Dog Food – Mysteries Uncovered!
We all know that what we eat affects our well-being and health. That’s also true for our dogs. We all want what’s the best for them but it can be very difficult to figure out what that is. We are bombarded by TV advertisements, Facebook group discussions with a lot of contradictory information, or debates on whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores. It’s easy to get lost in that jungle of information so let’s look at a few facts and analyze them so you can make your own conclusions! I would like to encourage you to do your own research as well. Just remember, the proof is in the pudding!
Omnivores or Carnivores
Let’s start with the ongoing debate. Many people believe they are omnivores. They have been with us for thousands years, eating our food scraps and they survived. It means that dry food that we feed them is good for them! Well, that’s not necessary true. Dry dog food is a relatively recent invention and until recently dogs would supplement table scraps from their humans table with a fresh prey or rotten meat they found on their own. Now we feed them the perfectly balanced dry food but since we switched them to it, they have experienced the same chronic conditions that we get.
They may look different from their cousins’ wolves, but genetically they are almost identical to wolves sharing 99.5% their genes. Although, they are able to process plants, their digestive track is made to process meat. They have sharp teeth to tear flesh. They don’t have chewing molars and their jaws are moving up and down and not side wise as omnivores’ to chew food. Their stomachs are very acidic to break down meat, bone, or chunks of hair but also to deal with bad bacteria from rotten meat – which is one of their favorites. Their intestines are much shorter, unlike humans’ , as the main digestive action happens in the stomach while humans’ does this in the small intestine. While they may produce amylase to break down carbohydrates in their pancreas, amylase is not in their mouth, indicating that their mouth was not meant to chew plants. They also can’t break down green or leafy plants into nutrients because of the short digestive track. Instead, those plants ferment in their guts, producing painful gases. Lastly, they have claws and teeth to kill the prey. That all pretty much indicates that they, are in fact, carnivores.
Sugar. Inflammation and Yeast!
Regardless whether dogs are carnivores or not, let’s look in at a few recent and not that recent nutrition facts, already established by research in human nutrition. Although there is not such research on dogs, as most research in dogs are sponsored by big manufacturers of dry food, these translate directly into dogs’ nutrition and are very eye opening.
If you want to know possible causes why your dogs are itchy, have read tear stains, pink paws, bad stomach, gases, allergies, autoimmune conditions, diabetes – please keep reading as that may be the answer that you have been looking for.
As we all know, mammals source energy from protein, fat and carbohydrates. There are no other sources of the energy. So whatever we eat, it falls in one, two or all three of those categories. While they all end up as glucose that’s a fuel for cells, there is a big difference how they are processed and how that affects the health of the organs.
Carbohydrates and Insulin. Overused Life Saving Mechanism!
Carbohydrates are meant to give a quick energy to the cells. They provide instant glucose (sugar) to cells in a life saving mechanism. However, if we feed carbs in every meal in large quantities, we make that instant glucose present in the blood all the time. Some carbs such starches, provide that energy faster than the other types of carbs.
Cells don’t just catch glucose from the blood stream but they need insulin produced by the pancreas to ferry that glucose to the cells. The pancreas is the same organ that produces digestive enzymes break down the fat. Presence of glucose in the blood stream prompts the pancreas to excrete insulin so the cells can absorb the glucose. If the cells are exposed to insulin too often and in a large volume, they become less sensitive to it and need more insulin to absorb glucose. Then the pancreas will need to produce more insulin and it’s like a spiral. Think diabetes!
Starches. More Sugar than in Sugar!
Surprisingly, it’s not table sugar that produces the higher sugar spike in the blood. It’s starchy vegetable and grains such as wheat, corn, rye, rice, barley but also potato, sweet potato and even peas. That spike is measured by glycemic index. Eating pure glucose would spike glucose to 100 and that’s the benchmark. Wheat, corn or potato are as high as 90 while table sugar is about 68 and candy bar is 55.
Inflammation. Side effect of Sugar!
But there is more to increased insulin production. Insulin is a metabolic hormone that stimulates the growth, promotes fat formation and encourages chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is what we usually don’t talk about but it is considered the most common underlying cause of many chronic conditions. It can affect any part or organ in the body such as pancreas, kidneys, brain, spine, heart, joints, stomach or intestines. For example, arthritis pain can be directly correlated to intake of foods high in sugar.
It also makes the surface of the organs porous which then allows for fat particles to stick to the surface of that organ and create cholesterol deposits. Think cholesterol in the arteries or lipid deposit on the dog’s eyes!
Leaky Guts. Allergies and Autoimmune Reactions!
It’s especially dangerous if inflammation affects the guts. Have you heard about the leaky guts syndrome? There is a lot of research in humans showing how it works. The easiest way to explain it is that the guts’ (intestines) liner gets inflamed and that makes that liner more porous. It not only makes proper digestion impaired (so then your dog gets sensitive stomach or even IBD), but also it then allows larger food particles to get into the blood stream. Those food particles are treated by our immune system as an enemy and that’s the main cause of food allergies, food sensitives and autoimmune reactions.
If that food particle going through the guts into a blood stream is gluten, a sticky, rubbery protein in wheat and other grains, it may cause serious thyroid autoimmune condition as particles of gluten have similar molecule structure to thyroid and the body may attach those particles and thyroid as the stranger.
Yeast. Red Stains and Cancer!
Excess glucose in the blood stream also creates another serious issue which is yeast (candida). Yeast naturally occurs on the skin and in healthy guts, controlled by the healthy immune system. Yeast feeds only on sugar in the fermentation process. That fermentation can only happen if a large amounts of glucose (sugar) is present. If that immune system is compromised (for example because of the infection, antibiotics, or the leaky gut syndrome) or too much sugar is consumed, the yeast starts overgrowing in the stomach, creating digestive issues, changing gut flora and spreading to other parts of the body. That fermentation process produces ammonia, which is an alcohol and can be only expelled from the body by liver.
So yeast is not only red tear stains, pink paws or ear infections caused by overgrown yeast but it also causes issues with digestion and burdens on liver! But not only that! Have you heard that cancer feeds on carbs? Healthy cells source energy from glucose but cancer ferments that glucose to survive. What’s important to know is that the fermentation can only happen if the large amount of glucose is available.
Starch. Bad teeth!
Lastly, do you know what makes teeth go bad? Tooth decay is the result of an infection with certain types of bacteria that use sugars in food to make acids. Foods high in carbs not only feed that bacteria but are also sticky and difficult to remove from the teeth. Dogs, unlike us, don’t have amylase to help naturally dissolve those starches in the mouth and we usually don’t brush their brush every day.
If not Carbs, how to provide Fuel to the Cells?
But wait! If the cells feed on glucose and we don’t provide carbs (sugar) in the food, how can cells get the energy? The answers is: from Protein & Fats. They are utilized to produce glucose necessary for cell nutrition in the process called gluconeogenesis that happens in the liver. Fat and protein don’t provide quick energy. Instead they provide a steady energy that lasts long without creating spikes of insulin in blood sugar, thus reducing potential for inflammation and yeast – two causes of many chronic conditions. They also are building blocks for the body without which the body can’t exist (more later.)
Dog Food. Why all this Sugar info is so important? It is because 50 to 90% of content of the most popular dry dog foods are starchy vegetables. Most brands don’t offer that information at all, however it can be inferred from their guaranteed analyses if we know what to look for. Even the brands that reveal their 80% meat content, end up with 50% meat and 50% starch content because that 80% is the meat content before cooking. During the cooking process that meat shrinks significantly and at maximum it is 50%. Most foods are not generous so that meat content is much lower. It means that a majority of foods we feed are in fact starches with some addition of meat.
Dry Food. What actually is it?
Dry food is easy to feed and store, processed food in the form of kibble or pellets. We were programmed to believe that’s the best, complete and balanced type of food. We have been told by many that it is so much better than table scraps people used to feed their dogs before dry food was available. So let’s look what’s in the food.
Dry food is a mixture of animal and plant products. That mixture is extruded and cooked for a very long time in high temperature until all water is gone and it becomes crunchy so that it can sustain many years of shelf life. All ingredients used in the dog food falls into three main categories: proteins, fats and carbohydrates and the micro amounts represent vitamins and minerals but also preservatives. We talked a lot of carbohydrates but we didn’t talk a lot about proteins and fats.
Essential Proteins. Protein Starvation. Why Quality of Protein matters?
Proteins are essential to the body. They provide the energy to cells through the gluconeogenesis process but they also are building blocks of the body as they build and repair each tissue. If the dog doesn’t get enough protein, she gets into the protein starvation mode. That means that she sources necessary protein from her muscles. It happens very often when using weight management or senior foods that have reduced protein and fat level but increased carbs. Those foods also often cause inflammation because of very high starch content.
Protein’s source matters. Protein from fresh meats and eggs have the highest bioavailability. Protein from so commonly used inedible parts such as hooves, beaks or feathers are not utilized by the dog’s body and if provided in large quantities, they put burden on kidneys. Protein from vegetables have low bioavailability so feeding dogs mostly plants in their diet puts them in protein starvation mode. The worst plant protein is gluten. It’s a sticky, rubbery protein that not only creates inflammation in different part of the body but it also may cause autoimmune reactions related to thyroid because of its specific molecule structure. Plant proteins are not added to the food because they are considered healthy. They are added because it’s a cheap way to increase required protein level.
Extruding and baking affect biological values of the protein and how easy it’s processed by the body. Therefore, raw meat or slightly cooked is much easier to be processed by the body than dry kibble or can food.
Miraculous Fat. Brain Function and Reduction in Inflammation!
Fats are essentials to the body as well. Some of the fats are metabolized into glucose to fuel the cells but others are used in the body to build cells membranes, make hormones, help to digest fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Cholesterol has a particularly important role in making the cells membranes and regulate the cell function. It builds brain and nerve tissue and is necessary for brain function. It provides crucial insulation around nerves that transmit electrical impulses. It’s needed to maintain neurotransmitters. It nourishes the immune system.
If there is not enough cholesterol from the diet, the body produces it in a liver in that miraculous compensation mechanism. Be aware, that if your dog has high cholesterol, it may be related to low fat diet or to low thyroid, Cushing’s or Diabetes, which, well, may also be a result of high starch diet (which is usually low in fats).
Fat doesn’t make cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels or on the eye surface on their own. It’s carbohydrates that make the surface of those organs porous so then that allows for the fat to be caught.
Dietary fats provide essential fatty acids that the body can’t produce on its own and can’t exists without them. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and meat reduce inflammation in the body (for example reduce arthritis pain that’s fueled by carbs) and are necessary brain function. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential too but if they are in high proportion to Omega-3, they promote inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids are in right proportion in animal products but in too high amount in plant products such sunflower, corn or canola oil. There is already an evidence that consumption of Omega-6 in large quantities may promote brain disorders.
Reading Labels. The truth about Dry Food!
Labels provide us two pieces of information: guaranteed analyses and the ingredient panel. Both are not easy to read so let’s try to dissect them.
Guaranteed Analyses provide protein and fat level. They also list fiber and moisture content and in some cases, there may be minerals, vitamins and ash (ash is actually minerals and everything that can’t be burnt). What they don’t provide is carbohydrate content or the breakdown between animal products and plan products. It also doesn’t tell anything about bioavailability or quality of the protein or fat. This is why we need to read both: guaranteed analyses and ingredient list to infer the information on our own.
Let’s look at the example: the food has 24% protein and 11% fat. It means that 65% of that food are carbs, fiber and moisture. Moisture accounts for 6-10% in kibble. So in our example, carbs would be about 55-59%. Usually those carbs are starches and indigestible cellulose. Just to remind you, those starches have glycemic index up to 90 which means they have more sugar than table sugar, which has an index of 68.
Logically, animal products should be listed as protein and fat. In our example, one can assume that the animal content is 35% (24% + 11%) and the rest are plants and moisture. But many times that’s not the case!
Some manufacturers add plant protein and plant oils to increase protein and fat levels cheaply. For protein, they use corn gluten meals or soy protein. For fat, they use vegetable fats. Vegetable oils have high Omega 6 content, responsible for inflammation. If those ingredients are listed in the ingredient panel, it’s better avoid such food. In that case, you can’t conclude how much of protein and fat come from animal products and how much from inflammatory products from plants. In extreme situation, some foods may not have animal protein or animal fat in them at all. In our example, 24% protein and 11% fat doesn’t mean that there is 35% animal content.
So let’s look at the ingredient panel to figure out what’s in the food.
Ingredient Panels. Read them carefully!
All ingredients are listed in the order of their percentage content in the food, from the largest to the smallest. That content is measured before cooking. It’s important to know that ingredients with high moisture such as meats, shrink during processing. Since there no requirement to provide how much of them there are or what percentage they represent, that content may be much lower than we think.
For example, if the chicken is listed as first, one would infer that this food has high content of chicken. That’s not necessary true. It means that chicken is the biggest part of the food before cooking, but it can be very small, if the ingredient list is long. Even if there are only 3 ingredients, the first chicken can be as low as 34% before cooking (with 2 others making 64%.)
Animal products are listed in the form of meats, meals, by-products and animal fats or fish oil. More about what’s in them later.
Tricks. Be aware!
Be aware of manufacturers tricks. One of the tricks is to divide one ingredient into different parts so that a bad ingredient doesn’t show up in the first place. For example, instead of listing corn, some manufacturers list corn gluten meal, corn meal, corn, yellow ground corn. However, if you add those parts of the same plant they would make up the ingredient number one.
Because many consumers learned to recognize it, there is another way of making the picture not clear. It’s to use different plants in smaller amounts so each one separately is not big enough to be listed as a first or second ingredient. However, they are all starches and if they were to be added, they would represent the biggest group. For example, in the food with the following ingredient list: “chicken by-product meal, barley, corn gluten meal, wheat, brewers rice, pea fiber, powdered cellulose, corn, rice hulls, natural flavors, chicken fat, dried plain beet pulp, grain distillers”, starches make up for the majority of the food and it’s not chicken based food.
Ingredients. What’s exactly is what?
Now let’s look closely on what’s in the animal products part. Ideally, they consist of good quality muscle meat, organs and bones. But in most cases, it is also not necessary true. Using good quality ingredients is not economical and it’s also not easy to source such good quality meat. It’s much easier and cheaper to source human food industry waste and many of the manufacturers use those. But let’s look into details.
There are 3 main categories used in that part:
Meat is everything that’s listed as Chicken, Beef, Pork, Duck etc. Meat are animal parts that haven’t been dehydrated before they were added to the food. However, since manufacturers don’t need to provide us the breakdown, that meat can consist of whatever is cheaper or available such as only chicken skin. Only very few manufactures provide that breakdown. Meat contains 70% of moisture so after that meat is cooked and processed, it represents a significantly lower part of that food.
Meal is dehydrated meat that had been rendered which means cooked until the moisture vaporized. That could suggest that the meals are better sources of protein because of the concentration but that’s not necessary true. Meals are usually manufactured by specialized meal companies and then sold to the dog food manufacturers. They can be made from everything such as good quality meats to road kills, euthanatized animals or supermarket spoils wrapped in plastic.
Most food manufacturers use meals in their foods. Otherwise, it would be very expensive to produce dog food that contains meats but not meals and reach the minimum protein requirements. The few brands that use only meats have low content of protein but high carbs which means that the meat content is very low. They are already very pricey because the real meat cost a lot of money.
Then we have by-products. While some leading food manufacturers try to convince us that by-products are excellent source of protein for our dogs, that’s far from being true. By-products is everything that can’t be marked as meat such as peaks, nails, hooves, hair, feathers and other unusable parts of animals.
While dogs would eat them in small quantities as a part of the whole prey, they are a horrible source of dietary protein when fed in bigger quantities. They are not digestible with very low biological values. This is the kind of protein that puts significant burden on the kidneys if fed instead of good quality protein from meats. By-products are listed as Chicken By-Products or unspecified such as Animal By-Products. The later ones can contain euthanized pets and road kill.
Fats in the Food
Lastly, fats are added to the dog food. They are listed as specific (good) or non-specific (bad) animal fat or oils. Oils can be fish oils, not used by many as it loses its properties after it sits there before cooking or it can be plant based oil. Plant based oils are a cheap way of increasing fat content but as mentioned before, they are high in inflammatory Omega-6.
Starchy Vegetables. The biggest Part of Dry Food
As mentioned before, the plant portion includes starchy vegetables and plant oils. Vegetables consist of starch and cellulose (fiber) and they make kibble crunchy and cost effective (they cheapen the cost of ingredients) and extend the shelf life.
Unlike what certain manufacturers claim, they don’t provide much nutritional value to the dogs’ diet as dogs can’t utilize them because of the high sugar content. They are responsible for insulin overproduction, inflammation and yeast. Cellulose is used to form a firm stool as it dries out small intestine’s content so any potential digestive issues are masked.
Grains, especially wheat, are the worst offenders, not only because they have high glycemic index but also because they have gluten, a rubbery inflammatory protein and high amount of Omega-6. Vegetable oils are also a cheap way to provide the fats however because of high Omega-6 acids, they promote inflammation.
What to feed?
If you feed dry food, make sure that it has high content of good quality meat and it’s low in starches and cellulose and doesn’t contain wheat, corn, soy and any gluten meals.
Meats and meals should be identified by providing the animal type they were made from, such as chicken or chicken meal. If, instead of particular meats, you see names such as “poultry meal” or even worse, “animal meal”, it means that the manufacturer has no idea what’s in them. It can be anything from road kill, to euthanized animals, to grocery store spoils in plastic wrap, or parts that’s are not digestible, that would put a huge burden on kidneys and put a dog into a protein starvation mood.
Meals are almost unavoidable in dry foods but you want to make sure they are made from better quality meats. Avoid any by-products as those are not digestible and anything listed as “product”.
The long ingredient list of meats and animal parts is a good sing and usually they are premium foods that are more specific and provide more information than required.
The list of the remaining ingredients (starches, additives, vitamins) used in the food should be short. The longer that list is, the more opportunity for the tricks. Especially avoid corn and wheat, not only in the form of gluten meals but in any form. They have high sugar content and they are chemically treated with roundup intended to destroy the bugs’ intestines. For the same reason, avoid soy. The fats should be animal origin and also identified, so avoid “animal fat” without a qualifier what animal that fat is from and vegetable oils.
Lastly, the ingredient list should not contain any words you can’t understand as they are usually harmful preservatives.
Switching to Better Food. Problems!
However, be aware of another problem when you are switching to a better food. The meat in kibble is always processed. If there is already inflammation in the guts, that processed meat may not be easy to digest for the dog. In most cases, the inflamed guts will react. On the top of it, better quality foods have less starches and cellulose content than in foods high in starches. It means there are less fillers to dry out a small intestine and form a firm stool.
It may be like a vicious cycle: you try to feed a better quality food and the dog gets diarrhea, so you switch to the previous food with high content of starches and the stool improves, but the previous issues come back.
The dog gets her digestive issues again. Her stomach is growling and she gets gases. Out of blue, she starts licking her paws and scratching, like she was itching all over. She gets red tear stains and pink paws, possibly an ear infection, bad breath and her body smells. As time progresses, she gets allergies or in worse cases she gets an autoimmune disorder or inflammatory conditions of different organs.
It’s not easy and it happens. This is why it’s so important to introduce better kibble very gradually, over longer period of time, adding moisture to it and supplement with fermented goat milk or kefir. However, a better solution would be to transition your dog to unprocessed raw food with minimum amount of starches to heal your dog stomach and address the cause of issues which is inflammation and yeast.
A raw diet tries to mimic the diet the dog would eat if she was getting her own food as a hunter. In short it’s a fresh meat that balances protein with fat and moisture. It is muscle meat and organs for protein, fat, vitamins and minerals and bone for calcium and fiber source. There are many variations and models of raw feeding and some people include small amount vegetables, raw eggs, fermented milk products such as sour milk, kefir, yogurt or cottage cheese as well as fish oil.
Raw meat has a lot of nutrients that kibble is deficient in because of high temperature processing so such nutrients need to be added back artificially. Specifically, raw meat is high in biotin, B12, Coenzyme Q10, folate and the whole spectrum of minerals.
Homemade or Pre-made Commercial Diet
You can make your own raw diet and there are a lot of resources on how to do it. You can also buy commercial pre-made diets that come frozen. There are a lot of very good commercial diets on the market. They are a safer than homemade diets as raw food manufacturers have to test every single batch for salmonella, e-coli and listeria since laws (in the US) don’t allow any pathogenic bacteria in raw dog food while it allows for certain amounts in human raw meat.
If choosing one, make sure it doesn’t have any starchy vegetables or vegetable oils and the plant content is no higher than 10%. Ask the manufacturer about their sourcing to make sure the meat is good quality. The best if you can get grass fed meat, not treated with hormones and antibiotics. Have a look at the vitamins, minerals and preservatives list. That list should be as short as possible.
If you make your own raw diet, make sure you add enough animal fat. If you add vegetables, make sure they are chopped and cooked for a long time as otherwise your dog may get painful gases from them. Add whole raw eggs or raw fermented milk or kefir to provide all other nutrients.
Introducing Raw Food
There are two schools of thoughts on introducing raw diet. One is to transition slowly over 2-6 weeks’ period, as the dog’s guts may be already inflamed and react with soft stool. Second is to pull off the bandage fast and just one day stop the kibble and introduce the raw. In that case, your dog may get temporary loose stool that may last a few days. That’s perfectly normal and will pass.
Most of dogs will love it but there will be some that won’t know what to do with it. They will learn fast that’s a very yummy food so be patient.
One Healthy Happy Dog!
In a few weeks, you may see a lot of positive changes such as she won’t be itchy anymore and won’t smell like an old dog. Her face will clear up and pinky stains will disappear. As the time progresses her stomach will heal and her breath will improve. If she had joints pains and was stiff, she will be more active and move more. One day you will realize that now she can have beef, that previously would give her runny diarrhea.
Act of Bravery!
Switching to the raw diet can be an act of the bravery. Many traditional vets don’t like and don’t understand it and if you have one that supports it, you are lucky! You may be told you are going to kill your dog with high protein and make her aggressive and you will ruin yourself paying for this food.
But proof is in the pudding! You recover the cost in the lower veterinary bills and your dog will be happy!
By Joanna Bronowicka for The Royal Spaniels Magazine, May 2016
Disclaimer – this article does not constitute medical or veterinary advice. Please consult a veterinarian to seek medical advice.
About the Author: Joanna Bronowicka is the owner of WELL BRED, the healthy pet marketplace in New Jersey, USA specializing in healthy nutrition. She has studied canine and human nutrition for last 20 years. Cavaliers King Charles Spaniels and nutrition are her passions. She shows her Cavaliers both at CKCSC USA and AKC venues to championship titles.