Study: One-third of pet owners would consider having their pets go vegan

If you’re a confirmed carnivore, how would you feel if your pet went vegan?

A new study finds that one-quarter of pet owners who identify as vegans feed their dog or cat a vegan diet, while more than one-third of all dog and cat owners (which includes a lot more meat-eaters than vegans) are interested in plant-based diets for their pets.

The study was published in the science journal PLOS ONE in January.

The researchers write that when vegans share their homes with animal companions, a “moral dilemma may arise” when they’re faced with the prospect of feeding animal products to their omnivorous dogs and carnivorous cats.

Since the number of pet owners who avoid animal products in either their own or their pet’s diet is unknown, the researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, decided to try get an estimate by conducting an online survey of 3,673 dog and cat owners from all over the world.

Of the respondents, 6% identified as vegan, and of the those who did, 27% also fed their pets a vegan diet.

Lead author Sarah Dodd, DVSc, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Population Medicine, said, “27% might sound like a small number, but when you think of the actual number of pets involved, that’s huge, and much higher than we expected.”

That number accounts for 1.6% of the 2,940 dogs in the survey and 0.7% of the 1,545 cats. When you add the number of animals who were fed vegan meals occasionally, the total jumps to 10.4% of dogs and 3.3% of cats.

And while only vegans and one vegetarian among the respondents feed their pets strict vegan diets, the survey found that a full 35% of owners who fed traditional diets to their pets were interested in switching to a vegan one. Of those, 45% expressed interest in having more information demonstrating that plant-based diets were nutritionally sound.

NEWStat reached out to corresponding author Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, PhD, DECVCN, assistant professor of clinical studies at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, to get some perspective on the numbers.

NEWStat: 35% of respondents who fed their pets conventional diets expressed interest in switching to an untraditional one such as plant-free or vegan. That number surprisingly high.

Adronie Verbrugghe: This number doesn’t necessarily mean that 35% of [pet owners] who currently feed a conventional diet would want or are particularly interested in feeding a plant-based diet, just that they’d consider doing so if there were one available to them [that] met all of their requirements (i.e., nutritionally complete and balanced, easily accessible, and affordable).

NEWStatWhat advice would you give to veterinarians who have clients come them for advice on switching to a vegan diet?

AV: The best advice regarding clients with interest in any sort of unconventional or alternative (e.g., plant-based or vegan) diet is to ask them why they want to feed [their pet] that particular diet. Not only can this reveal important concepts that can be discussed, but [it] also allows the client to express their personal feelings or philosophy, which can build rapport between them and their veterinarian if their veterinarian acknowledges and takes their concerns seriously.

It cannot be overemphasized how important it is for the client to understand and feel that their veterinarian is working with them for the benefit of their pet’s health and wellbeing. Listen to the client’s perspective, and if the solution for them is to feed a plant-based diet, discuss the possibilities with them and advise them on the requirement for more frequent monitoring to ensure that their pet’s health is not compromised.

NEWStat: What if the client is already feeding their pet a vegan or otherwise unconventional diet?

AV: For any client feeding an unconventional diet, we recommend more frequent veterinary visits (i.e., twice instead of once yearly for an adult pet wellness visit, and more frequently for animals with any health condition) with comprehensive examinations include urine and blood analyses at each visit.

NEWStat: Why do you recommend more frequent visits for these pets?

AV: Since there’s very little research regarding the long-term effects of these diets, our best option is to monitor these patients closely and consider them to be higher risk than pets fed standard, conventional diets.

NEWStat: How does your research play into recent reports in the US that link grain-free diets to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs?

AV: The association between grain-free diets and DCM in dogs . . . is still very poorly described. There are a few potential leads, and nutrients of key concern have been identified, yet the exact causal mechanism is unclear. Just as there are likely thousands to millions of animals who have been fed grain-free diets and did not develop DCM, there are likely thousands of animals who have been fed plant-based diets and have not developed DCM. Thus, the true risk really is unknown.

NEWStat: Until more is known about that causal mechanism, what’s a reasonable course of action for concerned pet owners considering plant-based diets for their pets?

AV: At present, it’s safest to consider plant-based diets to also be a potential risk factor for DCM and monitor pets accordingly.

Photo credit: © iStock/damedeeso

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