Once considered the stuff of hippies and health freaks, the popularity of veganism has boomed over the past decade. And it looks like a growing number of vegans are pushing their dietary decisions onto their pets.
A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that 35 percent of pet owners were interested in switching their animals to a vegan diet. As for the vegan pet owners, that figure was as high as 78 percent.
A team of scientists led by the University of Guelph in Ontario carried out an online survey of 3,673 dog and cat owners from around the world, looking to find some insights into attitudes towards veganism and pets.
For some, tofu-munching pets are not just a pipedream. In total, just 1.6 percent of the 2,940 dogs and 0.7 percent of the 1,545 cats were being fed a strictly plant-based diet. However, the study also found that over a quarter, 27 percent, of vegan pet owners were currently feeding their dog or cat a plant-based diet.
“That percentage, 27 percent, might sound like a small number, but when you think of the actual numbers of pets involved, that’s huge, and much higher than we expected,” lead author Sarah Dodd, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Veterinary College, said in a statement.
“While only a small proportion of pet owners are currently feeding plant-based diets to their pets, it is safe to say that interest in the diets is likely to grow."
However, most of the participants agreed they would only consider a plant-based pet diet if it was proven to meet their pet's nutritional needs. Over half, 55 percent, of all participants said that certain stipulations needed to be met before they would make the switch and they’d ideally get a vet's opinion on the matter. If all proved well, then 78 percent of vegan pet owners said they would feed a plant-based diet to their pet.
So, that's the current popular attitude, but what is the science on feeding dogs and cats a vegan diet?
Obviously, you won’t ever see a wolf or wildcat guzzling down a spinach smoothie. Their domesticated cousins, cats and dogs, are also widely referred to as carnivores, although dogs are sometimes described as omnivores as they do eat some vegetation. Unlike wolves, domestic dogs have evolved genetic variations that allow them to digest starch, found in crops such as potatoes, wheat, corn, and rice. Cats, however, are obligate carnivores, meaning they can't survive without meat. A cat being fed a strict vegan diet will likely die of malnutrition.
While there isn’t a wealth of research on the nutritional suitability of vegan diets for dogs, most studies on this issue are fairly damning.
A 2015 study found that the majority of plant-based dog foods were not compliant with accepted standards of pet foods and there were concerns regarding the adequacy of amino acid content. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association, a survey of 86 vegetarian dogs in Europe found that over 50 percent of them were eating diets deficient in protein, essential amino acids, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. In particular, dogs require two amino acids, called L-carnitine and taurine, that are extremely hard to obtain from a plant-based diet unless it is supplemented.