The modern dog food industry bears little resemblance to the dog food industry of 60 years ago. Rather than a handful of brands, a kaleidoscope of options is now available: preservative- and GMO-free, organic, raw, even some with varying degrees of “source to bowl” traceability. Many of the newer food companies were founded by people dissatisfied with the status quo—dog owners who wanted both the convenience of commercial food and the assurances of safety and quality that accompany food fit for human consumption.
For many, a high-quality commercial diet is an appropriate way to feed their dogs. Though this may sound blasphemous to home-feeding purists, when the number of contemporary foods that contain corn, wheat and far worse ingredients (for example, ethoxyquin, a preservative banned from food intended for human consumption in Australia and the European Union but still found in some dog foods) is taken into account, making a change to a healthier commercial diet could constitute a drastic improvement.
But as we have learned more about the marriage of food and disease, so too have we learned of the necessity to divorce ourselves from processed foods. Many a book has been written on the virtues of whole and natural foods in the human diet, and increasingly, science suggests that their benefits may apply to our canine companions.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than one-third of all human cancer deaths may be eliminated by a healthy diet, and while preventive or palliative canine cancer diets have been comparatively less studied, work done on the topic indicates that a similar effect may exist for our dogs. A Purdue University study found a significantly lower rate of bladder cancer among Scottish Terriers fed cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and kale) three or more times weekly (JAVMA 2005, 227 (1): 94–100).
As dietary changes to ward off or combat numerous canine diseases become more widely accepted, it’s likely that many owners will feed their dogs a homemade diet at some point in their pets’ lifetime. A diet rich in antioxidants and whole foods—the same protocol physicians recommend we follow ourselves—does not have to be an exercise reserved for sick dogs but rather, an approach taken on behalf of stacking the odds in favor of our dogs’ longevity.
To some, this is a radical notion. Few remember a time during which the family dog’s meal did not come from a bag or can and contain ingredients of uncertain properties and dubious origins. But despite the fact that owners might wrinkle their noses at the smell of their dogs’ food and struggle to decipher the ingredients list, most who continue to feed commercial food do it for a single reason: the food is “complete and balanced.”
It is true that a balanced diet is essential, and that most traditional commercial dog foods provide the vitamins and nutrients that most dogs need to survive. However, there is a vast distinction between surviving and thriving, and the inclusion of fresh, whole foods in the canine diet may well be the catalyst that transforms good health to great.
For example, antioxidants play a vital role in clearing the bloodstream of free radicals, which can damage cells and are believed to speed up the progression of cancer as well as cardiovascular and age-related diseases. With this in mind, an increasing number of dog food brands have added blueberries, cranberries and other fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to their recipes. However, some of these foods’ benefits can be destroyed in the manufacturing process, so their appearance on an ingredient list—frequently near the bottom—may not guarantee a positive effect. Merely incorporating a food is not beneficial if its nutritional quality is diminished or its quantity is not sufficient to be useful to the dog.