The Healthy Huskies

A summary of a scientific study into vegetarian animal nutrition.

What’s the short version?

In 2004, two teams of Huskies raced across Australia. One side of each team had been fed a veggie diet, while the other side ate meat. They did not run in circles (or die).

Cool! So tell me more….

This study, lead by Dr Wendy Brown, was deigned to see if hard-working dogs would become anaemic or ill if they ate only plant based food. Sled-racing presents a great opportunity for nutritional research because the dogs run in pairs – i.e. at the same speed, for the same distance, pulling the same weight. This level of experimental “control” is hard to achieve, and desire for it has lead to unethical practices in many types of research. What’s really great about this study is that the dogs were just “borrowed” – they are pets; not “lab-animals.”

Dr Brown explains initially that the difference between meat and veggie food is bigger conceptually than it is nutritionally. Both non-meat and with-meat foods are usually made mostly of grain [8]. She says: “It is only a small step from some of the popular cereal-based dry dog foods to one that contains no meat at all.” [1]

The difference between meat and veggie food is bigger conceptually than it is nutritionally.

So, what happened in the experiment?

In this experiment, 12 Siberian huskies were divided into racing pairs based on ability. One of the dogs in each pair was fed on Pedigree Advantage, a food containing meat, made by Mars Petcare – who test on animals and use battery/barn eggs [2]. The other dog in the pair was fed on a vegetarian food, also developed by Mars Petcare Australia (especially for the experiment). [3] Take a look at Table One for a comparison of the ingredients – note how similar the foods are to each other. Both foods exceeded nutritional requirements/suggestions for dog food [4].

Table1

The racing season lasted 16 weeks, including training and recovery, and the dogs stayed in their usual environment and routine throughout. They were checked by a vet before hand, and then again in weeks 8 and 16. They had a blood test beforehand and then again in weeks 3, 8 and 16. The dog pairs raced in packs of 6 or 4, running 12 or 9 km races respectively.

What were the results?

In the race, the 6 dog team came in 4th place out of 29 packs, and the 4 dog team came in 7th place, from 36 packs….

No, not the race results! What were the blood test results?!

All the blood tests and vet checks showed normal results, for all of the dogs through all 16 weeks.

All the blood tests and vet checks showed normal results.

So, dogs can get enough protein from a veggie diet?

Yes, though scientists actually already knew this. Dr Brown suggests that, when taken in combination with data from previous studies, the results of this experiment highlight “the importance of providing sufficient dietary protein for exercising dogs, irrespective of whether the protein is of plant or animal origin.”

Does this mean that Vegetarian dog food is scientifically proven to be totally safe and complete?

No. It shows that veggie dog food can fulfill all the required “nutritional standards” in chemical terms [4]. It also shows that for short periods of time dogs wont suffer ill effects from eating a vegetarian diet – even if they are under considerable physical strain. This level of evidence, in my understanding, greatly surpasses that provided by most non-veggie pet food retailers, certainly most ethically minded ones anyway – yet it will probably not be considered enough evidence by many dog-lovers who find the concept of veggie dog food strange. For science to “decide” if vegetarian dog food is nutritionally equivalent to meat dog food, it will take many more investors, tests (perhaps inhumane) and dogs (perhaps in labs) – and much more time.

This level of evidence greatly surpasses that provided by most non-veggie pet food retailers.

So… why do Vegetarian pet foods say they are “nutritionally complete” on them?

It all comes down to methods and money. Dr Brown says: “Dog foods are tested for their nutritional adequacy in the first instance by means of chemical analysis. However, not all of the nutrients present in the dog food will necessarily be available to the dog.” In essence, when you grind up dog food, put it in a machine and look at the molecules it’s made from, vegetarian ingredients and meat ingredients are either the same or similar. However, that doesn’t mean that your dog is guaranteed to digest, absorb or use them in identical ways.

The foods can also be tested in a “feeding protocol” for more information – Dr Browns experiment is a very good and ethical example of such a test, however, normally such tests involve lab dogs. Also, these tests are expensive – out of reach for small, interested parties and not an attractive use of funds for large and disinterested parties.

So, if we decide to wait for categorical proof, how much meat will we feed to our dogs in the meantime?

I did a little nerd-calculation - if the average dog eats about 164 kg of meat a year [5]; the average cow weighs about 700kg, and there are 74 million dogs in Europe [6] – meat to the “equivalent” of around 17 million cows will be farmed and killed every year to feed the dogs of Europe. What if it takes another 10, 15 or 20 years for science to reach a verdict? Should we feed the equivalent of another 240 million cows to our dogs in the meantime? Each year these 17 million cows would eat over 200 billion kilograms of vegetable protein [7]… and none of this takes into account the carbon footprint made by all that meat… nor the rain-forests cleared for the feed production… nor all the extra people who could have food if the west produced less meat…

Logically, perhaps we should consider feeding our dogs on a plant-based diet until/unless science can tell us the food is nutritionally-incomplete!

Meat to the “equivalent” of 17 million cows is farmed and killed every year to feed the dogs of Europe.

And the conclusion?

Dr Brown says “[This] is the first study to demonstrate using a short feeding trail that a meat-free diet can be nutritionally adequate for exercising dogs. Whilst longer-term trials are necessary to prove this claim, nutritional adequacy was shown by chemical analysis, and this was further demonstrated by feeding the diet, in a controlled experiment, to actively exercising dogs…… these findings pave the way for commercial pet food manufactures to produce nutritionally adequate meat-free diets for dogs.”

We say… here here!!

I’m convinced! Where can I buy vegetarian food for my dog?

I know a great little place on-line… I think it’s called “Ethical Pets” ; )

 

 

References

[1] This quote is from the first page of the article, which is numbered page 102. You can download the full study here.

[2] Sources for my claim that Mars conduct animal testing:

1) Ethical Consumer Magazine’s report into pet food, page 17/48. 2)  Uncaged – unsure how reliable this source is as there are no references. 3) Mars Candy Kills – a glossy campaign with emotionally manipulative features and no references. This website states “Not one of Mars’ experiments on animals is required by law.” 4) The Mars Website says testing is meet legal requirements and that they “only conduct such animal research when non-animal alternatives are not feasible. Info from document entitled “Mars’ Position on Animal Welfare” dated 08/Sep/2011 accessed Feb 2012. Document is unnecessarily difficult to link to! 5) The Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition, owned by Mars. Glossy site, unclear language. Language and imagery seem manipulative, for example they call their test subjects “pets” and have subtle happy pet pictures in the background of their website.

[3] There was a feeding trial done, using the collection of dog faeces to establish “digestibility coefficients” at the university using dogs in their “Quarantine Approved Premises.”  I assume in good faith this is not a lab, but a facility for animals which have been moved into the country as pets and require a legal examination etc. I await confirmation of this as I can find no exact information.

[4] In this case the standards set by the “National Research Council” were vastly exceeded by both foods. I (roughly) checked them against the current European equivalent at FEDIAF; they also surpassed this standard. Also note that it is likely these nutritional requirements have been discovered in experiments using vivisection.

[5] According to New Scientist, from Ethical Consumer Magazine’s report into pet food, page 17/48

[6] According to The European Pet Food Industry Federation: Facts and Figures, 2010

[7] As for each kg of beef produced, the cow needs to eat 17kg of vegetable protein From “saving the world with your knife and fork” by Juliet Gellatley in Resurgence, March/April 2012.

[8] From my understanding, these cereal-based foods need a high grain content for the “extrusion” process which shapes and cooks the biscuits/pellets. According to wikipedia, vitamin A is lost through extrusion – and potentially inadequate Vitamin A provision is one of the criticisms of specifically vegetarian pet food. Is meat pet food supplemented anyway, due to loss in this extrusion process?

Images:

By User Damast on sv.wikipedia (Photo by Damast) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Jjron (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

7 comments

  1. Very interesting. As I understand it dogs are omnivores whereas cats are very much carnivores, so it is easier to get dogs eating non-meat. I’ve also wondered, and heard, that sometimes very excitable dogs can be calmed by eating less meat, not sure if that is scientifically true. I do find with our pup though that when we’ve given him the odd scrap from hubby’s meat leftovers, he seems to go bonkers. So much so he won’t be getting any more such leftovers!!

  2. Tom Booth says:

    My dogs rarely eat meat as they are on a strict dry dog food diet, to help keep their weight under control. When it comes to arthritis in dogs is there a certain type of food group that would help? Would meat be beneficial for them under these circumstances?

    • Anna says:

      Seaweed is very good for cats and dogs with joint problems – Our current brand of vegan cat food has seaweed in, as this helps provide the calcium and omega’s. Neither of our veggie dog foods have it in directly at the moment (though one of our meat brands does) – however, we sell seaweed chews and a few types of dog biscuits which have seaweed too. You can also get seaweed based supplements – we will be stocking one soon from hillside animal sanctuary. Seaweed is one of the most potent vegan foodstuffs – and one of the few that is really native to the British isles, so I am a big fan.

    • Citybv says:

      Listen to “kitkat” (the all lower case one) and Max Marie! They’ve got it right. I had an AKC show grade Pekingese that lived to the age of 18 on veggie food! Never took him to Westminster but did run a few shows with him and took home some blue rionbbs. Other folks at the show used to bug me for details of his diet so they could do the same for their dogs.The plain, simple flat-out FACT is that there has been way too much research on EXACTLY what nutrients a pet needs to live a long healthy life! With that knowledge it’s not only possible but easy to create vegetarian and vegan foods for dogs and cats! Anyone who states otherwise is just offering an instant, knee-jerk reaction that is NOT based on fact! The same kind of reaction I used to get decades ago when folks would tell me I’d get sick and die as a vegetarian, the same kind of garbage that trolls post here every day about humans that don’t eat meat.

  3. Anna says:

    Hi, I very much disagree with this comment in it’s content and tone – I feel that people, myself included, are to quick to judge what is right for an animal or wrong, without proper information or research or thought. I think your argument is too simple, and relies on you believing that you have insight into what an animal is thinking or feeling. There are cases where carnivorous animals “choose” a vegetarian lifestyle – from cats to sharks… but I don’t think that this is an ethical decision on their part. I think animals are happy if they are healthy – and I am yet to be convinced that meat is 100% necessary in a domesticated setting. I don’t think that science holds all the answers for everything – but it is important, and the science in this argument does not totally support your point of view.

  4. Anna says:

    Hi, to clarify once more (please read the full article before you comment) we are not suggesting that you feed your dog on fruit and vegetables – but on a professionally made and lab tested veggie dog food. These foods, just like meat foods, are tested and sup lamented to make sure they contain all of the nutrients that your dog needs. I agree that your dog would become ill if you only feed it on fruit for example (though in some cases, for example, with kidney failure, a diet of mostly potatoes and rice is required to keep your dog as healthy as possible – these things should not be over-simplified)