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.