Pet food companies have responded to problems in the past by adding needed supplements to prevent illness and disease. For instance, the amino acid taurine is now added to cat food to prevent blindness and heart disease. Potassium is now also added to cat food, since research showed an insufficient amount in cats' diets was causing kidney failure. In addition, large breed puppy food was created to prevent bone and joint disease caused by excess calories and calcium in regular puppy formulas.
Yet, one wonders if continually adding supplements is the answer. Instead of trying to "fix" a poor quality product, pet food manufacturers should work on improving their product - starting with its core ingredients: meat, grains, fat, additives and preservatives.
Pet owners do have options besides paying the sometimes outlandish prices for subpar pet food. If you must purchase commercial pet food from your local grocery store, try to find one that uses feeding tests rather than the "Nutrient Profiles." Try brands that advertise themselves as "natural," but read the ingredients. Remember that the definition of "natural" is dependent upon the manufacturer's interpretation. Be sure it does not contain by-products or rendered meat and bone meal. API recommends avoiding special formula foods like those touted as "senior" or "light." These may contain "acidifying agents, excessive fiber, or inadequate fats that can result in skin, coat or other problems."
Premium dog foods have higher standards in choosing ingredients and in processing methods. Premium foods still vary from brand to brand, but often the formula does not change from bag to bag like it might with economy brands. The ingredients are better, artificial dyes are not added, but antioxidants and vitamins are, and the food is easier to digest, according to the PETCO Care Sheet on Premium Dog Food. All of these extra touches result in higher quality nutrition for your pet, but with less food consumed.
According to Nan Weitzman and Ross Becker in The Dog Food Book, the main difference between Economy, Premium, and Super Premium dog foods is the clean up. The Economy brands had fewer nutrients per package and the recommended feeding portion was 6 cups a day. The Premium brand had more nutrients than the Economy packages, but less than the Super Premium. The feeding instructions recommended 3-1/4 cups per day. The Super Premium offered the best nutritional value and suggested an average of only 1-3/4 cups of food per day. All measurements were for a 40-lb. dog. "Thus, the big difference," state Weitzman and Becker "is in the poop!"
Super Premium dog foods contain better ingredients than in the Premium brands. Most brands use only human-grade ingredients. They also do not use synthetic preservatives like ethoxyquin, but use Vitamin C or Vitamin E instead. They do not use artificial flavors or colors. Super Premiums may be more expensive, but your pet is receiving concentrated nutrition packed into smaller portion sizes, which can be more economical.Premium dehydrated dog foods offer excellent nutrition because the process of dehydration removes only the water content from the product, while the vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phyto-nutrients remain. Dehydration is considered to be one of the best methods to preserve food because it is a gentle, time-proven process. Many of the ingredients in dehydrated dog food are considered to be raw because the process of dehydration uses moderate temperatures, but meat and egg ingredients are dehydrated at higher temperatures that will kill any bacteria that is present in the food.
Many premium dehydrated dog foods are made with all-natural, human-grade ingredients. The process of dehydration concentrates the nutrients in the food, so manufacturers don’t need to add any vitamins or minerals to make it nutritionally balanced, as in most commercial foods. Additionally, this type of dog food is lightweight, easy to store, and simple to prepare.
Organic or natural dog foods are becoming more common as people begin to focus on their own health and the health of their pets. AAFCO defines a natural product as "a feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources" that may be altered through processing, including rendering, as long as it has not been "subject to a chemically synthetic process" or contain additives or preservatives that are synthetic.
Organic dog food offers diets of human-grade ingredients without dyes, additives, or synthetic preservatives. Some brands offer baked food for a great taste and aroma as well as improved digestibility. These brands return to the basics, giving your dog the best nature has to offer.
Holistic diets treat your whole pet - from nutrition to environment to all-around well being. The foods are all natural and chemical-free. The holistic approach offers many treatments that were formerly for humans only, such as herbology, acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic.
The BARF diet - Bones And Raw Food - returns your dog to their wild roots. This regime recommends feeding your dog raw, meaty bones and finely ground vegetables. It is important not to cook the food, but serve it as your pet would find it in the wild. The vegetables should be chopped into very tiny pieces - like your pooch would find it in the gut of their prey - so that your dog's body will be able to process the nutrients.
What about homemade dog food?
Some experts claim that the best food for your pet is the food you make yourself. Advocates of a raw food diet recommend feeding your pet fresh meals instead of prepared foods. This requires some planning and preparation, since you cannot buy fresh dog food in a bag. With a little foresight, however, you can prepare enough food for several days to compensate for those days that you are running a little short on time.
Pros for homemade dog food include:
- Fresh, natural foods
- More meat for your "almost-carnivore"
- Less illness and disease
- Healthy, shiny coat
- Higher energy level
- Reduction in body odor, including fresh breath and odorless stools
- Strong, clean teeth
- A happy, healthy dog
Many recipes are available for homemade dog food. They vary in ingredients, suggest different proportions of ingredients, and some offer supplements. The trend in recipes appears to lean toward raw meats as opposed to cooked ones. Lew Olson, Ph.D. Natural Health, recommends raw meats "because heat destroys the amino acids a dog needs." Debbie Tripp and Peter Brown, Breeders of Bernese Mountain Dogs, agree that raw is best. They feed their dogs the BARF diet and note that cooking "changes the bones' makeup, and it is not a useable product to the dog anymore." They also point out that cooked bones tend to splinter, which could seriously injure your pet.
Suggested meats include beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and fish. You can also use meats such as buffalo, venison, elk, rabbit, or goat if it's available. Carol Gravestock-Taylor writes that lamb and rice should not be used often. Dr. Maxwell, DVM, states: "It was meant to be introduced as an alternative protein, but if dogs are eating it every day, it is now worthless to us for use as an alternative food. Owners of allergic pets will have to go to exotic protein/carbohydrate combinations like Ostrich and Millet, or Duck and Potato."
Organ meats such as kidney, liver, and heart are also recommended on an occasional basis - approximately once a week. You may also blend organ meats in with other meats, but should not exceed 20% according to Dr. Olson.
As to the question of Salmonella or E. coli, Tripp and Brown state that "many cases of food poisoning have been traced to careless handling of raw meat and poultry around... kitchen surfaces. These problems are more of a health risk for the humans in your family - not your dog." They also point out the canine's high concentration of stomach acid, beneficial bacteria within the digestive tract, and short gastro-intestinal tract. All of these characteristics make it difficult for harmful bacteria to affect dogs.
How about bones?
Raw, meaty bones are another ingredient in many homemade recipes. Although most suggest a large, meaty bone for chewing as an occasional treat, some recommend smaller bones as a part of your pet's daily diet. The BARF diet, for example, suggests bones - especially raw chicken backs and necks - to fulfill your pet's calcium and phosphorous requirements.
In addition to the nutrients that bones supply, they also clean and strengthen your dog's teeth. And dogs love them. You've never seen your dog enjoy commercial dog food the way he enjoys a good meaty bone.
Although some experts recommend bones, others are just as adamant that bones - raw or cooked - are not healthy for your pet. T J Dunn, Jr. DVM of ThePetCenter.com posed the question of the benefits of bones to several experts in the field, including veterinarians, researchers, and biologists. The responses overwhelmingly vetoed bones as a regular source of nutrition. One of the main concerns of feeding bones is splintering. Many of the responses that Dr. Dunn received mentioned that in the wild, canids eat the hide with the hair along with the bones. It is the hair that protects the animal's systems from the bones that they devour. Debra Davidson, a wildlife biologist who helped raise captive wolves at the International Wolf Center, states that when the animals defecate after eating a whole carcass, "hair can be seen in the feces actually wrapped tightly around any bones that are passed through.
This seems to protect the organs/passageways as the bones are eliminated." Dunn performed research of his own by placing a large, raw, meaty beef bone in a vice and tightening it until the bone cracked open. The result was bone fragments, large and small - many of them with sharp points. Dunn recommends finely ground bone, if you must feed bones for nutritional content. He believes that the nutrients that raw bone proponents are seeking are "mostly derived from the meat, fat and connective tissues attached to those raw bones more so than from the actual bone itself."
Dr. George Collings, an expert in pet nutrition at Sunshine Mills, addressed the issue of using bones as a source of nutrients, pointing out that "nutritionally, the extra calcium and phosphorus to the diet is an issue." Dr. Collings reports that excess calcium impedes digestion and interferes with the absorption of some nutrients. Extra phosphorous can cause kidney disease. Dr. Collings also mentions the protective attitude that dogs adopt when fed a bone, often growling, even at their owners.
The experts queried by Dr. Dunn recommend feeding an occasional large bone "for enrichment purposes," however they recommended using bones with little or no meat on them. Susan Lyndaker Lindsey, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center, believes that feeding bones reiterates a dog's natural behavior and "the gnawing helps in development of musculature," however there is no nutritional value in feeding bones as a part of a domesticated dog's regular diet.
Eggs and eggshells are other ingredients that often appear in homemade dog food recipes. Pet-Grub.com warns not to feed raw eggs too often, since it can cause a loss of biotin, a B-vitamin. The site recommends that "eggs should be soft-boiled to kill the avidin, which is the cause of the biotin problem." Eggshells should be dried overnight and finely ground before mixing it with the meat.
Your dog needs vegetables in their diet, as well as meat. The vegetables should also be raw in order to maintain all of their nutrients, but you should chop them until they are very fine. Use a food processor, blender, or if necessary, a hand grater, in order to make the vegetables as small as possible. Dog's bodies are unable to process whole vegetables. In the wild, they get their vegetables in the bellies of the animals they eat, so it is already broken down for them. You can use any number of vegetables. Switch often to see what your dog likes and use a wide variety. Pet-Grub.com recommends that if you use squash, you should cook it first to soften the rind.
Some dogs enjoy fruits in addition to vegetables. Take clues from your pet. Offer a variety, and chop them up as you would the vegetables.Other optional ingredients include cottage cheese, yogurt, finely ground seeds, and nuts, and oils such as flaxseed.
Dr. Olson suggests feeding your dog twice daily at 2% to 3% of their body weight (for example, a 100 lb. dog would get 2 to 3 lbs. of food per day). Pet-Grub.com recommends feeding mature dogs 50% meat and 50% vegetables, but puppies should get a higher ratio of meat. The site also recommends adding hot water to the mix just before feeding. This fulfills several functions. "The hot water takes the chill off the food, replaces the water naturally found in prey, and volatizes the odour [sic]." Please remember that these are only guidelines.
Think about what you buy
Pet food companies will continue to sell to consumers what barely passes as food as long as the sales are good. Remember, they play by a "business first" philosophy. Boycott inferior pet foods. Tell your family and friends. Tell your coworkers and neighbors. Tell the grocery store clerk and the bank teller. And by all means, write your legislators. The pet food companies are living in a lawless land where pets become pet food. Cusick writes, "We are not being truthfully informed as to what is going into a food and are unable to read a pet food label to know what is in the food." He tells of a former AAFCO President, Herschel Pendell, who when asked if euthanized pets were in pet food replied, "If the ingredients list meat or bone meal, you don't know if it is cattle or sheep or horse... or Fluffy." Write to your legislators and demand that labeling laws be made for the pet food industry. Pet owners do not knowingly feed their pets other companion pets or foods that may cause liver damage, cancer, or any number of other illnesses.
Your pet is not just an animal. They are a member of your family. Take the time to protect them. Read the ingredients on their food, or better yet, give them food made with human-grade ingredients or fresh food you've made yourself. Force the pet food industry to realize that sometimes a "business first" philosophy is the worst thing for a business.