Monday, May 28, 2012

Pet Food - Conclusion

Last post I discussed sources of protein and carbohydrates in your dog’s food; ingredients you typically find in the top five on the list. Stipulated by law, food manufacturers have to list ingredients in order of quantity: the first one is what is most in your food, the second one second most, and so on. Keep in mind, though, that protein is measured by weight, and that can fudge your perception. Let’s say chicken is the first ingredient, but because it is fresh, it is inclusive of water, which of course has weight, and the food might not be as protein-rich as one that has dehydrated meat meal listed as the, for example, third ingredient. I personally don’t put too much value on that, but what I don’t want to see are byproducts or grain fragments in the top ingredients - ideally not at all.
Often not in first five, because lower in quantity, are oils, fruits and veggies. Lower in quantity doesn’t mean that the quality is less important.

I am not going to bore you with saturated/unsaturated and omega fatty acids technicalities, but let me say that dogs, like us, need all of it - and in the correct ratio. Saturated fats are of animal origin, and although they have a bad reputation, they are good suppliers of energy, needed for every steroid hormone formation, including stress hormones, and have some anti-viral and anti-fungal properties – and yes, they are good for humans, too. Don’t shy away from good animal fats in moderation; don’t replace them with hydrogenated, artificial oils. There is one drawback: fatty tissue is a preferred storage area for toxins, so if you have access to organic meats, you’re a step ahead. Frankly, if I couldn’t access free-range, grass-fed and ethically raised meat, I would be a vegetarian.
Fish oils, high in beneficial omega 3 and in almost every brand of food, can also be heavy metal contaminated. Supplements for humans are tested for that, but I am not so sure regarding our pets’ food.
Unsaturated fats are the plant-sourced ones, and in kibble typically sunflower and/or canola oil. I don’t like either, but am more concerned about the latter.
Canola it is cheap and plentiful, and thus a preferred raw material for manufacturers of all processed foods – for humans and dogs. Naturally, the food industry and their clever PR and Ad people don’t promote it as convenient for them, but healthful for you. Hailed as omega-balanced and nutrient-rich, and a Canadian success story to boot, it is anything but good for you, at least according to fat expert and author of “Fats that Heal – Fats that Kill”, Udo Erasmus, Ph.D.
Canola, he points out, is rapeseed and toxic, and hence was traditionally used as an industrial lubricant. Genetic modification made it consumable, but Erasmus argues that it still has adverse effects, all outlined in his book. As far as I know, the FDA prohibits canola oil in infant formula, and yet puppies and dogs, especially when fed kibble exclusively, ingest it daily and for life. Even if toxicity is minimal, there is a cumulative effect – and not just for dogs, but for people as well because it is found in so many different products.
The other trouble with canola is that it turns rancid easily. In fact, China only recently partially lifted an import ban because of fungal disease issues. To prevent that, the oil is often highly processed, and everything highly processed is nutritionally useless or harmful. But even when cold pressed and unrefined there is a problem: canola is high in goitrogens, which can interfere with thyroid hormone synthesis.
At least, canola is listed on your ingredients label. Grease waste sprayed on kibble to increase palatability usually isn’t. Wrap a handful in paper towel and leave it on the counter over night. Is the paper covered with large fatty splotches? When you hang your schnoz in it, how does it smell?
When I cook my dogs’ food, the flavor comes from the ingredients and I don’t have to fancy it up so they will eat it. The yummy stuff is in the food, not on top, including oils. My favorite ones, you rarely find in commercial food cause they are costly, are extra virgin olive and extra virgin coconut oil. It is time well spent to research both; you will be amazed by the health benefits.
So, lots to think about regarding fats. Thankfully veggies and fruits are straightforward. I haven’t found a food yet that contains the known toxic ones, onions and grapes, and anything else is generally good. The only thing I like to point out is that beet pulp isn’t from valuable red beets, but another useless waste product from the human food industry: the residue of sugar production. In kibble, it increases drastically in volume when mixed with water or digestive juices. You can test that too by putting a handful of kibble in water, and watching it transform into a super-expanded foamy glop. I can’t imagine how that would be a good thing in your dog’s stomach.

I hope I gave you some guidelines what to check for in your dog’s dry food, and the same rules apply for wet food. Higher in moisture, you are paying a lot for water, so choose nutrient-rich broth instead. A high quality canned food’s ingredients list looks like that: meat broth, meat, some organ meat, a few veggies, and grains or potatoes. On the low end you have the same stink-stuff that are in cheap kibble: meat byproducts, water, soy flour, poultry by-products, color, salt and a premixed mineral supplement likely made in China. On that note, most supplements that are added to commercial food, even the high-end brands, are the premixed kind likely made in China.
How important it is to add micronutrients to make a food balanced is not an easy question to answer. The more processed the food, the more important. The more nutrient depleted the raw material, the more important. Staying with the theme of wholeness, I add culinary herbs rather than isolated vitamins and minerals, some parsley, some kelp, and squish my green tea bag into the doggy dish every day. Because so many things in our environment kill and deplete beneficial intestinal bacteria, the pooches also get a probiotic supplement, or at least a tablespoon of natural yoghurt each day. Is it enough? For mine it seems to be.  They are, and have been, vibrant and healthy till old age, especially considering hereditary issues some came with.

Dogs are omnivorous food opportunists, and there is quite a bit of liberty feeding right. My magic words for the wash’n’wear pooch are: whole and fresh - and variety. Even some kibble manufacturers now offer rotation diets. If you are dealing with health problems, my advice is to talk to a holistic veterinarian who can help you explore all options, including home-cooked or raw. Many veterinary clinics and good pet stores also carry supplement mixes you can add to the food you make, and nutrition experts like Cat Lane and Monica Segal, their links were provided in the first post in this series, can customize your dog’s diet to his/her specific needs, including supplements and/or medicinal herbs.

If the ingredients in your dog’s food, or the stink going in and coming out, make you gag, buy a different and better one with your hard-earned dollars. It is never too late to reap the benefits: improved coat quality, increased energy, and yes, also behavioral changes.
Food is a biological right, and the moment we acquire a furry dependent, it is our duty to supply something the dog likes, and keeps his body and mind well nourished. Eating should be stress free – not only for mental health, but also because stress affects digestion, and that can contribute to an array of physical problems, including allergies.
You are not what you put in your mouth, but what you absorb.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pet Food Ingredients: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

When you walk down the pet food aisle at the supermarket you see bags of kibble that show a smiling dog, with a beautiful coat and sparkling teeth, surrounded by images of whole grains, colorful vegetables and meat that looks like what you'd find in the butcher section, and you believe that what is in the bag is made from exactly those ingredients, and that your pooch will be as vigorous as the one depicted. Think again.
Most dog food manufacturers are subsidiaries of the human food industry; companies that have a lot of unfit for consumption waste they sell anyway, to pet owners, and they spend a lot of money to do so.
Your dollars pay for: laboratory research, manufacturing, warehousing, transport to wholesaler and retailer and their overhead and mark-up, advertisements including paying veterinarians for endorsements, and veterinary mark-up for prescription food. How much money you think is spent on ingredients - the only thing that matters to your dog and therefore should matter to you.
Fancy packaging cleverly deflects from what is inside, and manipulates people to believe their eyes and ignore what it says on the ingredients list. Well, I hate to Pan it to you: you have to read it, because whatever we put in our mouths either nourishes or harms us, and it is the same with our animal dependents. More importantly than reading, you must comprehend it, and that is not always easy, but there are two key words: whole and fresh.
When I cook for my dogs I can’t pop a whole cow or lamb in the pot, so I combine muscle meat, a little fat and some organs to match whole as best as possible. On your kibble label, that is meat. Meat is clean flesh from slaughtered animals minus bone. Meat is a good ingredient.
Meat meal is meat with the moisture removed. Not necessarily bad, but it could be imported from who knows where, and preserved with who knows what. Check for that. Every bag of food has a 1-800 number. Call and ask.
Meat by-products are parts other than meat, exclusive of hair, horns, and hooves. That is not so good, and if you find it on the label, it should at least be at the bottom.
A whole chicken, turkey or duck does fit in my pot, and that is what I use. Although it includes frame, back and neck, it also includes lean breast meat. It is whole and good. Whenever it says poultry on your label instead of chicken, turkey or duck, it can, and often does, predominantly consist of backs and frames, and that is bad.
Egg is an excellent protein source, but good only when it is whole. It will say so on the label. Egg product can be any or all parts of the egg.
Downright ugly are MBM - meat and bone meal, and poultry by-products. That can be anything, including road kill and euthanized pets, downers, cut off cancerous tissue, heads and feet, out of date supermarket and restaurant waste. I checked many food bags last year when Will decided that she'd like some kibble with her home-prepared food, and never saw MBM – perhaps crap is coming out of style, or perhaps it is found only in the really cheap stuff I had zero interest to investigate.
Meat is important for your dog’s wellbeing and should be the first ingredient. Meat meal, because the moisture is removed and therefore it is lighter by weight, can be one of the first three, or even five, typically mingled in with grains, potatoes, and/or legumes.
As I touched on in the last blog, I believe that grains are a natural part of a dog’s diet. Dogs have enzymes to digest grains, and they need glucose to produce body-own vitamin C in the liver. Carbs are the primary suppliers of energy for moderately active and sprint dogs, compared to endurance dogs who draw energy from fat. So, unless you are a follower of one certain TV personality and tie your pooch to the treadmill for several hours a day, he probably falls in the former category.
When I cook for my dogs, I alternate between rice, oats, barley and quinoa, and I mostly use whole grains or flakes. In your kibble, the same ingredients are the good ones.
Fragments, such as rice bran or brewers rice can be mill sweepings and are cheap fillers, and bad.
Rice flour, like all flours, is over-processed, and if you see anything that ends with “ose” you are dealing with refined sugars, which are, together with flours, considered to be major contributors to many human ailments.
What about corn? Even people who are okay with grains are often against corn, and some manufacturers take advantage of that trend and advertise “corn free” to infer superior quality food they, of course, charge more for. In my opinion, human-grade ground corn isn’t particularly bad, but it ranks high on the allergen list, and inhibits serotonin uptake. Serotonin is another neurochemical, like dopamine, that can affect behavior: it relaxes and promotes friendly socialness. In studies, low levels increased aggression in all species tested. Because nutritionally corn doesn’t supply anything other grains don’t have, I see no purpose for it in pet food and I don’t use it, but I also don’t think it is the evil ingredient some purport it to be.
Corn gluten meal, on the other hand, is ugly. It is mill residue from cornstarch and syrup production, has no biological value and, like other glutens, is a protein filler. Let me explain: The crude protein value you see on the label is a measurement of nitrogen, not a measurement of quality. If the manufacturer uses little, or inferior animal sourced protein - the poultry or meat by-products, cheap gluten is added to bolster the value on the label. Soy does the same thing, and is an ingredient I wouldn't want to have in my pooch's kibble.
Since the grain free trend, potato has become a popular dog food ingredient. It is marketed as being better than grains, but I fail to see the reasons why. Yes, they are nutrient rich, but also starchy and, if you come from the raw, ancestral diet angle, as unnatural. In addition, some dogs are allergic to members of the nightshade family, which potatoes belong to. That said, I don’t consider whole potatoes a bad ingredient, isolated potato starch is, but do wonder what condition the ones used for dog food are in. I love taters and buy a lot, and hubby Mike was born and raised in Prince Edward Island – for my US readers, it is like Idaho except in Canada, and I am aware how heavily chemically treated they can be for human consumption, and how carefully they have to be stored to prevent greening and spoilage. Processed into kibble, is there quality control?
There is more in kibble than meat and potatoes. Fat, for example, and I will talk about that the next post. Stay tuned - you might be surprised that I question a commonly used, and hailed as healthy, oil.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pet Food Musings - Part One

After many years of easily accessible information, it sometimes surprises me that pet food is still such a hot topic on social media sites and online groups. Then again, perhaps it is exactly the abundance of material that confuses and keeps discussions going.
Feeding the dog used to be a mindless task: the pooch either got table scraps or one of only a few choices of kibble. Bygone are those good old days; now we have raw, cooked, freeze-dried and a vast variety of dried and canned food, and feeding right has become complicated. Is it really that difficult? It can be, when dogs have specific needs, but I won’t be talking about that. There are fabulous experts better equipped than me who address nutrition on a deep level: Monica Segal and Cat Lane come to mind, but also your holistically inclined veterinarian might be able to help if you have a special needs dog.
I’ll keep things shallow, not insubstantial but generalized, meaning that I will discuss in this blog, and the next two, dog food particulars that affect many, most, or all dogs in the same way.

I grew up in a time and place where food was prepared daily from fresh ingredients purchased at the local market. Rarely could you find food cans in our cupboards, we didn’t have a freezer, and if you ever been to Europe you know how small their refrigerators are. Eating right was normal for my parents, and generations before them, and is a lifestyle choice for me still today. We do have a freezer, but it is mostly filled with veggies and fruits and ethically raised organic meats, not with processed garbage. I concede that making those choices is easy for me because I never acquired a taste for junk food, but also because I always, from a very young age, was keenly interested in nutrition and have an understanding what crap-consumption does to people.
My interest in pet food came a little later in life, and was triggered by a holistic therapy course I attended in Frankfurt/Germany. Although it dealt with nutrition for humans, it had a thought-provoking aspect that prompted me to research pet food thoroughly for quite some time afterwards.
The instructors, a middle-aged couple, were raw foodists and vegans, which means they neither cooked nor consumed anything of animal origin. Instead, their diet consisted of tree-ripened fruits they had flown in directly from a wholesaler somewhere in the tropics twice a week, organic veggies, a variety of nuts and seeds, and sprouted grains. And did it ever work for them. I rarely met someone, before or after, who radiated such vibrancy. In their tow was an 8-year-old Hovawart – Hovawart is a German, retriever-size guard dog breed – who, and this is the astounding part, ate the same foods. Once a day he was offered a platter of assorted fruits from which he picked what he wanted, and to that his people added a handful of pre-chewed nuts and an egg. The raw egg was the only difference between what humans and pooch thrived on. Yes, thrived. The dog was as glowingly healthy as his people.
That humans do well on plenty of fresh produce is common knowledge. But dogs? A diet such as this can hardly be described as species correct. Or can it? Dogs’ species-correct diet, specifically raw vs. cooked and grain vs. grain free, is subject of many heated debates. Let’s have a closer look.

Many scientists agree that dog domestication began because of food. Increasingly more waste, the byproduct of early human settlements, attracted and kept them voluntarily in human proximity. I wrote about feral dogs being garbage dump scavengers before.
Human waste was what “dog” evolved on. Initially they foraged and many still do, but at one point some were deliberately fed scraps; meals that humans prepared for themselves but didn't entirely consume, or purposely shared when a canine was useful in one way or another and they wanted to secure his loyalty and wellbeing. Let’s keep in mind that until about 60 or 70 years ago almost every part of a slaughtered animal was used for human consumption. When I grew up we had lung, tripe and heart stew, fried brain, smoked tongue, and liver. There is still steak and kidney pie, ox-tail soup, and a Slavic dish made of pickled pig feet, snout and tail. Bones made stock, and cleaned intestines sausage casings, including blood sausage. Historically there was not much raw leftovers for dogs to have. Humans cooked since there are dogs, and humans that cook have cooked waste. Logically, the biological correct diet for dogs is cooked. Raw is wolves’ ancestral diet.
Before you raw food aficionados jump me, let me clarify that have nothing against raw, but I have a lot against trickery. Regrettably, the commercial raw food industry, like the kibble one, follow the same profit driven principle: take unsellable to humans, inferior and isolated, foodstuffs and market it for pets. In a society – ours – in which people desire lean and de-boned choice cuts of meat, and where soups and stocks are concocted in a laboratory, there are ample surplus animal parts: carcasses, fatty poultry backs and necks, offal and bones with bits of meat on it. And wouldn’t you know, conveniently exactly that becomes the dog’s ancestral, thus appropriate, diet? I don’t think so. I opine that both kibble, promoted as scientifically researched and balanced, and raw, promoted as evolutionary correct, have no merit and can be harmful.
A natural diet for dogs is to eat what we eat. It is diverse, and changes with seasons and regions, and there great latitude in feeding a dog right. A natural diet consists of a variety of protein, fat and carbohydrates and yes, can include grains. The delicate undertaking is figuring out what works best in what ratio for the individual dog.
I know, I said I wouldn’t talk about biochemical individuality, and I won’t other than that one man’s food is another man’s poison – Roman healer Lucretius figured that out 2000 years ago, and I like to add “dog” to that. Poison not only on a physical, but also behavioral level. Take protein for example.
Many of my clients’ dogs are on a popular high in protein kibble or raw food. Obviously, most of my clients’ have trouble with their pooches, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired me. The connection? Some studies suggest that lowering protein can take the edge off behavioral problems. It might have something to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine, correlated with protein, that is involved in recognizing detail changes, fires up at the sight of familiar things that are important - both positive and negative, and is responsible for seeking and anticipatory behavior. Dogs as a species are already detail specific, but some are especially reactive to any change and overreact when startled; some are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli and trigger with every sound and motion, and some are intensely zoned in on the environment at the expense of staying connected to the handler. Whenever I meet a dog  where any or all of the above is an issue, I recommend a food that is not higher than 30% protein.
Remember the Hovawart? He consumed very little protein, and against common sense thrived. I am convinced that the only reason why he did was because the ingredients were top-notch. I am not saying that you have to import organic fruits to keep your pooch in shape – although the thought to move somewhere where they grow is pleasant enough to explore more sometime in the future, but you should pay attention to ingredients. Ingredients are key. How to sort the good from the bad will be the focus of the next two posts. Look for it in mid, and the end of May.