Bramble Heritage, of Somerset, England, lived to the age of 175. According to her biographer, at the time of her death she was recognized by Guinness World Records as “the world’s oldest bitch.” Bramble, to clarify, was a dog—a collie. The average collie life span (in human years) is 14; Bramble outlasted that estimate by over a decade. The secret to her longevity? Her human caretaker, Anne Heritage, credits Bramble’s vegan diet. For 25 years, Bramble dined on brown rice, lentils, textured vegetable protein, herbs, and yeast extract.
Since her death in the early aughts, more and more pets have followed in Bramble’s pawprints. Their humans are almost always, like Anne Heritage, vegans themselves. Unlike Heritage, they have an industry that’s sprung up to support them. Heritage made Bramble’s meals at home; these days, dog owners have their pick of vegan dog food: Wild Earth, V-dog, Natural Balance, Nature’s Recipe, Evolution, Halo. It’s not just dogs. From cats and ferrets to birds and snakes, traditionally meat-eating animals of every stripe are being made to go vegan, too.
For their owners, Bramble is proof of their rightness, a folk hero of the movement, invoked whenever they’re accused of mistreating their canine (and otherwise) companions. This happens, as you might imagine, quite a lot. For every Bramble, there’s a story of a vegan kitty wasting away on a diet of rice milk, potatoes, and pasta. When the ethos of eating meets the pathos of puppies, so many tears flow. What there’s considerably less of, though, is science.
Vets will often recommend meat-free diets for dogs and cats with digestive issues, but beyond that, it's unclear how healthy—or unhealthy—veganism is for animals. “There really isn’t a lot of research on this,” says Sarah Dodd, a veterinarian who studies plant-based pet diets. The majority of commercial vegan pet foods don’t meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials' (low) minimum standards for being labeled as nutritionally adequate.
Dodd knows how confusing this can be for the generally well meaning pet-owning public, beset as it’s lately been by pet-care fake news. “I joined a lot of groups about pet nutrition and could spend all day, every day, correcting the misinformation,” she says. “Being a Facebook vet is a full-time job.” And no, she adds, by way of example: Coconut oil and turmeric won’t fix your dog’s broken leg.
The trend of food-conscious humans extending their morality to animals who don’t know the difference seems to date back to the early 2000s, when dog- and cat-care bloggers began raising concerns about feeding pets conventional kibble, often citing the research of a Belgian pet acupuncturist who found that dogs fed processed food didn’t live as long as those fed homemade diets. Indeed, pet food has been found to sometimes contain contaminants, such as trace amounts of heavy metals. Flocking to social media, such as the Facebook groups Dodd mentioned, pet owners debate such things as whether premium pet food is healthier (it’s not) and whether carbs are OK for cats (debatable).
But vegan-pet parents aren’t simply concerned about feeding their animals gluten-free organic. They’re often environmentalists, and producing food for meat-eating pets accounts for between 25 and 30 percent of the environmental impacts associated with meat production. One in four of those climate-changing cows, in other words, is farting for Fido. When Dodd surveyed over 3,600 dog and cat owners online about their pets’ diets, around 2 percent said their pets are vegan—but 35 percent said they’d be open to it.
The line between person and pet blurs. “I’ve been vegan for 16 years,” says Kathryn, whose senior chihuahua, Hobbes, is an “aspiring vegan” Instagram star who eats a blend of vet-prescribed non-vegan diet food and Natural Balance vegan wet food. “That’s the main motivation. Ultimately I just want to give Hobbes the best care and nutrition possible. If that aligns with my ethics, that would be ideal.”
Other vegan pet owners I talked to—ones whose pets have achieved full veganism—declined to go on the record, and their reason was always the same: They didn’t want to be trolled by outraged meat eaters or incensed fellow vegans, some of whom think it's unethical to own pets in the first place. Head over to subreddits like r/vegan for a taste, where you can’t mention the possibility of raising a vegan snake without being called horrible just for owning a snake.
Sydney Heiss is a doctoral candidate in the University of Albany’s psychology department, where she studies veganism and vegetarianism. “Eating relates to everything,” she says. “A lot of the work that’s been done about barriers to vegan and vegetarian diets has found it’s really hard to pull yourself out of your existing relationship with food. Food is culture. Food is family.” That’s partly why hostilities can run so high. In terms of pet-food anxiety specifically, it seems especially strong among millennials, who tend to be more environmentally conscious consumers and are more likely to be vegan or vegetarian, more likely to own pets, and, crucially, more likely to treat and spend on them as if they were “starter children.”
Heiss is a vegan herself and has been observing the tension within the community. “We’re pulled in two directions,” she says. “We’re motivated by animal rights, so we want to be the best pet parents there are. But the whole basis of rejecting animal products is that we don’t see a meaningful difference between species.”
According to Dodd’s research, even the greenest, free-rangest pet foods are ethically untenable for some vegans. “Lots of companies are greenwashing or humane-washing their advertising, but vegans are still unlikely to feed that product,” Dodd says. “The question is, how can we meet the nutritional needs of animals while making the product ethically sustainable for the keeper?” Right now the answer is unclear, though Dodd’s current research look into just that. Even pragmatists like Kathryn are left frustrated. Because of Hobbes’ Instagram celebrity, she’s often asked to promote nonvegan treats. “I’m completely uncomfortable with that!” she says.
Like many vegan pets, Hobbes enjoys the full support and guidance of his veterinarian. “My priority is always his well-being,” Kathryn says. “I’d like to have him be fully vegan one day with my vet’s approval.” But beyond knowing that certain plant-based diets can be healthy in carefully monitored circumstances, vets are often at a loss when confronted with these questions. Vegan cats are known to be more at risk, though. Far less domesticated than dogs—they're basically feral meat raptors—cats can’t synthesize key nutrients from vegetables because they’ve evolved to get those vitamins and amino acids from the bodies of their prey. You can give them powdered supplements, but ingesting a nutrient supplement and absorbing it are two different things, which you should remember from debates on whether humans taking multivitamins just creates “very expensive urine.”
Owner-vet communication is crucial to improving pet nutrition overall, Dodd says, and all the emotion around the issue makes openness harder. Many people simply hate vegans. Joe Rogan sells #vegancat merchandise—T-shirts with a cartoon dead cat on them. His point: The only vegan cat is a dead one, and cat-owning vegans are ridiculous hypocrites.
The anti-vegan ethos has made vegans either highly visible and defensive, or else silent. That puts their pets—innocents of the purest order—at even greater risk. “We need to have open, honest discussions about pet diets,” Dodd says. “Not having all the information really hinders our ability to help.” It’s good advice, but like a vegan cat’s taurine supplement, it may be not get actively absorbed.