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Are alternative diets good for dogs? 

Dog with alternative diet food in dog bowl in the kitchen

Vegetarian, macro, keto, Mediterranean—the choices of different alternative diets can seem endless for us. It seems a logical next step, then, to consider our best furry friend’s diet as well. The love we feel for our dogs is real. They are our companions and unwavering best friends, and we definitely see them as members of the family. Increasingly, people want to give their pets the same focused attention on wellness that they have for themselves. Often that means sharing the same alternative dietary choices with their dog.  

Many people feel that they want to move their dog away from commercially processed dog foods and give them a more natural diet. It’s not as simple as just trading in a bag of kibble for a new diet, however; it’s important to consider what nutrients your pet needs and the best way to give them the food that will keep them healthy and fueled up for whatever adventures lie ahead. 

There are a number of diets we can feed our animal companions, and it is important to check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s food. As with any dietary changes, introduce the new foods slowly to be sure there are no allergies or other digestive issues. 

Table of contents:

Dogs have different dietary needs

Even if we feel they share our likes and dislikes, we must remember that dogs are built differently from humans and have different nutritional needs. Certain foods such as garlic, onions, chocolate, grapes, and products that contain the sugar substitute xylitol are toxic for dogs, and even small amounts can be harmful.  

Dogs are omnivores (they eat meat and plants) and have evolved from their wolf ancestors to be able to digest starches and gain nutrition from plants. However, they have sharp teeth that are designed for tearing rather than flat molars for grinding. Dogs also have a much shorter digestive tract than humans. These two features mean they can gain the most nutrition from foods such as meat that can be easily broken down but are not as efficient getting nutrients from plants, which take a longer time to digest.  

Diets to choose from for your dog 

Obviously, we feed our dogs to ensure they are receiving the best nutrition possible. For that reason, it is important to know that your food is supplying a balance of essential nutrients or that you are correctly supplementing their food with any missing nutrients.  

Conventional diet 

While it is unspecified what exactly makes a diet ‘conventional’, the vast majority of people feed their dogs wet or dry commercially prepared food. These products are guaranteed to be nutritionally balanced and the USDA ensures that they, “…like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.” However, commercial dog foods do not contain human-grade ingredients, and they can also include artificial flavorings and dyes. 

The USDA does not mandate certain ingredients be included, and conventional diets are often scorned because they can include ingredients such as ‘meat by-products’, ‘meat digest’, and ‘chicken meal’, which are names that mean all parts of the animal might be included. They also can contain a lot of ‘filler’– empty carbohydrates and sugars.  

While there are certainly nutritional benefits to using a commercial dry or wet dog food, some people are eager to explore different diets for their pets. 

Fresh food 

A fresh food diet offers natural ingredients like proteins, fruits, and vegetables that are familiar from our own tables. These meals contain the same foods we eat without any unknown or unsavory ingredients. They can be purchased commercially or created at home. 

If you decide to prepare your pet’s meals at home, it is important that you consult with a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to ensure that your recipes will provide the needed calories and nutrients for your dog, taking into account their age, breed, activity level, and overall health. In 2013, researchers from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine found that only 9 of 200 dog food recipes they examined, even those written by veterinarians, conveyed the proper amount and number of essential nutrients for adult dogs as determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. The lead researcher on the study, assistant professor of clinical nutrition Jennifer Larsen noted, “It is extremely difficult for the average pet owner — or even veterinarians — to come up with balanced recipes to create appropriate meals that are safe for long-term use.” It might be necessary to supplement this food with the vitamins and minerals they are missing. 

Vegetarian/ vegan 

It becomes even more difficult to ensure your dog is getting all of the nutrients they need for a healthy life if you offer a vegetarian or vegan diet. While it is certainly possible to replace the nutrients derived from animal proteins with non-animal sources, it is extremely unlikely a home cook can adequately assess and meet their dog’s needs. There are some commercially available vegan and vegetarian dog foods, but read all labels carefully to be sure they are giving a nutritionally balanced meal, as most are from small boutique companies and their products might not have undergone rigorous testing. With diligent research, it has been shown that dogs can get a balanced, healthy diet from non-meat sources.  

Raw food 

Proponents of a raw food diet see it as a step further than feeding your dog fresh foods, and they see it as the natural food dogs should be eating.  In 1993, the Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst coined the term BARF diet – bones and raw food, or biologically appropriate raw food, saying it was closer to the food dogs’ early wolf ancestors hunted and ate. A raw food diet can be commercially sold or created at home and usually consists of raw organ and muscle meat, bones, raw eggs, fruits and vegetables, and dairy such as yogurt.  

Despite its ‘back to nature’ appeal, veterinarians and the FDA do not recommend that people feed their pets a raw diet. There is a risk of nutritional deficiency if your dog doesn’t like one element or if the meal isn’t made correctly. There is a danger of choking on splintering bones that can cause broken teeth or constipation. There is also a potential for contamination from parasites and harmful bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and listeria from eating or handling raw foods, which can be dangerous for pets and their people, particularly the very old, very young and those with immune deficiencies.  

A caution about grain-free/gluten-free diets

The gluten free market has exploded for people, with numerous products on the shelves and in restaurants being labeled gluten free. In addition to people with celiac disease (an autoimmune disease that harms the small intestine), a number of people give up gluten because it seems like a healthy choice. Following that line of thought, many people think dogs would also benefit from a grain-free diet.  

Unless your dog is one of the very few who have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, there is no evidence that adopting a grain-free diet will give them any health benefits. Many grain-free dog foods substitute legumes such as peas and tapioca or potatoes, which have less nutritional value than corn and wheat for other protein sources. 

In 2018, after seeing a nation-wide rise in dogs with heart disease, the FDA published a report possibly linking dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs to a grain free diet. DCM is a condition where the dog’s heart muscle is weakened and the heart becomes enlarged, which can lead to congestive heart failure. In the 1990’s a rise in cat DCM had been linked to low taurine (an essential amino acid) levels in food without the proper amount of protein, which led researchers to consider if that is the current case for dogs. In 2018, Dr. Lisa Freeman from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine noted that this increase in dogs with DCM can be linked to those that are fed what they refer to as a BEG diet (boutique, exotic ingredients, grain-free), but further research is necessary to identify the cause of this problem. 

The bottom line

While diet fads will always continue to come and go, the most important aspect to consider is that our animal companions are getting the balanced nutrition they need in every meal. As much as we like to think they are furry versions of our best selves, it is important to remember that they have different needs and digestive habits than we do and require their own specific diets. Consulting with your veterinarian and carefully reading labels will help ensure that you are making the best choices for your pet.