And while scientific evidence for the health benefits of naturally raised foods is still slim for people (and practically nonexistent for dogs), many experts contend that foods made from animals and plants raised in non-CAFO settings are inherently superior. “When you switch a dog to a better food, you definitely see benefits because you’re making the dog’s body healthier,” Newkirk says. “Any kind of debilitation or chronic disease or problem will respond, to one degree or another, to a diet that’s made from healthy ingredients and not full of chemicals. That only makes sense.”
Moreover, while the “big five” dog food manufacturers have recently jumped on the natural bandwagon, the majority of foods made with game meats come from smaller companies, which tend to use higher-quality ingredients and produce their products in smaller plants. Some, such as Taste of the Wild, use only hormone- and antibiotic-free meats (and no synthetic preservatives). Others, such as Timberwolf Organics, rely on wild-caught, free-range and U.S.-sourced ingredients. The Canadian company Horizon Pet Nutrition says that none of its ingredients travel more than 100 km (or about 62 miles) to its Saskatchewan facilities. Champion Pet Foods, another Canadian company, uses regional ducks, free-range bison and wild-caught fish in its foods.
By far the most common reason for feeding a dog an exotic meat is a food intolerance or allergy, says Larsen. An intolerance generally produces digestive problems like diarrhea and/or vomiting (think lactose intolerance in people), while an allergy involves the immune system. Food allergies can present as gastrointestinal problems — diarrhea or vomiting or both — or skin problems such as excessive itching year-round. In some dogs, allergies produce both digestive and dermal symptoms.
Food allergies are triggered by exposure to a particular food (or more specifically, to a protein in that food) or food additives, such as preservatives, Larsen says. And many dogs are allergic to more than one thing, which makes it that much harder to find the culprit(s) in the dog’s diet. According to Larsen, dogs will often develop an allergy to a food or substance they’ve eaten regularly.
Some of the most common allergens for dogs are beef, chicken and grains, which are also the most common ingredients in commercial dog foods, says Newkirk. “If we suspect that the dog has a food allergy, we’ll put her on venison or duck or rabbit because her body hasn’t seen that protein before and therefore shouldn’t be allergic to it.” He also advises owners of allergic dogs to switch to a food that’s grain-free (meaning no wheat, corn or rice). “Grains are mostly carbohydrate, but they do contain some protein, too, and that can trigger a reaction in some dogs,” he says.
Before we begin swapping dog foods, however, it’s important to evaluate our dogs’ current diet as well as their diet history, notes Larsen. “I’m constantly amazed at people who think they’ve got to start buying ostrich [even though] their dog has never been exposed to beef,” she says. It’s also important that the new diet is both limited — incorporating a minimum number of ingredients — and based on a novel protein (something to which the dog has never been exposed). “Many diets with exotic meats also have a lot of other common ingredients, meaning there could be two dozen protein sources in a particular bag or can of dog food,” she says. There’s nothing magic about any one meat over another: “It’s really about exposure,” according to Larsen.
Identifying and eliminating a food allergen can be a lengthy process, and most vets advise an elimination trial of at least six weeks. Make sure that everything — kibble and wet food as well as treats and even chewable medications like heartworm preventives — containing potential allergens is removed from the dog’s diet. If the symptoms clear up after several weeks, re-introduce the food and watch for the symptoms to return.
Once the culprit is determined and a viable substitute is found, a big improvement in the dog’s health is likely, Newkirk observes. “The results are fairly remarkable. Of course, this may not be the dog’s only allergy and you may have other detective work to do, but it will probably make a major difference.”