By Laure-Anne Visele
I have been having this nagging feeling that I am not doing right by my dog by feeding him his good old kibble (premium brand, mind).
So, after the so manieth pet food recalls, I buckled up and started to follow a canine nutrition course (like I have the time on top of applied behaviourism, genetics, pharmacology and statistics, but hey…).
BARF diet for dogs
BARF has been a bit of a craze over the past few years. It stands for “Bones and Raw Food”.
Some pros about BARF (in my experience):
- I have anecdotal evidence from several reliable sources that it promotes calmer behavior, vitality and a beautiful coat.
- I also have anecdotal evidence (again, from several friends I trust) that it has completely eliminated their dogs’ food allergies.
Before you go all BARF on me, bear this one in mind: many veterinarian associations have published position papers strongly against BARF.
- Concocting your dog’s diet yourself (i.e. as a non specialist) may leave him with nutritional excesses and shortages. Having said that, BARF food does come in packaged form too nowadays, but then you’re back to trusting the manufacturer.
- BARF food is more at risk of biological pathogens (i.e. parasites and bacteria) than processed food.
- Bones, if splintered, could cause lethal damage to your dog’s digestive system. Use large uncooked bone might be safer, but not 100% so.
- Pre-packaged BARF food is more expensive, at least at the moment. And again, you’re back to trusting the manufacturer, so it’s catch-22.
Vegetarian diet for dogs
Believe it or not, some people feed their dog a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet. To remind you, vegetarian means no meat, and vegan means no animal product or derivative (so bye bye eggs and dairy too).
Incredibly enough, from a nutritional perspective, a vegetarian diet for your dog is not all that insane (with some caveats).
Emotional objections and fallacies
“What!? But dogs are carnivores. They are in the family “Carnivora!”. I have heard that one so often. So allow me to be a little pedantic here:
- No, not ‘family’, but ‘order’. Their family is Canidae (sorry, couldn’t resist. So what, shoot me.)
- Go give a Big Mac to your local panda and see how it works out. Yup, pandas are also carnivores (phylogenetically speaking), but ecologically speaking, they are hardcore veggies.
But it’s not natural
This is the very same argument I made to myself when thinking about vegan dogs: “It’s not natural”.
Intuitively appealing, yes. Logically sound? Not so much. This one is a naturalistic fallacy (did I mention I loved logic?). Not everything that’s natural is good and not everything that’s artificial is bad. I mean, I am glad we have aspirin (artificial), and I sure as heck am no big fan of poison ivy (natural).
Here’s a couple of variations on the above: the status quo bias (the assumption that things are inherently better unchanged) and the appeal to tradition. I have to admit, when it comes to any kind of progress, I am a cautions ‘if-it-ain’t-broke, why-fix-it?’ kind of gal. Let’s not rock the biological boat and all that.
The only problem with that sort of thinking is, we still wouldn’t be using the wheel at that rate. Also, when thinking “If it aint’ broke”, well, truth be told, the system IS broke. I am not happy relying on pet food manufacturers who have let us down again and again on the quality and safety front.
So, as the slave to logic that I am, although the conservative arguments resonate with me, they are not strong enough to reject the idea outright.
Here is what makes the dog more omnivorous than you’d think:
- Long small intestine (4x longer than cat’s, relatively);
- Dogs secrete amylase (enzyme used to break down starch). Last I looked, there was no starch in meat;
- Dogs secrete their own taurine. As taurine is not found in plant material, animals that do not routinely eat meat synthesize their own. Cats get all their taurine supply from ingesting meat (remember, they are ‘obligate carnivores’).
Evolutionary ecology of pet dogs
To all the nostalgics out there with the romantic notion that dogs are wild predators, I have to disappoint. They are boring old opportunistic feeders. They’ve co-evolved with humans since we started settlements (we’re talking in the last 15,000 years from archaeological records, potentially 100,000 years ago from mitrochondrial analysis), where they lived off our scraps. Bin bingers, not the romantic nature stuff of White Fangs, it is?
So I can switch my dog over to a vegetarian diet?
This is where I’m going to stop you.
I (emphasis on I. Just personal opinion. Absolutely no expert) am not keen on the idea. Here’s why:
- Larger dogs occasionally suffer from taurine deficiency, especially if they do not get enough meat;
- Dogs that exercise a lot need A LOT of protein. There is undeniably less protein in plant matter (not none at all, just less), and plant-based protein is less bio-available meat-based (not completely unavailable, but less available). Sure dogs have longer intestines than cats, but they’re not cows either. So you would need to give much larger quantities of the right kind of plant to be on the safe side.
- From where I’m standing, it would take quite a bit of research (beyond a quick Google search) to get to a balanced vegan/vegetarian diet for your dog. I don’t even have time to stop for coffee most days, so no way would I want to take this on.
- I don’t trust industrial vegetarian kibble as far as I can throw it. For the same reasons that I don’t trust my own premium industrial kibble, but at least I know that my vet is behind my choice. So if you would like to go veggie, please contact a canine nutritionist, rather than trust the package’s labels.
To quote a friend: “If you want to feed vegan, get a rabbit“. It kind of sums up how I feel about it at this stage, but I could change my mind, who knows. I am definitely going to study this a little more in-depth, then I’ll start experimenting with my dog.
I am a veggie myself, but my dog is still on his (meaty) premium brand kibble. The plague of dog food recalls is really bugging me, so I am starting to find out about alternatives. I haven’t taken the plunge one way or another yet as I find the BARF and vegetarian alternatives a little too extreme and I am more one for the Middle Way.
About the Author:
My name is Laure-Anne Viselé. I provide technical and specialist dog writing services.
I have passion for writing, science and dogs. After my degree in Zoology, I pursued my interest in dogs with a series of certifications on dog nutrition, first aid, behaviour, pharmacology, etc.