I don’t mean the title of this post literally, though fresh worms would be an improvement over the ingredients contained in  some dog food. But a discussion on Twitter — if you can call a series of 140-character bursts a discussion — spurred me to venture into the arena.

When it comes to dog food, I believe in two key principles.

Different people and different dogs have different needs, both in terms of time, budget, and health requirements. Do the best you can.

Freeze-dried, raw, and home-cooked food are great for some dogs and some people but not for others. When Frankie was diagnosed with diabetes, I consulted several holistic vets to find a good diet to supplement the insulin shots. Frankie didn’t like the freeze-dried fare that the first one recommended. I don’t know whether it was the consistency (mushy) or the taste; Frankie didn’t wish to discuss it. I didn’t particularly like the food either: It took 10 minutes to reconstitute itself in water — far longer than it took me to reheat the fresh food I’d been preparing.

As for the fresh food, after reading several books and consulting with nutritionists, I was still struggling with finding the correct proportions of cooked tepary beans — a high protein Native American bean that’s effective for diabetes in humans — meat, and vegetables to feed Frankie. I was relieved when the second holistic vet I went to for nutritional advice suggested a good brand kibble (more on which in minute) topped with lean meat, plus a supplement. It made my life easier and Frankie was happy to have the kibble crunch back.

Doing the best you can doesn’t include feeding most commercial foods, even the so-called premium and science diets.

Commercial dog food manufacturers and puppy mills have two things in common: They are regulated by government agencies that operate on a lowest common denominator basis.

Many vets –- including my primary, nonholistic one, who I’m crazy about – warn patients away from food that isn’t approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization that establishes standards for nutritional balance in all kinds of animal feed, not just pet food. I won’t go into the limitations of the trials used to establish those standards, or discuss which pet food manufacturers are on the board of AAFCO. For the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that balanced doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.

Corn byproducts, preservatives, and taste enhancers like salt or artificial sweeteners are common in most commercial brands, which spend more money on advertising than on high-quality ingredients. And the “crude protein” requirement, to use one example among many, says nothing about digestibility, so the protein source could be old shoes. Or dead dogs. As long as the label is vague enough — listing  “meat” or “animal,” as opposed to “chicken” or “beef,” for example — there’s no problem. It’s okay to include substandard ingredients if you don’t lie about it.

You can spend hours trying to decode the different ingredient listed on labels, a kind of canine Da Vinci Code. The Dog Food Project, the source of a good deal of my information about AAFCO and its labeling/nutritional requirements, can show you how.

Or you can buy better quality dog food, whether in kibble, canned, or freeze-dried form.

Cost? Pay now or pay later, with higher vet bills because of food allergies or — in the cases of brands that have been recalled because of melamine or salmonella tainting — heartbreak.  I’m not saying that plenty of dogs don’t do fine on commercial food. But why take the chance?

The Whole Dog Journal has done the work of evaluating a great many high-quality brands, and publishes annual reviews of different varieties (discounted for subscribers).

Of course, as anyone who watches or reads the news knows, the problem is by no means restricted to dog food. Tainted peanut butter, spinach, meat… I could go on and on. My only point is that it’s worse in dog food, which is even less closely regulated than the human variety. If you’re interested in details, read Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, by Marion Nestle; or check out her Food Politics blog.

And yes, I’ve devoted a chapter to the topic of dog food in my new book, Am I Boring My Dog.

17 thoughts on “The Dog Food Debate: Opening Up a Can of Worms”

  1. We use special food we buy from our vet. Prescription food. But, we have small dogs and they don’t cost much to feed.

    Older people on limited budgets may need to feed their dogs less expensive food. This would also be a good discussion. How to feed your dog healthy food on a budget.

    1. For some reason my response to you earlier didn’t show up. Sorry! I appreciate your taking the time to post.

      When Frankie was first diagnosed with diabetes, the vet prescribed a diet that was available from the office. It was very expensive, and it didn’t contain any natural ingredients. I had been feeding Frankie better brands before, and I didn’t want to revert to the preservatives, etc. so I went seeking high-quality food — less pricey than the prescribed diet — that would work with his new diagnosis.

      But the idea of showing how you can be economical and still feed high quality food is an excellent one. I’ll get on it!

  2. This whole dog good debate is a complete minefield and after much research we have decided to keep our German Shepherd Dog on Arden Grange.

    Being a vegetarian, I am very conscious of steering our pets toward a diet that is cruelty free. Neither do I wish them to feast on e numbers, colorants and other rubbish which can cause severe behavioural problems.

    Luika (our GSD), enjoys a good well balanced diet, since he often munchies on vegetables, as well as the odd sausage (meat free of course) and our two cats while they may be partial to a chip or two, still lead a happy and healthy life on their diets.

    I absolutely appreciate that not every one can afford some of the healthier options, but in my profession as a pet sitter, you would be amazed at how many dogs I see with behavioural problems, which can often be addressed with just a simple change in their diet.

    Great post by the way.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nina. As I say, pay now or pay later. I’m glad you brought up behavioral problems, another side effect of junky, preservative-filled food.

  3. Great post, lots of good resources.

    I feed Lily EVO small bites, it has no wheat, corn, soy or rice. I supplement it with a bit of high quality wet dog food but most often some cooked ground beef mixed with mushy broccoli or carrots and sometimes a little bit of home cooked brown rice.

    Let me tell you what racing greyhounds are fed: Raw 4D meat which is dead, disabled, downer and diseased meat that has been all ground together to stink like holy hell. And it’s raw. It’s a health risk for people and causes all kinds of digestive issues for the hounds. Even though the FDA is against 4D, it’s the dog tracks’ best friend because of the price (cheap).

    1. Evo, cooked beef, broccoli, rice — aah, Lily is a lucky pup.

      The FDA doesn’t do too well with human food; it’s no surprise that they’re not cracking down on what’s fed at the dog tracks.

  4. What’s a guardian to do? I have the world’s most finicky dog, I’m convinced. When Archie went on a hunger strike beginning with our trip to San Diego, I tried it all (and I mean it when I say I tried it–didn’t want to feed him anything I wouldn’t eat): venison with kale cooked/uncooked, buffalo cooked/uncooked, organic New Zealand beef cooked/uncooked, chicken breast cooked, chicken breast with rice cooked, chicken thighs (a really bad idea if you have olfactory sense) cooked, Honest Kitchen raw food, and on and on. Archie lost 5 pounds, I gained 10. The only thing he will eat is Hill’s Prescription i/d, which I know you disapprove on valid grounds. But I don’t want him to starve, and I don’t want to gain more weight trying to please him. His tail wags, he gobbles his food for the first time in his 15-year life. I don’t say this as an endorsement, but rather as a plea for amnesty from the food militants.

    1. Oh, Clare, you’re absolved of any guilt. Perhaps I should have been more adamant about rule no. 1: Do the best you can. And if that includes feeding a prescription diet that Archie likes, more power to you (and to prescription veterinary diets)!

  5. Great post. I consider the WDJ the experts when it comes to kibbles. There are some really good premixed raw foods out there – Oma’s is one. They take the guess work out of “how many beans/organ meats/bone goes in here again?”

    My dogs eat kibble for a meal and raw for another. Sometimes they eat raw for days, sometimes kibble. It really depends on how lazy I’m feeling – lazy days = raw. I buy in bulk, freeze portions on cookie sheets so they don’t stick together, and just throw it right in the crate.

    There are some really good resources out there for people interested in raw feeding. Dr Pitcairn’s book “Natural Health for Dogs & Cats” is one, “Raw Meaty Bones” http://www.rawmeatybones.com/ is also phenomenal for explaining it.

    As a dog trainer I see a LOT of “hyper” dogs on corn-based foods that is drastically alleviated by a food change. Likewise, aggressive dogs have been known to do well on LOW protein diets.

    Food does a lot for people, making them healthier and feeling better – it can only do the same for your dogs.

    1. Thanks, Erica. I was surprised to discover that WDJ also evaluates a variety of other food besides kibble: canned, rolls, etc. And, yes, Dr Pitcairn’s book is a great resource, as is the Raw Meaty Bones site; thanks for posting them.

  6. It is an interesting topic and good on you for shedding some light onto it. One thing to definitely be wary of is labels that give a “Typical Analysis” of nutrients – this does not guarantee that the amounts stated will be in your pack. The typical analysis is obtained from random samples within a batch, but the pack you buy could have less or more than the stated amounts of each ingredient i.e. may end up with less protein, but higher fat or salt content than stated.

    It is safer to stick with reputable manufacturers who provide “Average” or “Minimum Nutrient Content”, because with this wording they are legally bound to provide at least the stated nutrient amounts in each pack.

    A simple rule of thumb in interpreting labels is that the ingredients are listed from the highest to the lowest amount, so if for example you are buying beef flavoured dry dog food, and the first ingredient listed is corn followed by beef, then there is more corn in the food than meat, and unless you specifically need a high fibre diet for your dog then this may not be ideal.

    And you are absolutely spot on in your comments on digestibility – the stated protein content is not necessarily the digestible protein content for example. Cheap food may be appealing because it is cheap, but if you are buying food that offers little nutritional value due to low quality, poorly digestible ingredients then you are wasting money and over time your dog’s health could suffer.

    Phew, that’s my little rant, sorry! But thanks for giving us some thought provoking blogs as well as the fun Frankie blogs, makes for an interesting read.

    P.S. I resisted the prescription diet route with Jasmine as long as I could, but in the end the Hills W/D worked wonders with her blood glucose levels for her diabetes. I have spoken with other diabetic cat and dog owners who have been going great on good quality supermarket brands (which is partly why I stubbornly resisted moving to the Hills for so long when vets were pushing it on me). I guess it just reinforces how every dog is different, and you need to work out what works best on an individual basis. Look at me rambling again…

    1. Thanks, Susanne. I didn’t realize that about “average” or “minimum” versus “typical analysis.” Interesting.

      And good for you for giving Jasmine what works for her instead of being, well, dogmatic! As she writes in the previous comment, Clare — who I often mention in this blog — fed her dog, Archie, all kinds of healthy brand/home cooked foods, which he spurned. Only Hills appealed to him.

      What are the regulations like in Australia? I’m sure you get all the major brands like we do but are labeling requirements stricter or doesn’t it matter with imports?

  7. One subject worth mentioning: Many dogs I have rescued have had terrible skin problems stemming from diet. Although I am a very strong proponent of high-quality diets (read the labels, people!) the most expensive dog food doesn’t do any good if it makes your dog sick.
    Two of my current pack of five cannot eat chicken. One of them (my pointer, Miriam) was a starving stray wrongly diagnosed with ringworm at a shelter that shall not be named and was about to be put down when I grabbed her. Ringworm treatment did not help her skin; changing her diet cleared it right up.
    My basic philosophy on feeding is to trust your dog! This should not be a power struggle. Never try to bribe (with gravy or other goodies) a dog to eat a food he/she has refused — many well-intentioned owners have lost dogs to tainted food they “persuaded” a reluctant dog to eat. If your dog is suddenly rejecting a food /she has previously enjoyed, check teeth and rest of pup for signs of illness,
    But do rotate/change kibble occasionally. A dog will get as bored as you would if fed the same crunchy bites for months and years on end!
    I feed my mob a combo of high-quality kibble(s) with meat or fish (beef, lamb, venison or salmon) as the primary ingredient and fresh cooked foods — meat mixed with veggies (most dogs love green beans) and brown rice or oatmeal. I avoid raw meat in part because of the risk of contamination. Dogs can pass salmonella and other goodies unharmed through their digestive tracts and I am one of those immune-suppressed folks who a nice bout of salmonella could kill.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. Absolutely trust your dog! The most harmful advice I’ve heard is to not feed your dog if he is “gaming” you by rejecting food. Sure, eventually your dog will eat — so would a child — but that only means you’ve starved your pet into eating food that is doubtless bad for him. Nothing to be proud of!

  8. I was annoyed to hear a commercial last night particularly praising the alleged benefits of a high-protein dog food. I believe it was the author of “The Dog Who Loved Too Much” who called a high-protein diet jet fuel for aggressive dogs. Although meat should be the primary ingredient in your pup’s food, ‘the higher protein the better’ is not necessarily true. Particularly if you happen to own a large, overly bouncy dog (who shall remain nameless).

    1. Yes, Nicholas Dodman believes high protein food literally fuels aggression. It’s great for some dogs, not so terrific for others.
      Wonder which dog you could be referring to, Rebecca….

  9. Pingback: Is it bad for you to eat cat food or dog food?

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