Why Your Dog & Cat Still Needs (Some) Vegetables
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
We talk a lot about species-appropriate diets for our dogs and cats, but recreating balanced, healthy, and nutrient-dense meals isn’t as easy as their wild counterparts make it seem. After all, you don’t often see wolves or cougars snacking on pillaged cucumbers, so there is some technical truth in that adding different types and amounts of vegetables to our pet’s meals isn’t an exact recreation of a wild diet. This is because, at the base of it, our dogs and cats just aren’t wild animals anymore, despite what they may try and tell us! Their environment, lifestyle, and breeding require a slightly different nutritional input for optimal health than their wild brethren.
So what is it about our domestic pets that make them need more vegetables than their wild ancestors? “Lettuce” tell you all about it!
It may sound odd to say, given how much veterinary care and specialized foods your pet may get, but by and large, our pets’ wild ancestors are generally healthier than our household companions. There are three main reasons for this:
They’re less exposed to environmental toxins.
They’re much more physically fit than your cat or dog (they have to be!).
They often don’t suffer from breed-related illnesses.
Finally, never forget those wild predators—wolves and coyotes especially—are still supplementing their diet with wild fruits and vegetables, albeit lesser amounts than our household dogs, and from different vegetation.
Avoiding Environmental Toxins
In some ways, wild canines and felines have enviable access to good food. Their nutritional resources are seasonal, regional, and often fresh. Additionally, their distance from human settlements means they generally have minimal exposure to toxins and modern-day pollutants, making them less likely to suffer from chemical buildups and cancers.
The wild counterparts to our domestic pets also naturally engage in a well-rounded diet: they’ll eat the entire animal whenever possible, starting with the nutrient-rich organs. As for their vegetable portioning, wolves and cougars will eat their prey’s stomach lining and digestive tract, which may add some trace vegetation into their diet. Wolves, in particular, are also known for extensive foraging of seasonal fruits to supplement their diet—wild blueberries seem to be the most popular—as well as fallen, fermented fruits and tubers when necessary.
Finally, wild wolves and cougars will also eat a variety of grasses to help soothe an upset stomach. This varied diet of animal parts and vegetation helps support a healthy microbiome and digestive function.
Want to learn more about how wolves use berries to round out their diet? Check out these two recent studies on how wolves may be more berry-dependent than previously thought.
Wild canines and felines don’t have the luxury of a full food bowl every morning and evening—they’ve got to work hard for it, and there often isn’t time for being picky!
Both cougars and wolves can travel up to 50–80km in a day in search of food, meaning they’re like the Olympian athlete equivalent to your couch-potato pet. Built for speed and endurance over long, rugged terrain, these animals have significantly increased metabolic rates and aerobic respiration compared to your domestic dog or cat—necessary adaptations for hunting down their next meal.
That is, assuming there is a next meal that day.
These wild predators have adapted to a “feast or famine” style diet where they may gorge themselves over a few days before slowing down and conserving calories until they can secure their next meal, which could be over a week away.
The result is that their superior metabolic functions give them a more robust immune system and resistance to pathogens, as well as better overall health. That bolstered immune system also means they’re not as reliant on the health-promoting qualities of vegetables as our dogs and cats, who have adapted to a more regular input of nutrients.
Want to check our sources? Click here to read about the foraging and feeding ecology of grey wolves!
Counter Balancing Genetic Predispositions
Finally, it’s no secret that selective breeding has created some health disadvantages for our dogs and cats. Whether it’s a predisposition to elbow dysplasia or brachycephalic-faced pets, millennia of selective breeding have resulted in some problematic traits in modern breeds. As a result, most of our household companions can often use every bit of extra health vegetables can give them.
Two Beneficial Functions of Vegetables for Domestic Dogs and Cats
So we’ve gone over why Fido and Tom need more vegetables than their wild ancestors based on their environment, lifestyle, and genetics, but what exactly are those vegetables offering them?
Phytonutrients are nutrients that only come from plants. While they’re not recognized as essential components of a healthy diet by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), that doesn’t mean they don’t play a vital role in providing potent antioxidants and promoting cellular health.
While your dog or cat isn’t facing the same kind of stress as their wild brethren, that doesn’t mean they aren’t without stressors of their own. Some of these may include managing pollutants in their environment to mental and emotional stresses picked up from their guardians to preventing health issues such as inflammatory diseases, cancers and more—the consequences of which can be mitigated by providing adequate phytonutrients.
Science has only really started to break the surface in understanding the concrete health value of these compounds, but we know enough to understand their baseline benefits. Some examples of phytonutrients include:
Carotenoids, which can be found in high amounts in yellow and orange veggies like carrots and squash, can reduce instances of cancer and macular degeneration caused by aging.
Lycopene and anthocyanins, found in red fruits and veggies like guava, watermelon, and purple cabbage, is a powerful antioxidant and offers similar effects to other carotenoids, including preventing cancer, heart disease, and macular degeneration.
Phenolic flavonoids, from purple fruits and veggies like blueberries, raspberries, pears, apples, and red cabbage can prevent early onsets of age-related function decline, cancers, and diabetes.
Lutein and zeaxanthin is abundant in green veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, parsley, and green peas, among many others. Similar to other effects on this list, Lutein and zeaxanthin are thought to play a role in maintaining eye health and preventing macular degeneration.
Fibre is one of those dietary additions that you don’t want to sleep on—for you or your pet. It’s got several reasons that make it important for your pet’s health, the least of which is because it supports a healthy microbiome within the gastrointestinal system.
The digestive system of humans and animals contains a population of health-determining bacteria, called microbiome or probiotics. Fibre, while indigestible by mammals, is the perfect food source for the beneficial bacterium in the gut. In contrast, sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria—NOT what you want for your pet. Therefore, by feeding the right bacteria with healthy fibrous sources, such as vegetables, you can maintain a proper balance of bacteria and further prevent diseases.
Fibre plays an integral role in your pet’s gut health—click here to learn more!
The Do’s and Don’ts of Vegetables For Your Pets
Just because you were encouraged to finish your plate of veggies as a kid doesn't mean that every vegetable is good for your pet, too. After all, all foods, especially veggies for your mostly meat-eating pet, should be fed in balance and moderation.
DO Feed Your Pet…
Leafy green vegetables: spinach, lettuce, collards, mustard greens, and chard—the wider variety, the better!
Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choi, etc. Make sure to feed these in moderation.
Root vegetables: Yams, sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets, carrots, turnips, and more. Don't feed these to pets prone to yeast infection, as the carbohydrates turn to sugar and cause further yeast issues.
Squashes: Butternut, acorn, spaghetti, etc.
Herbs: parsley, cilantro, dandelion, turmeric, basil, ginger root, garlic, and many others! Check with your holistic vet to discover more herbs for your pet.
Fruits: Apple, pear, and berries are the most species-specific fruits for pets. They're lower in sugar compared to other tropical fruits such as bananas, mangos, and melons, which are best fed as treats due to their higher sugar content. Like root vegetables, give fruits in moderation to pets with yeast infections.
Here’s some more information about a variety of vegetables and what they can do for your pet!
DON’T Feed Your Pet…
Grapes and raisins
Raw white potatoes (cooked are fine)
Pits, seeds or stems of vegetables or fruits
Phytonutrient Supplements: Going Above and Beyond
If your eyes are swimming with too many options to boost your pet’s nutrient intake, then here are some of our favourite and most trusted products to support your pet’s gut health and immune system.
The Bottom Line: Veggies For All!
The next time someone tells you how your dog or cat doesn’t need vegetables for their natural, species-appropriate diet, remember that your pet isn’t a wild animal anymore. They can always benefit from a nutritional boost through some fruits and vegetables—in moderation, of course. Not to mention, experimenting with what your pet enjoys and thrives on can be a fun and interesting way to mix up their meals and keep it interesting!