Grove Center Veterinary Hospital

9033 Gaither Road
Gaithersburg, MD 20877


Unconventional Diets



Vegetarian Diets



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 Some owners wish to feed vegetarian diets to their dogs and cats. Aside from the issues discussed above, in many cases people choose vegetarian diets due to ethical concerns. There are a number of commercial vegetarian diets available on the market but many people will make a homemade vegetarian diet.


There are major concerns over feeding a vegetarian diet to a cat. Cats are obligate carnivores (they must have meat) and vegetarian diets cannot meet feline requirements. One commercial vegan cat food states on the label that it is not complete and balanced for cats but this information may not be readily apparent to owners. Even commercial vegan cat foods that are intended to be complete and balanced may not be so. For example, one study that analyzed two commercial vegan diets showed that neither met the minimum nutrient amounts in the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Cat Food Nutrient Profiles and thus were not appropriate as a sole source of nutrition for cats.


Most feline vegetarian diets are homemade and many recommend the addition of a nutritional supplement intended to provide the nutrients missing in a vegetarian diet. Even with this supplement however, the nutritional adequacy of vegetarian diets has not been proven and is highly questionable.


Some authors will admit that a vegetarian diet is not ideal for cats but claim that dogs are easily able to adapt to a vegetarian diet. There are several commercial vegetarian diets on the market. The long-term nutritional adequacy of these diets for dogs is unclear. Other dog owners who wish to feed a vegetarian diet formulate a homemade diet for their dogs. This introduces the additional problems with homemade diets (see below). One survey study of homemade and commercial vegetarian diets for dogs and cats in Europe showed that nutritional problems were nearly universal with these diets.



Homemade Diets (cooked)


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Some owners elect to feed a homemade diet to their pets. Knowing the reasoning behind the desire to feed a homemade diet can be helpful in addressing the positive and negative properties of these diets. There are hundreds of recipes available for homemade diets.


These recipes may be empirically based on an owner's perception of a pet's nutritional requirements (i.e., a random combination of meat, grains, and vegetables) or may be obtained from books, magazine articles, or the Internet. In addition, some credentialed veterinary nutritionists will formulate nutritionally balanced homemade diets at the request of owners (see American College of Veterinary Nutrition).


While a nutritionally balanced homemade diet can be formulated, most of the recipes used by pet owners are unbalanced - some extremely so. Studies and the clinical experiences of veterinary nutritionists support the fact that most homemade diets, unless very carefully designed and executed, are nutritionally unbalanced. Some of these imbalances are severe enough that they could cause serious health problems when used long-term. The most common deficiencies are of calcium, zinc, iron, and other trace minerals but can vary widely between diets. Excesses also can occur but depend upon the type and amount of supplementation used.



                                                       Raw Meat Diets

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A variety of different types of raw meat diets are currently being fed to dogs and cats. The main three categories of raw food diets are as follows:


1. Commercially available "complete" raw meat diets: These diets are intended to be complete and balanced without the need for additional supplements. These diets typically are sold in a frozen form but sometimes are dehydrated.


2. Homemade complete raw meat diets: Many recipes for homemade raw meat diets are available in books, articles, and on the Internet. The most popular homemade raw food program is the Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet but there are many others, such as the Ultimate diet and the Volhard diet.


The BARF diet advocates a diet "consisting of 60% raw, meaty bones, "with the rest being made up of a wide variety of foods, based on the type and quantity of foods a wild dog would eat." Those other foods would include "lots of green vegetables (to mimic stomach contents of prey), some offal (liver, kidneys, etc.), meat, eggs, milk, brewer's yeast, yogurt, and small amounts of grains and legumes." The diet is expected to be balanced overall, but each meal is not balanced. For instance, the diet recommends feeding green leafy vegetable meals, starchy meals, grain and legume meals, meat meals, milk meals, offal meals, and food scrap meals during period of 2 to 3 weeks. A typical schedule could include 10 meals of bones combined with 4 meals of green leafy vegetables, 1 meal of starchy food, 1 meal of grains and legumes, 1 meal of meat alone, 2 meals of milk, and 1 or 2 meals of offal during the period of 2 to 3 weeks.


3. Combination diets: These consist of commercially available grain-and-supplement mixes. The grain mix is to be fed in combination with raw meat.

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Just like standard homemade diets, homemade raw meat diets are likely to have nutritional imbalances. One study showed a variety of nutritional problems, both deficiencies and excesses, in homemade raw diets based on various recipes. Even commercial complete or combination diets had nutritional imbalances that could put the pet at risk for health problems in the animals eating them, especially growing animals.


Additional potential problems with raw food diets (both homemade and commercial) relate to safety. The raw bones included in many of these diets carry risks and, while the actual incidence of complications resulting from ingestion of raw bones is currently unknown, there are reports of intestinal obstruction, gastrointestinal perforation, gastroenteritis, and fractured teeth that have occurred in animals consuming raw diets. Finally, uncooked meat carries with it the risk of bacterial contamination. Although proponents of the diets argue that dogs are more resistant to bacteria than are people, this has not proven to be true. Raw meat diets can also pose a risk to the pet owners making the diets, especially those that are very young, elderly, or immunosuppressed because of their potential for bacterial contamination (eg, Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7).



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 My goal is to ensure that owners make their decision based on facts, rather than inaccurate information. If owners decide to feed an unconventional diet, even after knowing the facts, it's also important they understand the potential risks and know what problems to look for. If owners wish to feed a homemade diet, I strongly recommend that it be cooked, that it contain meat, and that it is formulated by a credentialed nutritionist.


Qualifications for nutritionists are ill-defined so it is important to check credentials (Some board-certified veterinary nutritionists will formulate balanced homemade diets for referring veterinarians or directly to owners. see American College of Veterinary Nutrition).


Finally, if owners do elect to use a nutritionally balanced, cooked homemade diet, careful monitoring is necessary as subclinical deficiencies still can occur when used long-term.





Next Section: Top Ten Myths about Raw Meat Diets