, I borrow people’s pet dogs – some of them show dogs – and they are always well cared for. People visiting my kennels comment on how happy the dogs look. And they are.”

“When I feed my own dogs,” she said, “I want to know that what they’re eating is nutritionally adequate.”

“As dogs belong to the order Carnivora, it’s often assumed that they are exclusively carnivorous,” Dr Brown said, “but in fact they are omnivores, belonging to the same superfamily within the Carnivora as the bamboo-eating giant panda and the omnivorous bear.”

In a paper presented at the University of New England during the international conference “Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition 2009” and published in the conference Proceedings, Dr Brown addresses the common argument that vegetarians should not impose their own values on their pets. “A similar argument is often raised when human parents impose their religious or moral beliefs on their children, particularly when the belief system differs from that of the ethnic majority or predominant culture,” the paper says. “In either case, it would be wise to assess the situation without prejudice.”

In the case of dogs, she says, vegetarianism should be assessed purely from a nutritional perspective – i.e., whether the diet meets the dog’s nutritional needs, maintains the dog’s health, and is sufficiently enjoyable for the dog to eat enough of it.

Research has shown that vegetarian diets can meet these requirements, but that the preparation of a home-made vegetarian diet for a dog can be an exacting and time-consuming process. For example, Dr Brown says, such diets are more likely to be successful when animal products such as eggs and dairy products are included; but, as many dogs are lactose intolerant, milk products should be introduced gradually to gauge their acceptability. It is also advisable to cook eggs, as too many raw eggs in the diet may result in biotin deficiency.

“But there are recipes available,” she adds, “and that’s a good place to start.”

Clicking on the husky image displayed here reveals a photograph of Dr Wendy Brown and one of the canine collaborators in her research.