Forty-five-year-old Noelle became vegan in January 2019. Over the last year, she believes her plant-based diet has made her more productive, given her more energy and inspired her to be more creative. “I definitely spend a lot less time on Facebook,” she laughs. In fairness, though, that has as much to do with avoiding messages from random people calling her an animal abuser and a fascist as it does her lifestyle change.
All the online vitriol directed at her is mainly because as she transitioned to veganism, so did Ben, her 6-year-old Belgian Shepherd.
Many vegans like Noelle aim to create a holistic, “meat-free” domestic environment beyond just the food they consume — for example, by using plant-based cutlery, engaging in plant-based composting and, yes, switching up their pet’s diet so it better mirrors their own.
This, of course, clashes with the advice of veterinarians, who, for the most part, recommend that dogs in particular eat protein-rich diets that are heavy on meat. In fact, in the U.S., because most vegan pet food doesn’t meet the Association of American Feed Control’s nutritional standards, vets will only recommend plant-based diets if a pet has digestive issues that make it hard to process macronutrients in meat. And while there are some brands of plant-based pet food that claim to possess all the essential nutrients and vitamins, they haven’t prevented some pet owners and animal rights activists from claiming that vegan pet food causes malnutrition and illness — and might even constitute animal abuse.
Noelle, a former member of Vegan Dogs Thriving, a 3,000-member strong Facebook group for dog owners whose pups have plant-based diets, says that Ben’s dietary transition was gradual and informed by his own decisions. “He wasn’t a big meat-eater anyway,” she tells me. “I’d feed him the jellied beef and chicken pet foods from cans, and he’d eat some of it but leave the rest. He preferred boiled vegetables and greens. So I just gave him more vegetable-based food, and over time, it went from little meat to none at all.” (These days, she feeds Ben V-Dog, one of the U.K.’s first vegetarian dog-food manufacturers that produces fully vegan dog food, too.)
Given that she claims it was Ben’s choice to become vegan, why does Noelle still have an inbox filled with people threatening to report her to the RSPCA (the U.K.’s largest animal welfare charity), the police and the country’s counterterrorism unit?
It probably has less to do with Ben’s intake of vegetables than it does the general temperament of animal lovers online.
In the early 2000s, for instance, pet forums were filled with threads about whether processed, store-bought kibble was poisoning animals with heavy metals and if it was better to feed pets homemade food such as lentils instead. Similarly, as Emma Grey Ellis notes in Wired, Facebook pet groups contain numerous lengthy debates on the healthfulness of premium-brand pet food (especially versus the cheaper equivalents) and if pets should ever eat anything with carbohydrates. Either way, Noelle has found that everyone is always pretty quick to judge. “I’ve seen people bully owners because their dog is slightly overweight, which they’ll claim is terrible and abusive,” she says. “In other cases, there will be owners with zero medical qualifications who will dish out health advice for pets, only to get angry when they’re told to stop.”
Unfortunately, like with all else on the internet, this also starts to veer into fake news and conspiracy theory territory. Veterinarians like Lin Burke, an animal nutritionist at the Willows Veterinary Group in the U.K., have been confronted by people questioning whether they should have their pets vaccinated, or whether they shouldn’t administer vital medicine to them. “There’s a lot of advice on how to raise pets on the internet, from lots of different places,” she explains. “But most of them are unverified, especially in private [groups] on Facebook.”
Though the vegan pet-food debate doesn’t (yet?) go to that extreme, Burke says that anybody looking into altering their pet’s diet should consult a veterinarian and have their pet’s health checked first. “The main thing to remember is that all animals are different. Therefore, any sudden disruption in their digestive system could end up making them incredibly sick,” she explains. “A vet can make a medical assessment and use that to make a meal plan for a pet; that way, they can get the best quality food that’s suited for them.” She adds that it’s inevitable that plant-based pet food is going to become more common for sustainability reasons, but at the same time, she believes that people should feed their pets “nutritious food that will help them live the healthiest possible life.”
Noelle, for her part, expects more haters — at least until a big pet food brand releases its own vegan option. But she’s convinced that since Ben went fully vegan, he, like her, has felt better and happier. If anything, she says, he’s struggled far less with the change than she has. Or, as she jokes, “I don’t think Ben fantasizes about beef burgers.”