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Feed your dog vegetables, help save the world

University of Guelph researcher predicts vegan dog food will be next to emerge

Over half of Canadian households include at least one pet and, according to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, pet owners are expected to spend upwards of $8.3 billion on dry kibble alone by 2018.

As pets become an increasingly significant part of our lives – declared by many as “one of the family” – staggering growth in pet food options has followed suit as manufacturers join the premium market scene, promoting a diet high in meat with no added byproducts, and ranging from organic super-greens to super-grains, as the healthiest choice for Fido and Fluffy.

“It’s costly and overkill,” said Anna Kate Shoveller, an assistant professor of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph, adding that while cats absolutely require meat in their diets, dogs are omnivores and can subsist and benefit from a lower-protein, vegetable-based diet.

Shoveller and her research team recently conducted a study on a small sampling of dogs to observe behaviour and digestibility results when exclusively fed their specially-formulated diet that included a combination of bean pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas, fava beans and grains.

Although palatability was a definite factor (the beagles didn’t exactly scarf it down), nutritional and digestibility requirements were met, confirmed by “analyzing their poop.”

The results of the study were published in Frontiers Veterinary Journal this past fall.

“I always tell my students that if the apocalypse is coming, I’m eating dog food because it’s the best, most-complete source of nutrients in a shelf-stable delivery format,” Shoveller said.

Feeding premium food to cats and dogs is not only expensive, it’s also unnecessary as all pet foods available on the market are formulated to meet nutrient targets set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), she said.

Shoveller said that many pet food manufacturers have reduced inclusion of byproduct meal and and have been called out for using prime cuts of meat versus the “whole animal” instead.

“The pet food market is so close to the human food market that we’re seeing a lot of claims about human-grade ingredients being used in dog and cat food. I’m personally concerned that those two markets are competing for ingredients right now.”

It’s wasteful and unsustainable and competing with the world food supply, she said.

Using the whole animal is a practical, ethical practice that prevents waste and justifies human consumption of animal-based diets – common in other countries but just making waves in North America, Shoveller said.

“In other parts of the world, they eat almost every part of the animal, but trying to talk to people about eating organ meat, haggis... things a bit foreign to the North American market... are not as well received yet.”

In order to combat industry’s unsustainable practices, Shoveller and her students do their part to research and formulate alternative pet foods to coincide within the principles of the expansive U of G “Food For Thought” initiative that commits itself to feeding the world with sustainable practices.

Thanks to Shoveller’s study, there is now further evidence to back their claims as they continue to study the issue further.

“Dogs don’t need meat; they like meat. That’s where that crux comes from,” said Shoveller. “But liking something doesn’t make it a superior source. My son would prefer to just eat all his Halloween candy until it's gone - it doesn’t make that okay.”

Shoveller said that although she wasn’t aware of any vegan or vegetarian dog food products on the market quite yet, she predicts a niche vegan market will be next to emerge, despite challenges in making that food palatable.

“High-meat inclusion based diets are expensive,” Shoveller said. “The market is there, I’m not denying, but we also need to have a market for people that don’t want to spend that much money.”

Shoveller worked in the pet food industry from 2007 to 2015 and said she is very confident to recommend mass-produced, mid-tier foods sold in grocery and pet specialty stores - foods that use less meat and include the recently-vilified by-products or “fillers” - otherwise known as plant ingredients such as corn and soy.

Shoveller urged any dog-owners who plan to switch their dog’s food to be patient and take the transition slowly as dogs can be a bit hesitant within the first few days, and it can take up to two weeks for the dog to fully adapt to any new food.

“If people want to feed high meat-based food, that’s absolutely within their prerogative,” said Shoveller. “For the most part, as we see most things begin to balance out, I’m not overly concerned about the well-being of dogs and cats. Their lifespan has increased dramatically over the last 20 years as we’ve made these advancements.

“We’re headed in the right direction. We just need a good discussion as to all the options available.”