Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Can dogs be vegetarian? Judging from the fact that in England more than 50,000 best man's friends are fed on the vegan product Happidog Supermeal, the answer should be 'yes'. Among them, are many dogs of celebrities.
Everyone knows that Paul and the late Linda McCartney's dogs were vegetarian. And what about the pop singer Howard Jones, who says: "I spoke to my vet before I put my dog Benny on a non-meat diet and we worked out his meals together. Benny was seven then, and he's certainly as fit as any other dog".
Script-writer Carla Lane, who dreamed up British TV's The Liver Birds, Solo, Butterflies and Bread, is another case. A vegetarian for 40 years, she said: "I've always had vegetarian wolfhounds. My previous wolfhound Egor lived on a vegetarian diet from the age of five onwards. The vet advised the diet after he had a haemorrhage and a stomach complaint. "Wolfhounds normally live for six to nine years, but Egor lived a very long and full life and was healthy right to the end. His eyesight and teeth were perfect. For two years he lived with a rather racy heartbeat, which is all the more reason why it was exceptional that he should have lasted. He loved being a vegetarian dog. He never showed any interest in bones at all".
Not everyone agrees, though. Desmond Morris, the animal behaviour expert, is opposed: "It's not only wrong; it's cruel and stupid too. Dogs are natural carnivores, and to deny them meat and substitute vegetables means that they lack a vital part of their diet". His opinion is shared by many.
Yet, to base the argument purely on the concept of "carnivore", both in the sense of belonging to this order of mammals and of meat eater, does not help because this concept, taken as an absolute barrier beyond which it's impossible to go, does not mean much. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, explains: "Although the word "carnivores" means meat eaters, the diet of these animals ranges from an exclusively meat-eating one to an almost totally vegetarian one. Some Ursidae (bears), Procyonidae (racoons) and Canidae (dogs) depend very much on vegetation, and the giant panda lives almost entirely on bamboo sprouts". For jackals, close relatives of our Fidos, fruits form an important part of their diet; coyotes, wolves and foxes consume great amounts of fruits and berries even in times of the year when it's not difficult to find something to eat, which indicates a genuine predilection for these foods.
The idea that domestic dogs are perfectly healthy on a vegetarian diet is now, anyway, the most commonly accepted by vets and pet experts. The RSPCA is fully in favour. Its chief veterinary officer agrees that it is quite possible to feed a dog on a vegetarian diet: "However, you do have to be careful to get the right balance of protein, vitamins and minerals. If you are proposing to turn a dog from a meat and biscuit diet to a vegetarian one, it is best to consult your own vet and to introduce the change gradually".
Neil Wolff, American vet and Chairman of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, says: "Dogs and cats on vegetarian (or close to vegetarian) diets often do better in terms of coat condition, kidneys, liver and heart. With geriatric animals we often supplement with additional vitamins, amino acids, anti-oxidants or herbs".
The UK Vegetarian Society has received so many requests of advice on dogs' menus, that it has published an information sheet on the subject. A typical day should be divided into two meals: breakfast (morning or midday) and dinner (afternoon or evening). For breakfast, dogs should be given wholegrain cereals (for example muesli) with milk, adding, if necessary and according to taste, honey or dried powdered yeast. For dinner, pulses like baked beans or cooked lentils, or textured vegetable protein, or nutmeat, or else, for lacto-vegetarians, eggs or cheese, adding to the whole lot raw or cooked vegetables. The guidelines remind owners that dogs need some hard foods to chew to exercise their gums and jaws: suitable for this purpose are raw whole carrots, cabbage stumps and apples, and hard wholemeal dog biscuits.
Dr. Alan Long, of the Vegetarian Society, warns: "You must know your dog and what he likes to eat and follow his liking. A dog does not have a vast stomach area for fibrous foods, so watch he doesn't get fat. Try him with vegetables, wholewheat bread or toast, and make sure he has oil in his diet for a shiny coat and keep him fit by giving him lots of walks. "It's easier to start a puppy off. At eight weeks old introduce sloppy baby foods, cereals, gruel and mixed savouries. You can then introduce eggs, milk and cheese, remembering a puppy needs more food in proportion to its weight than a dog".
There are cases in which a vegetarian diet is recommended by the vets themselves. Skin allergies and digestive problems are often caused by meat. The ingredients used in the preparation of some dog foods are slaughterhouse by-products unsuitable for human consumption, such as diseased or damaged parts of the slaughtered animal, chicken feathers, horse hair and other refuse. Recent research has shown that the consumption of great quantities of these impurities contribute to gastro-intestinal and allergic diseases. Some skin disorders, such as itch and loss of hair, have been effectively cured simply by improving the animal's nutrition. The American product Nature's Recipe, for instance, has been formulated just for dogs with skin disorders. It contains soya flour, rice flour, potatoes, carrots, salt, spices, with a number of vitamins and minerals added.