The health benefits of a plant-based diet have hit the headlines in recent times, and vegan dog food has been in the spotlight.
Having read through the many ways that a vegan diet can be beneficial for canines, you might be wondering whether it could help your pooch too.
All dogs big and small can enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet – and you might be surprised to learn just how long vegan dog food has been around for. Although people are only just starting to talk about it in the media, discerning dog parents have been feeding their pets plant-based diets for decades.
Below we take a look at the long and established history of vegan dog food here in the UK.
Back to the 1970s
That’s not a typo – it really does say the 1970s. Although vegan dog food may feel like a recent creation, it’s been around in the UK for almost half a century.
Admittedly, in the 1970s vegan dog food wasn’t widespread in the UK. But there were vegan pioneers who were determined to give a plant-based diet to their four-legged friends.
Bramble, a border collie born in 1975, went on to become the poster dog for a vegan diet and the benefits that it can offer. Brought up entirely on a plant-based diet for dogs, Bramble lived till the age of 25 – which is the equivalent of 175 years in human years! Her lifespan was so impressive that Bramble earned a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
Bramble’s owner, Anne Heritage, is a life-long champion of veganism and animal rights and has raised several dogs in the same way, and each one has reached the ripe old age of 20.
At the time Bramble was around there were no vegan dog foods available in the mainstream so her owner fed her home-cooked, plant-based food instead. This consisted mainly of lentils, textured vegetable protein (TVP), vegetables, rice and yeast extract.
The 1980s – the Start and Rise of Commercially Produced Vegan Dog Food
Bramble and her owner had started to blaze a trail that would really begin to come alight in the 1980s with the development of the first commercially available vegan dog food.
Known originally as Happidog but later rebranding to V-dog was launched in 1980 by a former farmer who was unhappy with what he had seen working in agriculture and believed that it was possible to find a more ethical diet for dogs.
Interest in the idea steadily increased and by 1985, Happidog occupied a full page in the winter edition of The Vegan. The formula for their plant-based dog food included wheat, maize, barley, kibbled potato crisps, soya, and textured vegetable protein chunks.
By 1989, the brand felt confident enough to not just extol the virtues of a vegan diet, but also to highlight the problems associated with the origins of the meat used in traditional dog food.
Vegan dog food was still in its infancy, but Happidog proved that there was an interested market, and that a plant-based diet could be a viable commercial product.
The 2000s – the Research is Coming and the History of Vegan Dog Food Continues
From 2000 onwards, research started to build up which reliably showed that dogs were not just capable of surviving on a vegan diet, but that they could thrive on it.
A number of global studies were carried out which demonstrated that dogs are omnivores, not carnivores, and that a plant-based diet could offer genuine health benefits.
We’re going to look at some of these studies below.
2018 – the First Vet Recommended Vegan Diet
In 2018, another big milestone in the history of vegan dog food was achieved: the creation of the first vet-recommended vegan diet. Up until this point, vets had been cautiously accepting of vegan food for dogs, but few were willing to openly endorse a plant-based diet.
Vetruus, a vet-based dermatology company, broke the deadlock when they started selling Solo Vegetal in 2018. The product was originally created to help owners implement an exclusion diet for dogs with skin complaints. Around 40% of dogs react badly to hydrolysed animal protein so having a plant-based diet was an essential step to start identifying the culprits causing individual allergies.
What happened next came as a surprise to all, as Solo Vegetal rocketed in popularity among dogs who had no allergies or health problems. With the taste profile proving to be a big hit with the canine consumers, and owners delighted by the health of their pets, this vet-based vegan dog food has expanded its offering and is no longer considered to be a medical diet for pooches who are unwell.
Although vegan dog food was starting to rise with every passing year, it’s not been without its controversies. Persisting myths about what a dog “should” be eating and their digestive makeup have stuck around, despite being debunked repeatedly.
Two of the most common issues have been around grain-free diets, and the ability of dogs to metabolise starchy foods.
There’s nothing worse than seeing your furry pal in discomfort, whether it’s a poorly tummy, itchy skin or sore ears. In a bid to deal with allergies and intolerances, many pet owners have switched to grain-free diets in the belief that they will cure the problem.
Of course, with vegan food frequently including different types of grain, these “allergies” would seemingly rule out a switch to a plant-based diet – or does it?
No one can blame a pet owner for trying to do their best for their dog, and switching to a grain-free diet is often the first port of call. However, what not everyone realises is that dogs are more likely to be allergic to animal proteins than to grains.
A major study concluded that dogs are more likely to have an allergic reaction to animal proteins than any type of plant ingredients. The main allergens detected in dog food included chicken, beef and dairy. There were also problems identified with other animal proteins including fish, lamb, pork and eggs.
In contrast, only a tiny proportion showed any intolerances to corn or wheat. In addition, the small number of dogs that did show an allergic reaction to a grain typically only had a single allergy. In other words, only one type of grain provoked the reaction, leaving the dog able to eat all other types of grains without any problems.
Put simply, a grain-free diet doesn’t help most dogs, and in some cases, it may even be harmful if it relies too heavily on potatoes and legumes and isn’t properly balanced.
Proof! Dogs CAN Eat Starches
Properly digest starches. There is a big myth that dogs are nothing more than domesticated wolves and would be healthier eating the same type of diet.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
A 2013 study showed that dogs and wolves diverged thousands of years ago, and while wolves continue to be considered as carnivores, dogs have evolved to become omnivores. Mutations in the canine genes mean that dogs have the enzymes in the required amounts, such as amylase, to break down starches properly in their body and digest them. Just to put that into context, dogs are 28 times better than wolves at being able to digest starchy foods!
It’s not just the enzymes which are present, the gastrointestinal tract is markedly different from a wolf too. Dogs have a gastrointestinal volume of 25%, the same as other omnivores, including their human friends. Wolves, the carnivores, have a gastrointestinal volume of 15%, a significant difference within the digestive system.
Some biologists still believe that dogs should be classed as carnivores that are able to process and metabolise starches, while others believe wholeheartedly that dogs now fall within the omnivore range. Whichever label you want to use, it means the same thing: dogs are entirely able to digest starches and live very happily on a plant-based diet.
2020 – First “Big” Pet Food Company Produces a Vegan Brand
Although the number of vegan brands on the market had been increasing, it wasn’t until 2020 that the first of the so-called big firms jumped on board with the trend.
Lily’s Kitchen, one of the “big” pet food firms, owned by industry giant Nestle, released a vegan range. Their food isn’t as well-balanced as other types of plant-based dog foods and is aimed more towards a market that just wants to feed their canine a vegan diet occasionally, rather than those who are looking for a complete lifestyle change.
Even so, with one enormous brand recognising the value and potential of vegan food, there are genuine hopes that more companies will feel able to follow suit.
2021 Four Awesome New Brands Launch
2021 was an exciting time for the UK market, as four of the brands launched were made right here. Rather than importing vegan food from abroad, these four brands gave dog owners the chance to opt for more local food without compromising any of their high standards.
These new brands included Hownd, We Are DoGood, Noochy Poochy and Omni. The latter two are owned and created by vets, confirming once again that all the science points to a vegan diet benefitting canine health.
The Power of Crowdfunding
Although vegan dog food brands are gradually creeping into the mainstream, the wide variety of plant-based food for pets which is currently available is thanks to determined individuals.
Creating a pet food brand that’s plant-based, balanced and complete takes a lot of knowledge, research and expense – and that can be difficult to fund.
Such is the public’s passion for the new wave of dog food, that projects like DoGood who reached out via crowdfunding have been met with a phenomenal response. DoGood met its funding target within just a month, enabling them to go on to launch its vegan dog food brand and achieve success.
The Present Day: More Research, More Understanding
As we look to the future, the myths around vegan dog food are slowly disappearing as more and more pet owners realise the potential that plant-based foods offer. A number of studies have already taken place to dispel long-held beliefs which are inaccurate with research proving that dogs flourish, thrive and generally blossom when given vegan food.
Of course, more information is still yet to be discovered about the full extent of the benefits. Professor Andrew Knight has recently published another study, Vegan Versus Meat-Based Dog Food: Guardian Reported Indicators of Health this time looking at the impact of a vegan diet on health.
Keep watching this space for more news and research as the fascination with the power of plants continues…
And in the meantime, why not check out some of our other articles on vegan dog food or head over to our online shop for a browse?