Every year in the U.S., our 180 million dogs and cats eat about 25% of all animal-derived calories consumed. Since the livestock industry is a top contributor to climate warming gas and water waste, the environmental toll from pet food is enormous.
It's also largely unnecessary, as some in Los Angeles are beginning to realize.
The Los Angeles Animal Services Board heard a proposal last month to switch dogs at city shelters to plant-based food, and has since voted unanimously to study the feasibility of the idea. Commenters on social media immediately proclaimed, often in all caps, that "dogs need meat," but science is not on their side. Dr. George Fahey, head of the animal and nutritional sciences laboratories at the University of Illinois, has stated that a daily ration of corn and soybeans provides all the vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and carbohydrates a dog needs.
Two high-end plant-based dog foods under consideration are V-Dog and Halo. They don't include corn or soy but are certified by the Assn. of American Feed and Control Officials as nutritionally complete for dogs. As explained by Dr. Armaiti May, one of three veterinarians who testified in favor of the proposal, dogs have nutritional requirements, not ingredient requirements.
The Canidai line currently on offer in shelters has "chicken meal" as its first ingredient. Animal meal is made from rendered body parts not considered fit for human consumption, such as brains, hooves, snouts and genitals. It's fundamental to the slaughter industry business model and a good protein source for cats. Obligate carnivores, cats need taurine, an amino acid unavailable in plants.
Dogs do not need rendered animal meal or "grain-free" food to replace it. Grain-free is a great marketing tool, but dogs have evolved over the millennia with humans and the gene crucial for starch digestion is 28 times more active in dogs than in their wolf ancestors. As much as your poodle might look like a wolf, he isn't one.
In the initial report, shelter administrators said one reason to stick with animal-based food is that a switch to plant-based would lead to an increase in feces — and therefore in sanitation work for employees. Constipation is indeed cleaner. But as Dr. May informed hearing attendees, "A bulky stool is a healthy stool."
My dog, Winky Smalls, came home from the Best Friends NKLA shelter on grain-free food that included sweet potato and duck. Best Friends currently has an example of the latter ingredient, a duck named Mighty, up for adoption at its Utah shelter.
Winky had been plagued with recurring ear infections, which disappeared permanently after I phased the meat-based food out of his diet. Dr. Jean Greek of Santa Barbara's Animal Dermatology and Allergy Clinic, who treated Winky, told me she has had success managing many canine allergies with plant-based diets and that her own dogs eat plant-based food. While the board commissioner who put forward the proposal referred to it as "cost neutral" — Halo and V-Dog have offered to match Canidae's price — if we take veterinary treatment into account, it may be cost-beneficial.
Speaking of money: For cost-conscious adopters, Natural Balance Vegan Dog Food is priced similarly to the Canidae fed at shelters. Winky is thriving on it as did his predecessor, Paula Pitbull, who lived to be 17.
Testimony at the hearing in favor of the proposal was compelling. But as it defies every dog care norm and is bound to face backlash, I'm all for the due diligence of a full study. A law pushed through quickly can be just as quickly reversed by those who feel blindsided by it.
Some shelter somewhere will make the switch soon and others will follow suit when they see it work. Why shouldn't L.A. go first? Animal lovers are increasingly adopting rather than shopping for dogs, and are likely to maintain the shelter diet. The plan could therefore significantly reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry while being good for our beloved pets.
Karen Dawn is the director of the nonprofit DawnWatch and author of "Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals."