“Eat your vegetables.” Most of us heard this from our mothers when we were kids… and for good reason. Everybody seems to intuitively know that vegetables are an important part of a nutritious diet. But what about our dogs? Do they benefit from eating vegetables too?
The answer is yes. Even though they are direct descendants of strictly carnivorous wolves, dogs have adapted to living alongside humans and eating their leftovers over the last 15,000 years or so. Cats… not so much. They subsisted through the eons on the rats and mice that frequented human habitation and never evolved digestively the way dogs did. A recent study in Sweden showed that dogs have the ability to digest starches found in plants, but that wild dogs (and cats) do not. So even though a wolf would never eat a carrot, most dogs certainly would—and would be able to get some nutritional value from it too.
Vegetables are loaded with beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—nutrients that are frequently degraded or destroyed the the manufacture and storage of commercial dog diets. (See my previous article,The Kibble Conumdrum, at www.animalkindvet.com/kibble-conundrum.) By offering fresh vegetables to our dogs, we are improving their immune function, decreasing inflammatory conditions, improving organ and glandular health, and even helping to prevent cancer. Because dogs (and humans) lack the ability to digest cellulose, the structural fiber in plants, most vegetables are best cooked or pulverized in a food processor to get their nutritional benefits. Tell that to our Goldendoodle, Gibson, who loves crunching on raw kale stems and cucumbers…
Not all vegetables are appropriate to feed to dogs however. Large amounts of onions and garlic can cause a toxic reaction that damages a dog’s red blood cells, resulting in anemia. Raw cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower can lower thyroid levels over time. Spinach contains oxalates that can cause urinary stones if feed to excess. Starchy veggies such as yams or sweet potatoes are great nutritionally, but can cause digestive upset if not adequately cooked. Same with green beans.
While vegetables offer significant nutritional value, I don’t recommend feeding strictly vegetarian diets to dogs. Even though modern dogs can survive on a wide range of foods, dogs have retained much of their wolf ancestors’ carnivorous biology. For dogs to obtain and maintain peak health they need to consume a substantial amount of animal protein and fats. There are commercial vegetarian diets available for dogs, but most dogs don’t seem to do very well on them long-term.
It’s easy for your dog to get the health benefits of vegetables. Just add cooked or puréed veggies to an already complete and balanced diet. Supplemented vegetables should generally not make up more than 15% of the diet however, because other important nutrients can become deficient. Carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard and zucchini are all excellent choices. Yams or sweet potatoes are great, but need to be well cooked. A few kale stems or raw carrots as a treat here or there is fine for most dogs (they love the crunch!), but don’t expect your pets to get much nutritional value from them. Many fruits also have beneficial nutrients (such as blueberries with high levels of bioflavonoids), but are usually high in sugar, and should only be fed in small amounts. Remember to introduce new foods to your dog’s diet slowly to avoid digestive upsets.
Dr. Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Jacksonville.