I talk about dog food a lot. I also read, research and think about it to a practically unhealthy degree. I guess this comes with a territory. Nutrition occupies a huge chunk of my brain, so I simply can’t help feeling extremely interested in food/diet/health connection and everything that could be possibly squeezed into the subject of canine diet.
“I can just picture you sleeping with your nutrition books and supplement catalogues by your side,” my human nutrition tutor once joked. If only it wasn’t true…
I see the science of nutrition as a complex of puzzles that somehow communicate, evolve, and mix with each other leading to something pretty wonderful or terribly wrong. Many of these outcomes depend on our choices.
Naturally, it is not surprising that many food conversations and believes I overhear or come across leave me stunned. I also feel rather uncomfortable and somewhat frightened by some advice and suggestions offered by “professionals” who claim to be educated in canine nutrition yet seem to have very little scientifically backed evidence to support their claims.
And as somebody who does tend to eat, sleep and breathe nutrition, I would like to discuss a few food-related myths today to help you make better choices for your amazing dogs.
Myth 1: Home-prepared diets are the best for our dogs
There are some anecdotal and poorly researched claims suggesting that home-made diets lead to improved health in dogs. In reality, cooking for your dog at home comes with several risks of potential nutrient imbalances that can lead to problems. At the moment there are literally no cook books on the market containing recipes that would be fully complete and balanced. And even when a recipe is balanced and created by a board-certified animal nutritionist, the risk of missing out on specific vitamins and minerals is still very high.
When a 2013 study at the University of California analysed 200 recipes for home-made dog foods taken from 34 different sources including books, websites and even consults with veterinary nutritionists, 95% of these recipes turned out to be deficient in at least one essential nutrient, 84% of the meals were imbalanced in several important vitamins and/or minerals, and 92% didn’t provide clear guidelines.
“Some of the deficiencies, particularly those related to choline, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin E, could result in significant health problems such as immune dysfunction, accumulation of fat in the liver and musculoskeletal abnormalities,” researchers concluded.
The bottom line is that a dog parent can, theoretically, prepare food for his or her pet, but the recipe must be created by a board-certified nutritionist, each ingredient must be carefully selected, measured and analysed (which requires computer programmes and measuring tests to be precise), the meals must be rotated carefully, and the supplement programme must be prescribed to suit dog’s requirements.
Considering that dogs may not always show the signs of deficiencies immediately or quickly enough, any problems caused by a DIY’ed diet will only become obvious when the dog is already in a state of disease.
If you really want to cook for your beloved spaniel, make it an occasional once-a-week or once-in-a-fortnight affair and only when your dog is fully grown and healthy, with no underlying or diagnosed conditions. Use a dog-friendly recipe and avoid ingredients known to be toxic.
Myth 2: Grain-free diets are much healthier
The popularity of grain-free diets seems to be getting out of control these days because dog parents are told and tend to believe that grain-free food is more species-appropriate and won’t cause allergies and other health problems in dogs.
In reality, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these anecdotal claims.
As omnivores dogs are able to digest grains because their genetic makeup is different from their so-called carnivorous “ancestors”. They are also a lot more likely to develop an intolerance or allergic reaction to animal proteins than any grains. The gluten intolerance (dog version of human Coeliac disease) is very breed-specific and incredibly rare.
Wholegrains provide important vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, and fibre and help support digestive health, immune system, nervous system, blood sugar, and healthy anal glands, to name a few benefits.
Additionally, most grain-free diets still contain sources of carbohydrates from lentils, beans, cassava and potatoes that are not necessarily better or healthier for dogs – in fact, they are more difficult for the dogs to break down and may even lead to digestive upsets and other health problems if eaten long-term.
If you have a valid veterinary-approved reason to use a grain-free diet, make sure that it is formulated by a qualified nutritionist and produced by a reputable company.
Myth 3: High protein diets are more nutritious and species-appropriate
The thing is… Dogs evolved way beyond a simple wolf. They had to – otherwise they would not make it into our homes where the food is free, the bed is warm and the cuddles are practically excessive. Their bodies evolved, too, and are not unstoppable protein-churning machines. They have limits. Including the protein levels.
This means that the body will use amino acids from proteins to build and rebuild itself, support the immune system, heal etc. At the same time, a dog’s body would rather rely on carbohydrates and fats for energy than spend additional effort into converting amino acids to fuel itself. Any protein that has not been used or excreted in the urine as nitrogen (and that’s the bit that turns your grass yellow), will be stored as fat leading to – you guessed it – excess weight! High protein diet can also cause an imbalance of nutrients and lead to disease.
More over, too much protein and lack of carbohydrates can affect the way your dog behaves: both his activity and ability to relax.
It is also worth to mention that while the sources of protein are important, it is the amino acid profile of your dog’s food that is vital to his health. So the diet can be extremely high in protein because it’s made with pure chicken, yet lack specific amino acids and thus affect your puppy’s development or your adult dog’s wellbeing.
Myth 4: Commercial dog foods are full of road kill and odd animal parts
This is the concept that sells a lot of independent “natural” and “human grade” pet foods. In reality, all respected manufacturers must follow strict rules and only use products from the same animals that were reared for human consumption, so technically what your dog get is, in fact, human grade. People get prime cuts and parts – dogs eat by-products that we perceive as aesthetically “inappropriate”. These may include organ means such as hearts, tongues, diaphragm, liver, muscle, lungs etc. However, the use of exclusive of “any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably” are prohibited, so your dog will not be eating hairs and feathers disguised as something else or, as some sincerely believe, unlisted. In fact, you are more likely to find found feathers, pig bristles and (stay calm and keep on reading) human hair in some breads and other baked goods (look for E910, E920 or E921) than the food you feed your pets.
In comparison to prime cuts, the ugly by-products also provide more nutrients, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, as well as beneficial bacteria (when it comes to rumen) than any chicken breast or filet mignon.
Also to me it seems ironic that many dog owners do their best to stay away from commercial dog foods because they may have “odd animal parts” yet happily treat their dogs to bull penises and testicles.
Myth 5: Holistic dog food is the way to go
When it comes to dog food, “holistic” label means literally nothing. Unlike “natural” and “organic”, the term “holistic” is not regulated by any of the organisations (AAFCO, FEDIAF, USDA) that control the safety and quality of pet food.
It can mean that food is “natural”. However “natural” is a legal claim that can only be applied to plant, animal, micro-organism or mineral ingredients “to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for food production and maintaining the natural composition”. In this case the word “natural” must be included on the label.
It can also mean that the food contains holistic, or therapeutic, herbs and ingredients, which would make me cautious on the spot because many of these may harm dogs, especially when eaten long-term or in incorrect quantities.
And when used on its own “holistic” is applied purely for marketing purposes because it sells better!
To conclude, I’d like to say that I don’t believe in “one food suit all” approach because I do see dogs (and humans) as unique living organisms. If the food you feed your cocker agrees with him and approved by your vet, it is age-appropriate, complete, balanced, free from toxic ingredients and is manufactured by a trusted company, use it. But since your dog’s health depends on your choices, be vigilant when it comes to selecting the food in the first place – and do learn about canine nutrition from reputable sources that base their advice on scientific research, not tips they got from a random dog walker or unqualified “professional from the internet”.
If you would like to learn more about breed-specific nutrition for the English cockers, you will find it in my book, Perfect cocker spaniel.