Kibble – reading the labels, what REALLY goes in it?

In fact, given that you’re probably not an “expert” on pet food, as I suppose I sort of am, this may well have happened to you many times. The fact that it does still happen to me every now and then is testament to just how easy it is to be led down the garden path by canny processed pet food producers, experts of marketing spin.
So, while I do still occasionally, albeit briefly, fall for their marketing sorcery, I have learned a good few tricks along the way to work out what you’re reading, from very basic pointers, to the level of semi-professional label reader. And through doing this, as well as by asking companies lots of questions, by reading Australian Standards from cover to cover, and by heavily researching the topic to the point that it’s actually a bit embarrassing how much I know about processed pet food, I feel quite well placed to explain a few things about it.

Check the ingredients on the pack:

Some kibbles do not even list or name the specific protein they use. Processed dog food is almost always centred around a main animal protein, and we’re led to believe it is brimming with juicy chicken breasts and shiny salmon fillets, as per the glossy photos on the bag, but the reality is quite different.
Although you absolutely should expect to see meat as the first ingredient in any dog food product, there is a little more to it than that. If a company does not name the specific protein they use, this is a big, big red flag. If a business cannot even tell you what animal the meat comes from, there is no possible way they can tell you anything resembling genuine transparency around the supply chain this meat came from, prior to ending up in their food.
There is also a big difference between “meat” and “meat meal.” One is 75% water, the other is basically devoid of any moisture. So while the idea of “meat meal” might horrify you (more on that in a minute), it is almost guaranteed that a food that lists meat meal at the front of their ingredients list actually contains a lot more animal protein than one that lists “meat” in its whole form. This is because ingredients lists are required to be listed by weight, meaning an ingredient that is 75% water is going be far heavier than an ingredient with no water, despite the fact that this water is all removed during the cooking process. Tricky.

What the heck is meat meal?

Meat meal is a shelf stable meat powder that is made from rendering meat and bones not fit for human consumption. It is the same process that is used to separate tallow for making things like soap, whereby the fat and water is split from the meat using very high temperatures. According to their own website, The Rendering Association considers themselves to be a recycling service, above all else, and they acknowledge that plastic ear tags are not removed from heads of livestock before they are rendered to be turned into pet food.

Ingredient splitting is a trick:

Sometimes we see both meat AND meat meal, and this is because of a little thing called ingredient splitting. The function of ingredient splitting is to give the illusion of more protein. In the case of splitting say, chicken, into a fresh version and a dry version, the result is that now it appears twice and, to the untrained eye, looks to be much higher in chicken content (perhaps twice as much) than it really is. When actually it is just water weight and no additional chicken.
The reverse is true of less desirable ingredients like, for example, legumes. Splitting in this context enables low nutritional ‘fillers’ to appear smaller in weight to the so-called core protein. Often we will see as many as four or five different beans and peas, the nutritional value and function of which are incredibly similar, at least in this context. The reason for this is that each serve of the 5 different beans weighs significantly less than the sum total, and also less than the meat ingredient in number one position.

How much ‘meat’ is really in there?

We aren’t meant to know! More than likely, if you see multiple very similar ingredients they have been selected strategically so that meat is the first ingredient. You may also see the same ingredient in a few different forms. This is common of things like peas, which may appear as “peas,” as well as things like pea protein and pea flour. All peas. Lotsa peas.
According to the Australian Renderers Association, as well as pet food industry insiders I’ve personally spoken to, it is typical for kibble to contain around 20% meat meal or less, and high end ones cap out at around 30%. This is partly due to the high bone content of meat meal, as well as other things like cost and the functional necessity for starches to tie the ingredients together.

What about all those carbs?

It’s not at all unusual for a dry pet food to be more than half carbohydrate based ingredients, like grains and legumes, which is necessary to form the biscuit dough. This is incredibly high, keeping in mind that dogs and cats have no mandated carbohydrate requirement at all.

The problem with starchy carbs is they quickly break down into simple sugars that enter the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar levels. This triggers the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that tells our cells to absorb the blood glucose for energy. Because this all happens very quickly with highly processed and high GI carbs, dogs can feel hungry more quickly, while also storing excess glucose as fat and over time risking diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Yeast infections and cancer both love sugar too, so the danger here speaks for itself.

What about all the so-called ‘superfoods’ and ‘vitamins’?

Aside from some additional fats (all the fat is removed from the meat meal, remember), kibbles contain artificial flavours (because there is no natural taste, and to make it smell nicer to us), and minuscule amounts of ‘superfoods’ (which sound amazing in the advertising), and a vitamin and mineral premix.

Is it complete and balanced?

Where vitamins or superfood quantities are so small, they don’t even register as a percentage. As a guide, if they are below salt on the packaging, this means less than 1%.

These vitamins and minerals are usually cheap oxides, sulphates and other inorganic synthetics, rather than actual nutrients as they appear in nature, or even high quality isolates. The bioavailability of these is questionable, but studies have shown they are poorly utilised compared to higher quality synthetics, let alone nutrients in actual food. These synthetic nutrient supplements are essential to meet the required nutrient levels in the standards set out by the powers that be, because the repeated high heat treatment that processed food undergoes degrades any actual nutrients so severely they are largely absent. Importantly, it also enables manufacturers to use the term, ‘Complete and Balanced’…

Once all of these ingredients are mixed into a dough, it is then pushed through an extruder, which uses heat and forms the biscuit shapes. It is then cooked, and often cooked again, before being sprayed with flavours.
 

The end result is a product that can sit on the shelf for years before your dog eats it. There is no requirement to state a date of production, only a batch ID that is meaningless to consumers, and a used by date. Due to the self regulated nature of the Australian pet food industry, as well as the seriously relaxed guidelines in the Australian Standard that governs the marketing of its products, the label on a bag of food can be designed in a way that conceals much of what we’ve just discussed.

But the packaging looks great!

Bags often contain images of foods so premium we might eat them ourselves, emblazoned with a featured animal protein name, and sometimes even a bold claim of as much as 70 or 80% meat. When the reality is that this number includes a ‘rehydration factor’ of x4…remembering they can call meat meal ‘meat’.


These marketing tactics are governed by the voluntary Australian Standard for the Manufacture and Marketing of Pet Food (AS5812), and it acknowledges that dry pet foods are “typically cereal based.” Despite this, the standard permits food to be named after a meat protein while only containing as little as 5% of the named protein, and it doesn’t actually have to even be the main meat protein if the word “with” comes beforehand. If you’ve noticed the recent trend of referring to a food as being with REAL beef, this is why. The “real” is a distraction from the “with” – because really, what other sort of beef would it be?? This standard also states that “justification of content claims, when using dehydrated ingredients, shall be calculated on a reconstituted basis using a recognised conversion factor.” In layman’s terms, what this means is that a claim such as “contains 70% meat,” will have had a rehydration factor of x4 applied to any dry meat ingredients, meaning that in fact it contains only 17.5% of a highly processed and heat treated scrap meat powder. It is totally permitted, arguably encouraged or even mandatory, for them to multiply this portion by 4 and advertise a hypothetical rehydrated percentage, even though it never actually existed in this food.

This would be sort of ok with me if everything was calculated using rehydration factors and we were comparing apples with apples. But they’re not.

And that brings us to the nutrient panel. You’d be forgiven for looking at the nutrient panel on a bag of kibble and thinking “26% protein! Amazing.” But what we need to remember here is that this percentage refers to the finished, dry product, so it is a very concentrated figure on account of all the water having been removed – as opposed to the claim on the front, which has had all the water added back in using “rehydration factors”. These companies pick and choose how they will inflate figures in the way that best suits them and makes their product look better, and as a result risk totally deceiving consumers. Best of both worlds, eh?
Because it is not normal for food to be completely dry, these nutrient panel values are not really comparable to what we are used to seeing. As a result, they often seem high, while actually being very low. While a fresh meat product might advertise a seemingly meagre 15% protein, the dry matter equivalent of this (ie. the percentage of protein once all water is removed) may be as high as 50%. Almost double the actual protein content of the processed food. Another thing to note is that there is no requirement to list a carbohydrate percentage, so most pet food brands choose not to, and many will decline to tell you if you ask (which I did, many times).
There is much more I could say on this topic, but the key point to takeaway is that these foods are almost always labelled and marketed in a way that intentionally has pet owners in a tail spin trying to navigate them, when ultimately the vast majority are extremely similar.

In summary:

The lack of transparency in the processed pet food industry is something I find deeply problematic, and is compounded by a complete lack of mandatory regulations. A few things are certain though; these foods are all made from ingredients that are totally unsuitable for dogs, they are all heavily processed and repeatedly exposed to high temperatures, they are all supplemented with synthetic vitamins and minerals in order to show they contain ‘adequate nutrition’, and they are all permitted to sit on a shelf for as long as 18 months before being fed to your pet.
No amount of labeling gymnastics will change these facts, and this is really all you need to know.
(In this article I refer to “processed pet food,” “dry dog food” and “kibble”, by which I mean the typical, biscuit based dog food that we find at the supermarket.)

The importance of gut health

By now, those of us with even a passing interest in nutrition have no doubt heard the expression “gut health.” If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ve probably read about it here or heard me talk about pre and probiotics. It has become so entrenched in the vernacular of nutrition – both animal and our own – that we tend to gloss over it as simply a necessity, without paying too much attention to the details.

When we talk about “the gut” in gut health, it’s not just the tummy or stomach that we’re referring to. The gut incorporates the entire gastrointestinal tract, which begins at the mouth and goes all the way through the body to the bum. It incorporates a good portion of the body’s organs and it is responsible for some very critical bodily functions, which is why it’s SO important that we ensure its health. The primary job of the gut is to digest food, breaking it down into a form that can deliver nutrients to the bloodstream. Pretty straightforward, right?

But within the gut is the gut microbiome. This is an ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria – both good and bad – fungi, viruses, and other microscopic critters that reside mainly in the large intestine. They also live in other parts of the body, such as in the mouth, on the skin, and even in the vagina. These good bacteria are what we mean when we say probiotics. And the good ones don’t just help to digest food and absorb or produce nutrients – they play an important role in fighting infections such as dental disease, food poisoning, or urinary tract infections, they assist with regulating weight, they play an essential role in the health of the immune system, and they can even affect mental health, the heart and the likelihood of developing diabetes.

Gut bacteria assists with regulating weight and can influence the onset of diabetes.

When the bacteria in the gut is in balance, the presence of good bacteria outnumbers bad and is sufficient to defend against illness and disease. If the gut is out of balance – or experiencing dysbiosis – it can mean there has been a loss of “good” bacteria, an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria or a reduction in the diversity of the microbes in the gut (or a combination of all three).

The more diversity present in the gut microbiome, the greater the positive influence on health, and especially intestinal health. Numerous studies (in humans) have linked gut dysbiosis to inflammatory intestinal conditions such as IBS, and a 2017 study on dogs also linked gut microbiome diversity with intestinal health. Immune cells also live in the gut, with as much as 70-80% of the immune system thought to reside here, so its role in health really can’t be understated.

The gut microbiome develops very early in life, possibly even in the womb, and the health of the gut may be impacted by many factors, including some we have no control of, like genetics, whether the birth is vaginal or by cesarean, or whether we (or our dog) are breastfed. The health of a mother’s gut microbiome likely informs the benefits obtained through birth and breastfeeding, as well as in utero development of the microbiome.

There are also lifestyle factors that we have limited control over and which impact the health of the microbiome, such as environmental toxins, and essential medications like antibiotics in times of illness. But then there are lifestyle things we can do to improve or preserve the health of the gut, and (unsurprisingly) my favorite one is diet.

The single best way to support the health of the gut is to feed a diet of fresh, living nutrients, that suits the digestive capability of your pet.

This food will be naturally brimming with probiotic goodness and digestive enzymes that will aid the digestive process, but they also offer bigger-picture benefits. A diverse and varied diet, as opposed to a monotonous processed diet, offers a wide variety of different strains of probiotics (like the Lactobacillus acidophilus made famous by yogurt commercials in the 90s), which builds diversity in the microbiome. Fresh foods that suit the carnivorous mouth of our pets (like meaty bones) provide a defense that helps to prevent pathogenic bacteria from building up in the mouth, unlike starchy foods that offer no dental or bacteria-fighting benefits.

As we discussed in this post, preventing dental disease is integral to preventing disease all through the body.

Heavily processed foods that are repeatedly heat treated and sit on shelves for months simply cannot offer the same living enzymes and good bacteria as fresh foods.

While some are targeted to intestinal health, they are still brimming with heavily processed, unsuitable ingredients and synthetic nutrients, they offer no comparable dietary diversity and they are cooked within an inch of their life (or arguably beyond it, RIP). It simply does not pass the test of common sense that such food could be offering a positive impact on the health of our pet’s oh so important gut, and the ever-increasing amount of kibble fed dogs with IBS, skin conditions, ear infections, yeast infections, gas, and cancer frankly make it a hard sell for me. And in fact, a study conducted in 2017 that compared kibble-fed and raw-fed dogs found that bacteria associated with diarrhea and irritable bowel disorder was higher in kibble-fed dogs, while raw the fed dogs experienced “improved apparent protein and energy digestibility, reduced fecal weight and better fecal consistency.”

With the ever-increasing amount of kibble-fed dogs with IBS, skin conditions, ear infections, yeast infections, gas, and cancer, frankly kibble is a hard sell for me.

The gut microbiota can change very quickly—as fast as a matter of just days from dietary changes—but this doesn’t necessarily mean that poor gut health is an easy fix. It’s not uncommon for people to try fresh foods and find they don’t help, or sometimes even seem to make things worse, so they quickly revert back to processed food and things stabilize. Anyone who has ever eaten a whole foods diet and then a meal from McDonald’s (or a beige diet and then a plate of broccoli) will be able to attest that sudden, major dietary changes are not pleasant. Regardless of their health status, if your dog has a gut microbiome that is optimized (and I use that word loosely) to digest a carbohydrate-based kibble, it will look very different to a dog whose microbiome is optimized to digest raw meat. If you add to this gut dysbiosis or even leaky gut syndrome (a condition where the lining of the gut is degraded and allows particles of food into the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory response), you are probably facing a little bit of a battle to restore equilibrium, and this will take time. Please don’t give up.

There are things we can do to make this process go more smoothly, and a big one is to go slowly. Another is to offer things in the diet that are specially targeted to gut health, such as fermented foods. Fermented foods are ancient remedies that we can either make at home, or buy in the form of doggy-safe choices like sauerkraut and other facto-fermented veggies, kefir, or raw dairy like goat’s milk (this isn’t actually fermented, but loaded with the good stuff nonetheless). These can be paired with prebiotics for rest results, which are indigestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in the gut, helping them to stay alive, grow and multiply.

Prebiotics generally come from plants, and some good choices are listed in this post here.

Alternatively, The Butcher’s Dog stocks a range of biologically appropriate probiotic supplements for dogs.

If you suspect your dog’s gut health does need an overhaul, they may require a course of probiotic supplements to restore the equilibrium.

Some areas that can be affected by poor gut health or indicators that your dog’s gut health may not be as good as it could be, include skin conditions, dull fur, really “doggy” smell, excess shedding, greasy coat, itchiness, tummy issues, bad breath, diarrhea, joint pain, poor immune system, food intolerances, yeast infections, recurring UTIs, IBS, and even behavioral issues.

Probiotics also don’t just come from food. They are present in the soil, in the grass, in puddles, even in the poo of other animals, which explains why some dogs insist on eating it. While I definitely don’t recommend coprophagia as a strategy for good gut health, it does sort of explain why some dogs participate in this pretty gross habit. What I do recommend is that we trust our pet’s instincts and let them be dogs, by allowing them to obtain the enormous health benefits of a species-appropriate, fresh diet that supports the health of their microbiome.

And dig, roll in the grass, drink out of puddles. Be good, healthy dogs.


REFERENCES

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3829625/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26358192/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25662751/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4734998/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28191884/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202342/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4523847/
  8. https://peerj.com/articles/3019/#

Bones and Dental Health

Why has the incidence of dental disease skyrocketed?

So why is it then, that up to 80% of dogs over the age of two years old (veritable babies!) have dental disease? And 70% of cats! Modern processed dry diets have played a huge part. The sticky film called plaque forms on teeth when bacteria in the mouth mix with starchy foods. This build-up is something we don’t tend to see in raw-fed dogs and cats. Partly because raw food doesn’t contain starches and sugars, and the mechanical scraping of the teeth when bones are gnawed. It also needs to be remembered that dog dentistry is a relatively modern phenomenon and is not without risk itself, as your dog is under anesthetic for the procedure.

In recent years there has been an outpouring of doomsday messaging about the dangers of bones and how we simply must not feed them under any circumstances. Cracked teeth, choking hazards and splinters! The risks so greatly outweighs the benefits that we simply must not facilitate an act that our pets evolved over thousands of years doing, but instead feed these certified synthetic starch sticks and routinely spend hundreds, if not thousands of our hard earned dollars on teeth cleaning procedures.

The black and whiteness of the differing schools of thought within the animal care industry is something I have always struggled with. Bones in particular seem to divide, and I dare say that no one suffers more from this argument than our pets.

The risks of feeding bones

There are risks to feeding bones. If we feed inappropriately large and hard bones, it’s possible that a tooth may crack. A dog could choke on a bone (like literally any other thing they chew like sticks and balls ) and cooked bones can splinter. These are all genuine risks and it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge them. But they are risks that can be mitigated, and they should be weighed up against the benefits. But there are also other health risks to consider.

The risks of not feeding bones

The statistic that 80% of dogs over the age of 2 (or 3, according to some sources – but shocking nonetheless either way) require dental treatment is so widely circulated in both pro and anti-bone circles that it can not be ignored. In fact there are a number of peer reviewed studies that support it. This is extremely troubling, not only because it is a condition that inevitably causes a life of pain, but perhaps even more worryingly because it is linked to the progression of “renal, hepatic and cardiac disorders,” a claim that is supported by a study conducted at Purdue University, which concluded “systemic diseases where an association with [periodontal disease] has been documented include chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, endocarditis, interstitial nephritis, glomerulonephritis, and hepatitis.”

Dental disease causes systemic disease.

This is the risk we simply cannot ignore. While the scientific evidence of the dental health benefits of gnawing on a bone are unsurprisingly scant, there is literally thousands of years of lived experience, and an infinite mass of anecdotal evidence supporting bones as a natural method of ensuring the dental health of species that are physically designed to eat bones. There is also evidence to support the preventative nature of natural chews like cow hooves on periodontal disease in dogs, a conclusion that is drawn form the same study referenced above, implicating dental diseases in a host of other systemic illnesses.

I will add to this and say that my nine year old dog has eaten meaty and recreational bones his whole life and has shown no signs of dental disease or cracked teeth at his routine vet check ups – performed by his raw feeding vet who also feeds her own dogs bones! My one year old monster, however, has a cracked tooth from jumping into a sewer when she was a puppy, and her (human) dad has an endearing chip in his front tooth from an incident with a basketball. Life is full of risks, and as guardians it is our responsibility to weigh them and choose a path that we believe offers the best possible health outcome for those in our care. If you decide this is not bones, then that is more than ok. If you think they are worth a crack (no pun intended), then there are a few things to keep in mind in order to ensure they are fed safely.

Pick a dog a Bone

The first thing is to select which kind of bones you want to feed. There are two main types: meaty and recreational. Meaty bones are nutritional and consumed entirely as part of the main diet, and include things like a chicken neck or wing. They offer many health benefits in addition to dental, such as a naturally balanced source of calcium and phosphorus, when fed as part of a complete diet. The other is a recreational bone, which is the more traditional “dog bone” and is offered usually as an enrichment tool. When we say “give a dog a bone” we think of this type, well-utilised to both keep busy minds at bay and pearly whites sparkling.

Size Matters

In each situation it is wise to err on the side of larger, as this means they are unlikely to be swallowed whole and pose a choking hazard. In any case, it’s essential that you get to know your own dog, monitor their chewing style and work out if you need to first teach them how to safely consume bones. Some dogs will carefully crunch and gnaw until the bone has been reduced to a size suitable to safely swallow, whereas others will attempt to swallow everything in sight immediately. I personally have one of each. For the more gung-ho, it’s important that you guide your dog and teach them how to consume bones safely. Hold it in your hand and force them to gnaw.

Avoid competition at meal time

Feed them alone so there is no competition or urgency. You can try giving them more than they can physically swallow and allow them to consume some, then take it away when they’ve had enough and before it gets too small. In the case of very large dogs, if you trust your dog and feel comfortable to (as I do), you can actually feed small bones like chicken necks, and they will likely be swallowed with almost no chewing at all (as the dog is really designed to do), and they will at least obtain nutritional benefit, if not dental. Most importantly, always supervise.
Selecting the right bones also extends to the animal the bone comes from. If a bone is very, very hard—such as those that weigh bear for very large animals (eg. cow legs), it is significantly more likely to crack a tooth. If a bone is very hard but small (such as a beef short rib), it can be swallowed whole but not digested, or it may get stuck in the roof of the mouth or in the digestive tract. For this reason it is best to choose physically larger bones but that are not from huge animals. Bones from a turkey or a lamb, or bones that don’t carry a lot of weight, such as a neck from a pig or a tail from a kangaroo, are good examples of much safer choices.

No, never, nada.

And most importantly, never ever ever EVER feed cooked bones of any description. While most raw bones are actually quite soft and spongy and can be safely digested by the gastric juices of healthy dogs and cats, cooked bones are dried out and hard, and therefore are much more likely to splinter, causing the injuries we’re quite rightly warned about.

Also stay away from synthetic bone substitutes such as raw hides ( toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process ) brightly coloured green chews (full of dyes and synthetic ingredients) deer antlers ( responsible for a lot of broken teeth in vigorous chewers), basted, smoked and decoratively tinted products, (full of crap).

Senior dogs and ageing gracefully

How could this be? My shiny, playful, cheeky pal who seems as spritely as he did the day I adopted him, which feels like only yesterday. Well, it turns out that dogs over the age of just SEVEN are considered senior, and he is going on nine. Seven seems to me incredibly young to be considered a senior (perhaps because by this rationale I myself am a senior!), but alas I don’t make the rules.

It would never occur to me when Tex was 7 that he was in any way elderly; he was honestly as fit as the day I brought him home. However, something changed at 8, and I was forced to face my dog’s mortality. What changed, you ask?

We got a puppy. Much like the signs of our own ageing perhaps go unnoticed until all of a sudden they don’t, introducing a bubbly young puppy, who wanted to play absolutely non-stop, made me realise my older boy actually had slowed down a bit. He slept more, he moved less and a bit more slowly, his breath wasn’t quite so fresh, and he’s not as regular as he once was. When he was younger you could set your watch to the routine of his number twos, whereas these days at times it’s bit more effort.

He’s also a grumpy old shit, but to be fair he always was so I don’t think that’s age related.
If we look at the website of a popular veterinary chain, the key areas of interest for pet owners with an ageing dog are: mobility, lumps and bumps, changes in appetite, thirst or weight, and dental health. As the owner of an ageing dog, I can attest that these are all things I have monitored and attended to in the last 12 months. Don’t get me wrong, Tex is still incredibly active and is often confused for a puppy by admiring strangers, but this is because of my close attention to his diet and overall wellness, not in spite of it.

Contrary to what many sources will tell you, dogs’ nutritional needs do not change as they age. There is no separate set of nutrition guidelines for older dogs, and no evidence based reason for them to require totally different food. But that’s not to say there aren’t things we can do to support them in their twilight years, and that includes through food.

I took Tex to our wonderful holistic vet about a year ago because I thought he needed to be put under for nail trim. He is extremely fear aggressive about having his nails trimmed, and after many attempts through many different avenues, multiple different professionals have advised me that sedating him is presently the only way to do it without traumatising him further. Much to my delight, our vet told me that his nails weren’t medically an issue and didn’t yet need to be tended to. Much to my dismay, she said the reason for the change in his front paw movement was not due to long nails, but rather to cartilage degeneration from age, which would likely one day progress to become arthritis. Great. To combat his current symptoms and prevent further deterioration, we now use a plant and marine extract-based veterinary supplement to support the cartilage generation in his joints, and we focus on an anti-inflammatory diet with loads of omega 3-rich and gut-supporting foods. He gets plenty of fresh oily fish, high gelatine bone broth, cartilage dense foods like trachea and chicken feet, and a balanced whole foods, species appropriate diet to keep him at a healthy weight and thus support his joints.

I also had his routine checkup tests done in this appointment and the vet commented that his urine was very concentrated. Distraught, I queried why this would be, immediately presuming he had some sort of devastating kidney disorder. But upon relaying that it was a morning wee, that he can easily go a whole day without a toilet break and that he isn’t a big drinker, she assured me that it was no cause for concern. She did recommend, however, that I ensure he gets plenty of water so his ageing urinary tract doesn’t need to work overtime. But how?! He’s the most stubborn dog I know! Add it to his food, she replied. Sometimes the answer really is that simple and just staring you right in the face. Make sure your ageing dog stays hydrated, and add water to their food if they don’t drink a lot. Check.

Like humans, dogs can be more prone to constipation as they get older, and this can pose a challenge for a species that is not designed to eat plants. I started adding more vegetables to Tex’s diet when I noticed this change, but the gas that comes out of this boy when he eats veggies is something else. To combat this, I give him a digestive enzyme when he eats veggies, because dogs don’t produce the enzyme amylase in their saliva like we do, which is necessary for digesting carbohydrates. It helps, but I also don’t like feeding him foods that he’s not well equipped to digest, so I also now feed him more muscle meat and less bone than I used to, which also helps. He kept regular treats and bones with fur, which is nature’s answer to fibre for carnivores, and sometimes I do also give him some oats of a morning, which contain lots of both soluble and insoluble fibre, and assist with bulking stools and keeping us regular.

To combat the issue of his morning breath, I regularly feed recreational bones, as well as food and treats that require gnawing and ripping. Tex’s teeth are actually in great shape for his age and he has no dental disease at all (according to regular vet checkups), but this is definitely something we aim to prevent through species appropriate foods, rather than treat with veterinary intervention. He’s never had his teeth cleaned and I fully attribute his good dental health to his lifelong species appropriate diet, but this is certainly something I’ll monitor closely now that he’s older. There is a species of brown kelp—specifically Ascophyllum nodosum—that has also been shown in studies to combat dental disease and, combined with foods that contain antibacterial properties, like parsley, mint or coconut oil, may help either as a food topper or a homemade toothpaste. We’re yet to try this (see my previous point about grumpiness), but we will soon.

Dogs can also be prone to a slowing of the metabolism as they get a bit long in the tooth, so it’s important to watch their portions and keep them at a healthy weight, which will both support their joints and help to avoid any of the vast number of diseases related to obesity. You can do this either by reducing their portions, or by selecting leaner foods in the same rations. This also isn’t the case for all dogs, and I have actually found I need to feed Tex more than I did when he was young, although this may be partly due to his spritely sister keeping him active through the day, when previously he spent hours sunning himself in a lap of luxury.

And as for the lumps and bumps? My advice is to regularly check your dog over when you’re giving them affection, and get any new lumps vet checked right away. Once you know they’re nothing serious, embrace their new, unique weirdness and enjoy the rest of the precious years you have left together.

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 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