If you search online for information about the best way to feed your dog, you will be inundated with many different views, most of them adamant that their ideas give the best and only ways to feed dogs. There seem to be as many different ideas as there are people proposing them. So how are we supposed to make a decision as to the best diet for our dogs?
One thing is clear in recent literature, and that is that pet owners in the Western world are becoming more and more aware of what is put into the processed foods that are offered to us for our pets and, in line with a desire to eat healthily ourselves, many people are questioning what is and isn’t good about the foods that we’ve been feeding for so long. One result of increasing awareness is that the majority of pet food manufacturers have started to advertise foods with less or no grain in them and/or a lower carbohydrate content. So, what’s the basis for this?
If we take a step back and consider how dogs were fed before James Spratt came up with the brilliant idea of making dog biscuits, most domesticated dogs survived on scraps from our tables, meaty bones and often supplemented their diet themselves with rats, mice, rabbits or anything else they could catch or scavenge. Dogs had greater freedom in those days and many owners had neither the time not the money to worry about whether or not Fido’s diet was well balanced.
In the distant past when dogs were only just beginning to be domesticated, they spent their lives living near human communities and probably helping with the hunt for the local community. They would have been rewarded with some of the kill and probably scavenged the leftovers from human meals. This domestication process started many thousands of years ago and dogs have been truly domesticated, as far as we know, for about 20,000 years. In evolutionary terms that is not really a very long time and the digestive system of our domestic pet has not changed appreciably since those days.
There has been a lot of debate as to whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores, as they will eat just about anything. The processed dog food industry is keen for the public to believe that dogs are omnivores, possibly because of the low meat content of the majority of dog foods. There is however, little doubt that dogs are carnivores when we compare their digestive systems with ours and other omnivores. They are carnivorous scavengers, which means that they are primarily designed to eat meat and meat products but happily eat other foods and can use some vegetable and fruit matter.
They have a short digestive tract and their stomach is very acidic, ideally with a pH of approximately 2. Feeding a dog appropriate fresh food helps to maintain this low pH, whereas feeding processed foods leads to a higher pH and potential health problems. When healthy, your dog’s digestive system can digest large pieces of food, kill pathogens such as salmonella and e-coli, and convert food to nutrients the body can use. Much of this work is performed by enzymes and microflora in the gut. The microflora, known as the microbiome, help with digestion, absorption, and the production of B vitamins and enzymes, and they are an important part of a healthy immune system. Up to 80% of your dog’s immune system is based in the gut, so a healthy gut is vital to a dog’s overall health.
Dogs are seen to be suffering increasingly from the same illnesses that humans contract as they age, due to poorly balanced and low quality diets. Diseases like late onset diabetes, kidney and heart problems and even arthritis and some forms of cancer can be exacerbated by inadequate diet. For example, it is estimated by the PDSA, the leading British animal charity, that up to 85% of dogs and cats over 2 years of age suffer from some degree of dental disease. Dental diseases can be linked to systemic diseases of the kidneys and liver, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes complications, problems during pregnancy and even cancers. It seems that improving dental health by changing dogs’ diets to healthy, fresh and raw food can radically improve these conditions.
In recent decades, an enormously profitable industry has grown up internationally producing and selling processed food for domestic pets made from the waste products of the human food industry. Some of these foods are of better quality than others but all contain preservatives and additives and processed food is cooked to a high temperature which means that crucial nutrients are lost and must be replaced artificially. The majority of these foods actually contain very little good quality meat protein and a high proportion of carbohydrate, often in the form of grains which are one of the biggest sources of allergies in dogs. It is arguable how much dogs really need carbohydrate in their diets, if at all, as they convert fat to energy when needed, unlike us who use carbohydrate for a quick energy ‘fix’. Carbohydrate, especially in the form of grains, is cheap and without any carbohydrate it would be difficult to manufacture the ‘kibble’ with which we are now all so familiar.
We are all constantly reminded of the importance of eating a fresh natural diet for ourselves and our children so why should our dogs be any different? We are bombarded with advertising and claims that attempt to persuade us that what our dogs need is dried or canned convenience foods instead of fresh meat and bones and other natural products.
In my experience and that of many others, the benefits of feeding a balanced, species appropriate raw diet include:
-Clean teeth, from chewing raw bones and not eating biscuits and other carbohydrate laden foods
-Sweeter smelling breath and coat
-Glossy coat and fewer skin problems
-Firmer, less smelly and smaller stools
-Higher energy levels
-and most importantly, a strong immune system which is able to fight off infection and disease more effectively than a dog fed on mass produced, carbohydrate based feeds.
The main concerns I hear expressed about raw feeding for dogs are:
1.Raw food contains salmonella and other bacteria.
There is no more risk of finding salmonella in raw dog food, properly sourced and prepared, than there is in meat acquired for human consumption. As long as basic hygiene rules are followed this is an unnecessary worry. Indeed, there appear to have been more reports of salmonella contamination in processed dog food than in raw diets.
- Bones are indigestible and cause choking and other problems
Bone is the best source of calcium for dogs. As well as offering the all important minerals calcium and phosphorous, it also contains sodium, magnesium, potassium, silicon and sulphur. Bone marrow also contains vitamins and other trace elements. The physical act of tearing at a bone is great for muscle development and chewing on a tasty bone gives dogs emotional satisfaction and a fulfilling way to spend their time.
However, bones must always be fed raw because cooked bones are very likely to splinter and are consequently dangerous to eat. Weight bearing bones of high density are not good for dogs’ teeth either as they are so hard they may chip or wear away the teeth of determined chewers.
One other important point to keep in mind about bones is that, if a dog is eating a raw, species appropriate diet, the stomach pH will be low and therefore acidic, and swallowed bones will be dissolved in a few hours. Problems can of course arise, if the dog is not fed a balanced diet or is partly fed on processed food. In these cases, the stomach pH will be higher and therefore unable to deal with the bones.
Vets have told me that they see dogs attending their surgeries with bone splinters stuck in their systems, requiring expensive and dangerous surgery. If bones are cooked or the dog is given a mixed diet of processed food with the occasional bone this kind of problem is very likely to occur. Education is so important. If owners are worried about the risk of splinters in bone, it is not absolutely essential for them to be offered whole. Bonemeal will give dogs the same nutritional benefits and other treats can be offered to satisfy chewing cravings.
- A raw diet is not balanced and therefore not healthy.
As an objection to raw feeding, this really doesn’t make sense. Any diet can be unbalanced if care isn’t taken to understand what is being fed. It’s important to take advice when feeding raw to make sure the proportion and types of food groups are right for your dog. There are many companies now offering fully balanced, raw food ready prepared for dogs and there is also a lot of information available to those who want to find out how to raw feed for themselves.
I’ve met well meaning owners who feed their dogs on high quality steak, minced meat and chicken wings and believe that in so doing they are getting it right, but they are forgetting offal, fibre and other important elements of a natural diet. I agree with sceptics that these dogs would be better off eating kibble than fed such a poor mix of nutrients. Owners need to be responsible and learn about how to feed a balanced diet, just as we should with our own nutrition.