- When considering this question, we need to look for evidence from history to the present day.
- Dogs evolved from wolves between 14,000 – 40,000 years ago and are now omnivores.
- Genetic research underpins this, and current studies demonstrate that dogs can thrive on a purely plant-based diet.
- Dogs need specific nutrients, not specific ingredients, and highly-processed pet food is actually more of a health concern than the ingredients from which our dogs gets their protein.
- With a lack of options on the market many people turn to home cooking, but many find it difficult to ensure every meal is nutritionally complete and adequately balanced.
- Fresh, nutritionally complete and balanced plant-based food allows our dogs to thrive and will contribute towards animal welfare and a sustainable future for our planet.
How did our domesticated dogs evolve?
We call dogs our “best friends” but DNA evidence now demonstrates that there is truth behind this phrase - it turns out they are indeed our oldest companions, having been domesticated before any other species. It is believed this happened between 14,000 - 40,000 years ago, back when humans were still hunter-gatherers. Bold or inquisitive wolves likely ventured into human campfires or settlements, sniffing around for food. Over time they were tamed and served humans as hunting companions or guards.
Since then, dogs have been by our sides as we settled down as arable farmers around 6,000 years ago, and subsequently evolved into the humans of today – during this time, our canine companions have evolved along with us. With an approximate generation time of 2 years, dogs have spent between 10,000 – 20,000 generations living and eating with humans: primarily scavenging and picking up whatever scraps they could get their paws on. Naturally, this diet would involve hardly any meat content and would have introduced dogs to grains and cooked foods. Early dogs that evolved more efficient starch digestion had an advantage, and so were far more likely to survive and pass these genes down to the next generation.
Over many thousands of generations eating human food, dogs have thus evolved considerably from their wolf ancestors to become omnivores, who can thrive on a purely plant-based diet like us humans.
Our domesticated dogs today are almost unrecognisable from their wolf ancestors
What’s the genetic evidence for dogs thriving on plants?
Several genetic studies underpin this evolutionary theory. One of the most important involves AMY2B, a gene responsible for amylase production in the pancreas. Amylase is an enzyme that breaks starches down into glucose in the intestines, which fuels cells. On average, the AMY2B gene is 28 times more active in domestic dogs than in wolves.
Another study subsequently demonstrated that this selection for the increased AMY2B gene started 7,000 years ago at the latest, about the time that humans settled down as farmers - allowing dogs to thrive on a starch rich diet within early farming societies. This further suggests a bio-cultural co-evolution of dog genes and human culture.
Additionally there are four key differences between dogs and wolves in the gene MGAM, which codes for maltase - another enzyme important in starch digestion. One of these differences causes dogs to produce longer versions of maltase. That longer protein is also seen in herbivores, such as cows and rabbits, and omnivores, such as mouse lemurs and rats, but not in other mammals, suggesting length is important to plant-eaters. These differences make the dog maltase more efficient for digestion of plant-based food than is possible for wolves.
Now we know the history, we can share this with advocates of a raw meat ‘ancestral’ diet which is actually in direct opposition with current scientific thinking. Based on the evidence, the ancestral diet would actually have included more carbs, hardly any meat, and would have been at least partially cooked.
Why do many people still think that dogs are carnivores?
It’s an easy mistake to make because although dogs are actually omnivores, confusingly they are from the order Carnivora. The order Carnivora contains many other omnivorous species such as bears & racoons; it also contains pandas - which are herbivores!
A couple of other indicators of dog’s omnivorous traits are that their small intestine makes up 25% of their total gastrointestinal volume, which is consistent to that of omnivores; they also have molars with relatively flat surfaces, enabling them to grind fibrous plant material.
A panda, from the order Carnivora but actually a herbivore with a diet entirely composed of plants
Because dogs are omnivores, this means they can thrive on any diet that gives them adequate levels of the nutrients they require: vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, etc. Dogs - along with all species - require specific nutrients rather than specific ingredients in their diet. There’s no physiological difference between whether those nutrients come from plant or animal sources. In fact, deriving your protein from plant-based sources can come with a host of other health-protecting benefits and none of the negatives associated with raw or processed meat.
While many point to dog’s instincts for hunting to demonstrate carnivorous tendencies, this is understandable given that their ancestors would have eaten intermittently and so would need to scavenge on high value foods when they can, which would have included animal flesh. This does not mean that such foods are optimally healthy. Natural instincts can help dogs to survive moment to moment, whereas now we have the understanding of nutrition to allow our dogs to thrive on plant-based diets.
Are there any current studies demonstrating that dogs can thrive on a plant-based diet?
Indeed there are many studies published showing that dogs thrive on a plant-based diet – and more that are due for release in the coming years as we found during a sneak preview in our interview with Professor Andrew Knight.
Perhaps the most comprehensive was an article published in the international peer-reviewed journal, Animals, which evaluated evidence from four published studies examining the nutritional adequacy of plant-based diets for cats and dogs. It concluded that both dogs and cats can not only survive, but thrive on plant-based diets, providing these are “nutritionally complete and reasonably balanced”.
There are very few dogs that have greater energy needs than Siberian sprint-racing huskies, who are placed under huge physical demands – running fast through snow, while hauling sleds, for 30 miles at a time! A 2009 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition compared huskies who were fed a commercial meat diet with those fed a plant-based diet formulated to the same nutrient specifications for 16 weeks, including 10 weeks of competitive racing. The study found that there was no difference in performance or blood counts between either set of dogs, and the consulting veterinarian assessed all dogs to be in excellent physical condition at every stage of the study period.
Sprint-racing huskies have been shown to do well on a plant-based diet
Indeed, plant-based diets have been shown to be optimal for pet health. In 1994 a PETA survey of meat-free dog diets showed that there appeared to be a distinct advantage to being a vegan or vegetarian for a larger percentage of a dog’s life. Surveying 300 pet parents, it concluded that the longer a dog remains on a vegetarian or vegan diet, the greater the likelihood of overall good to excellent health and the less likely he or she is to get cancer, infections, hypothyroidism, or suffer from obesity.
Further research conducted in 2019 which involved blood chemistry analysis and physical examinations of vegan dogs clearly indicated that a vegan diet can be healthy and adequate for dogs, and in some cases, even improve overall health. Additional data collected from 250 dog owners feeding a plant-based diet strongly supported this conclusion.
Alongside all of the scientific studies supporting plant-based nutrition for dogs, a plant-based border collie from the UK named Bramble also held the Guinness World Record for being the oldest living dog at the time. Bramble was fed an entirely vegan diet for her whole life, consisting of rice, lentils and organic vegetables. She lived to the extremely impressive age of 25 - that’s 189 in dog years! Her owner reported that right until the end of her life she was “alert and active and goes for a walk four times a day”.
Bramble, the UK vegan dog with a Guinness World Record
Recent studies even show that cats, who are considered obligate carnivores rather than omnivorous like dogs, can thrive on a plant-based diet.
And while there’s not a single credible study that suggests that dogs living on nutritionally complete vegan pet food suffer any problems, there are more than 10 studies showing that pets fed meat-based diets go on to develop health conditions.
How do I ensure I feed a complete and balanced plant-based diet to my dog?
With clear evidence that dogs can thrive on plants, and additional advantages from an ethical and environmental perspective, you might be wondering how best to incorporate this into your dog’s diet.
Mass-produced kibble and canned food is manufactured under extreme temperatures and pressures, with key nutrients destroyed in the process, leading many people to home cook for their dogs. The main consideration here is to ensure that the meals are nutritionally complete and adequately balanced in order for them to thrive.
Home cooked meals must include adequate supplementation to ensure that dogs are receiving optimal levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates and fibre – not to mention amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and omega 3’s – to ensure best possible health. A lack of specialist knowledge, along with time constraints of the average person, mean that this is often overlooked or impractical.
DoGood's range of plant-based recipes have been formulated with qualified canine nutritionists to ensure that every meals is nutritionally complete and balanced, whilst taking the time and hassle out of home cooking. The meals are prepared by chefs in a commercial kitchen, rather than processed mechanically at a factory, using the optimal cooking method to ensure that vitamins are retained, not destroyed.
Domesticated dogs are able to experience the benefits of our understanding of nutrition, and no longer have to face many of the perils of the wild including the risk of attack, disease and exhaustion compounded by an infrequent and sub-optimal diet. Our dogs can eat balanced and healthy meals regularly so that they not only survive but can also now thrive on a plant-based diet, likely enjoying a much longer and happier life than they would have in the wild.
With a host of issues from feeding dog’s meat-based food and highly processed kibbles, to the complexity of home-cooking, it’s clear that the healthy future our pups deserve is in fresh plant-based food.
You can check out our nutritionally complete and balanced plant-based meals for your pup here.