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Research: Plant-Based Food for Dogs

UPDATED - January 2024

NOTE: Important research update: 'Dogs healthy after one year of plant-based diets' and studies finds NO link to DCM re grain-free foods'. (See details and links below.)

Some suggest that a plant-based/vegan diet is extreme for dogs - even though dogs are actually considered non-obligate carnivores or omnivores like people. Yet, chew on this - globally, pets consume about 20% of the world's meat and fish. Whaat?! In the UK alone, that equals 3M tonnes of fish used in manufacturing that country's pet food.

In the USA alone, as much as a quarter of the environmental impacts of meat production are tied to pet food, according to UCLA Geographer, Gregory Okin. Okin estimates that our four-legged best friends' consumption contributes to an estimated 64 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each and every year. That's equivalent to 13 million cars!

Now, assuming you would agree - these facts are extreme.

Want to know more?

Are our pets gobbling up the planet?

Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats

The research and reasons that support this evolutionary change

There's no way to sugarcoat this: Our dog's environmental impact begins with the billions of pounds of meat they eat and extract every year. This enormous issue is completely unsustainable and is causing danger to our lives, our planet, and the (unnecessary) death of billions of factory-farmed animals. It's time for action. Real action.

Simply put, the life-changing solutions for your dog's health, our health, and our planet's health lay in an evolution to a global plant-based diet.

So, we have to ask...just as we had to ask ourselves, what is keeping you from switching to a plant-based diet for your dog? Do you need more reassurance or research? We hope this information will help.

Plants-Based Foods: Can dogs really digest them?

Continuing with the topic of evolution, our dog's digestion has evolved. We focused on key studies to find out the answer to that persistent question that pops up frequently. First, researcher Erik Axelsson and his colleagues at Sweden's Uppsala University discovered that dogs can have anywhere from four to 30 copies of the AMY2B gene, which allows them to digest starchy (plant-based) foods. Incredible, since the animal-based dog food industry has convinced us since it's inception (especially raw diet advocates) that the dogs we share our homes with are descendants of wolves and they must eat meat to flourish. These studies show that typically wolves only have two copies. But, according to paleontological data, the duplication of this gene in dogs dates back at least 5,000 to 7,000 years.

These findings indicate that dogs adapted to relatively starch-rich diets early in their domestication, making a plant-based diet perfectly suitable.

Want to know more?

Parallels in Dog and Human Evolution: How Agriculture Changed the Dog's Diet

Digestion: Can dogs digest starches and grains?

While we enjoy meals that include potatoes, corn, rice, barley, and wheat, it has been believed that these starches and grains cause digestive problems in dogs. This thinking harkens to the long-held belief that dogs need meat to survive, and it is a mantra that meat-producing agricultural companies have been pushing through their pet-food partners for decades. But is it true?

In actuality, over 20 years ago in 1999, a study published by Murray et al, looked at the digestibility of corn, barley, potato, rice, sorghum, and wheat in dogs. What they found was that the digestibility for all was greater than 99%! Subsequently, a study by Carciofi discovered similar results for rice, corn, sorghum, cassava, brewer's rice, peas, and lentils. The study confirmed starch digestibility to be greater than 98%. Just the facts.

As recently as 2017, researcher Cargo-Froom compared the digestibility of minerals in dogs on meat-based diets versus dogs on plant-based diets. Their results concluded that digestibility of endogenous minerals is similar or greater in dogs fed diets that are based largely on vegetables.

Based on the experience of long-time professionals in canine nutrition this is not new information:

"However, dogs are in fact generally believed to be omnivores and are more correctly labeled as opportunistic feeders. In other words, they can and do consume and receive nourishment from a variety of foods of both animal and vegetable origin.
In relation to the dog's nutrition and/or nutrient requirements, the dog generally has the same essential nutrients as do other domestic animals including man.
Therefore, it is entirely possible to formulate a diet or feed for a dog of primarily or exclusively vegetable origin feedstuffs that could satisfy all the known essential nutrient requirements for the dog as defined by the National Research Council. "
– John Hilton: Canadian Vet J Volume 28, No. August 1987 (!)
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Study Shows Plant-Based Dog Foods Excellent for Nutrient Absorption

"...the most frequently reported food allergens were associated with beef at a whopping 34%."

Allergies & Sensitivities: Is a Vegan Diet Helpful?

A study by researcher Mueller in 2016 analyzed food allergies, including food intolerances and hypersensitivities, using a population of 297 dogs and discovered the most frequently reported food allergens were associated with beef at a whopping 34%. Beef was followed by dairy at 17%, chicken at 15%, wheat at 13%, and lamb at 5%. These findings indicate that most of the top food allergens for dogs are animal-based and that plant-based diets may provide relief for dogs with food allergies and sensitivities.

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Study Shows Meat & Dairy are Most Common Allergens in Dogs

Bloodwork: What Does it Say about Dogs on a Vegan Diet?

In 2009, a research team led by Brown studied sprint-racing huskies that were fed over 16-weeks (including 10-weeks of competitive racing), a nutritionally complete meatless diet. Subsequent blood tests found that the huskies' red blood cell counts and hemoglobin values were within the normal range throughout the study. The consulting veterinarian determined all participating dogs were in excellent physical condition - completely not a surprise to us at Virchew.

In a 2014 study, researcher Semp of Vienna Veterinary University undertook a study that hypothesized that dogs fed a complete vegan diet would exhibit deficiencies in iron and B12. However, her conclusions completely contradicted her hypothesis! She found no significant deviations in levels from dogs fed a conventional meat-based diet and concluded that nutritionally complete plant-based diets could assure a healthy lifestyle in dogs. This is what we all want to know as advocates of plant diets for dogs.

Want to know more?

Study Finds Sprint Racing Huskies Excel on Vegan Diet

Study Shows Normal Blood Tests in Vegan Pets

Can Dogs Really THRIVE on Vegan Diets?

UK veterinarian Dr. Andrew Knight analyzed four previous studies that assessed the nutritional soundness of plant-based diets for dogs. Based on a growing body of population studies, his data, and case reports surrounding this topic, Knight concluded that dogs could thrive on vegetarian diets, given that they are nutritionally complete, and balanced, and may even experience a range of health benefits.

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Veterinarian Publishes Study on Vegan Dogs

Study Finds Significant Health Improvements in Dogs Fed a Vegan Diet

November 2022: Research is from the UK where a vegan kibble study showed promising results.

It was found that 100 dog guardians feeding UK-based Omni vegan dog food for three – 12 months participated in an online Likert Scale-type survey assessing their dog’s health status in a variety of areas.

After feeding Omni vegan dog food for 3 – 12 months, the guardians reported statistically significant improvements in their dogs’ health in a variety of areas, including:

  • Activity level

  • Fecal consistency

  • Frequency of defecation

  • Frequency of passing gas

  • Antisocial smell of flatulence (i.e., stinky farts )

  • Coat glossiness

  • Dandruff

  • Skin redness

  • Itchiness

  • Crusting of the external ear canals

  • Anxiety

  • Aggressive behavior

Want to know more?

Study Finds Significant Health Improvements in Dogs Fed a Vegan Diet 

Reported Health Benefits of a Vegan Dog Food – A Likert Scale-Type Survey of 100 Guardians

Owner perception of health of North American dogs fed meat- or plant-based diets

December 2022: Study: Owner perception of health of North American dogs fed meat- or plant-based diets

This study surveyed owner perceptions of health and wellbeing of dogs and compared between those fed meat-based and plant-based diets.

Highlights of this very detailed survey study:

• Dog owners report no adverse health outcomes attributable to being fed a plant-based diet.

• Fewer ocular or gastrointestinal and hepatic disorders reported in dogs fed plant-based diets.

• Longevity of dogs reported to be longer in dogs fed plant-based.

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Study: Owner perception of health of North American dogs fed meat- or plant-based diets

Dogs healthy after one year of plant-based diets

March 9, 2023: Scientists conducted an experiment on how plant-based diets affect dogs’ health. For one year, researchers at the Western University of Health Sciences, in Pomona, California, USA, observed a group of dogs after the pets transitioned from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one. The 15 dogs in the study lived in households in Los Angeles county, California.

“In this study, we confirm that clinically healthy adult dogs maintain health when fed a nutritionally complete, commercially available, plant-based diet with pea protein as a main ingredient over a twelve-month period,” the scientists wrote in the journal BioRxiv. “To our knowledge, this is the longest and most comprehensive study of K9PBN [canine plant-based nutrition] to date". 

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Study: Dogs healthy after one year of plant-based diets

FDA’s DCM probe starts with a roar, ends with a whimper

January 2023: A four-year investigation into any role grain-free pet food might play in cases of dilated cardiomyopathy seems to have ended in a rather quiet, inauspicious way. What's worse, it possible it was caused due to a battle in industry market share and it's possible it has caused the same damage that it was falsely done to the humble soybean. 

Part of Virchew's mission is to educate with care, wisdom and compassion. This means we have committed to never be an echo chamber for flashy or potentially false headlines. We've been around too long and have seen it all in the field of nutritional research. We know if a headline or 'study' seems fishy or 'completely out of left field' or overpromising, we do not repeat it. We are especially suspicious if it involves potential industry conflict. We want to learn and understand, first. Therefore, until there is enough evidence to warrant a public response, we do not repeat these headlines. It was not an easy task to stay in integrity to our professional bias, but it was worth it to wait for the outcomes.

Now that this DCM issue is slowly dismantling and the publications/leaders that we trust are sharing their reports. We are now sharing the updates. To say, "We're not surprised by the outcomes", is an understatement. We have a resource file that we have compiled over the years. Let us know by email to if you want a copy sent to you. 

Let's start with the Petfood Industry DCM News Update:

"It’s a classic PR tactic: releasing less-than-positive news on a Friday in hopes it will go unnoticed leading into the weekend. In the case of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement that it is ending updates on its dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)/grain-free pet food investigation “unless there is meaningful new scientific information to share,” the news came out the Friday before Christmas, effectively burying it over the long holiday weekend and season.

So, what began more than four years ago as a major FDA alert is now ending (sort of?) in a rather quiet, inauspicious way. The sad conclusion is that, after multiple FDA reports, countless articles, billions of dollars spent in response and research, or lost in sales, and sky-high levels of confusion and anxiety among everyone—pet owners, veterinarians, retailers, pet food brands—there is really no closure."

Did the FDA investigation ever find anything?

First, the facts from FDA, as reported by my colleague, Tim Wall:

“FDA received far fewer reports of DCM cases from 2020 to 2022 compared to the preceding two years. In total, FDA received 1,382 reports of DCM from Jan. 1, 2014, to Nov. 1, 2022. However, most of those case reports clustered around the dates of FDA announcements about its investigation of correlations among grain-free dog foods and DCM.

“FDA stated it had insufficient data to establish causality among DCM case reports and pet food products eaten by afflicted dogs.”

This is all information that various people and entities within the pet food industry have been pointing out since FDA’s initial announcement in July 2018; yet that bold announcement spread far and wide, setting off a chain of events that is likely still not completely over, despite the December 23, 2022, disclosure of no further updates."

The links below are excellent resources to read a wide variety of opinions and research.

Want to know more?

FDA’s DCM probe starts with a roar, ends with a whimper

FDA ends DCM updates; No causality data with dog foods

FDA ends investigation Potential Link between Certain Diets and DCM

How canine heart disease was tied to grain-free dog food

The (Dis)connection between Grain-Free Foods and DCM

DCM and grain-free pet foods: 3 strikes and you’re out!

New Study Demonstrates that Pea Starch in a Complete and Balanced Diet Does Not Affect Cardiac Function (DCM)

May 2023: Pulses are an attractive alternative protein source for all mammals; however, recent reports suggest that these ingredients may be related to developing dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs.

(NOTE: Once again, these reports were found to have possible industry-related, conflict of interest and the inquiry was recently closed by the FDA due to lack of research or evidence.)

The primary objective of the study was to quantify the effects of dietary pulse intake by adult dogs on cardiac function using echocardiographic measurements and cardiac biomarkers N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide and cardiac troponin I (cTnI). Second, to investigate the effects of pulse consumption on plasma sulfur amino acid (SAA) concentrations as pulses are generally low in SAA and may limit taurine synthesis. Last, to assess the general safety and efficacy of feeding pulse-containing diets on canine body composition and hematological and biochemical indices.

Results: After 20 wks of feeding, there were no differences (P > 0.05) in echocardiographic parameters, N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide, and cTnI concentrations among treatments or across time within treatment (P > 0.05), indicating no differences in cardiac function among treatments. Concentrations of cTnI remained below the safe upper limit of 0.2 ng/mL for all dogs. Plasma SAA status, body composition, and hematological and biochemical indices were similar among treatments and over time (P > 0.05).

Conclusions: The results from this study suggest that increasing the inclusion of pulses up to 45% with the removal of grains and equal micronutrient supplementation does not impact cardiac function concurrent with dilated cardiomyopathy, body composition, or SAA status and is safe for healthy adult dogs to consume when fed for 20 wks.

Industry Conflict of Interest? Excerpts from second link below: Four years later, the FDA has found no firm link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy. Nor has it rejected such a link, and research is ongoing. Publicity surrounding this issue, nevertheless, has shrunk the once-promising market for grain-free dog foods

Furthermore, a tangled web of industry funding and interests appears to have influenced the origin, data collection, and course of the FDA study, according to internal FDA records.

A six-month investigation by 100Reporters has found that veterinarians who prompted the FDA to consider diet have financial and other ties to the leading sellers of grain-inclusive pet foods. Additionally, agency records show that for the initial study, some vets were instructed to submit only dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) cases that implicated grain-free, “exotic” or “boutique” pet foods. Suppliers of ingredients used in grain-free dog foods have also exerted pressure on the FDA to protect their market.

..."Regardless of the investigation’s ultimate findings, sales of grain-free dry dog foods have fallen since June 2018 and decreased by $60 million from 2021 to 2022. Meanwhile, grain-inclusive sales spiked in 2019 and rose by $700 million from 2020 to 2021.

Getting an answer about DCM will be difficult thanks to the complexity of the science and industry influence, said Marion Nestle, author of Pet Food Politics. ["They’re all trying to protect their market share"]."

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The Pulse of it

How canine heart disease was tied to grain-free dog food

From our real life, real customers perspective (for almost 3 years in some cases) we have witnessed and received dozens of testimonials reflecting the same healthy results. The most significant results we are seeing are in skin health (incl. ears and paws), digestive and stool health, pancreatitis relief (or completely halted), and senior energy/mobility.

In Summary (however watch this evolving space as we add to it)

Although we all want more research for our dog's health, especially using sustainable, hypoallergenic, plant-based ingredients, the reasons go far beyond what we see in their dinner bowl each day. Their foods, like our food choices, can make a significant difference for their health, lifespan, our precious planet, and for the countless lives of other animals that are produced as a commodity.

Here's the thing: plant-based foods for dogs boast therapeutic, hypoallergenic and life-changing benefits that are not only good for our dogs, they are good for our earth, and good for our hearts. If plants hold the solutions to support all of this, why are we not feeding all dogs these powerful foods?

It's time to evolve to compassion over commodity. We hold the power to make a massive change through small daily and dietary changes.

Will you and your dog be part of that evolutionary change?


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We also ask ONE question that many seem to avoid >

Does your doggo want a free sample of Virchew? (Available only in Canada at this time!) Fetch it here.

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