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Dogs on Diets: Gluten-Free, Raw Food-Only, and Vegan Pets

In a time when each of your friends seems to have their own dietary restrictions (and will happily tell you all about them), it was inevitable that vegan pets would enter the equation.

Those to jump on board the specialized diet train opt for labels like “gluten-free” or “vegan” either as a trend-inspired phase, or a complete and sustainable lifestyle change. Sometime in the past few years, the food trends and accompanying dietary restrictions have come to affect our beloved pets. This isn’t surprising: In everything from apparel and luxurious beds to fancy doggy daycare, we are investing in our pets like never before. Especially when vet bills can make a major dent in the credit card (but, of course, that’s secondary), we want our pets to live their healthiest life possible. Traditional dog food – filled with ground-up animal parts unfit for human consumption – has been blamed for a handful of illnesses in dogs (including cancer) that can result in repeat vet visits and premature death.

The clean eating trend – which promotes the importance of fresh and unprocessed foods – has hit the pet market with almost as much force as the microchip did, resulting in a huge surge in demand for more natural pet food. According to the Global Pet Food Market report, this spike is the result of a growing desire for grain-free and organic pet food products, with a new special (and often pricey) pet food brand entering the market on the regular (there are literally now countless options to chose from).

One diet fad, feeding pets raw meat, has been met with ample backlash despite its seemingly growing popularity. Experts and researchers warned of the dangers of feeding cats and dogs a raw meat-based diet earlier this year, claiming that such diets may be contaminated with parasites and bacteria, posing a serious risk to both animal and human health.

When it comes to the whole plant-based pet food trend, opinion is pretty divided. On their website, PETA highlights the case of Bramble, a border collie who enjoyed a vegan diet of rice, lentils, and organic veggies, who lived for a nearly record-breaking 27 years (an enticing story for anyone who has had to put down a pet). Aside from the health benefits to your pet, many vegans may opt for a vegan lifestyle for their dogs and cats for ethical reasons or to avoid contaminating a vegan household with animal-based products.

The general consensus among veterinarians seems to be that a vegan diet may be suitable for dogs (if done carefully), but rarely for cats. The Los Angeles Animal Shelter Board of Commissioners recently made headlines with a proposal to switch the dogs’ diet from meat-based to plant-based (how L.A., right?), a move that was met with backlash from the public and the city’s chief veterinarian. Studies have shown, however, that dogs don’t need meat to lead healthy lives, and can sustain themselves on a diet of plants and supplements. This can’t be done sloppily, however, and must be carefully designed. When it comes to cats – which are commonly labeled as carnivores – a vegan diet isn’t as accepted. Many vets highlight the canine reliance on animal sources for key nutrients like Vitamin A and B12 and taurine, which they can’t get from plants.

The gluten-free shift has also touched the pet food industry. Like humans, dogs can be allergic to gluten (with symptoms that include inflamed skin, bald patches, itchiness, scabs and sores, hot areas, and excessive hair loss), although it’s extremely rare. Unlike in people, celiac disease is uncommon in dogs, therefore, most dogs do not require a gluten free diet. An exception, according to PetMD, is the Irish Setter. Of course, there is a different between gluten-free and grain-free, the latter of which is an increasingly common thing in the dog food world.

Let’s be honest; there’s nothing particularly appealing about a sloppy and smelly can of traditional dog food, complete with the top layer of fat (it actually makes me nauseous to think about). So, if you have the extra dollars to drop, it may make sense to put your pet on a specialized diet, or at least opt for pet food that’s organic and from only one source of protein.

Alex Richmond

Alex Richmond is a social media and contributing writer at Notable Life.