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Knowing I’m a skeptical dog-owner who doesn’t eat meat, a few people sent me a link to a recent news story saying that Los Angeles dog shelters are considering a proposal to switch their dog food to an entirely vegan program. I’ve seen mostly shock and outrage expressed by other skeptics, which is strange because that’s not actually a skeptical take that is supported by the science.
Okay, it’s not strange if you know that skeptics are humans and humans are prone to being easily tricked, even if they think they’re above being easily tricked.
First of all, let’s get this out of the way off the bat: this proposal is probably not going to get anywhere, seeing as the city’s veterinarian is against it and it would require a lot of work to overcome some obvious and objectively real obstacles like cost. The city currently has a contract with a dog food company and getting a vegan substitute from them would cost a great deal more. While other companies may offer a cheaper alternative, that would require research and new contracts and come on, have you seen the way local governments operate?
Setting cost aside, the main arguments I see from people revolve around whether or not a vegan diet is actually a cruel thing to offer a dog, since dogs are carnivores. So let’s deal with that. To start, dogs are not carnivores. They may belong to the order carnivora (along with cats) but that doesn’t mean they’re carnivores. After all, pandas are also a part of that order and the last time I checked, bamboo doesn’t have a face. Domesticated dogs are omnivores, because as humans domesticated them we fed them our table scraps, encouraging dogs to evolve pancreases that are almost as good as our own when it comes to processing carbs.
Of course, there’s more to a good vegan diet than just being able to break down carbs — it has to have the right percentage of protein and fat, too, plus all the vitamins and nutrients a dog (or person) needs to live a happy and fulfilling life. The good news is that there have been many studies on the health effects of feeding your dog a vegan diet, and every one that I can find says that vegan and vegetarian dogs are absolutely 100% as healthy as their meat-eating brothers and sisters. Seriously, I can’t find a damning study that says vegan diets are bad for dogs.
So why does LA’s chief veterinarian say it’s no good? Well, for a start, it’s scary and new. There are thousands of dogs in their care and they currently have a food that is apparently working well for all of them. Switching to something new is bound to cause issues, even on an individual basis. I once decided to switch a cat to an expensive “all natural” food because I thought it would be better for her and my god, the farts. The farts!
The city needs to consider what food is best to feed a huge variety of dogs, including sick, pregnant, or newborn dogs. Based on the science, I have no doubt that all those dogs could be safely fed a vegan or vegetarian diet, but can it be done by staff who are already overworked, underfunded, and possibly overly skeptical of something that sounds like it goes against common wisdom? I’m not sure.
So no, I’m not outraged by the proposal. I actually think it’s an intriguing idea, since switching shelter dogs to a vegan diet could actually make a pretty positive impact on carbon levels and on factory farm conditions. And personally I’m glad it came up because I did so much research that now I’m considering a vegan or vegetarian diet for my own dog. Unless it causes bad farts. I’m all about helping the environment but not at the expense of smelling dog farts all day.