The top five plants to feed your dog

Today I want to discuss some of my favourite choices when it comes to selecting suitable plant based foods for dogs, and the nutritional benefits they offer. My approach to introducing plant based ingredients is to always do it thoughtfully and with intention, so your dog can obtain the most benefit from the food they eat. This is actually my approach to all foods for our pets, but it is especially so with plant based foods, as they are generally not things that would have featured in the ancestral, species appropriate diet of a dog. Pretty much all animal based foods will offer nutritional benefits, whereas plants can be a bit trickier to navigate.

Unfortunately processed pet food is, for the most part, absolutely brimming with plant ingredients that are not at all suitable for the nutritional needs of dogs, like wheat, corn and soy. Conversely, some of the ingredients in traditional commercial pet foods are wonderfully nutritious in their whole form, but are processed within an inch of their life to become kibble, so little benefit remains in the bag. This confluence of somewhat contradictory messages means it can be extremely challenging for the everyday pet-parent to discern what is truly beneficial, and what is best avoided.

Never fear! Your friendly pet nutritionist is here to help. Start out by adding some of my top 5 plants into your dog’s diet, and let us know in the comments how you go!

Pumpkin

Pumpkin is an easy one to begin with because we all know and love it. It has a mild sweetness that most dogs love too. Despite its humble place in the typical vegetable crisper and in winter soups, pumpkin is actually extremely nutritious, partly owing to a good amount of fibre, which plays an important role in managing digestive upset. Pumpkin is higher in soluble fibre, which dissolves in water and forms a gel, slowing the exit of food from the digestive system and managing diarrhoea. But it also contains insoluble fibre, which adds bulk to stools and can speed up digestive transit, assisting to relieve constipation. To top this off, pumpkin is an excellent source of the cancer fighting antioxidant beta carotene, and immune system-loving vitamin C. Magic. Steam, boil or bake and add to your pup’s meals for digestive health.

Sunflower seeds and oil

Sunflower seeds are a fantastic, concentrated source of Vitamin E. Vitamin E is an important nutrient in your dog’s diet and one of the most commonly deficient in a fresh food diet. This is because, while it is abundant in plant based food sources, it is unfortunately not plentiful in animal protein based foods, which we know dogs are best suited to eating.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from free radical damage to the cells, tissues and organs, and thus fights and protects from all sorts of diseases. Long term vitamin E deficiency can also cause serious health issues, such as muscle degeneration. If you choose to feed seeds, make sure they are crushed to a meal consistency so they can be effectively digested, or try a sunflower butter from your health food store. Alternatively, you can use a high quality sunflower oil for an easily absorbed source of vitamin E. Avoid the ones in the supermarket and shoot for a cold pressed option that lists the vitamin E content to ensure you’re not just buying empty calories.

Papaya

Papaya is one of my faaaaaaaaave choices for doggy fruits. Part of the magic of papaya is its good dose of digestive enzymes, particularly papain. Papain is a form of protease, which is the type of enzyme that facilitates the digestion of proteins. Super handy for dogs who eat a high protein, species appropriate diet! Papaya is also a prebiotic fruit, which means it works to feed the good bacteria in the gut during digestion. A study in 2013 showed that papaya extract helped to alleviate the symptoms of constipation and IBD (in humans). A little fresh tropical papaya in your dog’s breaky goes a long way.

Sea Vegetables

Sea vegetables are a fantastic source of trace minerals like selenium, and one of the richest sources of iodine on the planet. Unlike a lot of other plant material, sea vegetables are easily digested by dogs, so the nutrients present are well absorbed. Particularly notable benefits of sea vegetables are their ability to assist with thyroid function. Without the addition of sea vegetables in your dogs diet, it is highly likely they’re not meeting their iodine quota. They do need to be fed in careful moderation though, as they’re very potent and too much iodine can have the opposite intended effect on the thyroid.
Certain varieties of kelp, namely Ascophyllum Nodosum, have been clinically studied and proven to fight dental disease. It does this through a combination of preventing plaque from being deposited on the teeth and preventing bacteria from adhering to the tooth, while at the same time inhibiting tartar. The mouth is the gateway for disease to enter the rest of the body, so its health is absolutely paramount.

Blueberries

I could go on for days about the wonderful rainbow of nutritious plant foods we can add to support the health of our pets, but I’ll finish up on a high note: blueberries. Not just the universal symbol of summer arriving, berries are also powerhouses of nutrition. Blueberries in particular are a stand out because they are, by weight, one of the best available whole food sources of antioxidants. Clinical studies have shown promising results when looking at the impact blueberries have on cholesterol, breast cancer risk, and bone health. Truly amazing little things. Other choices like blackberries and raspberries also contain super high amounts of vitamins C, K and antioxidants. The flavonoids in these berries that are responsible for their antioxidant benefit are called anthocyanin, which also gives them their vibrant colours. It could also be argued that berries are the most species appropriate choice for dogs, as wolves are known to scavenge for berries – perfect for the ancestral diet loyalists among you!
So there you have it. My top five plant based extras to feed your dog for nutritional benefits and long term positive health outcomes. There are loads of other choices too, just make sure that you prepare any plants in a way that makes them easily digestible. This means grinding seeds, cooking starchy veggies well and blitzing up fibrous plant matter. Your dog and their tummy will thank you for it.

References

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236076415_Papaya_preparation_CaricolR_in_digestive_disorders
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080642/
  3. https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/AR/archive/2011/May/fruit0511.pdf

To feed your dog vegetables or not?
That is the question.

If you’ve been hanging out in the world of doggy food and nutrition for any length of time, you will probably be aware that one of the most hotly debated topics is whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores. One of life’s great mysteries.

Well. Sort of. Not really.

In theory, I have no major issue with classifying dogs as omnivores, because technically it would not be strictly incorrect to do so. Dogs and their wolf ancestors are well documented to scavenge for some plants. But so are many other carnivores, and these “grey area” creatures are generally considered to be facultative carnivores, based on a number of other physiological features. Being omnivorous is really more of a spectrum, and there is no defined point of meat to plant ratio where a species stops being a facultative carnivore and becomes an omnivore. And regardless of whether you consider dogs to be carnivores or omnivores, it shouldn’t change the food they eat.

Because omnivore and carnivore are just words.

I personally favour referring to dogs as carnivores with some opportunistic omnivorous tendencies. The reason I favour this label is that, in my experience, when people or pet food companies aggressively insist that dogs are omnivores, they then use this classification as the basis of feeding them a whole lot of unsuitable and nutritionally bereft ingredients that NO animal should eat, regardless of their nutritional status.

Dogs carry all the physical markers of being a carnivore. Like most predators, their eyes are set forward for depth perception, and without the wide-ranging peripheral vision that prey animals possess. Their jaws are hinged to open widely, which allows them to pull down prey with ease, and consume large feasts after a successful hunt. Conversely, their jaws don’t have the capacity to move sideways, a motion reserved almost exclusively for grinding plant matter (did you just move your jaw?). Their teeth, including their rear molars, are sharp and almost jagged, for ripping and tearing, and are not suitable for grinding and mashing. Their stomachs are up to 100 times more acidic than ours – akin to battery acid – and their digestive system is short to expel pathogens quickly, not long for fermenting plant matter. They do not produce the enzyme necessary for breaking down starches in their mouths like we do, although they do now produce a little in the pancreas to account for the changes in diet that domestication has brought around. This single evolutionary marker is heavily relied upon to make the case that dogs have evolved to become omnivores but, really, they have just evolved to compensate for the fact that we treat them as if they are. Clever cookies.

Despite all of this, as a nutritionist, I generally advocate for the inclusion of some plant matter in a canine diet, whether it be in the form of fruits, veggies, seeds, oils or powders. This may seem confusing after I have just explained in detail why I believe dogs to be carnivores, but it needn’t be. I don’t advocate for willy-nilly, nutritionally redundant or heavily processed plant matter in large amounts, like you might find on your local pet food
shelves. Hell no. I advocate for the inclusion of thoughtful, functional whole foods that offer nutritional and digestive benefits, and just so happen to come from plants.

Because while a dog’s physiology might clearly indicate that they are designed to eat a prey-based diet modelled on their ancestral food sources, I can almost guarantee that even the most seasoned raw feeder isn’t truly providing this. See, dogs in the wild didn’t eat 80% lean beef mince, export grade kangaroo fillets and plucked chicken wings. They ate fur, feathers, eyes, sinew, bums, hooves, blood guts and gore. And everything animals in the wild do is for a reason.

You’re unlikely to find these at your local butcher, but these foods all served a metabolic purpose in the diet and it is our responsibility to replicate that as closely as possible. So, unless your butchers sells unwashed rectums and testicles (jealous if they do!), we need to find alternate sources of nutrients like manganese and vitamin E, and we need to ensure we’re providing things like prebiotic fibre, probiotics and digestive enzymes in a manner that facilitates good gut health and thus the overall health of your beloved Fluffy. And the easiest way to do this… you guessed it. Plants.

In our next post, we’ll go over some of the best choices for adding nutritious, functional plant matter to your dog’s diet and some of the benefits they can provide.

Common myths around feeding raw food to your dog

OK, so in our last post we talked about the amazing benefits of a raw diet, and hopefully you’ve started exploring the wonderful world of fresh foods for your pets. But if you’ve done this, you’ve probably also come up against a few big scary warnings and maybe you’ve even lost your nerve.

Never fear!

People are sometimes surprised when they hear that I’m glad they’re nervous about raw feeding. But it’s not because I believe all the big scary warnings; it’s because nervous people tend to do have a better appreciation for how big the responsibility of feeding your pet is, and they tend to do more research. Unfortunately they also then tend to get even more nervous about the common raw feeding myths out there. If this is you, I want to cover a couple of the most common ones and hopefully put your mind a little at ease. To call these myths is not strictly true in every case, because there is some validity to some of these concerns; I think it is more appropriate to say some of these are risks, and it is definitely sensible to consider them. But I believe, when we look at the whole picture, that they are significantly outweighed by the corresponding benefits and nothing on this list should stop you from feeding a raw diet. And of course some of them are just plain ol’ wrong!

My dog will get (or give me) Salmonella poisoning!

This is extremely unlikely. Opponents of raw diets LOVE to fear monger about salmonella, and it is true that raw fed dogs can carry and shed salmonella, and of course we should always practice good food hygiene when preparing any food. But, according to the CDC, kibble fed dogs also carry salmonella and dry dog food is one of the possible contaminated foods they list on their website. In fact, it’s thought that up to 36% of all healthy dogs carry salmonella, regardless of what they are fed. And not all salmonella is pathogenic, many are harmless. Nevertheless, dogs have a stomach pH of around 1.5, which may be up to 100 times more acidic than humans,’ and fully capable of eliminating the vast majority of pathogenic bacteria. This is exactly why they are able to eat dodgy things they find on walks and seemingly never get sick.

Bones with break teeth or cause intestinal injury

Bones are maybe the most contentious issue in the raw feeding world and they are not without risks. If you feed weight bearing bones from large animals (like cows), you may find they are too hard and can chip teeth. Cooked and dried bones can splinter and may cause issues the intestinal tract. But hard and cooked bones are not the kind we recommend when feeding a raw diet. We recommend raw bones, like necks, poultry wings or ruminant ribs, which are actually significantly softer and highly digestible for most dogs. This is because, as we’ve discussed, dogs have a gastric pH that is highly acidic for the very purpose of digesting things like bones. Bones also provide enormous dental health benefits and, for carnivorous animals, they are nature’s toothbrush. When you take into account that up to 80% of dogs these days have periodontal disease by the time they are just two, and that this leads to a life of paid and disease; keeping those pearly white clean is pretty bloody important!

Dogs are omnivores and need carbohydrates

Possibly the most hotly debated topic when it comes to canine nutrition. It is perhaps not technically incorrect to call dogs omnivores because they do willingly eat some plant matter, unlike cats, who everyone seems to agree are obligate carnivores and don’t need any (which begs the question, “why does dry cat food exist?”). That being said, wolves are carnivores and dogs are basically biologically identical, so I am unsure when they “became” omnivores, but I suspect it was around the same time that processed pet food was invented. In any case, dogs show several markers that indicate they do not digest carbohydrates well, and the first is that they do not produce any salivary amylase, which is the enzyme we make in our mouths to digest starches. They produce very little pancreatic amylase, which places stress on the pancreas when large amounts of carbohydrates are in the diet. They also have a short digestive system that is unsuited to the type of fermentation required to digest plants. Oh, and even the internationally recognised nutrition standards that processed pet food uses (AAFCO/FEDIAF/NRC) all admit they have no carbohydrate requirement whatsoever.

The best food is in vet clinics!

This can be very confusing for well meaning pet owners because OF COURSE your vet would only sell and recommend the very best pet food on the market. But when we flip these bags over, we see grains, grains, grains, some more grains, a little bit of meat by-product meal and a whole lot of synthetic nutrients. The reasons behind this are very complicated and confusing for pet owners, but basically these companies make it very appealing for clinics to sell these foods; they have infiltrated the veterinary industry at almost every level, from publishing university textbooks to funding professional associations; and at the end of the day, most veterinarians are not nutrition experts. These are two different professions. Fortunately more and more vets are cluing on to this and lots are now supportive of species appropriate diets, you just have to hunt around a little.

Kibble will clean your dogs teeth

Kibble does not clean teeth. Just like biscuits don’t clean your teeth. This is especially true for dogs, because their teeth are not flat and round like ours; they are sharp, pointy and jagged for hunting, ripping and tearing. This is an action that DOES clean teeth, whereas dogs will either swallow kibble whole or smash it with their sharp molars (ever seen kibble vomit? It’s always whole). Kibble will often not even come in contact with most teeth, and it does not scrape down the lower part of any teeth, which is where most dental disease begins. Dental disease is an epidemic in pets, and disease in the mouth can lead to bacteria spreading throughout the body. There is a whole canine dental industry that has developed in recent years which begs the question – why has this occurred if kibble cleans teeth ?

A raw diet will make my dog blood thirsty

Just… no. The only thing my raw fed dog has ever hunted and killed is a moth. If anything, a dog fed nutritious, whole foods has even less reason to hunt, and a dog fed an inappropriate, highly processed mono-food is probably more likely to go looking for suitable food!

There is no evidence a raw diet is better

This is a myth. None of the research processed pet food companies have commissioned demonstrates this, but why would they fund that research?! Research is extremely expensive and unfortunately this does present a significant obstacle for raw food producers and enthusiasts, who tend to be much smaller than the mega-confectionary corporations who make the majority of processed dog food. But there is still research that supports it! And more and more is emerging. A 5-year study published in 2003 found that dogs fed a high quality homemade diet lived up to 3 years longer than dogs fed commercial processed foods, and a 2017 study out of New Zealand found significantly more abundant good bacteria in the gut of raw fed dogs than kibble fed. There is also an abundance of scientific research, including the stuff out of commercial pet food research centres, that supports the indisputable fact that canine metabolic needs are best suited to a species appropriate diet. And don’t get me started on the anecdotal evidence (try it and find out for yourself!)

You can’t feed kibble with raw

There are lots of articles online about how you can’t feed raw and kibble together because it will be unbalanced, or because they digest at different rates or even because a raw fed dog has a different stomach pH to a kibble fed dog. Most of these make very little sense from a scientific perspective, and largely seem to be scare tactics from either side. Studies have shown that kibble fed dogs do not have an elevated stomach pH, so they are well equipped to handle all foods, either together or in separate meals. Similarly, whether the food is kibble or raw does not significantly impact the speed it is digested. Different macronutrients are broken down at different stages in the digestive process regardless of the food source, and the very clever digestive system is well equipped to figure this puzzle out (have you ever eaten a hamburger? Kind of like that!).

Ensuring the nutritional balance of the diet when feeding both kibble and raw is something you will need to watch, but providing both foods are well balanced and nutritionally robust, dividing the meals between them won’t inherently create issues. Adding some raw to kibble can be a great way to ease into a new diet, both for you and your dog.

Nutritional inadequacies

This one is not so much a myth but an important factor that must be accounted for. It is very possible to create a homemade diet with nutritional inadequacies; in fact it’s quite challenging to create a homemade diet without nutritional inadequacies unless you are very experienced. But it is not impossible by any means and, just like us, dogs don’t need to eat every single essential nutrient in every meal in a carefully formulated equation. Meeting your pets nutritional needs doesn’t mean you can’t feed a raw diet, it just means that you must ensure all of the essential nutrients are provided in the diet over an appropriate period of time.

  1. E. P. Miller, Ahle N. W. and DeBey M. C. (2010) Food Safety (pp 225-249) in Hand M.S. (Ed), Thatcher C.D. (Ed), Remillard R.L (Ed), Roudebush P (Ed), Novotny B.J, (Ed) Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 5th Edition
  2. Wiggs R.B., Lobprise H.B. Periodontology in: Veterinary Dentistry, Principles and Practice: Philadelphia, Lippincott Raven, 1997, pp 186-231.
  3. Lippert, G. and Sapy, B. 2003. Relation Between the Domestic Dogs’ Well-Being and Life Expectancy.
  4. Bermingham EN, Maclean P, Thomas DG, Cave NJ, Young W. 2017. Key bacterial families (Clostridiaceae, Erysipelotrichaceae and Bacteroidaceae) are related to the digestion of protein and energy in dogs. PeerJ 5:e3019 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3019

Shifting your dog to a raw diet? Why, how and when to start

The idea of starting out on a raw diet for your pet can be sooooo overwhelming! There is so much info out there, and a lot of people have some very strong opinion about whether you should do it or not, and even about how you should do it if you decide to. My number one and first tip if you are considering making the switch to fresh foods (and I think you should!), is to take a deep breath.

Understanding why there are so many opinions is a blog all of its own, but I want to cover a few of the big questions to help you make a decision without getting overwhelmed. The what, why, when and how, if you will. The who is easy! (It’s your dog).

So what is a raw diet?

A raw diet is a species appropriate diet, which closely replicates how a dog would typically eat in the wild. It is what their ancestors would have eaten before domestication, and what their wolfie cousins still eat today. When we say “species appropriate,” we mean it is food that’s well suited to their metabolic needs and their digestive capabilities. Dogs are facultative carnivores, and while they have been known to scavenge for some plant matter and are sometimes classified as omnivores, the bulk of their food should be animal protein. Like us, dogs have certain nutritional needs that we must meet, no matter what food we feed them. With a raw diet, this means we must feed them a variety of different animal proteins, including different organ meats and ideally some bones. It’s a good idea to include a bit of plant matter and some oily fish for health fats, plus some functional foods to ensure all their micronutrient requirements are met.

Why should we feed a raw diet?

In some ways the why is similar to the what, in the sense that it is the food dogs were designed to eat. For me, it’s really more of a why not? But to get more specific, there are some really good reasons that a raw diet is the best option for your dog. One is that dogs are not well equipped to digest a lot of the heavily processed ingredients in pet food, like carbohydrates. They have no nutritional need for carbs, and they don’t get their energy from them in the same way we do; they get it from protein. Their digestive system is short and acidic and not designed to process foods that require fermentation, and even their teeth are not the right shape for grinding plant matter – they’re sharp and pointy for ripping and tearing flesh (have you ever noticed your dog can’t move their jaw sideways??). All of this comes back to my earlier point, which is that at the end of the day, a dog is a carnivore that needs to eat meat for good health. Supporting this is the fact that dogs who eat a diet like this have been shows to live up to 3 years longer ! There is also a documented increase in good gut bacteria in raw fed dogs , which goes a long way to explaining the mountains of pet owner accounts of less itching, less body and breath odour, better weight control, better digestion, less ear and eye infections, better stool formation, less gas, shinier coats, cleaner teeth and less illness in general.

“I’m in! When can I start?”

You can switch your dog to a raw diet from the day you bring them home, no matter if they are 8 weeks or 8 years. There’s no time like the present! If you have a young puppy it’s very important you switch them to a puppy specific diet as their nutritional needs are different, but raising a puppy on raw from a very young age is one of the best things you can do to give them the best paw forward in life. Older dogs can also make the switch, and many pet owners decide to do this when they find their dog’s health is declining rapidly on processed foods. It is truly amazing what a diet change can do, and you may find you feel like you’ve put your ageing dog in a time machine.

TELL ME HOW ALREADY!

Ok, ok! The how is of course the trickiest part, and I am not going to tell you it’s effortless if you decide to go it alone. It’s a lot of responsibility and it is really important that you get the balance of nutrients right and include everything your dog requires nutritionally. There are some really common gaps that I see over and over in homemade diets, like vitamin E and zinc, and which over time can cause issues. The safest way to raw feed your dog is to use a complete product like Butcher’s Dog, or engage the services of a nutritionist to help you formulate a diet you can make yourself. I will be the first to admit that this can be a lot of work, especially in the learning stages, so I recommend starting with a complete product and building on this if you would like to venture further into becoming your dog’s personal chef. In the meantime, you can begin adding whole food toppers and bits of meat to their current food and you’ll soon see how much they love it!

  1. Lippert, G. and Sapy, B. 2003. Relation Between the Domestic Dogs’ Well-Being and Life Expectancy.
  2. Bermingham EN, Maclean P, Thomas DG, Cave NJ, Young W. 2017. Key bacterial families (Clostridiaceae, Erysipelotrichaceae and Bacteroidaceae) are related to the digestion of protein and energy in dogs. PeerJ 5:e3019 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3019