food & nutrition
Wellness: Healthy Living
Winter not only keeps us inside, it’s also a time of food-centric holiday celebrations. How can we share the fun with our dogs without packing pounds on them? When you want to get the facts, you go to the pros, and for an answer to this question, we checked in with Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, ACVN and associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. Her general advice is that we be mindful of our dogs’ daily caloric needs and their total intake. (More on this in a future issue.) Dr. Churchill also shared a few tips.
> Go for frequency, not volume, and choose either very small treats (pinkie fingernail-size) or ones that can be broken into small pieces.
> Look for tasty low-cal alternatives; if your dog likes likes raw fruit and veg —carrots, celery, green beans, cucumbers, apples, blueberries—keep a ready-to-eat supply on hand.
> Unsalted, unbuttered popcorn provides lots of bang for its caloric buck; there are only 20 calories in a popped cup, and a cup goes a long way, especially when scattered around for the dog to find.
We saved the really big question for last. How do we resist those soulful eyes as we eat our turkey sandwiches and our special holiday cookies? Dr. Churchill advises that if we’re going to cave, we should do it with the lowest-calorie treat. It’s also important to avoid reinforcing begging (do your best!) and to preserve our dog’s routine. Dr. Churchill’s final takeaway: Dogs choose joy, and the time we spend with our dogs means more to them than food. Carve out time to make some joyful memories.
Valentine Liver Nibbles
This delicious recipe is nutritious and tasty, and the loaf can be sliced up into any size. What better way to make your pup feel truly special this Valentine’s Day than with homemade treats richly infused with love. The added bonus is that Valentine Liver Nibbles are completely wheat-free, making them ideal for sensitive pets.
What to Do
Note: We've omitted the garlic originally in this recipe.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What makes a “super” food? Edibles that deliver the maximum amount of nutrients with minimum calories. Humans and dogs can share several common foods that are nutritionally dense, and pack a lot of healthful benefits into a serving. These super foods help people and their pets fight disease, boost energy and maintain good health in general. They make great additions to your dog’s diet—whether you feed packaged dog food or home cook meals—consider adding the nutritionally-packed components to compliment your dog’s eating regime. Be sure to introduce these foods gradually and with the proper proportions, and check with your veterinarian if your dog has any dietary or health concerns.
Besides these, there are also many simple, fresh and wholesome food items that dogs and humans can thrive on, including apples, green beans, papaya, leafy greens, liver and hearts, eggs, oats, bananas, wheat grass, cranberries, nuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, parsley, wheat germ and apple cider vinegar. For dogs, animal protein such as, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, goat, rabbit, pork, beef, fish and venison, should be an integral part of their meals.
A simple home-prepared meal that incorporates healthy ingredients that not only improves our animals’ health but is also easier on our budgets.
Combine all ingredients, mix well. Serve.
Hint: Powdered calcium sticks to wet ingredients, sprinkle evenly over wet food.
Protein: 36 grams Fat: 28 grams Calories: 436
Daily serving for a 30 lb dog, can be divided into 2 feedings.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Q&A with Susan Thixton, authors of Dinner PAWsible.
Whole food, real food, clean eating: however it’s described, many of us are turning—or returning—to minimally processed, additive-free food made by nature rather than machines. In their newly revised cookbook, Dinner PAWsible, holistic veterinarian Cathy Alinovi and pet food safety advocate Susan Thixton apply that concept to the world of companion animals. They suggest that home-prepared meals incorporating healthy ingredients are eminently do-able alternatives that not only improve our animals’ health but also, are easier on our budgets. Bark recently spoke with the authors.
For years, we’ve been told that variety in a dog’s diet is a bad thing, yet in your cookbook, you encourage it. Why?
We promote variety for pets for the same reason it’s recommended for humans: to provide a balance of vitamins and minerals. Eating different foods from meal to meal helps achieve this.
How should we go about switching our dogs from commercial foods to a diet that incorporates the recipes from your book?
Changing brands of commercial pet food quickly (from one meal to the next) can cause some dogs to have “tummy issues,” aka diarrhea. So, to be safe when making the transition, we recommend switching slowly: for example, one-quarter new (home-prepared) food to three-quarters old (commercial) food for two or three days, half-and-half for another two or three days, and so on. Dogs who’ve been eating real food all along can be switched right over to the recipes we provide.
When preparing meals for our dogs, how can we be sure that the nutrients are bio-available? And, related to this, why is “lightly cooked” better than “thoroughly cooked”?
Remember when commercial cat food was introduced and researchers discovered that taurine had to be added, even though it was made with meat? Taurine, an amino acid [protein’s building blocks] cats require, occurs naturally in meat; however, in the manufacturing process, the meat was overcooked to the point that the taurine broke down and was no longer available as a nutrient.
It’s the same thing with cooking for dogs—if you cook the ever-living daylights out of meat, the nutrients will be degraded, while cooking it lightly leaves more nutrients accessible to the body. Feeding raw meat is also acceptable, but we recommend that people avoid feeding their dogs raw ground meat from the grocery store, as it is often contaminated with bacteria that can be harmful. Vegetables are a bit harder for a dog to digest, which is why we recommend lightly cooking them; if you feel you need to boil veggies, add the cooking water to your dog’s food, as boiling tends to leach the vitamins into the water.
You advise boiling a whole chicken and then using the bones to make a broth that incorporates apple cider vinegar. What’s the advantage of adding vinegar?
Chicken can really be prepared by any method; broiling or baking works great too, and still leaves you with bones you can use to make broth. (Regardless of how you prep your chicken, don’t overcook it. We recommend using a meat thermometer to make certain the meat is cooked to the proper temperature of 165 degrees.) Apple cider vinegar helps leach the minerals from the bones, which gives you bone broth, a powerhouse food source.
Most of your recipes have around 10 to 15 percent fat. Why is fat important for dogs, and do highly active dogs need more?
For dogs—for all mammals, actually—fat is an energy source and provides nutrients necessary for an efficiently functioning nervous system. Some, like working sled dogs, need an amazing number of calories, on the order of 10,000 kcal a day when they’re running at top speed (10 times the amount comparably sized pet dogs require), and fat helps them meet these requirements. While our recipes are designed for pet dogs who are moderately active, they can be modified for higher energetic needs, which also come into play during pregnancy, puppyhood and agility work. We discuss these modifications at the beginning of the book, and we’re available to help individuals with specialized requirements.
Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to some ingredients, for example, nuts and seeds? I use a NutriBullet to make drinks for myself and my dogs that include ground hemp, goji, flax and other seeds and nuts. It seems our dogs would also benefit from high-value “smoothies” made with raw leafy veggies, fruits and seeds, moistened with broth or whey. What do you think?
Just like humans, dogs can get too much of a good thing, although it takes repeated daily overeating of one item to cause a problem. Fresh grinding makes rich foods like seeds and nuts—wonderful sources of protein and trace nutrients—more digestible, as well as helps the body access their wonderful omega fatty-acid oils. You can make great pet food add-ins by using a NutriBullet, Vitamix or even a coffee grinder.
Why don’t you advocate a raw diet?
We promote minimally processed food, raw or cooked. Our original concept was to help pet owners new to real food get started, and some are grossed out by the idea of raw meat. We’ve found that as people become more experienced, many do switch to raw foods. On the other hand, some dogs—those who are older or who have particular health problems—cannot comfortably digest raw meat, so cooking it lightly makes sense for them.
You point out that not every meal needs to be complete and balanced. In the overall scheme of things, how important is balance, and how can we be assured that our dogs get all the nutrients they require?
Consider human diets: every meal, every bite, is not 100 percent balanced and complete. But over the course of a few meals with a variety of ingredients, balance is achieved. The same thing works for our dogs: variety fills in any “holes” that may exist in individual recipes. We like the concept of providing balanced nutrition through whole-food ingredients instead of via synthetic supplements (which is what most commercial pet foods use).
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Home cooking helps you feed ’em well for less.
When suppertime rolls around, there’s nothing like a healthy home-cooked meal. This is true not only for the human members of your family, but for your dog as well. Cooking for your canine companion has many benefits, including fewer preservatives and additives, more varied and potentially better ingredients and, of course, more interest for the canine palate.
Homemade meals may even make it possible to feed your dog well for less. A 15- pound bag of high-end dry dog food costs approximately $42, and a 5.5 oz. can of high-end wet food runs approximately $2. Feeding a medium-sized dog two cans of wet mixed with two cups of dry food costs about $5 per day. That doesn’t include the treats, bones and tidbits that inevitably make their way into her tummy! Compare that with four cups of Puppy Stew (recipe here) at $2.25 per day. Add the cost of a vitamin/ mineral supplement and calcium, and it is still less than the cost of feeding high-end commercial food.* (You can also combine homemade meals with commercially available dry dog food. This will, of course, change the nutritional calculations as well as the price, but your pup will still be pleased.)
As both able hunters and scavengers, dogs ate from a diverse menu when they began accompanying humans. An omnivorous diet of protein, carbohydrate and fat sources suits them; dogs in good health can also handle the fat in their diet more effectively than you can— their bodies use it for energy and then efficiently clear it from the bloodstream.
The caveats? Dogs have different nutrient requirements than people. For example, they need high-quality protein, more calcium and more minerals for their proportional body size. Calcium is particularly critical. In The Complete Holistic Dog Book, co-author Katy Sommers, DVM, notes that “calcium is perhaps the single most important supplement for a successful home-cooked diet. Even if you’re feeding a variety of foods, you’ll need to supply an extra source of calcium.” She recommends giving one 600 mg calcium carbonate tablet (or 1⁄2 teaspoon of the powder form) for each 10 to 15 pounds of body weight daily for most adult dogs. (She also points out that, if you’re mixing homemade and commercial foods, you don’t need to supplement as heavily, as commercial foods contain adequate or possibly even excessive amounts of calcium and phosphorus.) More good advice on this subject can be found in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn.
There are some human foods that dogs should never be given, including macadamia nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, raisins, grapes, onions or excessive amounts of garlic. And, of course, check with your veterinarian before making big changes to your dog’s diet, particularly if she has any preexisting health conditions. Once you get the green light, make the changes gradually to avoid digestive upsets; introduce new foods slowly, substituting a small proportion of the new food for the old over time. Finally, be careful not to provide too many overall calories (energy), as obesity is just as unhealthy for dogs as it is for humans; your vet can help you determine how much your dog should be eating.
Food safety is also an issue. While dogs have many defenses against bacteria, parasites and other food-borne pathogens, they are not immune to them. Be sure to keep utensils clean, perishables refrigerated and ingredients cooked to appropriate internal temperatures to kill off any unwanted bugs. This is particularly important for puppies, old dogs or those with a health condition that makes them vulnerable.
In general, your homemade recipes should contain a high-value protein source (muscle meat, eggs, fish, liver), a fat source (safflower, olive, canola or fish oil; the best and most easily available fish oils are salmon and cod), a fiber-containing carbohydrate (brown rice, sweet potato, oats, barley), and a phytochemical source (fruits, vegetables, herbs). Substitutions can be made; for example, if you know your dog likes whole-grain pasta, substitute pasta for barley as a carbohydrate source. Some dogs, like some kids, hate veggies but will eat fruit, so use fruit instead; fruit can complement meats just as readily as vegetables can. Yogurt, cottage cheese, beans and tofu can occasionally be used as protein sources, but keep in mind that not all dogs can tolerate dairy products, beans or soy and may become flatulent or experience other gastrointestinal “issues”; test tolerance with small quantities.
When you cook a batch of homemade food, let it cool, and—if you make more than your dog can eat within a couple of days—portion it into reusable, washable containers, then freeze and defrost as needed. You can safely keep cooked food in the refrigerator for three days; after that, spoilage becomes a concern.
By adhering to the basic guidelines, you can be creative, provide great homemade meals and know that the ingredients are wholesome. You might even try serving some of these recipes to your human family so they can feel special too.
These recipes are calculated for a healthy adult medium-sized dog (approximately 35 to 40 pounds) who’s moderately active. The ingredients listed are standard (not organic) and can be purchased at any supermarket. Dogs of this general description require approximately 1,800 mg of calcium daily, according to Sommers, et al. If your dog is smaller or larger, her total calcium requirements can be calculated using 600 mg for every 12.5 pounds. (If your dog is a senior, still growing or has health issues, please consult your veterinarian— we really can’t say this often enough!) For a veterinary nutritionist– developed canine vitamin/mineral (calcium- inclusive) supplement, check out BalanceIT® powder.
Important: Many veterinarians, while acknowledging that pet food recalls and the poor quality of some pet foods are causes for concern, still feel that homemade diets, when fed exclusively, may result in nutritional imbalances and vitamin/mineral deficiencies that may pose threats to canine health. Therefore, if you choose to feed your dog a homemade diet, it is important that you understand and provide what your dog needs to stay healthy; veterinary nutritionists can assist in developing suitable homemade diets. While caution was taken to give safe recommendations and accurate instructions in this article, it is impossible to predict an individual dog’s reaction to any food or ingredient. Readers should consult their vets and use personal judgment when applying this information to their own dogs’ diets.
*The cost of feeding homemade will vary according to the size, activity level and health of your dog. Dogs who are pregnant or lactating, growing pups and those who perform endurance activities require much more nutrition (calories, protein, fatty acids) and have other special nutritional needs.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Some things to know about "low-cal" pet food
There’s no denying obesity is a major canine health issue. Obesity contributes to arthritis, heart and liver disease, diabetes, respiratory difficulties, heat stroke, some cancers and more. And somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of domestic cats and dogs in the United States are overweight, according to several estimates. As we do in our personal battles of the bulge, we turn to reduced calorie diets for help. Unfortunately, these may not be the straightforward solution they appear to be.
A study of so-called light or low-calorie pet foods performed at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University revealed a confusing variation in calorie density and feeding recommendations among brands. Researchers found dry dog foods making weight management claims ranged in calorie density from 217 to 440 kilocalories per cup (kcal/cup), and that the recommended intake ranged from 0.73 to 1.47 times the dog’s resting energy requirement.
What this means is that well-meaning dog owners following manufacturer guidelines might not see promised weight loss in their chubby pups—in fact, they might see weigh gain—leading to frustration for people and ill health for dogs.
Knowing and counting calories is a priority for weight management, according to veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, MS, VMD, DACVN, with whom we talked about the Tufts study and canine weight management. Dr. Moser is an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, he serves on the National Organic Standards Board Pet Food Task Force.
“It’s incumbent on the pet owner to know what calories are in the food and the energy their dog needs,” Dr. Moser says. While weight and age are a good starting point for calculating what your dog requires maintain or lose weight, there are other important multipliers to take into consideration, such as whether your dog is spayed or neutered, and the intensity and duration of their daily activity. Also, pregnant or nursing dogs and puppies need more energy (aka calories).
A good way to set a calorie baseline is with a visit to your veterinarian. Since only about 17 percent of owners think their dogs are overweight, according to one study, the first step is breaking through denial. Your vet can help. There are several ways to set a daily calorie count, such as aiming for a one percent of total weight loss each week, or 75 percent of the calories required to maintain a goal weight, etc., Dr. Moser says.
The important thing is to be consistent and engaged. Once you cut back on calories, weigh your dog about every ten days, Dr. Moser says, to see when they plateau. Also, he recommends something called “body condition scoring.” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine website provides an illustrated chart that shows dogs and cats from emaciated to obese. Look at the pictures and ask: Where does my dog fit? You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs but your fingers shouldn’t fit between them.
Why diet food? Why not just feed your dog less of his or her regular food? “What makes a diet food different is we’re essentially diluting calories,” Dr. Moser says. There are only a couple ways you can do that including reducing fat content, which decreases calorie density and palatability, or adding fiber or even air, in the case of kibble. The calories in canned food can be diluted with water. “We are making dogs think they are full when they’ve really only eaten 75 percent of the calories,” Dr. Moser says. “The other stuff is just helping you feed more so the dog doesn’t beg.”
One reason Dr. Moser says people aren’t successful with low calorie food is because they leave it out for free-choice feeding. (Imagine a sort of bottomless bowl." “Because even low calorie foods have calories,” he says. He agrees with the study recommendation that free-choice feeding is not a good option—in part because food today is extremely palatable and so it’s easy for dogs to overeat. The better option is a measured quantity of food a couple times a day, he says.
If you don’t see calories listed on your label that’s because calorie counts are only required on dog food that claims to be lite, light, less calorie or low calorie. (The Academy of Canine Veterinary Nutrition, to which study co-author Dr. Lisa Freeman and Dr. Moser belong, is advocating for requiring calorie information on all pet food labels.) Foods with a light, lite, or low-calorie designation must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. However, Dr. Freeman pointed out that more than half of the foods evaluated in her study exceeded this maximum.
Why does it matter if your pup’s a little plump? Dr. Moser points to research that shows keeping dogs thin can extend their lives by as much as one and half years—that should motivate us to study labels and get out our measuring cups.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Stores are selling more and more dog foods labeled “natural,” “human grade” and “organic,” and the industry considers them to be the hot new trend. But what can these words mean?
Because the government has never bothered to define “natural” for human foods, this word essentially means anything the manufacturer says it does. For pet foods, however, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has an official definition:
Natural: A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes.
Got that? You can render or extrude a pet food to mush, but it’s “natural” if you haven’t added anything synthetic—unless you had to. AAFCO also says that “natural” must not mislead; if it appears on the label, every ingredient in the product must meet the definition. But even AAFCO knows this is impossible. Pet food companies typically buy vitamins, minerals and other additives from factories overseas, where, as we learned in last year’s pet food recalls, quality controls are sometimes nonexistent.
We do not see too many claims about human-grade ingredients on package labels, mainly because AAFCO does not have an official definition of the term. Without an approved AAFCO definition, an ingredient or term is not supposed to be used on pet food labels. AAFCO says “human-grade” is false and misleading, and constitutes misbranding, unless every ingredient in the product—and every processing method—meets FDA and USDA requirements for producing, processing and transporting foods suitable for consumption by humans, and every producer of the ingredients is licensed to perform those tasks. Few pet food companies can meet these criteria.
But AAFCO’s unease does not stop pet food makers from using the term, particularly because larger legal concepts appear to be on their side. In 2007, a case against The Honest Kitchen led the Ohio courts to rule that the company had a constitutional right to truthful commercial free speech, and could use “human-grade” on its labels. The Honest Kitchen advertises on its website that it is “the only pet food manufacturer in the United States to have proven to the Federal FDA that every ingredient it uses in its products are suitable for human consumption.”
Only a few other companies make human-grade claims on their food labels, but many use the term freely in their in-store materials and website advertising. For example, Newman’s Own Organics presents this information in a question-and-answer format: “Q: Does Newman’s Own Organics use human grade materials? Why isn't that written on the bag? A: Newman’s Own Organics organic pet food uses human grade and fit for human consumption ingredients such as natural chicken and organic grains. The AAFCO Board … actually prohibits the printing of ‘Human Grade’ on pet food packaging.”
That brings us to organics. For human foods, “organic” has a precise meaning defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified as organic, plant ingredients in pet foods must be grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge. Animal ingredients must come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Producers must be inspected to make sure they adhere to these standards. (Note: They do, but whether the standards are good enough is a separate question.)
In 2002, the NOP did not include pet foods in the organic rules because it could not figure out how to do so. In 2005, it appointed a pet food task force to handle the figuring. A year later, this group quite sensibly recommended that organic standards for humans be applied to pet foods. But, the NOP cautioned, “these requirements will present challenges for pet food manufacturers, especially sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients.” No kidding. More than 90 percent of soybeans and half the corn grown in United States now come from genetically modified varieties.
Because the NOP has not yet adopted the task force recommendations, organic pet foods are in regulatory limbo, leaving AAFCO with the unenviable task of explaining how to label “organic” pet foods. AAFCO says that (1) under NOP rules, pet foods may not display the USDA organic seal or claim that they were produced according to organic standards. But (2), NOP also says labeling terms such as “100% organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients” on pet foods may be truthful and do not imply organic production or certification. Therefore (3), AAFCO recommends that labeling rules for human foods apply to pet foods.
What to make of this? We think the statements imply that nobody is going to make a fuss about organic claims on pet foods, even when some, most or even all of their ingredients are not really organic.
Mind you, following the rules for organic labeling is complicated (see chart). Even so, you can go into a pet food store and easily find products that violate these standards. Our favorite: companies calling themselves organic when their foods do not contain a single organic ingredient. They get away with this because the USDA, unlike the FDA, doesn’t regulate company names.
Organic foods command higher prices because people believe in the integrity of the standards. If the standards are not met, why pay more? If the USDA allows weaker standards for pet foods, we wonder whether it will continue to defend strong organic standards for human foods. Without strong standards, organics are just about marketing, not production methods. We think everyone—pet food makers, the USDA, AAFCO and the readers of Bark—should demand nothing less than the highest possible standards for natural, human-grade and organic claims on dog foods.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Raw food: Yes or no? Strong opinions line up on both sides.
Linguist George Lakoff rose to national prominence during the 2004 presidential campaign for pointing out that conservatives have done a much better job than progressives at framing political debate, and for encouraging the left to stop shooting itself in the foot with the words it uses. While no doubt the good professor would be surprised to hear it, his ideas also shed some light on a very canine subject: the war of words being waged over raw diets for dogs.
Pro-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any variation among individual animals, nor the needs, wants or desires of the owners of these animals as regards diet. Any problem can be solved by diet, and if problems persist after switching to a raw diet, then the diet needs to be further refined and tweaked. They tend to be anti-veterinarian, anti-commercial foods, anti-cooked food, anti-grain and often anti-supplement.
If your dog fell down the stairs and sprained his shoulder, diet caused it and a diet change will fix it. Raw meaty bones are the universal prescription.
Anti-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any possible benefits of a raw or homemade diet. They lump all homemade diets together as unbalanced and dangerous. All raw meat, from contaminated ground meats labeled unfit for human consumption to a $19-a-pound grass-fed steak, are considered equally dangerous. Commercial diets are above reproach, formulated by scientists who are completely removed from any marketing, pricing or competitive realities. Health comes in a sack labeled “Complete and Balanced,” and dogs fed raw meat and bones are doomed to have their skeletons dissolve and their intestines turn to bloody jelly, shortly after which they will all die long, painful deaths from parasite infestations.
If your dog is hit by a car, and needs surgery, the accident was caused by diet and putting the dog on kibble will fix it. Commercial diets are the universal prescription.
Forgotten on the sidelines is everyone else—those who feed a little “people food” to their pets but feel bad about it; those who wouldn’t dream of supplementing their dog’s “complete and balanced” commercial diet with anything beyond the occasional complete and balanced Milk Bone; those who regularly feed pizza, Big Macs and French fries to their dogs and can’t remember the last time they bought dog food for the dog or ate a salad themselves; those who use a wide variety of fresh foods with premium kibble; and those who feed an entirely homemade diet but aren’t “pure” enough to satisfy the raw-food extremists. And most importantly, there are the seekers—the legions of dog owners flooding the email lists and message boards trying to figure out how to feed their pets better; wanting to understand what “the raw diet” is, exactly; looking for hints on switching their pets; or trying to find out if changing to a better commercial diet or completely to homemade will help a pet with a health problem.
These folks are met with a hailstorm of advice, most peppered with acronyms that make no sense to them. Some people suggest books they can read, while others warn them to forget the books and listen to their common sense and/or Mother Nature and/or evolution. Feed bones, don’t feed bones, don’t feed raw, you are killing your dog by feeding him kibble, keep feeding kibble until you’re ready to feed raw responsibly, and above all, don’t commit heresy. (“Heresy” would be advocating Billinghurst to a crowd of Lonsdaleians—and if you don’t know what I mean, be thankful and move on.)
I have fed raw diets to my dogs for 20 years, and spent much of that time in the crossfire of this debate, criticized as “not holistic enough” by the raw-feeding extremists, and as a “wild-eyed fanatic” by the commercial foods camp. Although I’m always happy to share my experiences and ideas about canine nutrition, I don’t shove my way down anyone’s throat. I usually recommend several books representing a number of approaches to canine nutrition, and suggest that people experiment and see what they like best and what works well for their pets. To me it makes sense, but there’s a problem with that seemingly reasonable approach.
David Brock, in The Republican Noise Machine, points out that television news shows often bring on a conservative guest to represent one side of an issue, and then “balance” that with a supposedly “liberal” guest from the world of journalism or academia. The journalist or professor takes each issue separately, looks at it from all sides, and expresses her viewpoint in a way she perceives as objective. The conservative guest will relentlessly and often powerfully deliver the message d’jour of the conservative movement, while the supposedly liberal guest appears weak and uncommitted, exemplifying the famous quote by Robert Frost, “A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
At some point in the raw diet debates, what I see as my broad-mindedness and objectivity come across as an unwillingness to take a stand, a loathsome form of wishy-washiness. It’s frustrating, because I’m allergic to gurus and would rather people make their own decisions than adopt mine, even if their decision is, in my view, the wrong one. So, what to do?
Those on both sides could learn a thing or two about framing the debate from Lakoff. We need to use terms that will be helpful to the seekers, those swing voters of the dog food wars, and stop using language that triggers fear. Extremists arguing either way, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unconsciously, use fear to get people to do what they think they should do, and the only ethical course is to stop. Stop telling them they are killing their dogs.
Millions of dogs live long, relatively healthy lives eating kibble. It’s just a fact. Their health may not be as good as it could have been, and many of them would have been healthier on a better diet, but a blunt statement that “kibble kills dogs” is going to ring false to nearly everyone who hears it. Just the same, anti-raw fanatics can’t tell me that “raw meat kills pets” when I’ve had so many cats and dogs live long, healthy lives—longer in the case of my Deerhounds then their kibble-fed littermates raised by other people—on raw diets.
Those of us who advocate home-prepared diets need to stop implying that diets based on bones are the only alternative to kibble. Lead people by the hand through easy stages. You can jump from generic grocery store kibble to whole prey carcass in one step, but hardly anyone does, or will. Many of us started out slowly, adding fresh foods to commercial foods, improving the commercial foods we used or switching to cooked homemade diets, before we started really experimenting with diets based on carcasses and bones and hunks of meat.
The process does matter, because it’s by going through their own process at their own pace that people become invested in preparing their dog’s food themselves. It’s a way for them to build confidence in their ability to feed their pet, and to find ways to make it work with their lifestyle and financial constraints. If they are by nature someone who goes whole hog with new ideas, there is nothing wrong with making the big leap—but there is also nothing wrong with crawling before you walk and walking before you run. Be gentle.
We also need to take a long, hard look at the words we use. We can use terms like “nutritious home-prepared diets” instead of “the raw diet.” (Since there is no monolithic “raw diet,” such a phrase is meaningless anyway.) We can use terms like “fresh,” “variety” and “wholesome” to talk about the kind of diets we advocate. We can defuse 90 percent of the criticism of raw and/or homemade diets by simply changing our terms. Specifying the diet be nutritious and wholesome somewhat inoculates the seeker from being told they are feeding an unbalanced or contaminated diet.
Of course, in the end, the pro-raw and anti-raw dog owners will not agree, any more than conservatives and progressives do. Still, before you enlist in the “Red Dog/Blue Dog” wars, consider the power of a few well-chosen words, and at least raise the level of the debate—good advice in politics as well as dog food.
News: Guest Posts
Be sure where it comes from
There’s a new concern about fish, and once again, labels won’t clear it up. The hidden ingredient in some pet food is slave labor used to harvest small forage fish like mackerel. A New York Times expose of brutal conditions on Thai fishing ships describes the link to several top brand U.S. pet food companies.
Why not just skip Thai fish? Many would if that information was on the label, as it is with seafood meant for humans. But country of origin doesn’t apply to pet food rules. So where the fish or fishmeal is from isn’t likely to be announced on labels or packages. The difficulty tracking each link in the global seafood supply chain can even leave manufacturers in doubt. The article says bar codes on pet food in some European countries let consumers track Thai seafood to the packaging facilities. But prior to processing, the global supply chain for forage fish, much of which is used for pet and animal feed, is “invisible.”
Given the unsavory news, not to mention the topic of fishing the oceans to extinction, any amount of Thai fish is likely to be too much for many shoppers.
AAFCO, the governing (though not regulatory) body for the pet food industry notes that FDA pet food regulations “focus on product labeling and the ingredients which may be used.” Where those ingredients originate is left out.
That’s why some shoppers look for “alternative” certification labels from organic to Fair Trade, and put their faith in U.S. companies that aim to exceed regulatory standards. For example, Honest Kitchen, which sells human food-grade products, states on its website that suppliers guarantee their statement of country of origin. (Another promise is that no ingredient is from China.) The company is a member of Green America that promotes companies that operate in ways that support workers, communities and the environment.
As for buying dog food with fish sourced from non-Thai waters, some pet food companies do state where the fish is sourced. But many manufacturers have a long way to go to make the process transparent and easy enough for consumers to find their ingredient sourcing. (We highly recommend calling pet food companies and asking for this information to be more readily available!)
Advertising terms like “holistic” (meaning the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) and “biologically appropriate” (referring to meat-content for carnivores) say nothing about origin.
Even pet food regulators admit that pet caretakers “have a right to know what they are feeding their animals.”
So if in doubt where the fish is from, ask the company behind the bag or can. That much—the manufacturer’s name and address—is required on labels.
And some say, why should pet food buyers beware the global supply chain? With some research on a dog’s protein, calcium and other basic needs, it’s more possible than ever to get it right with a home-made diet rich in “human food” or even home-cooked table scraps. In fact, local food waste is a problem with plenty of solutions.
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