It says "dog" on it, so it must be what I need to buy to feed my dog, right? Not necessarily...
Historically, kibble based diets for dogs developed because pet owners began to regard dogs as luxury items, and less often the working animals they started out as; they believed that dogs needed to be "civilized," and since wild dogs and wolves ate raw meat, domesticated dogs should not be so "untamed".
Biscuits for dogs did not come about as an idea for a healthy treat - they were marketed as inexpensively as possible to sell to pet owners. The pet food industry was not born of necessity for canine health; but in fact a way for entrepreneurs to cheaply manufacture a product in which there would be and inexpensive way to do do, with a very a long shelf life.
"In the late 1850s, a young electrician from Cincinnati named James Spratt went to London to sell lightning rods. When his ship arrived, crew members threw the leftover "ship's biscuits" onto the dock, where they were devoured by hordes of waiting dogs. That gave Spratt an idea. "Ship's biscuits," or hard tack, were the standard fare for sailors for centuries. Flour, water, and salt were mixed into a stiff dough, baked, and left to harden and dry. The biscuits were easily stored and had an extremely long shelf life, which was important in the days before refrigeration. And they looked a lot like today's dog biscuits. Spratt had the idea that he could make cheap, easy-to-serve biscuits and then sell them to the growing number of urban dog owners. His recipe: a baked mixture of wheat, beet root, and vegetables bound together with beef blood. When Spratt's Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes came on the market in 1860, the pet food industry was born. Spratt's Dog Cakes were a hit in England, so in 1870 he took the business to New York …and began the American pet food industry."
But...what about "people food"? This term was coined by advertising in 1964 and has relatively no basis for truth whatsoever. In fact, the lobbyist division who promoted bagged-only dry food for dogs was also fear mongering table scraps at the time as dangerous. While some of this may be true (cooked turkey skin, for example in large amounts can cause pancreatitis), it was overwhelmingly blown out of proportion to include any fresh food at all. Leading pet owners to believe that they were, and still are quite unable to feed their own pets a diet of anything except processed food that is supposedly balanced for their dog. Even going far enough to specify different foods for different breeds. In the grand scheme of rationalization, science prevails and numerous studies have proven that dogs not only live longer on a diet made of more fresh food and less processed food - they're healthier for it. Not just healthier in general - they lacked the cancer rates, skin and ear infection issues, autoimmune diseases, anemia, liver and kidney malfunctions that kibble-fed dogs endured. Suspected reasoning for this lies in the fact that kibble is often comprised of inferior ingredients, carcinogens and toxins. Vitamins and minerals must be added in due to high-heat processing which makes the food shelf stable. It must contain a certain percentage of carbohydrate in order to hold together in kibble form; both difficult for your dog to digest properly (hence, the gigantic poops and gastrointestinal discomfort associated with having no beneficial bacteria and live enzymes running through the tract), and also creating an environment for molds to grow and feed on when stored in an open container, such as the bag or in a moist environment such as a basement or other high humidity zone. Additionally, heterocyclic amines have been proven to arise in meats subjected to high heat methods of processing due to the reaction between amino acids, sugars, and creatine. These same substances are also found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. In rodent studies, these compounds fed in high amounts led to cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, leukemia and lung cancer. Other research linked these compounds to different types of cancers in addition to the ones listed above. How does a 100% kibble based, no "people food" diet sound now?
So, what's the answer? Well, my degrees are in psychology, not nutrition. However, I consider myself to be a person who relies on science and has a solid foundation of nutritional science backed by peer reviewed research through reading and understanding physiological processes. And, I believe strongly that I can feed myself, so feeding my animals by the same less processed, more fresh food principles will lead to healthier lives for us all, less visits to the doctor and vet and less incidence of environmentally and nutritionally caused disease. Are there some genetic factors that cannot be solved with nutrition? Sure, my Ricky has IVDD, and there's nothing I can do about it except be sure he doesn't launch off of furniture (we have ramps), keep his nails trimmed to keep his posture healthy (I do nails every 1 to 2 weeks), feed him a diet rich in back-healthy minerals and vitamins and understanding how they work together in synergistic terms (like B vitamins, vitamin E, wild salmon oil, HA and MSM, for example). Promoting healthy muscle mass in a dog predisposed to disc issues, along with ensuring less inflammation due to lower carbohydrates, omega-3's and antioxidants will not cure him, but it will vastly improve his chances of having another disc-related issue.
Let's put it this way: if I ate cereal for my entire life, two times per day and for every meal, I would probably merely survive if I was lucky and had pretty good genetics to back me up, and if I did not develop cancer, I might still have kidney disease, gastrointestinal issues, or liver problems. But would I thrive? Probably not...especially not with the higher incidence of disease linked to such a highly processed diet. Remember, bodies whether human or canine are machines. Living machines need fuel from food. Real food! Not processed garbage...that's technically not food at all - it's marketing. Is there a place for it here and there? Sometimes, it's not easily avoidable, especially in today's busy schedules. But can an effort be made to improve nutrition every single day? There is realistically no valid reason it cannot. And this goes for your pets as well. Even those with time limitations can just as easily feed their pets a healthy, less processed diet now that there are several really great companies who offer healthier options. A switch to high-quality, grain free canned food exclusively is a step up from a kibble-only diet, however because it is still highly heat processed in order for the meat to be shelf stable in the cans, it is not the best choice. Better! But not best. I make my own raw pet food and treats, but commercial options are also available and when I am busy, I utilize them for convenience and sometimes more concentrated format. I also keep bags of freeze dried raw dog and cat food on hand, in the event of an emergency where either we need to evacuate, cannot open the freezer, or if something were to happen to me and someone else needs to feed my pets with little to no instruction.
But my dog has a "sensitive stomach" and these foods are too "rich"! Actually, your dog most likely has a very depleted level of beneficial bacteria in his gut due to having such highly processed kibble and biscuits passing through it for so long and can't easily digest food in general. Probiotics specifically for dogs (not people - they won't hurt a dog but they won't be nearly as effective due to the differences in bacterial strain requirements), packed with live cultures that dogs need added in while making the switch will help him not only digest the new, enzyme-filled food better but also make him healthier and more resilient in the long run. Maintenance with tripe, a natural probiotic-rich source will decrease the incidence of gas, bloating, diarrhea and vomiting.
But it costs too much! Actually, it doesn't - when you factor in the thousands of dollars you'll save in vet bills, and the trade for a pet who has a longer life and is healthier...the cost is negligible. In reality, with kibble you're paying for fillers that your dog poops out (uncomfortably), anyway. Why bother feeding him anything that will literally weigh him down? Buy less Starbucks, take one less trip to the beach, downgrade your cable from the channels you don't even watch (or ditch it completely and get Netflix like we did) and you'll find the money to accommodate this way of feeding. Remember this: high-quality raw food is fed in much less volume than kibble or canned food due to having no fillers, and pets stay full longer due to higher protein content coming from fresh, raw meat.
But it's dangerous! Pathogens and scary bacteria! Actually, this is not specifically true for dogs. It's an issue for people. Without going into a ton of detail, cleaning practices that normally apply to your kitchen still apply no matter who in your home is eating what. Duh. I am 6 months pregnant and haven't managed to kill myself, my baby boy, my dogs, cats, husband or anyone else...and the "but it's gross" debate is not arguable either. Yes, it's kind of gross. Commercial food is all ground up and doesn't even look like organs and bones. And by the way - commercially prepared raw food is not only often subjected to high-pressure processing, but also tested before it's sold which eliminates this debate altogether. One company even has a place on their website where you can see test results published for your batch. What I prepare myself is pretty gross and I hate liver with a passion that probably most people can identify with. But...it's not about me and what I like. I barely eat meat or dairy when I am not pregnant. I don't care for it, but my animals need it. Why would I feed them something I am more comfortable with feeding them because of the way it looks? That's ridiculous and selfish...and archaic. Tip: freeze dried food is more expensive per pound than frozen. Freeze drying is an extra step to shelf stability and therefore costs more to produce. Dehydrated falls somewhere in between.
But...kibble cleans his teeth! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong!
Commercial brands I love and trust for my guys:
- Vital Essentials. They offer full, balanced diets for dogs, and the same for cats coming out next year. Sourcing is transparent and at it's finest - our favorites among the huge selection are wild salmon, beef tripe and turkey. Their range of treats in freeze dried form is one of the most diverse you'll find - they have something for any pet, picky or not. (Tip: picky often is never an issue with raw food. Picky often happens when pets are attempting to tell owners that either their food makes them feel very sick, they're allergic to something in it, which has caused an adverse issue such as vomiting or gastric discomfort in the past, or worse and often in kibble...it has either grown toxic mold you can't see or smell, or the fat it has been sprayed with to make it palatable has gone rancid.) They've been in business longer than any other raw company out there, as far as I know.
- Primal. When I worked for Pet Valu, I was given the opportunity to take a full day class which was presented by Primal and talked all about raw food, why it's beneficial to pets, and specifically why Primal is a good choice: the company commits to USDA human grade meats which means no steroids, hormones or antibiotics, zero fillers and zero ingredients from China. The vendors they source for protein also do not import the feed which their animals eat. Additionally, their produce is all organic. They offer a full line of food for dogs and cats as well as healthy treats. Our dogs are infatuated with the turkey liver treats.
- Stella and Chewy's. I worked for this company for a few years, demoing their food in pet food supply stores so I have an inside view of their philosophy. I really loved them both as a company and as a supplier for fresh, raw pet food for their commitment to providing grass fed meat, cage free poultry and wild caught fish. They sell both freeze dried and frozen forms, in cat and dog food and also mixers & treats.
- K9 Natural. Makes a nice line of balanced foods for dogs and cats, as well as treats like freeze dried mussels and our favorite lamb tripe.
- Nature's Variety. I use this company mostly for treats; however some might find that their pets like the mixers which are available as a way to get some raw food into your dog's diet without making a complete switch to full-time raw food. Also has a line of frozen raw foods in a large variety of proteins.
- ZiwiPeak. Offers air-dried raw foods that look a little more like flakes of traditional kibble. They don't process with heat, so the food is still considered to be raw. They were a pioneer in a raw-type diet long before other companies began to offer raw foods and still continue to be a trustworthy source for commercial, healthy food now.
- Grandma Lucy's. Freeze dried, and in a flake-type form. 100% human-grade. The company began with freeze-dried meatballs and eventually expanded to include freeze dried complete meals. This isn't a food I've fed, but having the option as a healthy choice for pets is always nice!
- Honest Kitchen: Dehydrated, and in a flaky form as well. 100% human-grade, and their facility only makes human-grade food. No kibble manufacturing goes on there at all. Because it's a human-food facility, it is inspected as such. (Processing plants are another topic, but are actually a pretty big deal when it comes to where your pet food is made.) Their quality control is pretty impressive. This was actually the food I fed over 8 years ago when I made the switch off of kibble and canned foods. I liked that I could re-hydrate it, and add in my own fresh additions. At the time, I cooked chicken, beef, turkey and fish to add into their mixes.
- Darwin's. I've never used this brand, but they offer some mixers in addition to raw diets, if you're not ready to commit to fully switching over to raw just yet. Available are both raw dog and cat food: their meals are made of free range, grass fed beef; cage free poultry; and organic produce. All meats are hormone, antibiotic, and steroid free as well - and they ensure that the farms they source from treat their animals humanely, too.
- Bravo. Another one I haven't tried, but offers great options as well including frozen meals, freeze dried, treats and chews.
Crucial resources on my list of go-to people in designing a raw diet for my pets:
- Lew Olson, her fabulous newsletters and author of Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs. Support group for new feeders with questions on Facebook also available.
- Monica Segal, her informative newsletters and author of K9 Kitchen, and also Optimal Nutrition, also offering a Facebook support page for new feeders.
- Sabine Contreras, author of the successful website The Dog Food Project.
- My friend Sharon, co-admin of the group we founded together: K9 Back Pack. Nutritionally wise, she has been an amazing resource, volunteering her knowledge to myself and others through our support page on Facebook.
- My own book, Woofs and Whiskers Treats and Eats. I wrote a holistic pet treat cookbook based on what I've learned, and how I make treats for my pets at home.