Dogs are the descendants of wolves, right? Which means they must need meat in their diet? Maybe not, according to the latest research. As more pet owners adopt plant-based diets for health and wellbeing, they are starting to wonder whether their dogs should follow their lead and eat vegan dog food. So can dogs eat vegan? To find out, we went to vets and research studies, to let the experts weigh in on whether your pet is more of a wild wolf or domesticated animal.

Eating plant-based isn’t just rising in popularity among humans; as plant-based eating takes hold among pet owners, they are choosing to feed their entire households the same way, kids and dogs included. In one study from PLOS ONE, 35 percent of pet parents expressed interest in putting their dog on a plant-based diet while 27 percent of vegans had already done so.

The reasons may be the same as those driving more people to choose a plant-based approach: Health is the number one motivator. Yet the most commonly cited concern in the above study among individuals who feed their dogs on meat-based diets is a concern for the welfare of farmed animals. Between 25 and 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S. comes from the meat fed to our cats and dogs, according to another study from PLOS ONE, which concluded that if U.S. cats and dogs were their own country, they would rank fifth in the world for meat consumption.

Can Dogs Eat Vegan Food?

But all of this begs an obvious question: Can dogs survive, and even thrive, on a plant-based diet? The simple answer is yes according to experts.

Ask most veterinarians why dogs can’t be vegan (although calling them vegan may be a stretch, as dogs are more like to chase a squirrel than they are to express the ethical side of veganism), and the response is universal: Dogs are carnivores. Except new research shows that this supposition is not technically correct.

It’s true that dogs are within the order Carnivora so taxonomically, you could call them a carnivore. But there’s a problem with that argument. “Pandas are also in that order, and they’re herbivorous, so there’s more to the story than just a name,” says Sarah Dodd, BVSc., MSc., veterinarian and a researcher at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Canada.

Plus, because of unique characteristics that carnivores such as cats don’t have, dogs (just like humans) are better categorized as omnivores, says Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, M.S., founder of Plant-Powered Dog and a vegan canine nutritionist in Delray Beach, Fla. Although there are numerous examples, she points to the fact that dogs can convert linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid found in plants, to arachidonic acid and they can also metabolize plant-based carotene (aka provitamin A) into Retinol, a fat-soluble vitamin. And thanks to evolution, dogs can digest starch. (In fact, much of today's dog food is starch-based.)

Bottom line? Dogs don’t need to eat meat any more than humans do to get their protein. “Because dogs can be considered omnivores, what you might call facultative carnivores, they can survive with or without meat in their diet, provided they’re consuming essential nutrients in appropriate quantities,” Dodd says.

How to Feed Your Dog a Plant-Based Diet

Studies on the health benefits of a plant-based diet for dogs aren’t nearly as robust as human studies which show the benefits in avoiding chronic inflammation, diseases like heart disease and diabetes, and weight loss, which also leads to lower hypertension and related ailments. Yet because dogs and humans are genomically similar (with a few key exceptions, like the fact that they don't have enzymes to metabolize chocolate), it’s logical to draw some conclusions about dogs from human studies on plant-based eating, Laverdure-Dunetz says.

Start first with cancer, which an estimated six million dogs are diagnosed with every year. In fact, cancer is the number one cause of death among dogs in the U.S. Numerous studies have linked animal consumption in people with increased incidences of cancer, and it may be the same for dogs. “Many dogs are on high-meat diets so there comes a time when you have to realize that something’s wrong,” Laverdure-Dunetz says. One problem? The higher up on the food chain you (or your pets) eat, the more toxins consumed from food, and the more toxins accumulate in the body. This is called bioaccumulation, Laverdure-Dunetz says, and “many vets believe it’s a major contributor of skyrocketing chronic diseases in dogs, cancer included.”

And while longevity studies on plant-eating dogs don’t yet exist, consider humans who live in the world’s five Blue Zones (named because they have the longest lifespans on the planet) are the healthiest, longest-living people, and experts credit their plant-based diets for being the main contributor. “It makes sense that you would have the same correlation in dogs, especially given that dogs are getting lifestyle diseases they never had before at increasingly high numbers,” Laverdure-Dunetz says.

Anecdotally, dog parents are reporting greater longevity in their plant-eating canines, per a study Dodd recently presented. Yet because it was a retrospective study that collected self-reported data, more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn. It’s also been reported that plant-based dogs have healthier-looking coats, better oral health, and better fecal consistency, frequency, and odor, she adds.

Lewis Hamilton, the race car driver, animal rights activist, and long-time vegan, recently announced that he switched one of his dogs, Rosco, to a vegan diet for her health and that his inflammation had abated and his joints were less swollen and he was "super happy" and better able to play and hang with his younger sibling.

So does this mean herbivorous dogs can thrive? Without specific parameters to measure, the answer depends on how you define thriving. “If you define it as living a normal, healthy life, free from nutritionally-associated disorders for the same period of time as a dog consuming a diet that includes animal products, then yes, dogs can thrive on plant-based diets,” Dodd says.

Talk to Your Vet About Switching Your Dog's Diet

If you want to move your dog to a plant-based diet, consider talking with your veterinarian, as your dog may need to be monitored more closely. “Because we have less scientific data to support plant-based diets in dogs, it’s considered to be higher risk, so we want to monitor these dogs more closely,” Dodd says. That might mean having more routine veterinary checks, blood work, and urinalysis to monitor wellness. Of course, not all veterinarians will be on board, largely because most get minimal nutritional training (just like human docs). If your vet doesn’t support you, seek another who’s more open-minded, Laverdure-Dunetz says.

You then have options in what you feed your dog. You can cook plant-based meals for your dog – if so, work with a canine nutritionist or follow established recipes so you guarantee you’re feeding your dog a complete and balanced diet, Laverdure-Dunetz says – or opt for commercial vegan dog food. Check that it has three things: The AAFCO label, which tells you that the company has taken the nutritional requirements of dogs seriously, namely taurine and L-carnitine. “These two nutrients are important for heart health,” she adds. “If the food doesn’t contain them, supplement with taurine and possibly carnitine, based on your dog’s size.”

Whether your dog is partially or fully plant-based is your call. And don’t let naysayers who accuse you of inflicting your views upon your dog sway you. “Does your dog want to walk on a leash, stay home while you’re at work, or do any of the things we mandate them to do?” Laverdure-Dunetz says. “Dogs are no longer wolves, and just as we don’t expect them to behave like wolves, we shouldn’t expect them to eat like them, especially considering how their nutritional needs have evolved.”

As a result, you may not only be creating a healthier dog, but you’ll also be reducing your household's impact on the environment and not harming other animals for the sake of yours. Estimates indicate that moving one 70-pound dog from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet could save the lives of up to two farmed animals a day. As Laverdure-Dunetz says. “By changing your dog’s diet, you have the potential to save thousands of other sentient beings over the course of the dog’s life.”

The Best Vegan Dog Foods

When searching for plant-based cuisine for your dog, add these five vegan brands to your list:

Halo Pets: Whether your pup prefers canned or dry food, you can find both with Halo’s Garden of Vegan line. It also sells treats in two vegan recipes.

Petcurean: The Gather Endless Valley Vegan Dry Kibble recipe features certified organic and non-GMO ingredients, peas being the main ingredient.

PetGuard:  There’s only one vegan option through this company, namely the Organic Vegan Entrée Formula. Available as wet food, it uses peas and quinoa for protein.

V-Dog: Long a leader in the vegan dog food world, V-Dog is owned and operated by a vegan family, and the line includes kibble, mini kibble, breathbones, and biscuits.

Wild Earth:  This brand’s kibble (and its vegan treats) is designed by a vegan veterinarian, and its first ingredient is dried yeast, which contains all of the essential amino acids dogs need.

For more expert advice, check out The Beet's Ask the Expert articles. 

More From The Beet