by Prescott Breeden
What are we being sold when we buy a bag of commercial pet food?
Whenever I walk into a behavior consultation with a client, one of the many things that I have to examine is the dog’s diet. While dog food manufacturers would love to have you believe that their kibble (dry dog and cat food) is just what the pooch ordered, the unfortunate fact is that while kibble is relatively inexpensive, it is also the root of many behavioral and health problems. Even with local stores in Seattle such as All the Best Pet Care and Mud Bay, which promote exceedingly better food than the grocery store brands, most people still feed their dog some form of dry kibble. The most unfortunate aspect of trying to understand what we should feed our dogs is that there is so much conflicting information and opinion on the subject. In this light, I have written this article to educate pet owners about what is in their pet food, provide information about what we know scientifically about canine nutrition, and what we know about dog food companies and the pet industry to understand why good information is so hard to find.
To understand nutrition, we have to first understand what a nutrient is. A nutrient is a building block—kind of like a Lego—that our body absorbs and uses to replenish, repair, and grow. These building blocks are just long chains of bonded elements. While there are many different kinds of bonds that hold elements together, the most important thing to know about them is that they are destroyed by heat: thereby destroying the nutrient.
Kibble has very little nutrient value because it goes through an extrusion process. Extrusion is used in a wide variety of industrial production and was initially invented in the 18th century to make lead pipe. During this process, materials are forced through a fixed shape at incredible pressure to make the shape of whatever is being mass-produced. Eventually, manufacturing with extrusion was incorporated by the food industry that now uses it to make things like hollow macaroni, breakfast cereals, fast-food, ready-to-eat snacks, and of course kibble.
When we take nutrients and put them through an extrusion process, we subject them to heat levels that bend, warp, break, and destroy the bonds that make up the nutrients in the food. The pressure inside an extruder (used for food) reaches as high as 200 meters below sea level (20 bar); that’s enough to crush a WWII submarine![i] When nutrients are exposed to such intense heat and pressure, the body no longer recognizes it because it does not match the right shape of the ‘Lego’ that the body is looking for to grow hair, create hormones, produce hemoglobin for the blood or neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin for the brain, etc.
But kibble is convenient, and even though no dogs ate kibble before the 20th century, we have truly become a fast food nation. Between 1977 and 1994, snack food consumption in the United States increased by 200% and ready-to-eat breakfast cereal consumption increased by 60%.[ii] I’m no different. While I primarily do private in-home dog training in Seattle, I have clients as far north as Lake Stevens and Whidbey Island and as far south as Tacoma and Gig Harbor. I practically live on the road and almost all of my meals are from gas stations when I need to refill the tank (thank Dog for Prilosec to help me endure my garbage eating habits). With our busy lifestyles, it is really no surprise that the invention of a dog food product that is as simple as opening a bag of potato chips would become incredibly successful. However, if you have ever seen the documentary “Super Size Me” then you understand how eating McDonalds Big Macs every day not only causes disastrous physical changes but mental changes as well because the body is simply malnourished by these kinds of foods.
Aside from kibble being processed, one of the biggest biological issues among dry dog food brands is that they are extremely dehydrated. Dry dog foods contain on average about 10-12% moisture, while a nice chunk of steak we would cook up for dinner on Sunday night contains about 70% moisture. Because of its moisture deficient properties, kibble is incredibly stressful on organs—specifically the kidneys—so dogs drink an excessive amount of water to try to relieve the stress. When I switched my dog off of kibble, I was shocked to see a dog who would destroy a couple gallons of water a day now barely touch (let alone finish) his water bowl. The only time he really tackles the water bowl now is on a hot day if he has been running for extended periods of time. Regardless, I still leave ample water out but he has never shown any signs of dehydration (sunken eyes, loss of elasticity in skin, lethargy, or delay of capillary refill time in gums).
The nutritional problems continue. Most dry dog food is packed with grains that produce several concerns. Whenever grains sit in a warehouse; touch packaging equipment; sit in trucks during transport; sit on retail shelves; or sit in your home pantry; they can develop an infestation of grain mites. A single female grain mite will lay hundreds of tiny microscopic eggs on a single piece of dog kibble and those eggs can remain dormant for weeks.[iii] If you are lucky—your dog will eat them before they hatch and spread. If your dog is lucky—they will hatch and spread before he eats them (provided you are sensitive enough to see that the kibble seems to be moving before you try to feed it to Fido). As it turns out, most dogs are not only allergic to grain mites and their eggs, but also to grain itself.[iv] When grain and grain mites enter the canine digestive tract they cause varying levels of inflammation that are typical precursors to future health and behavioral problems ranging from poor skin health to aggression (the latter is rare but documented in a few of my cases where even board certified behaviorists that had been brought in to consult had difficulty diagnosing the roots). Good intestinal health is critical to a healthy animal because it is in the intestines where nutrients are predominantly absorbed. Grains are specifically the seeds from different types of grasses, and anyone who has ever had to attend to an infection caused by a grass seed can appreciate the havoc a seed would cause inside a dog’s digestive tract.[v]
While grains are just one form of carbohydrates, pet foods have so many carbs that companies typically exclude the information from their printed nutritional analysis. Veterinarians have a very interesting stance on carbohydrates. One veterinary textbook on nutrition states, “The fact that dogs and cats do not require carbohydrate is immaterial because the nutrient content of most commercial foods include [carbohydrates].” The 2006 “Nutritional Requirements of Dogs and Cats,” published by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, says that an ideal maintenance diet for an adult dog should contain 37% of their caloric intake from carbohydrates. This is highly controversial with certified canine nutrition experts who will say no more than 18% carbohydrates. Regardless of this minute controversy, your average grocery store kibble ranges between 48% and 56% carbohydrates—split the difference in professional opinions between the NRC and nutrition experts, that is still more than double the biologically appropriate amount.
Do you know what is in your dog food? Here are 4 guidelines to understanding dog food packaging.
· The ingredient list is ordered with foods that make up the highest to lowest weight. While this lands the water dense meats at the top of the label, about 70% of the weight is lost when the food is dehydrated making meat a minority of the foods composition. To both confuse customers and ensure that the most recognizable ingredients are at the top of the list, food companies have developed a practice called “splitting” to make their food appear perfect for our little furry predators. Let’s say you have a food that is 50% rice and 25% meat, the package would have to list rice as the first ingredient. However, if the 50% rice content is broken across white rice, brown rice, rice bran, and rice gluten meal, it is possible to make each of the rice ingredients fewer than 25%, thus allowing meat to appear as the predominant nutrient source.[vi]
· All the ingredients before the first major fat source (typically listed as “Animal fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols”) will make up the majority of the nutritional content of the food. Brands like Purina Dog Chow only contain three ingredients that make up the majority of the food while brands like Orijen have as many as eight.
· If the guaranteed analysis doesn’t say the carbohydrate percentage you can find out how many carbohydrates are in your dog’s food by subtracting all the following percentages in the guaranteed analysis from 100.[vii]
· Carbohydrates = 100% – Protein % – Fat % – Moisture % – Ash %*
*Ash is a by-product of the extrusion process and according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the recommended guarantee is a maximum of 3.5%. The AAFCO however does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way and foods frequently contain as much as 10% ash despite this guideline.[viii] It goes without saying that ash has absolutely zero nutritional value.
· The nutritional analysis of the food that is printed on the package is examining the ingredients before they entered the extruder, not the processed kibble afterwards. Never forget that the nutrient value will be significantly reduced once the ingredients are forced through extreme levels of heat and pressure.
· Always look for and avoid any dog foods that use by-products and corn in their ingredients. Corn is nothing but rocket fuel, it significantly reduces normal threshold levels, and it has been linked with numerous physical disorders as well as mental disorders including both depression and schizophrenia.[ix] Dogs eating corn will have higher levels of residual anxiety, which magnifies any current behavioral problems as well as potentially causing new ones. By-products are the feet, feathers, beaks, and carcasses that are illegal for human consumption. As a certified professional dog trainer, I keep pretty tight records about my cases. About 70% of my aggression cases have had both corn and a prong collar/choke chain/shock collar as part of the dog’s routine, and about 85% had just corn in their diet. [note: this is not causational data, this is merely observation about cases that come across my desk, however that doesn’t render the information irrelevant.] Good rule of thumb is if it is illegal for human consumption; it’s probably not safe to feed your dog.
Carbohydrate Levels in Major Pet Food Brands:
Iams ProActive Health Adult Chunks: 48% — contains corn meal [x]
Purina Alpo: 55% — contains ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal [xi]
Purina Beneful: 48% — contains ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal [xii]
Purina Dog Chow: 54% — contains whole grain corn, corn gluten meal [xiii]
Hill’s Science Diet: 51.7% — contains whole grain corn, corn gluten meal [xiv]
Hill’s Science Diet Prescription Formula: 56.4% — contains whole grain corn [xv]
Kibbles n’ Bits: 52% — contains corn [xvi]
Understanding the composition of the food you are feeding your dog is only one aspect of choosing a good food. It is imperative to also understand the dangers, risks, and nutritional availability of its ingredients. Many ingredients in pet foods are typically not even biologically recognized as nutrients to dogs, such as flaxseed. Flaxseed is added for its omega-3 properties however they are about as absorbable as sawdust. The reason that dogs and humans receive little to no nutrition from the ALA omega-3s in flaxseed is because they do not contain EPA or DHA omega-3s that are found in fish oil. Omega-3s are called essential fatty acids because the body does not produce them and must acquire them through diet. In a nutshell, the flaxseed omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) have chemical chains that are simply too short to fill an animal’s nutritional requirements, therefore it is often not recognized as a nutrient.[xvii] Another very important thing to keep in mind is that Omega fatty acids are so volatile that whether they are already contained in the meat or if they are added afterwards, they are completely inactive because the heat from extrusion and cooking destroys the oils.[xviii]
Perhaps the most dangerous ingredient in pet foods is EQ (ethoxyquin). EQ is a pesticide used as a fat preservative that was ruled by the FDA as a “poisonous and deleterious” chemical in 1959.[xix] Because of the dangers surrounding the consumption of EQ in high levels, it was quickly prohibited for use as a preservative in food products. However, the same year it was banned, there was an amendment made to the Food and Cosmetic Act, allowing its use in animal foods at a maximum dose of 150ppm (parts-per-million). The objective of the amendment was to allow its use as a grain preservative in feed given to animals being raised and slaughtered for food consumption. Furthermore, the amendment was passed based on an independent study conducted by the Monsanto company: the manufacturer of ethoxyquin.[xx]
As loopholes go, they don’t get any bigger than the EQ regulations. First, it’s completely undetectable once it has bonded to a fat source, so you cannot test for it. Another loophole is that a food manufacturer doesn’t have to list it on the package if the fat being added to a food product already had EQ added to it by a previous processing plant (this principle is true for any ingredient being added to a pet food product). The reported list of side effects of EQ is extensive and includes: liver damage, kidney damage (acute tubular necrosis), acute renal failure, thyroid and reproductive dysfunction, teratogenic (causes birth defects), carcinogenic effects, allergic reactions and a host of skin and hair abnormalities.[xxi] [xxii] In 1997, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine asked dog food labels to half the levels of EQ from 150ppm (parts-per-million) to 75ppm, believing that the original levels of 150ppm had an inadequate margin of safety for lactating mothers and puppies.[xxiii]
Despite all this, Eukanuba describes this registered pesticide as, “a synthetic antioxidant that stabilizes meat based ingredients and extends the nutrient value of the food.” It’s right on their website under “E” of their “Premium Dog Food Ingredients.” Click on the link and check it out, it’s absolutely shocking. (http://www.eukanuba.com/en-US/premium-dog-food-ingredients.jspx)
The AAFCO and the FDA have many regulations written down on government grade paper, but they just simply don’t have the people power or money to inspect, enforce and prosecute with such an enormous industry. Pet food sales topped an all time high of $19.85 billion in 2011 and estimated sales for pet food in 2012 is over 20 billion dollars.[xxiv] That’s over twenty billion pounds of dog food that manufacturers pump out on a constant basis. Thus, while the FDA has many policies regarding animal foods and products, it does not and cannot regulate it. This results in many pet food companies using unidentified meat sources that are illegal for human consumption but therefore cheap for pet food production. Predominantly these sources include the three D’s: Diseased, Dying, and Decaying animal parts. If you see the word “animal fat” as your primary fat source, that’s actually rendered dead animals that are thrown into a giant vat, boiled at extremely high temperatures to separate the fat from the other animal parts, which is then skimmed and inserted into our dog’s food as “animal fat.”[xxv] If there is no qualifier on the type of animal—such as chicken fat—then this means the fat is coming from unquantifiable sources. Much of this rendered fat comes from dead animals at animal shelters. I know this first hand (not just from what is available on the web) because one of my duties when I worked at PAWS in Lynwood was to dump the animals who had died into the locker for the rendering plant to come and haul away. Usually they hauled away dead pigeons, crows, squirrels, bunnies, possums and raccoons, not dogs and cats; however, if an employee wasn’t careful about which dead animal went into which bin then the rendering company absolutely hauled away euthanized cats and dogs to be rendered for food processing. I speak from first hand experience when I say that when you are hauling a giant hefty bag of dead animals to the rendering locker, you don’t exactly double check every animal to make sure you grabbed the correct bag.
The truth of the matter is that euthanized animals make up large enough portions of the protein sources in dog food that the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine discovered that there are trace amounts of sodium pentobarbital (euthanasia) in pet food.[xxvi] This investigation took place after veterinarians began noticing that pets were becoming immune to normal doses of sodium pentobarbital. The immunity was building up because pets are eating non-lethal traces of euthanasia on a daily basis.
Discussing my research with a dear friend and fellow Leonberger owner, he said to me, “I think once you feed euthanized animals to pets, there isn’t a point where you stop and ask, ‘what if there are side effects?’” His point is immense; the morality of these companies must be examined. In 2007, dog food companies (primarily brands owned by the pet food giant Mars, Inc.) put products on the shelf with a chemical called melamine that was contained in approximately 800 tons of wheat gluten that was imported from China.[xxvii] Surplus melamine has been a common illegal ingredient in feedstock and milk in China for several years because it makes diluted or poor quality ingredients appear to have a higher protein content by elevating nitrogen levels that are detected by simple protein tests. Families were seeing their pets vomiting black and bloody liquid due to internal bleeding. By the end of the recall, about 30,000 cats and 50,000 dogs were afflicted with kidney damage or renal failure. Approximately 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs had died.[xxviii] Brands that were responsible for the death toll included Purina, Iams, Nutro and numerous others.[xxix]
The problem is that consumers are far too trusting. These companies are not mom-and-pops organizations that make pet food because they love dogs. These are multi-national corporations who use the unregulated, multi-billion-dollar pet food industry as a place to dump waste that is illegal for use in human products.[xxx] And what is worse is they hide it all by selling to our emotions. Anyone who loves dogs has an emotional response to the image of a boy playing with his puppy and we would rarely suspect the same company is trying to sell us puppy chow with euthanized animals ranging from horses to the decaying parts of pigeons (beaks, claws, feathers, guts, etc.) as part of the unidentified rendered “meat and bone meal” ingredient. But pet food manufacturers, above all else, are fantastic at marketing. In addition to brilliant advertising, veterinarians make a tremendous amount of money pushing and selling prescription diets from Iams (IVD), Purina, and Hill’s Science Diet. If you compare the prescription bags from the regular bags there is almost no difference in product, but if my veterinarian sold it to me it must be great food, right? Wrong. The veterinary clinic Banfield, started in 1955 with almost 1,000 clinics across the country, is owned by none other than Mars, Inc. Mars owns a variety of veterinary formula brands and tells pet owners on the Banfield veterinary website to stay away from home-prepared diets (including raw diets) and to consult with their veterinarian about which pet food is right for their dog. Mars is also the same company responsible for killing thousands of pets with melamine poisoned pet products in 2007.
It is a tough pill to swallow when you think that the professional you are entrusting the health of your dog to is not only regurgitating the rendered and extruded dog food from their parent company like a mindless pez-head dispenser, but is also selling you a product that induces chronic health problems. Generally speaking, veterinarians are as knowledgeable of canine nutrition as general practitioners are of human nutrition. They may know a few things, but they are trained to fix health problems, not prevent them, and their nutritional training in school primarily consists of the ideology, “you feed dogs ‘dog food’ and cats ‘cat food’.” If your dog breaks a leg, receives a deep wound, develops worms, contracts a disease, your vet knows how to fix it—although many will have to consult a reference book first. Veterinarians are not the messiahs of animal care, they are regular people trying to keep their business doors open, pay off their medical school bills, and buy expensive new x-ray equipment so if your dog does break their leg they can fix it. To their credit, they are trying to help the greater good with what their education has taught them, I just wish they weren’t always so stubborn when presented with scientific data that conflicts with what they thought they knew to be true for years.
Veterinarians aren’t the only way that pet food companies have poisoned the availability of good nutritional data. Because it is a $20 billion industry, manufacturers sponsor a number of organizations that would otherwise have insufficient funds to operate. My favorite example is the Delta Society, which is an organization dedicated to certifying and training therapy dogs. In 2010, the Delta Society prohibited any dogs eating raw meat from therapy work, falsely claiming a higher rate of contagious pathogens. There are actually more cases of salmonella poisoning in humans from handling kibble than from dogs who eat raw meat.[xxxi] If you examine what the Delta Society calls their evidence, they show no statistics of pathogens spread from dogs eating raw. They only repeatedly state the risks and have never shown any literature to support their statements.
So why the sudden change in the Delta Society, and why now? Raw meat has been a part of the canis lupus digestive tract for 6 million years, and food born pathogens have been a known risk long before the year 2010. Here are some very important considerations: not only does the Delta Society receive a large sponsorship from Purina (in fact the homepage of the Delta Society says in bold, “Thank you to our incredible partner, the passionate pet lovers at Purina”), but the current Vice Chair of the Board of Directors at the Delta Society is Brenda Bax, the Marketing Director of Purina, whose biggest competition right now is the emerging raw pet food market (thanks especially to the 2007 pet food recall debacle). As if that wasn’t enough to raise your eyebrow, Brenda Bax began her career as a chemical engineer with Proctor and Gamble (owner of Iams and Eukaneuba) and was then promoted to project management within various divisions of the $138.34 billion company.[xxxii][xxxiii]
These companies are far more scandalous then you may want to believe, and my uncle who is a veterinarian and promotes Purina convinced me to ignore the evidence for a long time (especially since it is so easy to sit back and call names at multi-national corporate conglomerates). I was constantly dismissive of it until I was approached by Life’s Abundance dog food to become a distributor. This is a direct quote from the email I was sent:
Could you use a source of additional residual income? Does your dog training business have a retirement plan? Would you like to have a great way to get a piece of the multi-billion dollar pet food and treat industry? Well, becoming an independent distributor of Life’s Abundance could provide you with all of these things.
I followed up with the distributor to learn as much as I could about the operation. Over the course of my 90-minute interview with the company, I discovered that they are a multi-level marketing company that is little more than a glorified pyramid scheme. As a distributor, every client I would have turned over to Life’s Abundance would earn me a maximum of 20% on all food they sell to that client for the rest of their life. Now the 20% is only an introductory offer, as I would have to recruit more distributors below me in order to maintain this percentage. They have a 9-star rating system that decides how much percentage I can earn on sold products, and unless I recruit more distributors I can only achieve a maximum 4-star rating. However, once I recruit more distributors I then earn a percentage on all products they sell, as well as a percentage on any distributors that they then hire as well. I was encouraged during my interview to recruit anyone from friends to family members as clients or distributors of Life’s Abundance, stating to me: “everyone from your dog training clients to your wife would be an excellent recruitment to earn additional income as a distributor.” I asked him how many distributors they have, and although he could not give me an exact number, he said that they have distributors in every facet of dog welfare, including: veterinarians, groomers, pet sitters, dog walkers, trainers, and general enthusiasts. The most important part of this entire exchange was that his proposal to me had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the food, it was all about how much money I could earn as a distributor. I thanked the gentleman for his time and declined on his offer.
It sinks in even further when you examine PETA’s investigation of Iams, where insider-video of a food-testing lab showed some of the largest atrocities of animal cruelty I have ever seen. Dogs were placed in cages with bars for floors, one room was filled with dogs that had muscle tissue from their thighs surgically removed so the dogs couldn’t walk around, other rooms had dogs kept in dark pens in what appeared to be a basement, and judging from the video these dogs were suffering from a traumatic level of anxiety; all for the sake of what the lab labeled “palpability testing.” Further investigation of the multi-billion dollar Iams/Eukanuba parent company, Proctor and Gamble (which recently purchased Natura Pet Products—this includes the brands Innova, Evo, California Naturals, Healthwise and Karma[xxxiv]), revealed that dogs were being euthanized after extreme experiments to test the effects of everything from intentional mal-nutrition to laboratory induced diseases.[xxxv]
If you have never seen the inside video or read the horror stories, you should visit www.iamscruelty.com and see it for yourself.
By the end of my research, the kibble debate is so boring to me I have a hard time understanding why people cling to it so much (other than the fact that it is cheap). If we look at animals in captivity we don’t see bears, lions, or wolves being fed kibble—nor any animal for that matter. The only animals who are eating extruded kibble are dogs and cats, however one of the things we have learned in the last 10 years is that many dogs are genetically indiscriminable form grey wolves and that all cats are genetically indiscriminable from their wild cousins, so why do they thrive on raw materials but not our dogs and cats when geneticists have a hard time figuring out which set of genes are the wild ones and which are the domesticated?
Common Myths about feeding Raw:
· My dog will become aggressive if he acquires the taste for meat.
Aggression has nothing to do with the taste for meat, this is nonsense for many reasons but one that is large in particular is that domesticated dogs have had their predatory drives squashed and molded into remnants of their former glory due to selective breeding and genetic linkage.
· My dog will contract food born pathogens and become ill.
Because dog’s have a 6 million year-old tummy, they descend from predators designed to hunt, kill, and digest raw meat and even carry residual levels of bacteria like salmonella without affecting or compromising their health. Their intestinal tract is extremely short in comparison to our own so that they do not contract pathogens.
· My dog will develop behavioral issues if he/she eats people food.
There is no such thing as people food. Try telling the lion at the zoo, “Hey! Stop eating that steak, that’s people food!” Have you ever stopped to consider that one of the reasons a dog might try to scavenge food off of counters in the kitchen (aside from the genetic urge to scavenge) is because their body realizes that it is what they are meant to be eating?
· My dog will become fat if I feed him/her people food.
Table scraps versus a well-designed home-prepared diet prescribed by a certified canine nutritionist are two very different things. Obesity in pets is a result of junk food eating and a lack of exercise, not the location of the food.
· Raw doesn’t clean my dog’s teeth like kibble does.
Saying that kibble cleans your dog’s teeth is on par with suggesting that Oreo cookies are great for flossing. Dogs who chew on soft raw bones (such as knuckles) have clean teeth that rarely need cleaning while dogs who eat kibble are in and out of the vet or groomer for teeth cleaning on a semi-regular basis. Kibble promotes the same issues as cookies because high carbohydrate levels promote plaque and tartar buildup, so even if the hard kibble does do some scraping, it is promoting even more buildup afterwards.
· If I give my dog bones, won’t they get stuck in their throat and potentially kill them?
Never ever, under any circumstances, give your dog a cooked bone. When bones are cooked they become dehydrated and brittle and will shard when chewed and swallowed. Raw bones are 70% water, soft, and will not splinter like a cooked chicken leg will. They are perfectly safe to feed your dog and stores in Seattle like All the Best Pet Care carry a wide variety of raw bones in their freezer section just for Fido to munch on.
It is crucial to remember that every single one of these myths is a combination of not understanding our dogs as the biological carnivorous predators which they are and to scare people away from switching off of the $10,000 to $20,000 the average pet owner will spend on kibble over the course of their dog’s life. The next time your dog begins to suffer from health or behavioral issues: start to think about what is going in their food bowl.
If you have any questions about what your dog is eating, contact a certified canine nutritionist and find out how to make their life with you the best possible.
[ii] PUTNAM J and GERRIOR S (1999), ‘Trends in the U.S. food supply, 1970–1997, in Fraza˜o E, America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences, Washington, Economic Research Service, US Deptartment of Agriculture. Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 750, 133–60.
orig. pub. April 8th, 2012