The Dog Food Project
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man. - Mark Twain
A better food makes a big difference!

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Myths about Feeding and Nutrition

Dogs should not be fed table scraps

One of the most widespread myths the manufacturers of some (mostly poorer quality) products perpetuate. They claim that table scraps will upset the balance of the commercial dog food, but just like like humans, dogs do not require a diet that provides uniform meals every single day of their life. Dietary deficiencies do not appear overnight but need a long period of consistently poor nutrition to develop.

Dogs will also not automatically get fat, learn to beg at the table, or refuse to eat their own food just because they are fed table scraps. They will, however, do those things for various other reasons, like being overfed, not trained properly or just plain spoiled.

It is important that you do not feed junk food, candy, items that contain a lot of artificial ingredients, high amounts of fat, salt or sweeteners. Leftover meats (or meat trimmings), pasta, rice, oatmeal, baked or steamed potatoes and especially fresh, raw or lightly steamed vegetables and fresh fruits are healthy additions to a dog's commercial diet. Moderation is the key and of course you need to substract the amount of foods you supplement from the total daily ration of dog food. Carbohydrates must be processed in order to be digested by the dog. This is either achieved by finely grinding, pureeing or mincing, or gentle cooking or steaming - but not at excessively high temperatures or for long time periods.

Mixing different dog food brands will improve my dog's diet

This misconception seems to originate from dog owners unconsciously feeling guilty about the type of food they feed, or those following their own ideas for "improving" their dog's diet without doing any research.

Every brand of dog food follows a specific formulation and nutritional philosophy, developed by the manufacturer. All products are formulated to supply a balanced amount of nutrients in a ration of a certain size (remember kibble size and density vary from brand to brand), based on the body weight of the dog. When mixing different kibbles, instead of getting "the best of both", your dog isn't going to eat enough of either one to get the full benefit of a particular nutritional system designed and researched by a manufacturer. Last but not least, if digestive upset occurs, it's going to take so much longer to figure out what exactly caused it, compared to just eliminating either the commercial food or whatever extras were fed recently. If you want to offer more variety, stick to one line of food of the same brand at a time and rotate between brands every few months. Supplementing the dry food with fresh, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruit, yogurt, meat or a bit of canned food is also safe and healthy.

Dogs should not be fed (raw) eggs

The main argument is that the enzyme avidin contained in the egg white destroys biotin within the body. Fact is that the egg yolk supplies more than enough biotin to make up for this loss. Salmonella are another concern, but dogs with their significantly shorter digestive tract are much more resistant to these bacteria than for example humans.

Dogs should not be fed cottage cheese and yogurt

This incorrect information originates from sources that do not take into consideration that not all dairy products contain high amounts of lactose and that not all animals have trouble digesting them. Just like some humans, some dogs do not produce any, or not enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose. This is a condition commonly referred to as lactose intolerance.

Cottage cheese only contains minute amounts of lactose and yogurt is generally tolerated well and rarely ever triggers symptoms. Cottage cheese is an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, protein and vitamins; yogurt is a good source of calcium, protein, potassium and magnesium and (if products with live cultures are fed) can supply beneficial bacteria like for example Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. It also helps to soothe upset stomachs in sick animals.

Only the plain versions of these products should be fed to avoid unecessary sugar intake. If you want to feed cottage cheese, low fat and low sodium varieties are preferable.

Dogs need a food product appropriate for their life stage

This is what pet food manufacturers want you to believe, but it is just a way to secure their customer base early on and increase sales. The more items in a particular line of food, the higher the visibility of their product on a store shelf - an of course the more likely people are to buy and stick with the brand through the whole life of the animal. Fact is that a food declared as suitable "for all lifestages" will feed a growing puppy just as well as a lactating bitch, an adult or a senior dog - just the amounts you have to feed will change. Puppy and senior food is often more expensive than the regular type of food of the same brand, yet does not differ much in nutritional value. Compare the guaranteed analysis and ingredient list.

Further, puppy food can cause large and giant breed puppies to grow at maximum rate, which is not healthy for them. A slower, more even growth results in far less risk of orthopedic problems and a healthier adult dog.

All commercial dog foods are bad

A very general statement with little credibility and even less proven facts to back it up. Anyone who puts even just a little time into research will see that the quality of products varies just as much as the ethics and philosophies of the manufacturers who make them. It is true that there are foods of good, average and downright bad quality, but there are companies who take great care in choosing the ingredients for their food.

A dog's digestive system is not able to fully digest and utilize grains

This one at least has some truth to it. Compared to herbivores a dog's digestive tract is much less specialized for digesting grains, or carbohydrates in general for that matter - especially in their raw, unprocessed form. However, dogs are not true carnivores but opportunistic feeders and can digest and utilize the starch from grains in dog food that has been converted by the cooking process. Digestibility depends on quality and type of grain used: rice (72%) is for example more digestible than wheat (60%) or corn (54%). Dogs can absorb the digestible carbohydrates from rice almost entirely, of the other grains about 20% are not absorbed. Indigestible fiber from grains contribute to intestinal health.

A dog can only truly be healthy if you feed a raw diet

This is another claim never backed up by scientific proof. Any animal can only be healthy if its diet supplies all essential nutrients in sufficient quantities. If even just one of them is missing or not present in at least the minimum required quantity, the animal will start showing signs of malnutrition, eventually become sick and die. Some deficiencies don't take very long to become apparent, others develop over a long time before the critical state of health becomes obvious and some diseases are even caused by excessive intake instead of deficiency. The key to a healthy dog is not either raw or processed food, but an overall diet that meets the individual requirements of the dog in question.

Dogs are carnivores

All scientific evidence points towards the fact that dogs, while not true carnivores, are opportunistic, carnivorous scavengers. Cats on the other hand are true, obligate carnivores, requiring animal protein to survive. There is a difference between a carnivorous scavenger and an omnivore though - dogs lack the dental characteristics, longer digestive tract and specific enzymes of true omnivores like humans. That is the reason why they can not digest grains and vegetables unless they are "predigested" by processing, mincing/grinding, breakdown by enzymes, or fermentation through bacteria. Once converted, they are fully available to the dog.

This does, however, not mean that your dog will thrive on a diet mainly made up of poor quality grains or grain fragments, which is what most cheap foods are. Whole grains, including their entire complement of nutrients are much more valuable - and this does not only apply for a dog's diet, but for humans as well!

Cooked/processed protein is unusable for dogs

Common sense dictates that if this were the case, any dog fed either a commercial food product or a home cooked diet would die from malnutrition within a few weeks. Protein is the second most important substance the body is made up of, right next to water - accounting for about 50% of the dry body mass. Dietary protein contains the 10 essential amino acids required for building and maintaining muscle, hair, bone and organs and supporting other vital functions. Essential means that these substances must be supplied in the diet and can not be synthesized by the body.

The blend of protein sources is very important. Different ingredients contain different amounts of amino acids, both essential and non-essential. A product that relies on only a single source of meat (for example strictly lamb based diets) must be balanced by supplying other sources of protein, like whey, alfalfa, potatoes, or grains. The grain ingredients should not be the main protein source though, but only balance the overall profile of amino acids if necessary.

I've always fed __ food to my dog and he did just fine

While there is nothing wrong with feeding a particular food if your dog does well on it and you feel comfortable feeding it, the question is whether you have a basis of comparison and whether the formulation of the food has changed over time. I have seen the effect a better food can have on my own dog. When I adopted him from the shelter, he was a thin little puppy with a brittle coat and a rather strong "doggie odor". I didn't know better yet, fed an average quality food and thought the change in his appearance was stunning, except for the severe reactions he still showed whenever he picked up the occasional flea and got bitten before it died. He had gained weight, the odor improved and his coat was softer and shinier. I was happy and didn't think that any further improvement was possible - until he had been eating a really high quality food for about a month. His allergy to flea bites disappeared entirely, the muscle tone became much more defined, his coat even glossier, softer and most important, much, much denser. The doggie odor vanished.

If I hadn't at least given the better food a try, feeding it long enough to see results (depending on the individual dog this takes about 4-8 weeks), I would still have been convinced that my dog "did just fine" on the lesser quality food. Now I clearly see the difference between "doing just fine" and truly thriving. Every step up the "quality ladder" will bring improvements, the stray dog who used to survive mostly on garbage will do better once he gets a daily ration of even a relatively cheap food because it supplies more essential nutrients; and a dog who was fed a grocery store brand is guaranteed to improve on a better quality product as well.

Fat supplies only empty calories

Far from the truth. Fats are highly digestible, very palatable, and are an energy dense nutritional ingredient which is essential for healthy coat and skin, reproductive efficiency, kidney function and the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. It is the main source of energy - one gram of fat supplies 2.4 times the energy of one gram of protein or carbohydrates. As a less well known fact, fat also serves as a metabolic source of water, so a hard working dog is less likely to get dehydrated when fed a diet higher in fat. Fat metabolism produces 107g of water for every 100 grams of fat. Protein produces 40g water/100g, and carbohydrates produce 55g water/100g. The fatty acid ratio is important for reducing the production of inflammatory mediators in the dog's skin, plasma, and neutrophils (a type of white blood cells). Omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratios of 7:1 or lower are optimal.

Pork should not be fed because it causes pancreatitis in dogs

A statement I have encountered quite often recently, unlike any material that substantiates the claim. According to veterinary literature, the most common causes for pancreatitis are

  • a high fat, low protein diet
  • obesity
  • trauma (car accidents, falling)
  • other diseases (Cushing's syndrome, diabetes)
  • tumors
  • some drugs and toxins (e.g. antibiotics, insecticides)
  • genetic predisposition (hyperlipidemia, e.g. mini schnauzer, cocker spaniel)
As part of a well balanced diet, pork isn't any more dangerous than beef, lamb or chicken. The fat content is key, and many pets suffer from pancreatitis when fed excessively fatty, greasy table scraps - which are not part of a balanced diet. The most susceptible animals are those who don't eat anything but kibble all year and suddenly get an overload of "goodies" on thanksgiving or other holidays.

One other thing that doesn't quite fit the bill is the fact that there is a good number of premium quality dog foods that use pork meal as a protein source. I very much doubt that a single manufacturer out there would risk their excellent reputation by purposefully including an ingredient in their food that is a proven cause of pancreatitis.

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