Dr. Guy Sandelowsky and Shiv Sivakumar, co-founders of omni. Photo: omni
Can dogs be vegan? The short answer is yes — but with caveats.
That’s according to Dr. Guy Sandelowsky and Shiv Sivakumar, the founders of pet food brand omni. The UK firm is known for producing plant-based dog feed, making it kinder towards the planet and better for your furry friends.
The main worry most pet owners have is their dog’s health on a new vegan diet — and that’s where omni has an edge: it has the backing of professional vets.
“My experience as a veterinary surgeon is key because it provides deep insight into canine health and nutrition,” explains Dr. Sandelowsky. “The network of veterinary nutritionists and scientists has given us access to some of the best practitioners in the world who came together to formulate omni.”
Switching to a plant-based diet has many benefits. In the UK alone, Pet Food Manufacturers Association reported more than half of the dog population to be overweight from an overconsumption of meat-based pet food.
Meat production in the animal feed industry is also a lesser known contributor to climate change. A 2020 study by the University of Edinburgh for instance found that pet food production was responsible for producing 106 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
These are just some of the top reasons why dog owners are making the switch. We caught up with Dr. Sandelowsky to share more insight into the pet food market, dispel myths, and his vision for the future.
Could you tell us a bit about the current vegan pet food market in the UK? Do you think lots of pet owners rely on vegan pet food here? If not, why not?
There is a plant-powered revolution happening in the UK pet food market right now, which is completely shifting how we think about feeding our dogs. For generations, people believed dogs needed meat, but now more and more scientific evidence is emerging to disprove that myth. It turns out that dogs don't need meat at all, and many are better off without it. In fact, some of the longest-living dogs ever were fed a meat-free diet.
So far, the UK only has a handful of plant-based dog food brands. But demand is growing steadily. A recent study by Mintel shows that 34% of UK dog parents are actively looking to switch their dogs onto plant-based food. Most of the brands that exist are struggling to keep up with order volumes, meaning that products are often out of stock. As awareness spreads about the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets, demand will only keep rising, creating opportunities for new brands to enter the market.
For those not yet convinced, the main obstacle is a concern about the legitimacy of these diets, with many asking themselves, “Will my dog really get what they need?”
We know that UK dog parents trust their vets and that more than half of them will choose dog food based on veterinary advice. That's why at omni, we are proud to be a vet-founded company whose products are formulated by some of the top clinical veterinary nutritionists in the world. Omni is fast becoming the authority in this space, and the company to trust in getting the complex formulation of these diets right.
Why should people choose vegan food for their pets?
Like humans, dogs need certain nutrients to thrive. The nutrients can be obtained through a variety of meat and plant-based sources. Unfortunately, the vast majority of meat-based pet food is highly processed, which can cause health problems for dogs in the long term. Humans avoid eating too much-processed meat because it's been proven to cause both cancer and obesity. With 50% of dogs suffering from obesity-related health issues and canine cancer rates soaring, it's no surprise that the heavy reliance on processed meat in pet food is coming into question.
These doubts have probably caused the recent surge in raw food products, but these can pose other serious health risks. Cooking meat is necessary to kill bacteria and parasites, and skipping this step puts dogs at risk of potentially life-threatening poisoning and parasitic infestation.
Plant-based dog food, by contrast, solves both problems. It is (of course) free from processed meat and is unlikely to be contaminated with the sorts of harmful microbes we might find in raw meat. It's also significantly better for the environment, with up to 85% fewer greenhouse gas emissions per meal than traditional meat-based food.
What challenges did you face in building your business?
Our biggest challenge was to create food that all dogs would love. You can have the healthiest, most environmentally sustainable dog food on the planet, but if dogs don’t love eating it, the chances are it will be quickly replaced by something else. We know that dogs enjoy the taste of meat and that food is one of their greatest pleasures in life. So, we set out to create a meat alternative that was even tastier than meat! We tried out more than 20 different recipes over a year, but the good news is that we seem to have cracked it! Over 91% of participants in our taste trial said that their dogs loved eating omni, with many remarking that it was causing more excitement at meal times than their previous meat-based food.
Why does omni stand out from other vegan brands on the market?
Apart from being the tastiest meat alternative on the market, omni is also the first plant-based dog food brand to be founded by a veterinarian. We’re also endorsed by veterinary professionals like nurses and animal care assistants. You can already find omni in veterinary clinics in the UK, and our head clinical nutritionist is one of the best regarded in the world. This is a crucial point of difference from existing brands. For people to change their habits and move away from feeding their dogs meat, they need to be confident that the food they are buying is healthy, perfectly balanced, and nutritionally complete. We’re proud to give this reassurance and have vets working around the clock to answer any customer queries. Ultimately, we are motivated by our love of dogs. That love is behind every decision we make, and it has pushed us to start our business in the first place.
How have both your backgrounds helped you build the brand?
We came together to build a business that was going to improve dogs' lives while also caring for the planet more sustainably. My experience as a veterinary surgeon is key because it provides a deep insight into canine health and nutrition. In addition, the network of veterinary nutritionists and scientists has given us access to some of the best practitioners in the world who came together to formulate omni.
Meanwhile, Shiv's experience in finance provides key business insights and has allowed omni to fundraise and move from a great idea to a marketable product. Thanks to him, a customer can easily find us and receive delicious omni products on their doorstep within a few days. Shiv's family in Sri Lanka has had dogs that thrive on plant-based diets for generations. Some of the family dogs lived to 14 and 16 years of age without ever eating a single ounce of meat. This has had a major impact on Shiv and his desire to bring about this positive change for dogs in the UK.
What’s the story behind your brand name? Is it short for omnivorous? If so, could you explain why?
We chose the name ‘omni’ to raise awareness that dogs are omnivorous, not carnivorous. Dogs thrive on plant-based diets in the same way that many humans can. Our name, omni, also means ‘all’ in Latin, reflecting our vision that all dogs all over the world will enjoy eating omni and reap the health benefits one day. We are also working towards taking all animals out of the food supply chain so that all can live in harmony with the planet.
How do you choose the ingredients?
One of our reasons for starting omni was to buck the trend of using cheap animal by-products and corn to feed our dogs. We believe that dogs deserve to eat as well as we do, so we wanted to use high-quality ingredients—the sorts of things humans also like to eat—such as sweet potato, pumpkin, brown rice, and lentils. We’re also acutely aware of the sad fact that cancer rates in dogs are surging. To address this, we chose to include superfoods like blueberries and cranberries, packed with antioxidants that help ward off cancer.
One of the key nutrients that dogs need is protein. To optimize this delivery, we created a proprietary blend of highly digestible plant- and yeast-based proteins that deliver all the amino acids dogs need to thrive. At 30% inclusion, omni actually has more protein than most meat-based dog food on the market.
What are some common misconceptions about vegan pet food?
The main misconception people have is that it's somehow 'cruel' to feed dogs a plant-based diet. This likely arises from a lack of understanding about how dogs' digestive systems work, and the limited experience people in the West have of feeding dogs a plant-based diet. In fact, a recent study proves that the welfare of dogs fed plant-based food is equivalent to those on meat-based diets. And if the twirls, drooling, and wagging tails we see when dogs are waiting for their bowl of omni is anything to go by, we're confident that serving plant-based food is a sure way to make your dog very happy.