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Dog Food Dilemma

Imagine yourself driving down the highway in your Rolls Royce. You peek down at the gas gauge and see your machine is getting hungry for fuel so you pull up to the service station. There are five pumps marked like so: Premium $1, Regular $.75, Diesel $.80, Natural Gas $.60 and a final pump marked “Leftover Crap” $.10. What do you do? It’s a Rolls for goodness sake! Of course you put in the Premium. What’s the point in buying a $180,000 machine and putting in a fuel that either reduces its performance such as Regular would do or damages the machine (such as the other choices would do)?

Our dogs’ bodies are machines, and the work we train them to do is the performance we expect from their machines. And if we are expecting high levels of performance, then we must give them the right fuel to achieve that.

But choosing the right fuel can be more difficult than you think. Look back at your Rolls Royce. Some choices are obvious, some are not. It doesn’t take a lot of grey matter to realize that the mystery brew “Leftover Crap”, made up of a bit of Regular, a bit of Diesel, a bit of water and a bit of dirt just isn’t going to allow your machine to work right. But your other choices – Diesel and Regular – they aren’t “bad” fuels. They are simply not what your Rolls was designed to take.

What fuel was your dog’s body designed to take? There are lots of clues. Look at his teeth. Fangs, designed to seize and kill prey. His molars are sharp wedges to shear bone and connective tissue, unlike yours which are flat blocks to allow grinding. Look at his intestine: short, to process small amounts of highly concentrated foods (compare that to herbivores which have long digestive tracts to process high volumes of foods low in nutrient concentration). Look at what his wild relatives, feral dogs, wolves and coyotes, are eating. The conclusion is that our dogs are carnivores and their diet consists primarily of the bodies of other animals. That is: muscle, fat, bone, brains, organs, eyes, eggs and the like.

Now look at the label of the dog food you are feeding your carnivore. Rice, wheat, corn, bran, beet pulp, with a little meat or meat by product thrown in. Now, don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with rice or wheat – I eat them all the time. But then, I’m not a carnivore. And there is nothing wrong with diesel … my neighbour’s tractor runs just fine on the stuff. But it’s not a Rolls Royce.

I ask you to start from this basic, self evident proposition: Mother Nature knows best. We have been telling our dogs for a very long time now that in fact we know best. We know that balanced nutrition is important, and we know we can achieve that balance predominantly with the inexpensive grains rather than those expensive meats and fats. Or at least the National Research Council and the pet food industry know. And they in turn have trained our veterinarians on pet nutrition, so now our vets know. But no matter how much we tell this to our dogs, they remain unconvinced.

You see, we animals all consume six key nutrients: water, fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. The one thing we all have in common is that we should have ample and unrestricted access to water. After that, the agreement breaks down, with each species thriving on different combinations of the other five nutrients than any other species. Let me give you an example. We humans with our moderately long digestive tracts need a moderately high level of fibre in our diets. So for years you’ve been told by doctors and dieticians: eat more grains and veggies. And of course we don’t want our doggies to get colon cancer so we make sure they get a solid 4 or 5 % – or more – of fibre too. But their digestive tracts are unlike ours; they are short and not prone to cancer. Yet we are stuffing more than thrice as much fibre down them than is typically in our own diets! And not only don’t they need it: the presence of all this fibre is actually an irritant to their carnivorous guts. So once again we are back to the initial principle: don’t feed tractor fuel to a Rolls Royce.

I’ve read dozens of pet food labels and they almost always tout the quality of their carbohydrates (rice, wheat, other grains) as a good source of energy with which to fuel activity. But carbohydrates, like proteins, contain only four calories of energy per gram. Where do you think a carnivore is going to naturally look for his energy: grazing on five pounds of cud or stripping one pound of fat from his prey?

But what about that nasty cholesterol and heart disease that we are all afraid of? We don’t want that for our dogs, do we? Well of course not. But again, we cannot blindly assume that everything about our omnivorous bodies is the same for the carnivorous bodies of our canine friends. And indeed there is a significant difference on this very point. Their digestive system is far more adapted to handle fats than ours is, and they do not suffer from these same dietary restrictions (cholesterol and dietary heart disease). Research has shown no ill effects on dogs routinely fed diets as high as 65% fat. (You or I would live to a ripe old age of 6 on such a diet, but dogs thrive on it.) That same research has shown that dogs fed fat-rich diets enjoy more endurance than dogs fed low-fat diets such as the pet food companies make.

And what about all those valuable carbohydrates (which makes up 50 – 60% of pet food, or more)? Research has shown little need for them in our dogs’ diets. They are pumped into dog food for one reason: food energy (i.e. – calories). (Okay, maybe one more reason: they’re cheap, waaaay cheaper than fat). But as already discussed, fat is a dog’s preferred energy source. In nature, wild canines eat relatively little material from plants (the source of carbohydrates) and speculation is that most of that small amount they do eat (berries, stomach contents of their prey) is consumed not so much for the carbohydrate and those 4 calories per gram but instead for the vitamins which those plants offer.

Another key ingredient in diet is protein. Unlike either fats or carbohydrates, which are primarily fuel sources to the body, protein is a structural component and more. While it can be used as a mere fuel to produce 4 calories of energy per gram, it’s primary roles are instead to: make muscle, blood, bone and organ tissue; create enzymes which facilitate the myriad of chemical reactions needed to sustain life; comprise hormones which regulate body functions; and develop the immune system that protects the dog’s body from disease and infection.

Protein is actually not a single “thing” but a bunch of related “things” more properly called amino acids. There are 23 amino acids, and like us our dogs can make some but not all the amino acids needed to perform the various functions of proteins. In fact the dog cannot make 10 of those amino acids but must instead obtain them from the food he eats. Those 10 are called essential amino acids. (Human adults have only eight essential amino acids and children have nine.) And essential amino acids can be derived from either plant or animal sources. But Mother Nature has told our dogs that they should get most of their amino acids from animal sources. Why? Because:

  1. eating a lot of plant material irritates and can injure a carnivorous digestive tract; and
  2. animal protein is a higher quality source of protein.

What is meant by saying that animal protein has more quality (i.e. – “higher Biological Value”)? Well, lets say the food manufacturer learns of a pharmaceutical company that is going out of business and this pharmaceutical company has tons of the essential amino acid tryptophan. So the dog food company buys it and that is its source of protein in the diet. And let’s say they put enough of it in each bag that they can honestly say on the label: 30% protein. Sound good? Sure it does. The only problem is that your dog will soon be dead. It is not enough that the
food have a certain amount of protein; it has to have it in a proper balance of each amino acid to every other amino acid. That balance is reflected in proteins derived from animal sources; it is not reflected in proteins derived from plant sources. Yet 40% or more of the protein contained in the PREMIUM BRANDS of dog food (and don’t you get me started on the other feeds) is derived from plant sources. Now it is possible for the plant and animal source proteins to be balanced and result in a food with a high Biological Value (putting aside all concerns about all that plant matter which will irritate the dog’s gut) but how are you going to know if your feed manufacturer did this balancing act or just threw in “22% protein”?

Lastly we come to the bit players: vitamins and minerals. I say “bit players” not because they are unimportant but because just a little of them goes a long way. Vitamins do not provide either fuel energy nor structural components for the body. They act as catalysts, instigating essential chemical reactions in the body without actually becoming part of the reaction. Minerals have a less specific role, some acting as structural components (e.g. – calcium being used in bone development), some as catalysts, some as regulators. Like amino acids, minerals demand a balance amongst themselves and inadequate or excessive amounts of one will create a systemic imbalance of the whole array of minerals.

The proportions of these nutrients required by our dogs is not only different than the proportions required by us but, like us, also varies depending on the age and activity of the dog. Therefore the pet food industry is right about having different formulas for growth, maintenance, athletic performance, and seniors. (Whether they have actually formulated them right is another matter entirely.) It seems that puppies need considerably more protein, for example, than an adult dog. Their little bodies not only are doing all the reactions that adult bodies are, but also building the muscles, hormones, enzymes and immune systems that contain those reactions. An athletic dog, on the other hand, needs slightly more protein than a sedentary dog (not much more, contrary to popular myth) but far more energy (preferably fat and not carbohydrates). There are all kinds of tables I could reproduce that show the exact proportions, except for one thing … I don’t trust those tables. You see, those studies are based upon consumption of commercial dog foods with their high vegetable content, low fat content and questionable protein sources. I am not aware of any tables which are based on more objective sources, such as diets of feral dogs, wolves and coyotes.

Let’s look at the growth phase, for example. Research says that feeding puppies energy rich diets is undesirable. We are routinely told to underfeed our puppies, because to do otherwise leads to rapid growth. Rapid growth in turn is closely linked to undesirable decreases in bone density, higher body weight and eventually dysplasia. But it turns out that the subject of these studies was puppies whose exercise was restricted. Now, can you imagine a less natural condition than a group of puppies not allowed to run and tumble and fight and do all the things that burn calories and prevent puppies from getting fat? And what do you know: when these studies were recently reproduced EXCEPT the puppies were allowed to play and exercise at will, there was no such accelerated growth rate, no fat puppies and no bone disorder. So my query is this: how can we trust the existing numbers (X% protein, Y% fat and Z% carbohydrate) when they are based on studies of how to economically feed dogs on pre-existing commercial rations rather than studies on what canines naturally eat to achieve and maintain a healthy condition?

A nice little example is the long standing warning against feeding your dogs too much protein for fear of overworking the dog’s kidneys. You see, protein (amino acids) contains nitrogen at its core. Any excess nitrogen (“excess” meaning it is not needed for the building blocks but used instead as a mere energy source) has to be removed (the process is called deamination) by the kidneys and excreted as urea in the dog’s urine. Now ultimately this information is true. But our preconceptions, based upon our own omnivorous diets, of what level of protein consumption is ideal, has little applicability to a carnivorous canine. This information can only be obtained from studies of our canine friends. And such studies as have been done have focused on commercial diets which bear no relationship whatsoever to to what a dog eats when he has other choices, such as protein from animal sources. And, keeping in mind that it is the whole spectrum of animo acids that a dog needs and not merely a bulk quantity of “protein”, what proportion of protein is ideal will vary widely depending on the quality of the protein (with egg protein being the ultimate, various meats being good, and plant sources being less valuable no matter how much “protein” they supply).

Another kink in the question of “how much of each nutrient should I feed my dog” centres around puppies. New research on the growth phase has found that nutritional requirements differ by “type”. That is: toy breed puppies have different requirements than giant breed puppies. What is suitable for one type of puppy, then, is not necessarily suitable to another puppy which, at adult size, will be substantially larger than the first puppy.

Another problem facing us is that research has centred around processed foods rather than the foods that our dogs are naturally happy with. Who knows the effect of cooking on the quality of the nutrient to the dog? And what about the dyes (like Red Dye 40 which is banned for human use) often used in dog food to make us buy it because of its attractive appearance? Related to this is the manner in which nutrients are preserved. Most common are synthetic preservatives like:

  1. BHA and BHT: used to preserve fat and linked to liver and kidney failure, birth defects, allergies and various other afflictions;
  2. Ethoxyquin: also used to preserve fat (and the unrelated use as a rubber hardener) and linked to immune system disorders and cancer as well as a list of other disorders.

In reaction to public concern over such additives many lines have come up with the idea of using the natural preservatives of vitamins C and E. Unfortunately, what they haven’t told us is that it appears that the vitamins rapidly deteriorate the moment the food is exposed to air (i.e. – once the bag is opened).

As if all this wasn’t enough to give you a headache, consider some other dirty tricks allowed in the pet food industry:

  1. While the ingredients are supposed to be listed in descending order of quantity, some such as whole chicken are now apparently allowed to be listed on a fully hydrated basis. That is, chicken may be first on the list but that’s with all the water still in. When it gets to you all the water is out and that chicken may be more appropriately the fifth or sixth ingredient,
  2. Not first; some manufactures may list, for example, corn meal, kibbled corn and corn oil as ingredients 5, 6 and 10. But what are all three of them: corn. And when you lump them together like any normal person would do … ta da: ingredient #1 is in fact (though not on the label) CORN; there is no apparent regulation of “meat by products”, so some reputable manufacturers may be using quality by products like brains and eyes, while others are using feathers and manure.

I am afraid I have more questions than I do answers, but I hope that if nothing else my questions will make you look at your dog’s diet and wonder: is this the best I can do for my friend?