It’s generally accepted that of all the controversial people food trends out there, the paleo/raw/low carb/low fat rules of ingestion, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, which at its core is this: don’t eat so much processed food, and don’t eat so much food in general.
Agreed, and you can certainly extrapolate this to pets too. However, with over 50% of US pets overweight or obese- a condition with definite and real consequences- I’m more concerned with the latter than the former when it comes to pets. If you prepare your pet’s food, you’ll be bored with this post. If you don’t, and need a little help, read on.
I feed Brody commercial food, so I won’t judge you for doing the same.
Despite knowing home-prepared foods made from your own organic farmer’s market basket provides the most close-to-nature ingredients, it’s a struggle to do this consistently for our human kids, never mind the pets. So most of us* feed our pets out of a bag and beat ourselves up over it. And that’s where clever marketers get you in the feels: we go into the pet store with this vague and disquieting sense of guilt that oh god I’m feeding my pet processed kibble and I’m a bad dog owner therefore I will compensate by buying the absolute best processed kibble I can afford. (Which, by the way, is my own personal approach, so I’m not knocking it.)
As you all know, dissecting thorny nutritional questions could fill a whole book, so this post is limited to current marketing trends. There are plenty of buzzwords out there designed to convince you that this or that new food is the healthiest one, the most wolf-like, light years ahead of all the other ones. But do these trends really mean anything? Based on what I’ve seen hitting the shelves this past year, here are my own personal Food Rules I keep in mind when shopping.
Food Rules for Dogs**
1. The term “natural” doesn’t tell you much.
In AAFCO terms, natural pet foods only means nothing chemically synthesized (except vitamins.) The word natural does not imply better (cyanide is natural!), or even minimal processing. Natural pet food can still be processed and rendered and full of chicken feet from China. Don’t buy a food just based on that word without actually reading the label.
2. Dogs aren’t wolves, they’re dogs.
The venerable journal Nature recently published a study comparing the wolf’s ability to digest starch with a dog’s ability to do the same, which Dr. Huston sums up nicely here. To sum up the summary: dogs evolved to hang around and scrounge off of us, and in doing so changed both their anatomy and their digestive enzymes to better digest carbs like the omnivores they follow around. Which leads me to my next point:
3. Most dogs don’t need a low carb diet.
The general consensus amongst those who know a ton about these things, like DVM/PhD nutritionists who run Iditarods with performance dogs such as Dr. Arleigh Reynolds (he spoke at a great BlogPaws session), is this: performance dogs may benefit from the additional protein and/or fats in low carb foods. For the average dog, the extra calories just tend to make them fatter.
Don’t you look smart.
4. Most dogs don’t need a grain free diet either.
If you want to go grain free for your dog, it won’t hurt them. But ask yourself: why? People usually assume grain free diets are better for dogs based on one of a few ideas: grains are covered in glutens and glutens are bad; or grains are carbs and carbs are bad.
Gluten free diets are all over the place these days because of the incidence of celiac disease, a real and devastating condition in people. But with the exception of one subset of Irish setters, it doesn’t occur in dogs.
Is grain free = low carb? Not necessarily. Potatoes, a common grain free source of carbs, have a higher glycemic index than brown rice and are all over the place in grain free dog diets. Besides, dogs are fine with carbs (see 3.)
Or do you think your dog is allergic to grain?
5. Most dogs aren’t allergic to grains.
Of all cases of allergies in dogs, food allergies only comprise 10% of them. And of those food allergic dogs, the 5 most commonly diagnosed allergies are: beef, dairy, chicken, lamb, and fish. Are grain allergies possible? Yes. Likely? No. If you’re feeding a grain free beef formula because you think your dog is allergic to wheat, consider a food trial to confirm your suspicions.
6. There is no one ideal food for your dog.
Anyone who says ‘this and only this brand/line is all that will ever be appropriate’ is lying. There are always options (even prescription diets are usually available from multiple manufacturers), and unless your dog has a specific medical condition you’re treating with diet I encourage people to try different foods and see what works best. As I’ve said before, I rotate foods all the time. If you try the most pricey food in the store and your dog gains 15 pounds, starts flaking off greasy dandruff, or starts pooping 6 times a day, who cares what the bag or the guy in the apron stocking shelves said? Do what works for you.
7. If your dog’s overweight, get that sorted out before worrying about corn and byproduct meal.
I’m not certain exactly what so many people think corn is going to do to their dog, but they are certain it’s going to do something bad so prescription weight loss food is out of the question for their 115 pound Akita who can barely walk. Then they put the dog down when both knees go out. This is a true story from my clinic, which happened after 6 months of begging the owner to put the dog on a diet, any diet, corn or no.
Don’t focus so much on what might happen that you miss the real danger happening right in front of you.
Koa lost 12 pounds (non diet food, just portion control) after we adopted her and was all the happier for it.
I talk more about how to decipher food names, ingredients, and what I tell people when they ask me to make a food recommendation in prior posts linked here.
Got your own pet rules? And should I do a cat one?
*If you’re one of those uncommon home cooking owners, awesome for you. That is not said sarcastically. I know it takes a lot of work. And if you’re a raw feeder, I accept that you have researched it and know what you’re doing and disagree with feeding kibble. Go forward and BARF and peace be with you.
** See *. I’m talking to the rest of the crowd.
Pawcurious: With Pet Lifestyle Expert and Veterinarian Dr. V.