Could your dog go vegan?
We have a dog called Cyrus. He’s a magnificent hound. A big hulk of soft, huggable, gentle kindliness, all Labrador and fox red to boot. He’s a family dog, he sleeps in our bedroom, he drags us out for walks, each time yelping and barking in the hall like it’s the first time he’s ever been out. He’s very good natured, and out and about he walks to heel.
In the shooting field, Cyrus stands patiently beside me at the peg. He fetches pheasants and partridges, grouse and duck. He is a beast of boundless, joyful energy. And he loves meat. Officially he dines just once a day, being fed after lunch, just after ours. We feel that gives him energy for the rest of the day and enables him to digest and do whatever business he might need before bedtime.
Practically it also serves a purpose as Cyrus gets some scrapings from our lunches. So along with his dried biscuits and a tin of ‘wet’ food he might get a topping of mackerel skins, some bits of sausage left by the children or the cold ends of last Sunday’s roast lamb or beef that have lost their appeal.
So as our lunch ends, his excitement starts and begins to build. Cyrus identifies the person whose task it is to fix his lunch and follows them around. That means almost hugging one’s legs as he shadows you. Make a quick turn and you’ll trip over him. If some hot water lands in his mix he’ll sit, impatiently, drooling, staring at the bowl as it rests out of reach.
Then he gets served beside the huge cushion that is his basket. I place the food in front of him, say ‘wait’, as he drools and salivates to an almost revolting extent. Keep him waiting more than two seconds and he’ll start shaking. Then I give him the nod and he leaps in. He attacks the bowl, eating, crunching, licking until there’s nothing left. Then he does that thing so many of his ilk do. He looks up, then looks around to see if any biscuits have been dropped in the vicinity. Then he returns in the almost deranged hope that miraculously, while he was away for those three seconds, more food has materialised in his bowl.
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So that’s his feeding time. Apart from breakfast, when he hoovers up leftover cereal from the children and chancing his luck at other meal times. How can I, for example, deny him the little joy of a morsel of beef cut at Sunday lunch from a magnificent joint?
He loves meat. It’s the way he is. Or is it? Earth-shattering, absurdist word reaches us that we and he have been wrong all along. A report from the University of Winchester (that’s right, the posh Hampshire city has a public school, a big Waitrose and a university) says that a vegan diet can help your pet live longer.
So the plant-based food craze that has terrorised the restaurant world, supermarkets and, er, me now has its sights set on Fido; and specifically Cyrus. The university’s Centre of Animal Welfare conducted a study in which 2,639 dogs and their owners had their diets (the dogs, that is) analysed over the course of a year as they were fed either conventional meat, raw meat or a vegan diet.
And according to Andrew Knight, professor of animal welfare and ethics and founder of the centre, dogs on vegan diets came out the best.
“Pooled evidence to date from our study and others in this field indicates that the healthiest and least harmful dietary choice for dogs among conventional, raw meat and vegan diets, is a nutritionally-sound vegan diet,” he said. Cue much harrumphing in the dog-loving world and in our house a raised eyebrow from me to Cyrus and a definite whimper from him.
OK so I may have imagined that last bit, but really? Is no corner of this traditional patch of ground called England sacred? Must the food fads of Lewis Hamilton, of Joaquin Phoenix and yes, of course, of Miley Cyrus (no relation, but it would indeed be an honour – for her) be visited upon our hounds?
For Cyrus isn’t just a meat eater, he’s a meat chaser. He’ll chase a pheasant on the run – on instruction from me only, of course – while some of his friends, my sister’s Dachshund Bertie, for example, will launch after our hens, his appetite having gone to his head. Bertie also chases sheep, his taste seemingly rather larger than his stomach or practicalities might otherwise imply.
And Cyrus loves a bone from the butcher. When we lived in Northamptonshire Cyrus could detect when the butcher’s van, Mr Mumford’s, arrived at the top of the village. His huge Tuesday bone was the highlight of his week and not even I, his loving master, would dare approach him as he devoured it.
But according to Knight, vegan diets for dogs are being developed to deal with exactly the same concerns that exist in the world of human food production: the over-consumption of processed foods and the apparent related carbon impact. Or what Knight calls the “environmental pawprint”.
As I ponder on trying out some plant-based nosh on our lab, I put in a call to the man who trained Cyrus, four years ago, Paul Daly of Canine Coaching in Northampton. “I don’t like the idea,” he says. “Dogs are meat eaters, bred over the centuries from the ultimate carnivore, the predator. I would want Cyrus to always have meat as part of his diet. If you put a cauliflower and a piece of meat in front of him I know what he’d go for. It’s his natural instinct and what he needs as a big dog.”
So down from Birmingham comes co-founder of vegan dog food brand Omni, 30-year-old Shiv Sivakumar. Is he brandishing cauliflowers? No. He’s got bags of biscuits produced at a factory in Wales and made, he says, in consultation with nutritionists and compliant with the dog food regulator FEDIAF.
“The science is categorical,” he insists. “Research shows dogs don’t need meat at all. Our dog food has more protein than conventional foods and is made up of soy, potatoes, peas, yeast, sweet potatoes, cranberries, blueberries and carrot flakes.” He argues that vegan diets for dogs can help to reduce cancers and obesity and adds that the lifetime consumption of conventional dog food for a medium size dog “has twice the impact of an SUV”.
Meanwhile a call to Telegraph vet Pete Wedderburn of petfix.com offers caution. “The food must be nutritionally complete and analysed to confirm the presence of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibres,” he says, “It also needs to have undergone trials for a sustained period of time. And it must be palatable.”
Speaking of which: it’s after lunch, Cyrus is famished and we have a crucial experiment to try. I fill his bowl with Omni. I ask him to wait. He drools then on cue scoffs the lot and asks, in his inimitable way, if he can please have some more.
“He loved it!” I announce to my wife. “Yes, darling,” she replies. “As you know, Cyrus will eat anything…”
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