THURSDAY, April 14, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Dogs may be famous meat lovers, but canines who follow a vegan diet might be a bit healthier, a new survey suggests.
British and Australian researchers found that dogs on vegan diets (one without animal products or byproducts) tended to have fewer health problems, based on their guardians' reports, than those who ate "conventional" meat-based products. Owners in the vegan group reported lower rates of obesity, digestive troubles, arthritis and issues with eye and ear health.
Overall, 70% rated their vegan canine companion as "healthy," versus 55% of owners whose dogs ate conventional dog food.
Those numbers, however, do not prove vegan diets are healthier for dogs, according to veterinary nutritionists who reviewed the findings.
"This is really a study of owners' perceptions," said Dr. Julie Churchill, a professor of veterinary nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
It's very likely, Churchill noted, that "pet parents" who give their dogs a vegan diet are themselves vegan. That complicates the survey results for a number of reasons.
Because those individuals believe veganism is the healthiest diet choice, they may see their dogs as healthier. Beyond that, Churchill said, vegan humans probably have generally healthier lifestyles -- including more physical activity for themselves and their dogs.
In general, evidence is lacking that vegan dog foods actually help dogs live longer, healthier lives, said Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, a professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Like Churchill, he said the current findings may reflect the perceptions and lifestyles of the humans surveyed, rather than effects of their dogs' diets.
Those caveats made, both veterinarians said it's possible for dogs to get the nutrition they need on a vegan diet. What's critical, they said, is that dogs eat high-quality commercial products that are formulated to meet their nutrient requirements.
Dogs do need a lot of protein, Churchill said, and that's easier to achieve with meat sources. Vegan diets need to be more carefully crafted to meet that goal. If you want to use vegan commercial products, she advised talking to your veterinarian about your dog's nutritional needs, and which products will meet them.
Of course, Churchill said, it's always wise to consult your vet about dog food products, vegan or meat-based. The market is full of them, she noted, but they are not all equal in quality.
The current study, funded by the food awareness organization ProVeg International, included more than 2,500 dog owners. Most, 54%, said they fed their dog conventional meat-based diets. One-third reported using raw meat diets, and 13% vegan diets.
Respondents generally used commercial pet foods, rather than homemade, according to lead researcher Andrew Knight, a veterinary professor of animal welfare at the University of Winchester Center for Animal Welfare in the United Kingdom.
Overall, half of respondents in the conventional-diet group said their dog had some type of health issue, versus 43% of those who used raw meat, and 36% in the vegan group.
Dogs eating raw meat made fewer visits to the vet. But that does not necessarily mean they were healthier, all three veterinarians stressed.
Vets generally warn against giving dogs raw meat, because of the risk of contamination with pathogens. So people in that raw-meat group may have tended to shun veterinarians' advice, the experts said.
According to Knight, a growing number of companies are making high-quality vegan dog food products.
"We have sufficient confidence, scientifically, that dogs can be healthy -- and indeed, thrive -- on nutritionally sound vegan diets," he said.
Churchill cautioned, though, that she would not recommend vegan diets for still-growing puppies or pregnant dogs, whose nutritional needs are greater. Plant-based diets, she noted, are less digestible because of the fiber content.
Again, Churchill said, it all comes back to talking to your vet about what products are right for your dog, and understanding that will change based on life stage.
Talking about portion size is a good idea, too.
"Dogs gorge, by nature," Churchill said, and when they are constantly "seeking" food, that can be misread as true hunger.
Obesity is one of the top canine health issues. While there are multiple reasons, Churchill said, overeating and lack of exercise are prime contributors.
The study was published April 13 in the journal PLOS ONE .
The American Kennel Club has more on dog nutrition.
SOURCES: Andrew Knight, MANZCVS, PhD, veterinary professor of animal welfare, University of Winchester Center for Animal Welfare, Winchester, U.K.; Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, professor, veterinary clinical sciences, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, St. Paul; Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, professor, Department of Clinical Sciences, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, N.Y.; PLOS ONE, April 13, 2022, online