Vegan pets sound bougie, but they might just save the Earth

The new vegans.
The new vegans.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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My dog Tobey and I were recently watching Shark Tank when the creator of vegan dog food brand Wild Earth came on stage. Ryan Bethencourt, the company’s CEO, was fending off attacks from a few of the judges, enduring accusations that forcing our furry friends to forgo meat is unnatural and borderline crazy.

Once the episode ended, the criticism continued all over social media. Polls indicated that the Twitter viewer audience, at least, was not sold.

Some were shocked and outraged that billionaire Mark Cuban offered to invest $550,000 in Wild Earth. Fellow Shark Tank judge Kevin O’Leary followed up with yet another critique:

But research indicates that not only can a balanced vegan diet be perfectly healthy for dogs, but reducing our pooches’ meat consumption may be vital both for their sake, and for the planet’s.

If American dogs and cats formed their own country, it would rank fifth in the world in meat consumption right after Russia, Brazil, the US and China, according to a 2017 study.

The same study calculated the impact of our pets’ diets on the climate as comparable to emissions from 13.6 million cars.

In late 2018, similarly concerning numbers were reported from Japan, where carbon emissions from dog and cat food exceed the total amount of emissions from countries such as Latvia and Cambodia.

With international climate goals on the line, these are numbers we cannot ignore.

The argument that we can’t make dogs eat vegan because it’s somehow unnatural also falls short. Yes, dogs do belong to the order of Carnivora, but this taxonomic nomenclature is a bit misleading. The order includes both obligate carnivores such as lions, as well as bamboo-munching pandas.

Yes, dogs did evolve from wolves, but even wolves don’t survive solely on meat. In the wild, as much as 50 percent of a wolf’s diet may consist of plants. Plus, dogs have come a long way since their wolf days about 33,000 years ago.

If we’re going to stick to the natural argument, let’s take a look at our de-wormed, de-fleaed, microchipped pooches lounging on comfy couches, sometimes wearing Halloween costumes. Not particularly natural, or wolf-like.

A 2018 whole-genome sequencing study revealed 10 genes that have since changed in dogs, allowing them to thrive on a starch-rich diet with less meat. According to the study, this has “constituted a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.”

Plus, proper nutrition isn’t about types of foods, but rather the nutrients it contains. There is nothing in meat that a dog can’t get out of plant foods—especially when dealing with typically processed forms of foods such as pet food. A recent scientific review stated that dogs “do not have a recognized requirement for animal-derived ingredients per se.”

In an experiment, researchers fed six sprint-racing Siberian Huskies—dogs that are in particular need of proper nutrition—a regular commercial dog food diet, and six others a meatless version, for 16 weeks, including a period of competitive racing. All dogs ended in similarly good health. It’s a small sample, admittedly, but the results are worth noting.

But what about dogs’ preferences and pleasures? On Shark Tank, Kevin O’Leary accused Bethencourt of “forcing dogs into vegan-ship whether they like it or not.”

I relate to this; the first time I offered my dog Tobey vegan treats, I had my doubts. However, she seemed to truly enjoy her Wild Earth snacks. I have a friend whose elderly springer spaniel refuses all animal products and only eats veggies and fruits.

That’s just to say, dogs can have varied tastes. Tobey may not be 100% vegan (yet), but she has cut back on her meat consumption considerably. She doesn’t seem worse for it, and judging from her avid begging for vegan snacks, far from utterly unhappy.

Commercial meat-based dog food is usually far from natural, pure meat products anyway. We’ve seen remnants of partially-dissolved intestines, the plastic ear tags of farm animals, antibiotics, even remains of Styrofoam packaging found in conventional dog foods.

And that smell when you open a new bag of kibble? Used restaurant grease and other oils unsuitable for human consumption, added to enhance palatability for our pooches.

Wild Earth announced that it raised $11 million recently as part of its series A round funding. It will soon join brands like V-dog, Halo Garden of Vegan, and Gather Endless Valley Vegan in offering dry vegan kibble. Brands like these will certainly not solve all the nutritional and climate change-related problems related to our pets’ diets.

We don’t have to turn all our dogs vegan overnight. What we can do, however, is take a step back, consider how we as consumers fuel industries that wear on our planet, and at least try to address it—in this case, by reducing the meat consumption of our four-legged friends.