British Columbia·Growing Vegan

Vegan pet food is out there, but is a plant-based diet good for your animals?

Animal nutrition experts say while vegan diets are possible for humans and dogs, cats are much less flexible.

Humans and dogs can thrive on veggies, but cats need meat, say veterinarians

Nine-year old Zen, right, is a big fan of steamed kale. He's on a plant-based diet along with Chief, left, who prefers chunky carrots. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Whenever Rhiannon Whitney buys her two dogs a treat, the first thing she does is look on the back of the box for meat byproducts.

As a vegan for the last 17 years, both her canines eat an all-plant diet, and mostly organic.

"It's not harder at all," she said from her East Vancouver apartment while pouring kibble into a bowl. "I think it's actually less expensive if you're looking at a quality equivalent."

She says she struggled with the decision when she first brought Zen home as a puppy nine years ago.

She wanted to avoid making a "selfish" decision at the cost of his health.

Rhiannon Whitney feeds her 11-year-old boxer-Great Dane cross a carrot. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

But she soon learned it was possible for her dogs to follow her vegan lifestyle and remain healthy. It just took some extra steps to ensure his nutrition was balanced.

Zen's diet is now made up of foods like vegan kibble, meat-free pepperoni treats and steamed veggies — kale is his favourite.

Her cat though, still eats meat-based products.

Different for cats

Experts say while humans and dogs are more likely to thrive as omnivores, it's much more difficult for felines.

"It's pretty much impossible to make a nutritionally adequate diet for a cat without the use of some animal-based products," says Dr. Tammy Owens, as assistant professor of small animal nutrition in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

She says cats are biologically "obligate carnivores" meaning they need to eat meat.

Dr. Radica Raj, left, with one of her patients on a vegetarian diet, Seva, in the arms of owner Laura Simonson. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Dogs can be vegetarian, but Owens says their digestive systems still aren't as "flexible" as humans are which can make it more challenging to digest plant-based proteins over animal-based ones.

"It's not nearly as straightforward or as easy and safe as making a diet for them using sort of traditional ingredients," she said.

B.C. tops vegan dog food sales

According to a study published earlier this year, researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario found 35 per cent of pet owners surveyed would be interested in feeding their animals a plant-based diet.

The greatest hesitation for pet owners appeared to be fulfilling nutritional needs.

In an email, national retailer Petsmart says its top selling vegan dog food brand is seeing double-digit growth year over year, although it remains a small part of the overall category.

Highest provincial sales for the product are in B.C.

Integrative veterinarian Dr. Radica Raj says she sees the trend growing in her North Vancouver practice, particularly from owners who have already cut animal products from their lives.

As a holistic practitioner, she has recommended vegetarian diets for some dogs who struggle with chronic illnesses or allergies.

"I really do believe that plant-based diets are a way to healing," she said. "It may not be appropriate for every single patient because they are all different."

Once a dog does go vegetarian, she administers additional tests to ensure there are no nutritional deficiencies and talks to her patients about supplementary foods and vitamins.

She says she has two patients who currently feed their cats plant-based diets, but she doesn't recommend it.

If you want  to cut animal-based foods out of your pet's life, both experts say, it's best to speak to your veterinarian first.

About the Author

Lien Yeung

@LienYeung

Lien Yeung hosts CBC Vancouver News Weekends. As a multimedia reporter, she has covered stories locally and nationally from coast to coast on television, radio and social media. You can reach her on Instagram or Twitter @LienYeung or via email at lien.yeung@cbc.ca.

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