Maybe you’ve got the classic image of a dog scarfing down a steak in your head — I know it’s one that I think of when I ponder canines and their favourite meals. But for some of our furry friends, meat is actually a problem and a fish- or vegetable-based diet can be a better option.
“Many dogs have allergies to one or more kinds of meat protein,” says holistic veterinarian Dr. Ihor Basko, a holistic vet based in Kapaa, Hawaii. The symptoms of a sensitivity to meat-based protein include itchy skin, fur loss, chewing and licking of paws, chronic ear infections, hives, vomiting and diarrhea.
These allergies sometimes result from years of eating a low-quality food with meat protein, he said; other dogs might have trouble with meat protein because of issues like hypothyroidism. Dr. Paul McCutchehon, a Toronto-based vet, says that other possible causes for difficulty digestion meat protein include pancreatic issues, gastrointestinal injuries, genetic defects and dysbiosis, a lack of the bacteria needed for proper digestion.
“While I work with the owners to determine what protein their dogs are allergic to, I often put the dog on a modified vegetarian diet,” Basko says. Meat protein sources can then be added back into the diet one by one in order to determine what works and what doesn’t.
“Explore many different protein sources,” advises McCutcheon. “Try a wide variety of meats, eggs etc. Dogs are carnivores – it is very unique if they are unable to handle meat in one form or other. Be sure that meat is really the problem.” McCutcheon, author of The New Holistic Way for Dogs and Cats, advises using your vet as a resource for solving the problem while also doing your own research to find a personalized approach to tackling the problem. (Note: cats are obligatory carnivores, with a different digestive system than dogs, and should not be on a vegetarian diet.)
My friend Allan’s two-year-old Boston Terrier Lainey started eating a vegetarian diet a year ago when she showed signs of trouble digesting meat, including stomach issues and diarrhea. There wasn’t a specific condition causing the issues for Lainey, he says, just a general sensitivity to meat-based protein. He uses a pre-prepared food made by Nutro, Nature’s Choice.
“I talked to the vet and she recommended changing from a chicken-based food to a fish-based food,” he says. “That helped, but once I switched to an oatmeal-based food, her stomach problems went away pretty much overnight.”
Dr. Basko advises sticking with a vegetarian diet as a temporary measure if possible, until you find a meat-based protein that your dog can digest without trouble. “Some owners would like to feed only vegetarian meals because of their own ethics, but large dogs in particular will need to have meat as a primary protein source or they will develop cardiomyopathy, skeletal abnormalities, and muscle atrophy,” he cautions. “Smaller dogs adapt better to mostly vegetarian diets because they have lower protein and fat requirements.”
That said, in very rare cases a dog can develop an allergy to all sources of meat protein, Basko says – in such a circumstance, supplements like carnitine and taurine from diverse sources would be included along with a vegetarian diet. For senior dogs, it’s important to feed food and supplements that won’t overly stress the kidneys. Dr. Basko’s book Fresh Food & Ancient Wisdom: Preparing Healthy & Balanced Meals for Your Dogs features a chapter on canine vegetarian diets, including recipes.
Even if your dog doesn’t eat a vegetarian diet exclusively, adding some vegetables to meat-based foods can still have positive health effects, Basko said, especially as your dog ages.
If your dog has issues with food sensitivity, McCutcheon and Basko both suggest giving homemade food a try. “Since most people who feed their dogs a vegetarian diet are already dealing with animals with food sensitivities, it is important to ensure that the ingredients used are free of chemicals and pesticides, and do not contain other potential allergens,” Basko advises. “The only way to really be certain of the quality of the ingredients in your dog’s diet is to buy them yourself and prepare the food at home.”
For more on feeding your dog a vegetarian or vegan diet check out Sarah’s post on the topic.
Photo by Maureen Lunn