By Jean Hofve, DVM

The headline reads: “The HSUS Launches New Line of Natural, Organic Pet Food”

“Selecting a high-quality pet food is one of the most important decisions a pet parent can make. To celebrate pets, The Humane Society of the United States announces the nationwide launch of a cruelty-free, all natural and certified organic “Humane Choice” dog food. The HSUS developed this new product to offer consumers a wholesome and nutritious dog food that does not contain animal-based proteins or support the factory farming industry.”

This food will be sold at PETCO, Whole Foods, and other stores. While only the dog food is being launched now, a cat food is under development and will inevitably reach a huge market of well-meaning but gullible consumers.

HSUS is a large, non-profit, animal advocacy organization. It does a great deal of very important work, such as shutting down puppy mills, and opposing animal cruelty in agriculture, entertainment, research, and much more. Since factory farming of animals is rightly considered cruel, it’s understandable that they would promote eating less meat, and going vegetarian or even vegan.

Additionally, in this economy, with donations down, it’s also understandable that HSUS would search for other sources of income. HSUS will make 6% of sales of these foods. The pet food “pie” is huge–$18 billion in the U.S. alone–a clearly tempting opportunity.

However, all logic stops there.

For one thing, when we voluntarily bring dogs and cats into our homes, aren’t we ethically obligated to honor them by feeding them according to their basic nature and needs? If we are that opposed to meat, it’s contradictory to adopt a meat-eating animal.

Dogs and cats are classified as carnivores (from Latin, caro, flesh, vorare, to devour). However, many of the canine family, including domestic dogs, can be considered “facultative” or “opportunistic” omnivores, meaning that they can obtain nutrition from many sources, including plants. In theory, dogs can become vegans and survive on such a diet. But survival should not be the only goal; we want our pets to thrive. And biology suggests it’s unlikely they will do so on a vegan diet.

The ingredients of the new HSUS dog food include: organic ground canola seed, organic brown rice, organic soybean meal, organic buckwheat, organic flaxseed, organic sunflower seed, organic millet, organic carrots, organic beets, organic broccoli…and so on through a laundry list of glamor ingredients.

The most problematic ingredient in this food appears to be soy. Dogs lack the enzymes needed to fully digest soy products. A PETA survey of vegetarian and vegan dogs found that dogs who did not have soy in their diets were in “substantially better health” than dogs who ate soy. In particular they had fewer skin problems. Soy products cause increased intestinal gas and increased stool volume.

Here’s what’s not in it:

  • Meat (no animal-source protein whatsoever). The carnivore’s natural diet consists of whole, raw prey animals: meat, blood, fat, organs. HSUS is trying to turn straw into gold using imitations of that natural diet in the form of plant proteins. One possible consequence, due to the effect of plant products on urine pH, is increased urinary tract infections. Normal dog urine pH is slightly acidic (from 5.5 to neutral 7.0). Plant products tend to increase pH; struvite crystals and stones form in alkaline urine.
  • A usable source of Omega-3 fatty acids. In this food, flax seeds, canola seeds, and canola oil are clearly intended to provide Omega-3 fatty acids, and they do–but the plant form (alpha linolenic acid) is poorly converted in the dog to the forms they need and can directly use, EPA and DHA.
  • Taurine. This amino acid is found almost exclusively in animal products. It is not considered “essential” in dogs, since (unlike cats), dogs can manufacture their own taurine from another amino acid, cystine–provided there are enough precursors in the diet. Most cystine derives from animal products; but the only precursor in the HSUS food is broccoli. However, taurine is “conditionally” essential in some breeds and family lines of dogs. Taurine deficiency results in a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, a serious form of heart failure. PETA’s survey found a direct correlation between the length of time a dog had been vegetarian or vegan, and the development of heart disease.

While our sources said that a vegan cat food was in the works, a representative of HSUS  assures us that they have no plans to produce a cat food. That’s very good news, because the prospect of a vegan cat food is truly frightening to those who understand feline nutrition. Cats are obligate carnivores, with very specific requirements for animal-source nutrients such as taurine, carnitine, and arachidonic acid. Cats convert even less alpha linolenic acid to EPA and DHA than dogs; without a direct source of EPA and DHA (such as fish oil or cod liver oil), they will be vulnerable to deficiencies in these essential fatty acids.

Moreover, both dog and cat foods are dry kibble. Dry food is already problematic for cats, and a vegan dry food will play havoc with the cat’s sensitive urinary system, digestive tract, and endocrine balance. Expect the consequences to include diabetes, urinary tract disease, kidney disease, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, and more. As a veterinarian, these foods make me nervous. I have seen some very sick pets as a result of vegentarian and vegan diets.

HSUS’s pet foods are formulated to meet the AAFCO nutrient profiles, and have not, of course, been tested on animals. The problem is that the nutrient profiles are fallible, and many foods formulated to those standards are not capable of maintaining long-term health. The HSUS will, in reality, be testing their foods on your pets. Is that a chance you want to take?