food & nutrition
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
It’s been two years since the first melamine-related pet food recall, and during that time, more dog lovers than ever have decided to turn to homemade diets—cooked or raw—as insurance against potential problems with commercial products. Is a homemade diet really insurance? Yes, it can be, assuming it’s nutritionally balanced and takes into account your dog’s breed, age, weight, activity and overall physiology.
As a consulting canine nutrition specialist, I analyze hundreds of diets annually, and see firsthand what people are actually feeding their dogs. Here are a few common misperceptions I’ve encountered and my responses to them, which I hope will help Bark readers in their own efforts to improve their dogs’ nutrition. (The following applies to adult dogs in good health; if your dog is a puppy, a senior or has health issues, be sure to consult with your veterinarian before making dietary changes.)
1. “Using fresh, wholesome foods will, over time, meet my dog’s needs if I vary the diet enough.”
There is some basis for this point of view; fresh foods are indeed more bioavailable than those made with highly processed ingredients. In addition, when an owner prepares food at home, she knows exactly what’s going into it. However, when analyzed, even diets based on wholesome, fresh ingredients can still come up low in various vitamins and minerals.
Bone up on your dog’s actual nutrient requirements by doing a bit of research; this means reading widely, speaking with nutritionists and vets (holistic, conventional and specialists), and starting to think in terms of both ingredients and nutrient needs. (See sidebar for a short “starter list” of online information sources.)
2. “A multivitamin added to the food will cover any gaps.”
The question here is this: Which multi, and with which diet? Any unsupplemented home-prepared diet will be low in some nutrients and adequate or high in others. But because there is no standard formulation for human multivitamins and they can vary greatly in what they include, just tossing one in the dish is not the answer.
Choosing an all-purpose multi made specifically for dogs doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either. These usually contain very low levels of nutrients because it’s assumed they will be added to commercial food, and so are unlikely to provide enough supplementation to round out a homemade diet. This is why “balanced” is not just a buzzword; it’s a valid and essential aspect of proper nutrition. Once you understand your dog’s nutritional needs, work out what her diet actually contains and then add what’s missing.
3. “I’m adding yogurt to my dog’s food daily so she’s getting enough calcium.”
Dogs require fairly high levels of calcium, and yogurt absolutely won’t cut it. Here’s a quick example: My own 75-pound dog has a daily requirement of 1,840 mgs of calcium, and since I use quite a bit of fiber in his diet in the form of brown rice, I want to offset any absorption issues and ensure that he gets about 2,000 mgs per day, or 14,000 mgs per week. His weekly diet alone—turkey, liver, sardines, brown rice, ground lamb and acorn squash—only provides 1,750 mgs. That means I need to add over 12,000 mgs of calcium; in other words, more than 40 cups of plain yogurt.
Calcium supplementation is always necessary unless you are feeding raw bones. I recommend using a commercial carbonate or citrate form of calcium, or an eggshell crushed into a fine powder—one teaspoon of this powder (about 5.5 grams) equals roughly 2,200 mgs of calcium carbonate. To use eggshells, rinse them well and then bake for about 10 minutes at 300 degrees; use a small grinder to make the powder. Bone meal can be used if there is also a need to add phosphorus, but many homemade diets supply plenty of this mineral.
This is a very common assumption but unfortunately, it isn’t accurate. Current nutritional guidelines for humans—who are omnivores—emphasize foods and ratios that may not be ideal for dogs. Ensure dietary balance by aiming for about 30 to 35 percent of total calories from fats, 30 percent from protein and the balance from complex carbohydrates. (Percentages are guidelines, but are not as accurate as evaluating the gram content of a diet; this is another place where it pays to do the math.)
5. “My dog had some loose stools, so cutting way down on fiber will correct that.”
Fiber is an important dietary component, and the type of fiber you use counts as much or more than the amount (fiber is commonly used to address both constipation and diarrhea problems).
6. “I use a lot of fresh veggies in my dog’s diet because they offer so many health benefits.”
Vegetables’ role in the canine diet has been a topic of considerable discussion. One school of thought holds that adding them is inappropriate, since dogs are carnivores and do not need plant matter. Others emphasize the need for both veggies and fruit to boost not only essential nutrients but also phytochemicals that may provide protection from disease.
Unlike cats, who are obligate carnivores (animals who must get their primary nutrition from meat), dogs’ systems are more accommodating, and vegetables offer a lot in the way of health benefits. But here again, we are faced with the all-important questions, “How much and what type?” Some vegetables have elements that may interfere with the absorption of minerals, and others, such as those in the nightshade family—tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplants and peppers—contain solanine, an alkaloid that some theorize aggravates inflammation. Use veggies judiciously: Limit dark leafy greens—which contain high levels of oxalate and may contribute to bladder stones in dogs who are prone to them—and be conservative with nightshades. Green beans and carrots are usually safe bets, and pumpkin and sweet potatoes are well tolerated (unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes are not in the nightshade family, but are high in calories and starch).
7. “Dogs don’t require carbs, and grains are bad for them.”
All this means is that lack of carbohydrates will not lead to an identifiable deficiency in the way that a lack of Vitamin C in humans will produce scurvy. It does not, however, mean that a carb-free diet is a good idea. To complicate this issue, many people use the terms “carbohydrate” and “grain” interchangeably, thinking they’re following a no-carb diet because they have eliminated grains.
Complex carbohydrates provide energy and aid in healthy gastrointestinal function, and some portion of your dog’s homemade food should consist of brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, legumes (which also add protein) or starchy vegetables. Try to keep levels consistent so if need be, you can make adjustments.
8. “A raw diet is always superior to one that’s cooked—dogs fed raw do not get sick.”
Raw diets vary in type; some seek nutrient balance while others utilize a “prey model” approach, which mimics the diet of wolves or wild dogs as closely as possible. These diets have become hugely popular over the past decade, and to be sure, there are dogs who absolutely thrive on them. But some do not. As with a cooked diet, it’s essential to ensure proper formulation. Raw diets have drawbacks as well as benefits, and may not be suitable for every dog.
If you are planning to try a raw approach, do your homework. Research both within and outside the various raw communities that exist on the Internet. Talk to veterinarians and nutritionists, read widely, and take your time.
9. “Raw diets are a dangerous fad. I’d be scared to try it.”
For every home feeder who sings the praises of a raw diet, I hear another one say she wouldn’t dare use foods that aren’t cooked. It’s as much a mistake to assume that raw is uniformly dangerous as it is to insist it’s a viable solution for every dog. I often use raw diets for dogs with allergies, or proactively where there are no problems and the owner has expressed an interest. One great advantage of this approach is ease of preparation. Consider your own needs and lifestyle as well as your dog’s when making this all-important decision about feeding.
10. “Dogs of all ages can be fed a similar diet, as long as it’s made up of whole foods.”
This can be a dangerous misconception. Puppies’ diets need to have at least twice, and in some cases, as much as five times the nutrient content of an adult dog’s. But although they require more nutrients, hyper-nutrition can be a serious problem, particularly in giant breeds. At the other end of the age range, though it was long thought that reducing dietary protein was in the best interest of seniors, current findings suggest they may actually require more protein than adult dogs.
If you are new to home feeding, learn as much as you can about canine nutrition before introducing your puppy or senior to a homemade diet. Better yet, work with an experienced nutrition consultant who can help you formulate and adjust the diet according to your dog’s growth needs. For seniors in particular, have a full geriatric screening run at least semi-annually to ensure that liver and kidney values are within normal range; aberrations in these numbers often indicate a need for changes in dietary management. Though poor nutrition causes problems no matter what the dog’s age, growing dogs and seniors pose greater challenges to the novice home feeder than do adult dogs, and mistakes made here can have serious consequences.
So, here’s the take-away message: A homemade diet remains a popular and potentially very healthy alternative or complement to the many premium foods on the market. However, research and planning are essential. Gather information from a wide range of sources, exercise a little caution, start slowly and don’t forget to check in with your vet or nutrition specialist regularly to be sure the diet hasn’t inadvertently drifted out of balance. Any diet on which your dog fails to thrive is a poor choice. If you see that your dog is not doing well on what you’re feeding him, consider a change. He will thank you for it.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Raw feeding isn’t just for experts anymore [Expanded]
The web is crowded with passionate bloggers extolling the benefits of the raw-food diet: cleaner teeth, less odor, shinier coats, more energy and far fewer visits to the vet’s office. But when we move beyond anecdotal evidence, does science support it? And what exactly constitutes a healthy home-cooked canine diet anyway?
For more than two years, Sir Robert McCarrison, a doctor whose work is referenced in the authoritative Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, conducted a study in which he fed roughly 1,000 rats a healthy diet, including sprouted beans, raw cabbage and carrots, raw milk, and a moderate amount of meat and bone. He also provided them with sun, fresh air and a clean place to live. Their eventual necropsies revealed no disease — not one. Two other groups, who had the misfortune of being fed rice or diets rich in boiled, sweetened and canned foods, showed disease in every organ, and some became so agitated that they devolved to cannibalism.
Taking this compelling research into account, the next question is where to begin. Two major schools of raw feeding exist today. The first, “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food” (BARF), was created by veterinary surgeon Ian Billinghurst. A typical BARF diet is made up of 60 to 80 percent raw meaty bones (poultry necks, wings and backs; rabbit or quail quarters or halves; and so forth), and 20 to 40 percent fruits and veggies, meat, eggs, and dairy foods, along with an abundance of supplements. The second, the “prey-model” diet, strictly mimics what proponents believe would be the animal’s natural diet in the wild. Whole rabbits or game hens, for example, are often offered to the dog. This diet recommends 80 percent muscle meat, 10 percent bone and 10 percent organ meat, and nothing more.
According to most raw feeders, dogs should eat muscle meat (hamburger, chicken, turkey), as well as a healthy array of organ meat (heart, liver, kidneys), whole fish and raw meaty bones (RMBs). Cooked bones are dangerous and should never be fed, as cooking leaves the bones brittle and prone to splintering. To balance out nutritional needs, you’re generally advised to add other ingredients to the menu, including dog-safe vegetables, legumes, limited grains and fruits, and some supplements. That’s where it gets tricky.
Heidi Hill, the owner of Holistic Hound in Berkeley, Calif., is a trained homeopath who has been feeding her dog Pearl raw for nearly 10 years. She often advises her customers to start out with prepared diets to avoid becoming overwhelmed or, worse, neglecting the nutritional needs of their dogs. “If you’re home-cooking or preparing more than, say, 20 percent of your dog’s food yourself, you really need to do your research,” says Hill. Complete and balanced commercial diets and pre-mixes to which you add your own fresh meat can take the guesswork out of healthy nutrition. Hill also recommends that you confirm that products are locally sourced, made in small batches, organic whenever possible and both hormone- and antibiotic-free.
If, on the other hand, you feel up to the task of managing your dog’s nutritional needs yourself, you can work with your veterinarian or an animal nutritionist to assure that you fill the most common gaps in canine nutrition created by home feeding: bone meal for calcium, fish oil for omega-3s, supplementation for vitamins A and D and more.
Grains are also frequently indicted as a problem for dogs, but the real culprits are often the mold mites (such as Tyrophagus putrescentiae) that can be found on food in opened kibble bags. Still, veterinarians generally agree that canines’ short digestive tracts make it harder for them to digest grains; if you feed your dog grains, be sure to cook them. Dr. Pitcairn advises quick-cooking and economical grains, such as rolled oats (which have the highest protein count per calorie of any common grain), cornmeal, millet and bulgur.
Raw veggies can also present dogs with a digestive challenge, and the following should be cooked as well: corn, peas, green beans, broccoli, potatoes and squash.
If you have a juicer, mix leftover carrot, beet, apple, or other fruit or vegetable pulp in with the rest of your dog’s meal.
Finally, chia seeds are a great source of antioxidants, protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and another healthy addition to the raw canine diet now moving into the mainstream. The most digestible form is a gel, which you can make by whisking one cup of cool water with 1 3/4 tablespoons of seeds. Let it stand for three or four minutes, and whisk again. Wait another 10 minutes, whisk again and you’re good to go. The rule of thumb for feeding is one tablespoon of gel for every six ounces of food.
How Much Is Enough?
• 100 lb. dog: 2 to 3 lbs. daily, or two meals of 1 to 1.5 lbs. each
• 75 lb. dog: 1.5 to 2 lbs. daily, or two meals of 12 to 18 oz. each
• 50 lb. dog: 1 to 1.5 lbs. daily, or two meals of 8 to 12 oz. each
• 25 lb. dog: 8 to 12 oz. daily, or two meals of 4 to 6 oz. each
In other words, many nutritionists who support raw diets suggest that a dog should eat the equivalent of about 15 percent of her body weight each week.
If you’re just starting out with raw food, you may choose to begin by combining homemade fare with a highquality commercial food. Remember that not every dog thrives on a raw diet. If your dog is immune-compromised, for example, it might not be the way to go. And while most healthy dogs’ systems can handle many strains of bacteria, good hygiene is still important when handling raw meat. If you’re concerned about your dog choking, grinding meat and bones to a hamburger-like consistency can eliminate the risk.
The most important task in this transition is to talk with those who have experience and are up-to-date on the research, read up on nutrition, and keep your holistic vet in the loop throughout the process. Fans of raw feeding believe that even a partial transition will give your dog such a spring in her step that you’ll be making the switch faster than you can say RMB.
Dog's Life: Humane
Meeting the needs of food and companion animals alike
My wife Alayne and I are dog lovers. We have 35 of them at Rolling Dog Farm, our nonprofit sanctuary for disabled animals in New Hampshire. We care deeply about their health, their happiness and their overall well-being. Then, several years ago, we began asking ourselves a difficult question: What about the animals we feed our dogs? What kind of life do they deserve?
When we first started our nonprofit in 2000, we focused on the quality of the food we were feeding our disabled dogs. We learned how to distinguish between high quality and low quality by reading ingredient labels and ignoring packaging and marketing hype.
Then we began to think about its source — about the animals who ended up in the dog food. Alayne calls it “animal in a bag” and “animal in a can,” though most of us never think of it that way. It’s a lot easier not to think about it. Just open the bag or can and serve.
When the subject of dog food comes up, it seems that nearly everyone has an opinion. Some argue passionately that a raw diet is the only way to go; others insist on feeding organic food; some will feed their dogs only one specific brand, while others promote the benefits of home-cooked meals. But when was the last time you heard someone say, “I only feed humanely raised food to my dog”?
Today in the pet food marketplace, you’ll see a bewildering number of claims when it comes to the benefits and features of every type and brand. One thing you won’t see on a pet food label is “humanely raised.” While many people are concerned about their own food sources — a concern that has manifested itself in third-party certifications like “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” — this attribute is conspicuously missing when it comes to the food we feed our companion animals.
Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s book on America’s food system, made me realize that those of us who work in the animal welfare movement face our own dilemma. We focus intently on the well-being of the animals in our care, but rarely give any thought to the cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys (and more) who wind up in their food bowls.
Best Friends Animal Society, which operates the nation’s largest animal sanctuary, has a wonderful slogan: “A better world through kindness to animals.” All of us in the animal welfare movement believe in the spirit of that statement. But how far are we willing to take it?
That was the dilemma Alayne and I wrestled with over the years. How can we have one set of standards for companion animals and turn a blind eye to the welfare of those who go into pet food?
Much of our interest in this issue was driven by the fact that I was a vegan for nearly a decade and a vegetarian for several years before that. I struggled to reconcile my own beliefs about what I ate with what we fed our dogs. At one point, we even tried feeding them a vegetarian diet — with many unhappy results. Whether the meals were commercial or homemade, we’d never had so many dogs walk away from food before. A few ate anything we put in front of them, but most made it very clear that they were not happy with the new menu. We quickly abandoned the effort.
How Others See It
These nonprofits promote a vegan lifestyle as the antidote to factory farming. Given this point of view, they aren’t quick to acknowledge that humane livestock farming may be a genuine and reasonable alternative to the misery of factory farms. Their answer to the animal welfare dilemma is a simple one: eat plants, not animals. (Whatever you may think of this position, it fails to address the fact that some species, felines for example, must have animalbased proteins in their diet.)
Putting its money where its philosophy is, HSUS has come out with its own brand of vegan dog food. The first eight ingredients in its “Humane Choice” kibble are organic ground canola seed, organic brown rice, organic soybean meal, organic buckwheat, organic flaxseed, organic sunflower seed and organic millet. You could be forgiven for thinking this was bird food.
Just because some of us believe that being vegan is the answer, does that mean we should force our dogs to be vegans as well? The simple truth is that dogs are, by their very nature, meat-eaters. Trying to make them anything else is, well, unnatural. Been there, done that. Didn’t work.
What We Did
Alayne and I wanted to take responsibility for the entire “cycle of life,” from birth to death, and assure ourselves that the meat we were feeding our disabled dogs came from animals who were raised as humanely as possible. That meant doing it ourselves — yes, raising our own cattle. We wanted to know exactly how they lived, what they were fed and, most important of all, how they died.
We were fortunate in that we had the land, facilities and skills to raise cattle on a modest scale. We started the journey in 2008 with a small herd of heritage- breed cows. In January of this year, we took our first steer to slaughter. We selected a small, local, familyowned slaughterhouse for processing. I visited the facility, met the owner and staff, and walked through every step in the process, from unloading to the kill floor and, ultimately, the freezer. The day I visited, it was so quiet that I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. There were no feedlots full of bellowing, stressed cattle. There was just a handful of stalls along a hallway, each with sawdust bedding. The facility processes four steers a day, not 400; our steer, Sebastian, would be one of the four slaughtered the following day. He would become several hundred pounds of ground beef.
Leaving Sebastian behind was very difficult. I choked up when I said good-bye to him. But I knew what kind of life he’d had, and how his end would come. And I knew we would now, finally, be feeding humanely raised food to our dogs.
What You Can Do
Contact local livestock farmers and ask about purchasing directly from them. The most cost-effective way is to buy a whole or a side (half) of beef. If you don’t have freezer space for that much meat — and most people don’t — make a group purchase with other dog-loving friends and split the meat among you. Consider locally raised lamb, chicken and turkey, too. Check out neighborhood farmers’ markets or go online to visit Local Harvest or Eat Wild (see the resources box) to find family farms in your area. Ask them about their animal welfare practices, and see if you can stop by. By buying direct, you help support local farmers, a worthy goal in its own right, as well as provide your dog with humanely raised food.
At the grocery store, look for meat that has been certified as “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane.” These third-party endorsements have specific humane-treatment standards that must be met in order for the meat to be certified. (Note that simply being “organic” does not address many humane issues, including slaughter.) This is the most expensive option, but it will give you some assurance that the food animals were humanely raised. Not every supermarket carries this kind of meat, so you may have to shop around to find it. Better yet, ask your supermarket to start carrying it.
We turned to the board-certified veterinary nutritionists at DVM Consulting. Their website, BalanceIT. com, provides customized recipes based on several variables, including protein and carbohydrate choices and your dog’s age, sex, breed and activity level. Their recipes provide specific nutritional profiles, so you know exactly what your dog is getting. The vitamin and mineral supplement they sell, also called Balance IT, is crucial to making sure these homecooked meals provide all of the nutrients your dog needs.
If purchasing humanely raised meat and preparing homemade meals for your dog is too expensive or time-consuming, here’s another option: ask the manufacturer of the dog food you currently buy to offer a product based on humanely raised livestock. If the pet food industry begins hearing about it from enough consumers, someone is bound to respond to the demand.
In the end, one thing is clear: the choices we make for our companion animals affect the lives of food animals. Better choices can improve both our pets’ lives and the lives of animals destined to become food, and that means a better world for all of us.
About Rolling Dog Farm
Wellness: Health Care
When a good chew turns bad to the bone
An uncanny reason for a visit to the ER is when a playful pup manages to get one of those circular marrow bones caught around its lower jaw and canine teeth. I still remember my first patient that found himself in this very predicament; perplexed, I thought, “How is this even possible?” While it looks like a trick that only David Copperfield should be able to pull off, it can actually happen with surprising ease.
When it comes to marrow mishaps, I have seen the entire breadth of bone bad luck. While some are easily removed with lubrication and gentle manipulation alone, others need to be removed with a cast cutting saw (or other manly tool, depending on the thickness of the bone) while the pet is sedated. I have also seen dogs that have suffered from fractured canine teeth as well as extensive injury to their lower jaw and tongue. Tissue injury occurs when the circulation of blood is cut off to the skin and/or tongue while it is trapped within the bone. The marrow bone literally turns into a tourniquet with the continued and inevitable swelling of the tissues. Major or minor, any of these situations can be painful, distressing, and potentially very costly, depending on the extent of trauma and demeanor of your pet.
Your dog absolutely loves these bones and you love to give them, so what’s a pet parent to do? Here are a few tips to help prevent any misadventures:
As gratifying as these treats can be, one can still find a bone to pick with them because the serious complications happen just as often as the “simple ones.” The marrow of the story: know the risks and let your pet enjoy them only under direct supervision.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Providing good food is our responsibility
It wasn’t all that long ago that dogs were either fed table scraps or their meals were made for them. I know that my childhood dog ate what we did, or in my case, what I didn’t eat—she was always ready to catch the bits of meat I rejected. She lived to be almost 20 years old without ever tasting kibble or canned pet food. However, it can’t be denied that great strides in the field of animal nutrition have been made since that time, and that some of this advancement is thanks to the research performed by pet-food companies, and animal nutritionists and veterinarians.
For the majority of dog guardians, feeding dogs commercial food makes the most sense; it is not only convenient, but—if they select high-quality food made by companies with proven records of ingredient integrity—it provides their dogs with a generally wholesome diet. In fact, many people believe that they are doing the very best thing by feeding their dog “dog food” and not “human food.” You hear this time and time again. More than a decade ago, I recall going to dinner at the home of friends, both of whom are medical doctors; as they prepared our dinner, they were also assembling a crock-pot meal for their three Greyhounds. Sheepishly, I must admit that I thought, Now, why aren’t they feeding their dogs a good dog food? But they clearly knew something then that has taken time for others to understand: No matter how you define it, dog food is processed food. It is manufactured, meaning that it goes through many steps before it reaches the dog’s bowl. The more steps a food takes before it is consumed, the more likely it is that a production or delivery system failure will affect its quality.
In 1981, when Laura Cunningham wrote the article “Pet-Food Esthetics” for The New York Times, she noted that people spent $4 billion that year on pet food. When the Menu recall story broke in March 2007, the amount had risen to $16.1 billion (projected)—a four-fold increase. How has this happened? Has the country’s pet population increased proportionally in a little over 15 years?
Reliable statistics on pet ownership are hard to come by, but in 1988, the first year the American Pet Products Association conducted their pet ownership study, they found that 56 percent of U.S. households had a pet; their most current survey (2007) shows 63 percent of households owning a pet, a modest 7 percent increase. I bring this up because while the statistics of pet ownership might not be all that reliable, the tracking of total spending on pet food is. And it is huge.
March 16, 2007, may have marked the tipping point for the pet food industry, the day the general public began to question how pet food is manufactured and the reliability of the claims made regarding its wholesomeness and safety. One of the most important tenets of our social contract with our dogs is to provide them with food that’s good for them. Many dog guardians believed they were doing just that by feeding their dogs some of the products removed from the shelves by the Menu recall. Even people who have long been concerned about the pet food industry and who don’t feed their pets commercial food were surprised by the enormity of this recall. How could this have happened?
There are many reasons, starting with lax FDA oversight and the self-regulated, non-governmental nature of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets nutritional standards, label requirements and feed-trial protocols for pet foods. Many of its members come from state agriculture departments as well as from within the industry itself. The pet food market is controlled by huge multinational conglomerates, and five companies dominate: Nestlé (Purina, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog), Del Monte (Gravy Train, Nature’s Recipe, Milk Bone), MasterFoods (Mars’ Royal Canin, Pedigree, Sensible Choice), Proctor and Gamble (Iams, Eukanuba) and Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s Science Diet, Nature’s Best).
What seemed the most surprising to consumers was that some of the “premium” brands, such as Iams, Hills and Nutro—beneficiaries of greater consumer confidence—like the others, don’t always produce their own food. Instead, their recipes and “formulas” are jobbed out to contract manufacturers, companies like Menu Foods, Diamond and Doane, who actually make the foods and purchase raw ingredients in cost-saving bulk. This is a much cheaper way of producing the food because each brand doesn’t have to invest in expensive manufacturing equipment themselves. Which is how wheat gluten (a low-quality protein source) appeared in so many products, under so many different brands (co-packers like Menu also make store-brand pet foods for Wal-Mart and Kroger, among others).
So what is a responsible dog caregiver to do?
In the next few issues of Bark, we will be taking a closer look at the issues we face as we make our pet food-buying, or feeding, decisions. Because Bark is a bimonthly publication, we can’t be a source for late-breaking news, but luckily, outstanding work is being done by many other organizations and bloggers and we urge you to track the information being provided by these resources online. (See resources.)
We decided to start our series by speaking with two of the leading authorities, people who questioned commercial pet food industry practices years before the subject caught the public’s attention. Donald Strombeck, DVM, PhD and professor emeritus, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, spoke candidly to us about his viewpoints on pet nutrition and offered opinions on food safety and the industry’s lack of regulatory control.
It should be noted that during his long career, Dr. Strombeck did research for Ralston Purina, so his forthrightness on these matters was especially welcomed. It should also be noted that, though research has advanced what we know about nutrition, ingredients and additives since Dr. Strombeck wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets, his book still serves as an excellent reference. Ann Martin, a tireless advocate, has investigated everything from the ugly side of rendering plants to the challenges that consumers have in understanding pet food labeling. She has been a thorn in the side of the industry for over 10 years, ever since she wrote the book Food Pets Die For. We present this historic overview to give context to problems that have long been known to exist in the industry and, we hope, to suggest ways to affect changes.
We also opened space for a guest editorial by Patty Khuly, DVM, a Florida veterinarian who provides a perspective on how she and most of her colleagues were blindsided by the recall, and remain ill-informed by Menu itself. (As this issue goes to press, hearings are scheduled in Washington to investigate this matter, and it is hoped that Sen. Durbin and his committee will be calling for much-needed changes.)
Increased regulation and scrutiny of pet food manufacturing are truly important. Consider this news item: In a USA Today story (4/9/07) it was noted that the FDA “inspects only about 1% of the imported food it regulates … and the agency’s resources, compared with its vast mandate, are minuscule and shrinking.… Last year, the FDA had 640 food inspectors, more than 25% fewer than it had in 2003.” (And this at a time of heightened concern about national security!) There is no doubt that something must be done about this, but it is also no wonder that the safety of pet food does not top the agency’s agenda. Not only that, but even if there had been FDA inspectors checking the Chinese wheat gluten shipments, they would not have inspected for melamine because it was not considered toxic.
With more attention being paid to the issues surrounding the safety and provenance of the foods humans eat, and with award-winning investigators like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle writing insightful books on the topic—what Pollan refers to as the “Age of Nutritionism”—it is no wonder that consumers were questioning the way they feed their dogs well before this latest recall scandal. In an article in The New York Times Magazine (1/28/07), Pollan points out that a “potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists’ lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus in on quantifying the nutrients they contain.” This point is underscored when one reads a label on a bag of kibble or a can of pet food and tries to understand exactly what the ingredients or nutrient sources are.
Bear in mind that most of the ingredients in pet foods are at the low end of the food chain; they come from whatever remains of the animal (be it chicken, pig or cow) not deemed fit for human consumption. These “parts”—heads, feet, bones, blood, beaks, lungs, ligaments—are either used for pet food or are converted for poultry and livestock feed, or even fertilizers. The consumer does not know the quality or source of the ingredient because it certainly doesn’t appear on the label, and few consumers know the difference between whole meat, meat by-product or meat meal. (For a detailed discussion, see Patrick in resources.)
Quality of the ingredients should be at the heart of this discussion of pet food. Nutrition is certainly important, but as Marion Nestle, PhD, nutritionist and author of What to Eat, says, “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food…” All of these factors are also important in our consideration of what and how we feed our dogs. Nutrient-by-nutrient thinking obscures the message that what we feed our dogs is more than an assemblage of ingredients, nutrients and additives, it is food—and it needs to be safe. But somehow we became convinced otherwise, afraid to step beyond the dictums promulgated by the pet food industry. Convinced that preparing our dog’s food ourselves, home cooking or supplementing a kibble diet with some of the “dreaded” table scraps would result in an unbalanced diet. Many of us feared that feeding anything other than commercially prepared food would harm our dogs.
As Christie Keith, who has written extensively on the subject, notes, “There is a lot of wiggle room in formulating a diet for your dog. Canines are, overall, rather forgiving nutritionally. That’s part of their success as a species.” So those of you who want to venture beyond the foods you have been using and either switch brands or perhaps prepare meals (cooked or raw), take heart. There are good alternatives—not only are there a few good commercial pet foods, but there also are easy-to-follow recipes, and even professionally formulated recipes devised by veterinary nutritionists (see resources). We’ll continue to write about healthful alternatives in future issues, as well as well as examining and analyzing the pet food industry’s practices and standards.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What Difference Does a Few Pounds Make?
People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing and a lack of energy—nothing to smile about.
Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in United States are overweight or obese—and, like canine waistlines, the numbers keep expanding.
“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”
By doling out diets high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, we’re making our dogs fat. Dr. Ward explains. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.
On top of poor nutrition, we’re giving our dogs too much. Most of us rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed our dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to our specific pets. We don’t know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.
And then there are the add-ons—biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps and on and on. APOP estimates that 90 percent of pet owners give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. They’re called treats for a reason.
“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, it’s overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”
There’s the rub. Weight control is not about winning beauty contests, at least not for most of dogs. It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.
“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.
A key to our dogs’ health is getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating any of the disease conditions that result from being overweight. Smart diet and consistent exercise not only saves your health care dollars and spares your dogs discomfort and suffering, it will probably extend their lives.
A 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your best friend. That’s the best treat of all.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Reading the label on a package of pet food can be an exasperating exercise. Although all labels must include certain elements, finding out where these items appear and what they mean can be difficult. Even skilled nutritional experts like Marion Nestle admit that reading a pet-food label “is no simple task…and hardly anyone can make sense of them.”
Another issue is how these elements are identified. Nutritional standards for the production of pet food are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This nongovernmental group is made up of state and federal representatives as well as people directly involved in the pet-food industry. This means that people who manufacture pet food have a voice in establishing not only pet-food standards but also most of the label requirements and feed-trial protocols. Though the FDA, a federal regulatory agency, sets rules for three of the label items, its oversight of pet-food production is still very limited. As we learned during the 2007 recall, the FDA could not order companies to recall products containing melamine-tainted ingredients. (Sadly, it still doesn’t have recall power.)
AAFCO’s Nutrient Profiles list the minimum amounts (and minimum is the operative word here) of nutrients required by pets. The group recognizes only two canine feeding stages: adult dog maintenance and “growth and reproduction.” So, unless they’re puppies or lactating females, all dogs fall into the “adult maintenance” category regardless of their age, health status or level of physical activity.
• Who it is intended to feed (i.e., dog or cat).
• Package weight (net).
• Name and address of the manufacturer.(Phone numbers and/or URLs are not required, but are good things to look for.)
• Statement of Nutritional Adequacy (guidelines that must be adhered to in order to label the food as “complete and balanced”). This is also where you’ll find out how the food meets these standards for nutritional adequacy: by calculation or by live feeding trials.
• Statement of Guaranteed Analysis (listing the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat in the food and maximum percentage of fiber and moisture; some companies also specify other nutrients). By the way, “crude” is not a quality statement; it refers to a specific method of measuring the nutrient. Carbohydrates are not included because they are not required in the diet of pets.
• Feeding directions, which are based only on the weight of the animal, so you might run the risk of over-or underfeeding if you follow them. Always monitor your dog’s weight and energy level.
• List of ingredients, identified in the order of “predominance by weight,” or weight before processing. This is important to note when you are comparing products with different moisture contents (see Dry Matter p. 67). Also, as explained by Linda Bren in an FDA Consumer newsletter, “Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products—when added together—may weigh more than the chicken.”
• The Animal Protection Institute points out that “a good rule of thumb to distinguish the major components of a food is to look for the first named source of fat in the ingredient list. Anything listed before that (and including it) makes up the main portion of the food. Other items, which may add flavor, function as preservatives or [have] dietary benefits (e.g. probiotics, vitamins and minerals),” are present in much smaller amounts.
• Calorie Statements (optional). AAFCO regulations say the listing for calories “shall be distinct from Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” If a calorie statement is on the label, it must be expressed on a “kilocalories per kilogram” basis. Kilocalories are the same as the calories. A kilogram is a unit of metric measurement equal to 2.2 pounds.
If yours is a one-dog household and your budget can tolerate the price differential, shop for smaller-sized bags, which make it easier to keep the food fresh. Also, look for bags lined with untreated aluminum foil. Do not remove the food from the bag, but rather, store the bag inside an airtight, metal container.
If you feed your dog canned food and don’t use an entire can in one meal, store the leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered container. Food left in an opened can (even one with a plastic lid) loses flavor.
Dogs thrive on variety. As Bren points out, “Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet-food products every few months. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn’t develop for some as-yet-unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet’s digestive system.”
If you are adding fresh or cooked ingredients to the meal (which many recommend), make sure you adjust the amount of commercial food to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
When in doubt, shop at small boutique or holistic pet stores. The owners and staff are usually more familiar with their products and can help you with your buying decisions.
Make sure you contact the food manufacturer if you have any questions about their products, either before or after buying it. Do not simply rely on the information from their websites.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Rewards with quality and goodness
Although treats are usually given in small portions (or ought to be!), make sure that you pay the same high level of attention to what’s in them as you do for all of your dog’s food. Look for organic, whole-food ingredients, including named meats, whole grains, lots of good fruit and/or vegetables and natural, food-based sweeteners (if they are used at all)—applesauce, honey or molasses, for example. Avoid by-products, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring and artificial preservatives. Look for individual portions that are easy to break into smaller bits.
Treats are often high in calories, so factor them in when thinking about your dog’s overall food intake. It is recommended that “treat substitutes” make up no more than 5 to 10 percent of a dog’s diet. If the calorie count isn’t listed on the label, find out what it is before giving them to your dog. Contact the manufacturer for calorie information if need be.
To keep bagged treats fresh—and make it a little more difficult for the diligent treat-hound to score—keep the bags sealed. If the seal doesn’t work (often they don’t), use heavy-duty zip lock–type bags or store them in glass or ceramic containers with tight-fitting lids.
Dogs love variety, and with the wide array of treats on the market, it’s easy to find a selection that will satisfy most co-pilots.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A better way to compare dog foods
When you compare different types of foods—canned, kibble, etc. or simply different brands—you need to keep in mind the moisture content so you can compare like to like. Use the dry-matter basis.
First, establish the amount of dry matter by subtracting the percentage given for moisture from 100 percent. If the moisture is given as 10 percent, the food’s dry-matter content is 90 percent.
Next, convert the protein found in the Guaranteed Analysis statement to a dry-matter basis by dividing its percentage by the amount of dry matter (calculated in the previous step). For example, if the protein is given as 26 percent, it converts to 28 percent on a dry-matter basis (26 divided by 90). If the moisture level had been, say, 30 percent, the dry matter content would have been 70 percent and protein would have been 37 percent (26 divided by 70).
You can do similar calculations for fat and fiber after converting their percentages to a dry-matter basis.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
An interview with Barbara Laino
Like many people who’ve turned to natural pet food, Barbara Laino initially experimented with a homemade diet out of frustration. Her first dog, Aurora, developed a type of irritable bowel syndrome that didn’t respond to traditional medicine. After Laino switched her from kibble, the Alaskan Malamute’s symptoms completely disappeared, and Laino was a convert. Now, 15 years later, she is a certified holistic health counselor and teaches classes on making nutritious food (for people and pets alike) at her organic farm in Warwick, N.Y. Laino shared her experiences with us between sessions of her popular workshop, “Making Homemade Dog and Cat Food.”
JoAnna Lou: Were you criticized when you started making your own dog food?
Barbara Laino: There’s a lot of pressure from veterinarians. They pretend that feeding a dog is a complex thing to do. When I first started making my own food, I felt cornered. I felt like I had to have all these numbers — milligrams of calcium, percentage of protein … Since then, I’ve realized that it’s really common sense. Feeding a dog is no more difficult than feeding a child.
JL: How do you ensure that you’re feeding a balanced diet?
BL: I’ve sent recipes to be tested for how well they meet AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] standards, but I don’t give it that much credence. Pet-food guidelines are the minimum of what a dog needs in order to stay alive. But I want my dog to thrive and be happy and healthy for a long time!
Think about the Great Dane and the Chihuahua. There’s such variation in dogs. These feeding guidelines don’t take size difference into consideration, not to mention place of origin. With northern breeds, for instance, I focus a lot on zinc because they’re coming from a thousand years of eating fish and seaweed. It all comes down to the individual.
JL: Across individuals, what do you consider to be the foundation of a good diet?
BL: Variety. I believe much of the recent food allergy problem has developed from feeding the same thing every day. Yet, this is probably one of the most controversial parts of the homemade diet. Somehow it has reached the point that people are scared they can’t balance their dog’s food properly.
JL: In addition to this fear, many people avoid homemade pet food because they are concerned about handling raw meat. Do you recommend cooked diets in these cases?
BL: Yes, I do. I think people get hooked on the raw concept, but it’s not all about raw. Whatever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s boiling chicken breasts or grinding raw chicken necks … any time you’re preparing food using fresh ingredients, it’s going to be a thousand times better than what you’re getting from kibble.
JL: The popularity of organic food has exploded in recent years, but it doesn’t fit everyone’s budget. How important is it to use organic ingredients? BL: Organic is a great thing, along with grass-fed meat, which is even better than organic. Most premium dog food is not certified organic and, considering how expensive [those foods] are, it’s actually cheaper to buy organic ingredients and make your own dog food. With chicken, it’s even more important to buy organic to avoid the genetically modified soy that makes up the bulk of non-organic chicken feed. However, if you can only afford to buy non-organic ingredients, it’s still much better to make your own food.
JL: Are there ways that people can incorporate aspects of a homemade diet without completely converting to it?
BL: Definitely. In my workshop, I have a list of foods that people can add to their dog’s meal. I tell them to stick it on the fridge as a reminder. You can take a scoop of good kibble and combine it with carrots, honey or a whole egg. Another one is canned salmon, which is super-easy and convenient. If you do nothing else, add a little canned salmon to your dog’s kibble every day. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do.
[Not all dogs tolerate all foods. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly and adjust based on what works for your dog. When in doubt, consult a holistic veterinarian.]
JL: You teach workshops on preparing healthy food for both humans and canines. Do you find a connection between the two?
BL: Dogs are pack animals; there’s a social process to food with wild dogs. When you’re sitting at the table and not sharing with your dog, there’s a disconnect. Our dogs want to be part of a pack and have the social connection of eating together. I just think it makes a lot of sense.
JL: Dog food has gone from table scraps to commercial kibble to feeding natural food and becoming more involved in the process. How have you experienced this in your work?
BL: Nowadays, people want the experience of making their own food, including meals for their pets. In my workshops, people are coming in who are less concerned with the nutrition specifics and just want to make their dog a really nice meal. I got into this because my dog was sick, so it’s cool to see people with healthy dogs who just want to do this differently now. And they’re finding that it’s enjoyable, ethical and feels good.
Click for some of Barbara Laino's homemade recipes.
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