For years, dog trainer and pet influencer Samantha Johnson struggled to treat her dog Baloo’s chronic allergies.
The purebred Wheaten Terrier was always in and out of the vet—even as a pup—with hot spots and other inflammatory skin issues. When Johnson finally was able to get an allergy test run at Colorado State University’s vet clinic, she discovered Baloo was allergic to 77 out of 90 outdoor allergens.
After three months of a raw diet and steroid regimen, Johnson discovered V-Dog Vegan Dog food. “It was life-changing for both of us,” she says.
Johnson is part of a growing contingent of vegans and animal-lovers in general who have made the switch to plant-based foods for their pets. But many wonder if dogs and cats can actually be healthy without animal protein.
Even before the pandemic pet boom—70 percent of U.S. households now own at least one pet—an online survey found that 35 percent of dog owners were open to the idea of switching to plant-based pet food.
Just like the huge growth in plant-based proteins for humans, pet food makers have been increasingly looking to tap into the growing market for alternatives to meat-based foods. Wild Earth, one of the leading plant-based pet food brands, recently raised $23 million in funding from investors including Mark Cuban with the goal of moving toward cell-based meats.
But the plant-based pet food industry has been growing steadily over the past few decades without cell-based meat, using proteins like grain, soy, gluten, seeds, and peas. After all, Evolution Pet Food released its first production of vegan pet food back in 1989.
Is plant-based pet food healthy?
A major new study by the University of Winchester, published in June by Professor Andrew Knight and Dr Liam Satchell of the University’s Centre for Animal Welfare, found that existing plant-based pet food brands are just as nutritionally sound as animal-based pet food—and that pets fed a vegan diet are just as happy with their food as their meat-eating counterparts.
“It’s a very exciting finding that animals can be healthy on these diets when nutritionally sound,” says Knight. “It’s like 30 years ago when they were finding that humans could be healthy by consuming a plant-based diet—it feels like the same point in time in dog and cat food.”
While there’s been a lot of talk about whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores (even wild wolves consume both plants and animals), many experts have long believed that canines were more suited to a plant-based diet than felines. That’s not necessarily the case, Knight and his colleagues found. Nutritionally-sound vegan diets can include plant minerals and synthetic sources to meet feline nutritional needs. “Pet foods that undergo processing with high pressure and chemical treatments tend to degrade ingredients,” says Knight, including some very important amino acids. “Synthetic taurine is used as a replacement in many foods.”
Knight’s studies, which included 2,526 dogs and 1,369 cats who maintained a vegan or meat-based diets for at least one year, indicate that nutritionally-sound plant-based diets were the healthiest and least hazardous options for both dogs and cats.
The professor has seen firsthand the impacts that a sound plant-based diet has. When he transitioned his sister-in-law’s two black cats’ diets onto a plant-based diet while cat-sitting for half a year, he saw noticeable differences. “During that time it was remarkable to see their coats get slicker and shinier and their dermatitis clear up.”
Johnson has seen similar results in all of her dogs and the many foster dogs that come into her home. “Every foster we’ve had has been on plant-based food and I’ve never had to worry about allergies or diarrhea,” she says. “I really recommend it.”
Just like humans, every animal’s nutritional needs and food sensitivities vary. Before starting any new meal plan for your pet, consult a veterinarian to ensure you do so safely. If you get the green light, here are some easy, make-at-home recipes to try.
5 plant-based pet food recipes
Baked Tempeh Beggin’ Treats for Dogs
Diana Laverdure-Dunetz is a South Florida-based canine nutritionist who thought she’d have to give up her career after she became vegan herself—she just didn’t want to be responsible for any more animal deaths. But in 2017, after years of research, Laverdure-Dunetz switched from helping clients to create bespoke meat-based dog foods to teaching them how to make plant-based recipes.
Laverdure-Dunetz then brought together 17 of the world’s top veterinarians, scientists, and animal activists for her Plant-Powered Dog Food Summit, where attendees learned about all the research taking place in the field as well as how to decode the true nutritional requirements of canines.
The canine nutritionist currently offers plant-based tips and information on her website Plant-Powered Dog, and will be releasing a new book on how to do-it-yourself called The Plant-Powered Dog: How to Raise Dogs that Thrive While Caring for the Planet, Ourselves, Animals and Future Generations. “My way of leaving the world a better place than I found it is through helping people to transition and feed their dogs plant-based diets,” she says.
Lentil Plus for Cats, and Oat & Soy for Dogs
Dr. Richard and Susan Hubble Pitcairn have been singing the gospel of holistic health for pets for more than three decades. The husband-and-wife duo have long been the go-to specialists for chemical-free nutrition and natural healing for pets.
More than 500,000 copies of Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats have been sold since its original publication. In the fourth edition of the book, the couple discuss the advantages of a plant-based diet, offering tips and recipes for complete meat-free eating for both dogs and cats.
Ruffin’ Rainbow Treat Bowl for Dogs
Dr. Ernie Ward is the co-author of Better You, Better Dog, Better Life (2019) and The Clean Pet Food Revolution (2019). Early in his career, he focused on bringing senior pet care guidelines to general veterinary practices and later focused on spreading awareness of the dangers of obesity in pets.
Soy Kibble for Puppy and Mama Dogs
Eric Weisman founded Evolution Pet Food in 1988 with the goal of offering a “cleaner” diet to his rescue dogs, cats and other small animals. It was the first commercially-available, plant-based pet food in North America—possibly the planet, according to Weisman.
All of Evolution’s products are designed to meet 100% of National Research Council (NRC) and American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines for all life stages in dogs and cats. The brand stays away from chemical preservatives, says Weisman, subbing out those common ingredients with vitamins and botanicals instead.
Weisman and Evolution advise mixing dry kibble in a one-to-one ratio with water so that it is better digested and hydrating to the pet. This method also saves on pet food feeding requirements by about 20%, says Weisman, since hydrated dry food takes up more room in the small intestine—plus, moist food is better absorbed and utilized when it is hydrated.