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.