This article was published in the January 2024 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our January digital edition.

Garrett Wymore and Caroline Buck, co-founders of Petaluma Inc., Oakland, Calif., believe that “the dog food of tomorrow is made with plants.” And for Petaluma, tomorrow is already here as they “formulate entirely plant-based canine diets that deliver complete nutrition,” Buck said.  

A decade or two ago, vegan dog foods were mostly unheard of. Many of the plant-based ingredients used in these foods were viewed as “fillers” or “meat extenders” and were also considered nutrient deficient. That is changing. There’s a growing toolbox of plant-based ingredients — cereals, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and more — that can be used to make vegan dog food that provides all the essential nutrients that dogs need to maintain muscle mass, support their immune systems and repair body tissues. These foods speak to pet parents who are concerned with the quality and integrity of what they feed their furry friends.

Consumers choose plant-based dog foods as premium, holistic and sustainable options

Some pet parents seek out vegan and plant-based dog food to avoid animal-based proteins; others see them as a more environmentally sustainable alternative for their pets.


Petaluma’s customers are often looking for two main things, according to Wymore. The first is high-quality ingredients. The second is the absence of processed factory-farmed animal ingredients.

“From my perspective, vegan is a useful description of what is not included in the formula but doesn’t describe the ingredients themselves,” Wymore said. “We focus on sourcing ingredients that meet our nutritional profile as well as sustainability goals, like reduced water and carbon footprint.”


The vegan marketplace

The global vegan dog food market was estimated to be valued at $100.7 million in 2023, according to a report from Research and Markets, Dublin. It is expected to reach $147.6 million by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 7.9%.

Dogs are omnivores, which is why they are able to exist on properly balanced meatless diets. However, dog food is very different than human food, as it is designed to be “complete and balanced.” This means that all the nutrition a dog requires must be included in the food, as they generally eat the same formula each day. This is their sole source of nutrition. If the food is not nutritionally complete, balanced and digestible, there may be serious health and wellness consequences.

“Any ingredient choice is going to come with nutritional tradeoffs, and using plant-based ingredients will create different areas of focus for supplementation than animal-derived ingredients,” Buck said. “We adjust our nutrient mix to account for the nutritional profile of our core ingredients, such as ample sources of iron and manganese, and less abundant sources of zinc and vitamin D. There are a small handful of nutrients that are in low supply — or absent — in plant-based foods that need to be accounted for, such as vitamin B12, which is almost always supplemented in meat-inclusive diets as well, in addition to the feed of livestock.”


Achieving nutritional balance

Plant-based ingredients have varied compositions due to seasonal changes. Use of multiple suppliers can also cause deviations in nutrient content. Fortification ensures that nutrient requirements are being met and deficiencies avoided. Knowing the nutritional profiles of the various ingredients within a product will aid in determining the amount of fortification necessary to ensure the minimum daily requirement is met. Because many of these nutrients are only required in small quantities, they are often blended together with an inert carrier and added to the food formulation in what is called a “premix.” Premixes simplify the manufacturing process and reduce error at the pet food manufacturing facility.

Petcurean, Chilliwack, British Columbia, uses a nutrient mix to fortify its Gather Endless Valley for dogs with essential vitamins and minerals. This complete-and-balanced vegan recipe is crafted from organic peas, organic barley, organic oats, lentils, organic sunflower oil, potatoes, quinoa, organic flaxseed, fruits, vegetables and other non-GMO ingredients. The company promises that its protein blend contains all of a dog’s essential amino acids.

Petaluma launched as an entirely plant-based pet food brand

In May 2023, plant-based dog food company Petaluma launched its first formula for senior dogs. 

| Source: Petaluma

“The challenges of using plant-based proteins in dog food have been hugely overstated,” Buck said. “It’s a common misconception that meat-free diets do not contain enough protein, or that plant-based proteins are less digestible than animal proteins. Properly formulated commercial diets, regardless of protein source, show their work with basic lab testing to demonstrate digestibility and macronutrient levels. In reality, protein deficiency isn’t a real issue in commercial pet food and is extremely rare.

“Formulators are using software and affordable nutrient testing to create nutritionally balanced foods that take advantage of plant proteins without complexity,” she added. “Analyses of both the individual plant proteins and complete diets containing high levels of plant proteins have consistently shown adequate protein digestibility — and even higher than many meat meals — while also delivering beneficial dietary fiber.”

Maygane Ronsmans, product manager of animal nutrition at BENEO, Mannheim, Germany, agreed that plant-based ingredients can be used to develop nutritionally balanced vegan dog foods.

“With our protein toolbox, pet food producers have access to concentrated and non-GMO sources of high-quality vegetable proteins from rice, wheat and faba beans,” she said.

An internal digestibility trial conducted by BENEO shows these ingredients have high- to very-high ileal digestibility scores; close to 90% for the rice protein and faba bean protein concentrates, and well above 90% for vital wheat gluten.

“Rice protein represents a hypoallergenic and highly digestible ingredient, suitable for most sensitive pets, while faba bean protein concentrate is a good alternative protein for no-grain pet food formulas,” Ronsmans said. “In addition, vital wheat gluten offers strong viscoelastic properties that can improve the texture of different types of pet food.”

A possible challenge with some plant-based ingredients is the presence of so-called anti-nutritional factors, which can reduce nutrient bioavailability. The type and amount of anti-nutritional factors vary by plant.

Vital wheat gluten provides structural benefits to plant-based dog foods during processing

BENEO offers vegetable proteins made from rice, wheat and faba beans to manufacturers who are formulating plant-based pet food products.

| Source: BENEO

To reduce their presence in ingredients, BENEO has a strict sourcing program. Its faba bean protein concentrate, starch-rich flour and hull ingredients, for example, are all produced from selected faba bean varieties that are low in anti-nutritional factors and sourced from tightly controlled agreements with contract farmers, according to Ronsmans.

Wymore added, “There are many advantages to plant-based proteins compared to meat, and particularly rendered meat meals, as they do not contain high levels of minerals like phosphorus that can be over-provisioned in diets with high-animal protein. This is particularly beneficial in diets tailored to senior dogs, as veterinary nutritionists typically recommend lower phosphorus, sodium and fat levels, and a higher portion of calories from protein. The use of protein-rich, plant-based ingredients allows minerals and fat content to be closely managed in a high-protein diet.”

The composition of plant-based proteins is compatible with traditional kibble and wet pet food manufacturing. In fact, some plant-based proteins may allow for the removal of certain performance ingredients.  

“In our experience, plant-based ingredients are more conducive to the baking process than animal ingredients as many — like flax meal and oats — have natural binding properties that enable the formation of a dough that can be rolled into bite-sized pieces,” Buck said. “In addition, many human customers prefer the texture of our dehydrated sweet potato jerky over chicken jerky because it creates less of a slimy mess when their dogs enjoy it.”

Vital wheat gluten can positively affect the extrusion behavior in dry pet food, as well as the chunkiness and meat structure in wet pet food.

“Thanks to vital wheat gluten’s excellent water absorption capacity, it also increases juiciness in semi-moist or wet pet food and is therefore a valuable alternative to spray-dried plasma,” Ronsmans said. “When it comes to veterinary and premium wet pet food products, rice starch offers an ideal replacement for hydrocolloids or modified starches. It allows manufacturers to create a wide range of different textures, from soft gravies to firm jelly-like textures, and due to the branched structure of the amylose in rice, which binds water much better than other starches, it also has excellent stability during shelf life and temperature fluctuations.”

Faba bean can be used in plant-based formulations as a grain-free alternative

Protein from faba beans offers a good alternative for grain-free pet food formulations.


Regarding aroma and taste, Buck said that formulating vegan poses no obstacles, as Petaluma does not try to mimic the sensory properties of animal proteins through the use of flavorings.

“It turns out that most dogs love many plant proteins already,” she said. “For example, our food uses human-grade organic peanut butter, a protein and healthy fat source that most pet parents already know their dog goes nuts for (pun intended).”

Some specialty plant-based ingredients can also offer key benefits for health-conscious pet owners. For instance, inulin and oligofructose derived from chicory root fiber are recognized as prebiotic fibers, which can support a dog’s intestinal health and are linked with nutritional benefits that go beyond the gut.

“For example, studies show that including our inulin and oligofructose in a pet’s diet can support mineral absorption and bone health, and in the context of weight management curb their appetite, improve satiety and decrease voluntary food intake,” Ronsmans said. “Additionally, since they are non-digestible carbohydrates and dietary fibers, they do not trigger a rise in postprandial blood glucose or insulin concentrations. As a result, they support blood sugar management in dogs.”

The low-glycemic carbohydrate isomaltulose, which is derived from sugar beet, can also become a key part of a plant-based dog food formulator’s ingredient toolbox. A recent study with dogs showed that isomaltulose significantly lowered blood glucose and insulin responses, compared to maltodextrin or sucrose, even after continuous feeding. This property makes isomaltulose a particularly interesting solution with the potential to support metabolic health and weight management in dogs.

Going forward, Wymore believes that dog owners will seek out high-quality plant-based ingredients and that brands will adapt their formulations and marketing to highlight these foods.

“The recent history of dog food innovation and marketing has largely focused on animal-derived proteins, but I don’t believe that is sustainable or nutritionally justifiable,” Wymore said. “Pet food has many recurring trends, and we’re eager to see the debunking and deterioration of the ‘filler’ label for plant-based ingredients.”

Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.