How do veterinarians feel about meat-free diets?
Plant-based dog food is growing in popularity but remains controversial in the general public as many people believe that dogs’ nutritional requirements are carnivorous (rather than omnivorous) and therefore would not be able to remain healthy on a meat-free diet. The clinical veterinarian and veterinary nutritionist community is a bit of a different story. While they appreciate that dogs’ nutritional needs are omnivorous, they might have concerns that a meat-free diet is not nutritionally adequate or has not been formulated to be complete and balanced.
In this blog post, we will walk through some of the common concerns (and misconceptions) that exist in the veterinary community, and how our specific formulation addresses these issues head-on.
What is the main critique of plant-based diets from clinical veterinarians?
In our research, the primary critique of meat-free diets among the veterinary community is that they are harder to formulate to be complete and balanced, so the average plant-based diet brings some additional risk of nutritional deficiency in a largely unregulated pet food industry. That said, thousands of veterinarians - including veterinary nutrition academic centers - actively prescribe vegetarian diets for dogs with food allergies (which are most often due to chicken or beef), and prescription vegetarian diets are produced by science-driven companies like Royal Canin and Hill’s.
As with humans, using plant proteins requires more thought to ensure complete nutrition. However, dog food has the advantage of being an all-in-one, pre-planned nutrition solution and it is extremely feasible to formulate a complete and balanced nutrient permutation from the hundreds of viable plant-based nutrient sources. Petaluma’s amino acid profile is almost indistinguishable from premium meat-inclusive fresh foods like Just Food for Dogs.
What do veterinary nutrition experts think of plant-based diets?
The general view of veterinary nutrition experts (DACVN) is that meat-free diets can theoretically provide all the nutrients a dog needs to thrive - i.e. there are no essential nutrients that must come from animals (unlike cats) - but requires additional scrutiny and diligence to ensure that the food was properly designed to account for nutrients that may be in shorter supply in plant-based alternatives (e.g. methionine, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D).
Our formula naturally contains all essential amino acids, but we opted to further supplement methionine in our diet given veterinary nutritionists’ concerns around bioavailability broadly in the pet food industry. We also supplemented two non-essential amino acids, taurine and l-carnitine, as a precaution around DCM concerns on the recommendation of leading veterinary nutritionists. Our methionine, taurine, and l-carnitine supplements are synthetic and sourced from suppliers used across the American pet food industry.
Aren’t plant proteins less healthy than animal-derived proteins since they are not as digestible or bio-available?
Not necessarily. Plant protein digestibility is only an issue if the diet does not account for the lower nutrient absorption in plants. We tested the digestibility of our plant-based diet and showed higher protein digestibility (93%) than premium meat-inclusive kibble. We also account for the protein loss in our formula by significantly exceeding AAFCO nutrient minimums.
Optimizing a diet for overall digestibility (like some formulas specially tailored for digestive tract issues) would bring nutritional issues for most dogs, as regulating digestion with fiber content can provide improvements to gut function, heart health, and weight maintenance in dogs and humans. The largest nutritional issue in canine health is obesity - i.e. the over-provision and digestion of calories.
Has there been any academic research into plant-based diets for dogs?
There is a growing and significant evidence base of experimental, observational, and biological analysis that demonstrates that a properly formulated (AAFCO compliant) plant-based diet provides dogs with equivalent nutrition and health outcomes as a properly formulated meat-inclusive diet. The existing research has largely focused on searching for nutritional deficits rather than prospective benefits.
- Randomized experiments - including dogs participating in intense physical activity of sled racing - have shown no differences in blood health markers between dogs eating complete diets formulated with plant-based vs. meat-inclusive ingredients.
- Populations of dogs eating properly formulated plant-based diets have not developed measurable nutritional deficiencies or observable health deficits compared to dog populations eating traditional meat-inclusive diets.
Do plant-based / vegetarian diets come with an increased risk of diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)?
Diet-related DCM is very rare and the FDA’s recent DCM investigation has not yielded any conclusive links between certain ingredients and heart issues, including experiments with high pulse concentrations. That said, we designed Petaluma as a grain-inclusive formula, limited pulse content to <30% of total volume, and proactively supplemented nutrients (particularly methionine, taurine, and l-carnitine) with prior links to DCM in some dog populations.
Beyond meeting AAFCO requirements, what else do veterinary nutritionists need to convince them of the safety of alternative / meat-free diets?
There is broader concern among veterinary nutritionists that new dietary approaches and ingredient combinations may have subtle, long-term health consequences that are difficult to notice or study. We understand the conservatism around dietary approaches and will continue to invest in research to build the knowledge base around plant-based alternatives.
However, we believe the existing evidence around meat-free formulas and the long safety record of our ingredients - as well as the substantial environmental sustainability and animal welfare benefits of avoiding factory-farmed meat - justify the promotion of responsible plant-based diets. Some of the concerns about the lack of long-term data reflects a narrow view of global pet nutrition, as hundreds of thousands of dogs in countries like India have been eating vegetarian diets from major pet food brands for decades.
How has Petaluma formulated its diet to account for common concerns around vegetarian diets (i.e. not complete nutrition)?
Put simply, we worked with experts in the veterinary formulation and nutrition field to develop a diet that can safely (and deliciously) provide complete nutrition for dogs without animal protein.
Here is a summary of some of the steps we have taken in formulating Petaluma to address common concerns that veterinarians might have:
- AAFCO Compliant: Our diet meets 100% of the nutritional standards required by AAFCO to be considered a complete and balanced diet. Petaluma was developed by a veterinarian with decades of formulation experience. We share our full nutritional panel on our website so anyone can validate this as well.
- DACVN Reviewed: Petaluma consulted with veterinary nutrition experts, specifically Dr. Sarah Abood (Ph.D. in animal nutrition) and Dr. Rebecca Remillard (DACVN diplomat), to validate our nutritional profile. Our formulation process was led by Dr. Blake Hawley, who is not a board-certified nutritionist but led the development and testing of hundreds of pet food formulas at Hill’s Pet Nutrition over 20 years.
- Extra Supplementation: Our formula naturally contains all essential amino acids, but we opted to further supplement methionine in our diet given veterinary nutritionists’ concerns around bioavailability broadly in the pet food industry. We also supplemented two non-essential amino acids, taurine, and l-carnitine, as a precaution around DCM concerns on the recommendation of leading veterinary nutritionists. Our methionine, taurine, and l-carnitine supplements are synthetic and sourced from suppliers used across the American pet food industry.
- Digestibility Testing: We conduct digestibility studies of our products using a cutting-edge in vitro technique that has been validated against in vivo models to accurately assess the digestive system of a dog. Digestibility studies validate that dogs can absorb the nutrients - and particularly protein - in our food. We share our digestibility study results on our website or via this link. Plant proteins have been used in canine diets for nearly a century, but some folks express concern that plant protein sources are less digestible and therefore lower quality than animal-based proteins. Our latest study showed that our protein sources are 93% digestible, which was impressive compared with the lab’s average for animal protein digestibility in dry dog food of ~89% and meat meal ingredients often score below 85%.