Dogs have been the ultimate animal companion to humans for thousands of years. Dogs are said to be the first animal domesticated by humans, well before cows, goats, or sheep. Anthropologists argue that dogs were used by early hunter-gatherers, with the divergence of “dogs” from “wolves” thought to occur sometime around 35,000 years ago. The divergence is said not to be entirely from the hand of humans, but interactions between humans and a dog-like species could very well have happened at this time. This is certainly the difficulty with modern science – though genome sequencing can say one thing, it is really up to the interpretation of scientists as to what actually happened in the past.
Regardless if humans and dogs started out as friends or foes this far back in history, dogs have certainly maintained their presence as a companion species into the present day. But our current relationship with dogs is very different from years past. Dogs in the United States today are rarely kept primarily for hunting or herding purposes anymore. They have become part of the human family. Today dogs often live indoors, have their own dog birthdays, and even their own dog marriages.
The evolution of this relationship has been written about by many scholars – and I’ve always been personally fascinated by our strong connections to dogs. There are interesting historical moments between humans and dogs that do not exist with other animals. Dogs were given certain rights before many humans, for example, in legal arenas focused on criminalizing abuse. In 1874, the first court case filed in the U.S. to approach a situation of child abuse had to go through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York, with the organization formed eight years earlier. Dogs have been dubbed war heroes. Specially trained dogs are given rights to access many different public spaces, and K9 dogs can even receive the same social and legal treatment as humans with the same occupation. As a result, care for dogs has become increasingly specialized. And feeding dogs today has not only become a nutritional concern of veterinary medicine. For some feeding is a political act in itself. Such expressions between dogs and humans through the acts of feeding and eating have created new possibilities for dog identities – and I don’t mean breeds! I’m talking about vegan and vegetarian dogs.
Our long, intimate relationship with dogs (as I’ve noted above) makes a phenomenon like dog veganism less surprising. But just because dogs can be vegan, does this mean they should be? You may be surprised, but the answers to this question are very similar to those generated if you would replace “dogs” with “humans.” But in addition to the obvious political expressions through pets, the purpose of this post is to point out that there are some biological realities at work in this movement.
I’m going to use my own dog-companion as an example here. Meet Chewy. Chewy is not a vegan dog, and I don’t think he ever could be if we tried. Chewy is a grain-free dog. This was a dietary decision my husband and I did not choose ,and it is certainly not a call for political action on our part when we feed Chewy his grain-free food. Chewy is actually allergic to grain, or at the very least the binding agents added to the mix for many grain-based foods. We’re familiar with the physical results of an accidental grain-fed mishap. His ears and belly become bright red. He gets excessively itchy, and if it is really bad Chewy whines with discomfort. How is it that Chewy became allergic to grain? I liken it to allergies expressed in humans – it is really hit or miss with the reasoning behind the biological expression. Chewy was a rescue, and there very well could be hereditary reasons why he has bad reactions to grain. But as with many humans with allergies, we can never know for sure.
Some overly-expressive dog moms have told me that grain-based dog food is less “natural” for dogs. I am often rewarded with the informal “dog-mom seal of approval” because of my dog food investments. The same “natural” argument is often used to dismiss the vegan dog diet as well, with many of these same human-companions noting that dogs are more “carnivorous” than anything else. But humans have been feedings dogs a number of different things over their centuries of interactions. Barley meal mixed with whey was said to have been the ideal meal for a dog in the Roman Empire. Cooked beans were also recommended during this time period and centuries later by agriculturalists and later veterinarians. In The Complete Farrier, an 1816 guidebook written by British veterinary surgeon Richard Lawrence, it was warned numerous times not to feed dogs raw meat. Rather, meat was to be cooked, placed in a broth and poured over bread crumbs or biscuits for dogs. It was also recommended that dogs only eat once per day as “he digests his food very slowly,” particularly when eating anything meat-based (429). These are certainly different diets from those shared with dogs in the 21st century, but does this mean their more “natural”? More “healthy”? Or even less healthy with our pups?
Considering this long and varied history of feeding dogs that spans at least 1500 years, the idea of a “natural” dog food is hard to distill. Perhaps a dog paleo diet would be sufficient for some dog parents as the “most natural” diet for their pets, but it comes with the exact same reasoning as to why paleo would be more “natural” for humans. Because dogs evolved with humans, they are able to eat similar foods to humans; or at the very least adapt with them. And this is what makes vegan dogs that much more interesting. Looking into veganism for dogs a bit more, it is admitted by all veterinarians that dogs are able to survive off a vegan-friendly diet. Now, there is still a lot of debate as to whether “surviving” and “thriving” is the same thing when it comes to feeding dogs with such a specialty diet. But if I were to define Chewy’s diet using the terms and expectations laid out from the Roman Empire – he may not be considered “thriving” either. And my husband and I wouldn’t consider a grain diet in any form “thriving” for Chewy, given his adverse physical reactions to it.
Many dog parents are finding the “vegan solution” after realizing similar allergic reactions in their dogs to certain kinds of dairy and meat. In 2011, CNN coverage of vegan dogs rested on the story of a woman discovering the vegan option when her veterinarian recommended it to pinpoint a specific allergy in her pet. So did dogs develop allergies in the same way humans have through our constant interaction? Perhaps, but both the biological reactions seen in dogs and increased importance politically in dietary decision-making for humans has certainly affected the dog food market. There are at least seven vegan dog food brands available in the United States, and I don’t think allergies were the only consumer push for this reality.
The politics of eating (or in this case feeding) resonates with me more powerfully, though, every time I buy Chewy’s food. Most of the grain-free options we find in the pet store come with other kinds of political baggage listed on the label: it is also GMO-free, cage-free, free range and “biologically appropriate.” Dog food labels are just as politicized (and confusing) as human food labels. I can’t help but wonder if fellow dog moms assume I possess a certain food politic when buying my Acana brand food, or if they recognize the biological limitations of my pet that prohibit me from buying a cheaper but still valid dog food. For some dog parents, the biological reactions and political action may certainly go hand-in-hand. But they don’t for me. And I don’t feel Chewy needs to reflect my personal political, economic, religious, or social beliefs for me. But for many people their dog has become so much part of their family that it is ideal if their dogs match their political efforts, if not required. This is not a phenomenon to attack, but one that needs more attention, more study. It is yet another example of the disruptions made between natural and cultural divides, and while it includes its fair share of anthropomorphism it is complicated with the biological realities of shared “becomings” – a result of our evolution with other animals.
**Featured image is from the V-Dog website, a vegan dog food company. The company advertises that their food considers not only the health of dogs, but the health of the planet – with a mission to “minimize global depletion.”