Guest post by Kristen Oelschlagel Pet owners want what’s best for their four-legged companion. Like many, I sometimes treat my dog more like a person than an animal—feeding her human food (mostly Timbits and cheese), talking to her like she understands, and giving her an unnecessary amount of toys and accessories. But how far is too far? One new trend, where pets and their owners share the same vegetarian or vegan diet, may actually be harmful to the animal’s health. I spoke with Adronie Verbrugghe, an assistant professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, about the impact of vegetarian and vegan diets on dogs and cats. Verbrugghe is the Royal Canin Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition and has her PhD in veterinary nutrition. DOGS AND CATS ON HUMAN DIETS Having a dog or cat on a vegetarian, vegan or even gluten-free diet is not necessarily better for them than a store-bought food diet. In fact, it’s quite possible that they won’t be getting all the nutrients needed to stay happy and healthy. Verbrugghe says that while there are some complete, balanced vegetarian diets on the market for dogs, cats, on the other hand, are strict carnivores. She adds that vegan diets are not recommended for either cats or dogs, due to a reliance on soy protein. “I cannot say there are any benefits to putting your cat or dog on one of these diets—there hasn’t been any research looking at the benefits, and nutritional deficiencies may occur.” Gluten-free diets are popular today and Verbrugghe says she gets lots of people asking about a gluten-free diet for their pet as well. “Gluten allergies are very rare in pets. It’s more of a marketing thing than something that is necessary for dog or cat health.” WHAT TO WATCH FOR If you do have your dog or cat on a special diet, here are a few things to watch for that could signal that your pet isn’t getting the necessary nutrients: 1. Dry, scaly, brittle skin, a dull coat and lack of hair growth, even months after the animal has been shaved, could mean an essential fatty acids deficiency. 2. Osteoporosis (in the cheek it looks like the bone is disappearing), loose teeth and a jaw that feels like rubber could mean a calcium deficiency. These symptoms often present in dogs that have been on an unbalanced diet for a long time. 3. Neurological problems, blindness and cardiomyopathy (diseases that affect he heart muscles) could signal a Taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid that is essential in a cat’s diet, but since their bodies cannot make this nutrient it has to be taken in through their food. Most commercial cat foods are supplemented with Taurine. MEAL OPTIONS One of the biggest mistakes pet owners make, myself included, is to choose food for their pet the same way they choose food for themselves. When it comes to dogs and cats, the nutritional content (protein, fats, vitamins, minerals) is more important than the ingredients. You don’t want your pet getting too much or too little of any nutrient. “In Canada, we have the Canadian Pet Food Association,” says Verbrugghe. “All of the companies that are part of the association follow the AAFCO (American Association of Food Control Officials) guidelines. Usually on the back of the pet food, it will say whether or not the food is in accordance with those regulations.” Along with the guaranteed nutritional analysis, it will also say which pet life-stage the food is meant for (puppy, adult, gestational, maintenance). So if you have a healthy senior dog, buying dog food that follows AFFCO’s nutrient guidelines for maintenance will ensure they’re getting the right amount nutrients they need. If you want to make your own pet food, Verbrugghe recommends consulting a professional who can help you formulate a specific recipe for your pet’s needs. “It’s important not to just go with whatever you find on the Internet or in books, because many diets are formulated by people who don’t have the credentials to do so.” You can get a nutrition consultation done at the Ontario Veterinary College, find a local veterinary nutritionist or visit petdiets.com or balanceit.com (both websites are owned by certified veterinary nutritionists). Verbrugghe says that if you’re going with homemade pet food, add a nutritional supplement to make sure the meal is complete and balanced—and consult a professional to get the right supplement for your fur baby.