You Are What You Eat

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
Feed me!

The latest pet-food scare (as if the concern over grain-free foods isn’t enough) is that several brands of dry dog food have been recalled for toxic levels of vitamin D.

The FDA first alerted dog owners in early December, and it recently updated the list of recalled foods. You know what I am going to say next: If you’ve chosen your dog’s food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list of approved dog foods, you have nothing to worry about. They do the legwork, checking out the companies’ manufacturing process, documentation of the nutritional completeness of the food, quality control, and ingredient sourcing so you can confidently purchase any food on the list. The list includes foods in a huge range of prices and formulas, and many are very easy to find at pet supply stores, feed stores, Ace-hardware-type stores, and the like. You do not have to spend a fortune at an exclusive pet boutique to get quality dog food; in fact, many of the exotic boutique foods are of poor nutritional quality.

Vitamin D is a vital nutrient for dogs (and humans). It helps maintain the proper level of calcium and the balance of calcium and phosphorus, according to PetMD. (Read the full PetMD article, Vitamin D Poisoning in Dogs, for more details.) Too much vitamin D, though can cause vomiting, weakness, lethargy, excessive thirst, urination, and drooling — and kidney failure and death.

A Whole Dog Journal article (available only to subscribers) says that in most commercial dog foods, the problem is likely to be too little vitamin D, not too much. In addition, dogs in the same household eating the same diet can have very different levels, due to differences in how their bodies absorb the vitamin. Over time, a vitamin D deficiency can cause bone disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and some researchers are studying a possible link to immune system disorders. A blood test can measure your dog’s vitamin D levels.

The best approach is to feed a high-quality meat-based food. Suggestions from the Whole Dog Journal article include adding probiotics or apple cider vinegar to the dog’s meals; avoiding alkalizing foods like corn, wheat, soy, rice, white potatoes, tapioca, and peas; and supplementing with coconut oil. It’s hard to recommend a specific combination of supplements, though, because each dog’s diet and needs are different.

The key takeaway is that what you feed your dog matters.

It matters what you feed yourself and your family, too. But each member of the family makes dozens of choices daily about what to eat and, one hopes, over the course of a day or a week, eats a range of foods that cover her or his nutritional needs. The dog does not get to make those choices, though. He eats what you give him. The dog also probably eats the same thing every day. Some dogs eat the same food for weeks, months, even years. If that food doesn’t have what the dog needs to be healthy, there’s not much chance he’ll get it some other way. So choose your dog’s food carefully — and give him some variety by changing it up every so often.

 

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Update: Is Grain-Free Dog Food Risky?

Koala, a black Lab, eyes a bowl of dog biscuits.
Despite what your dog might tell you, an all-cookie diet is not recommended.

A few months have passed since the FDA scared dog-owners who feed grain-free dog foods, so the I decided that Thinking Dog blog needed to run an update.

I am grateful to veterinarian and researcher Lisa Freeman, who has written extensively on this issue. Based on some of her work, including this Dec. 1 JAVMA article, “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?” here is what I have learned:

  • Grain-free diets are not the problem. What Freeman calls “BEG” diets — foods from boutique producers that are based on exotic ingredients and are grain-free — appear to be a common factor in many of the cases of DCM. (DCM is dilated cardiomyopathy; see the earlier post, Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? for more info.)
  • Most dogs do not need to eat boutique foods with exotic ingredients.
  • Some of the companies producing these foods have not done thorough nutritional research and testing, and the foods are not nutritionally sound. Or their quality control might not be as good as some more conventional dog food producers, so the foods may be less consistent.
  • The problem is not only about taurine levels, either. Freeman writes that most of the dogs she’s seen (in the practice at Tufts University) with DCM have normal taurine levels. Furthermore, many improve with a diet switch (away from a BEG food), even though their taurine levels were and remain normal.
  • Owners who have moved to home-prepared diets should be extremely cautious and consult with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the homemade diet meets the dog’s needs.

The problem does appear to be linked to nutritional deficiencies. Exactly what, though, is still unclear.

What should a concerned owner do?

  • Feed a high-quality food from a responsible manufacturer. You may be tired of hearing this, but: The best food for your dog is not necessarily the best food for my dog. Each dog’s needs are different. Your budget and what’s available in your area differs from what I can get easily. So, I am not going to recommend specific foods. I strongly urge you to choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. Their 2018 list is available; I will post a link to the 2019 list when they publish it.

Dry dog foods

Canned dog foods

  • For advice on raw foods, check out the Dog Food Advisor recommendations.
  • If your dog gets lots of ear infections, is itchy, or has hot spots or other issues that could indicate food sensitivities, consult with a vet and a nutritionist (some vets have lots of training and knowledge about canine nutrition but many do not; ask for credentials).
  • I do not recommend “prescription” diets. Many vets will recommend these. Why? They make a lot of money selling them. They tend to use low-quality ingredients and be very, very expensive. You can get a higher-quality commercial food for less money that addresses the same issue. Whether your dog needs a lower-fat or lower-protein diet, should avoid particular ingredients, whatever the issue, there are likely to be several foods in your (high quality) pet store that will work.

Choosing a Dog Food

I’ve gotten some questions about choosing dog foods, particularly since this post was published: Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? Here are some guidelines (and opinions) I recently provided to people who asked:

  • I’ve seen wonderful results with dogs eating mostly or entirely raw diets. These can be fresh, frozen, dehydrated, or homemade. I personally would not do homemade; it’s a lot of work, I don’t want all that meat in my vegetarian kitchen, and it’s challenging to ensure you are meeting all of the dog’s nutritional needs.
  • For dehydrated, Honest Kitchen is a good brand that is easy to find in good pet stores and online. If you buy directly from the company, you get free treats and other rewards (well, your dog does …).
  • For frozen, Primal and Instinct are nationally available; check in high-end pet stores for local or regional brands. Cali eats Steve’s Real Food, which is not available everywhere. Getting frozen food delivered is really expensive. Learn more here: Dog Food Advisor.
  • For kibble, I can’t say it enough: Choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. They look into ingredient quality and sourcing and manufacturing practices. They really do their homework.
  • Never buy dog food or treats at the supermarket. Health food stores and natural grocers are a possible exception. If you live in a less urban area, feed stores might stock a wide variety of pet foods and treats; watch quality and check ingredients, but these places might be less expensive than high-end pet stores.
  • That said, shop around. I’m considering switching Cali’s kibble to a brand that uses higher quality ingredients than her current Canidae. It actually costs less — and the real attraction is that I can get it at the high end store where I get her frozen food.
  • For dog treats, look for things that are simple: dried meat or fish, locally baked, few-ingredient biscuits. Avoid anything with artificial colors, preservatives, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. (That’s good advice for choosing your own treats, too!)
  • There’s no need to specifically seek grain-free foods, but many of the top brands have little or no grain. I do avoid wheat and especially corn, a common filler in cheap dog foods. Most of that filler ends up on your lawn. And, corn is a common allergen in dogs.
  • If your dog is gassy or has digestive issues, try a diet change. The protein could be wrong, or there might just be some ingredient or combination that doesn’t work well with your dog’s digestive system.
  • Food sensitivities are a common cause of itchy dogs. And ear problems. If your dog seems itchy and you don’t think it’s a seasonal allergy, take a look at her food. Eliminate corn and wheat. And chicken. If that doesn’t help, consult someone knowledgeable about canine nutrition (NOT necessarily your vet!).

Choosing a Protein

  • Some people prefer to feed a diet with multiple protein sources. When Cali had digestive issues as an adolescent, I decided that that made it too hard to know what was causing the problem.
  • I tend to avoid chicken-based kibbles, since many dogs are sensitive to it and since a lot of the larger dog food manufacturers aren’t using the highest quality chicken. I don’t want my dog eating meat from animals that were loaded with hormones and steroids, for example.
  • Very few dogs need exotic proteins. Don’t spend the money unless you know your dog is allergic to the more common, and more affordable, meats.
  • Pay attention to your dog. If she’s always hot, seeks the cool spot in the house, or gets hotspots or other inflammatory problems, avoid lamb and other “warm” proteins. Beef and turkey are neutral. Duck and most fish are “cool” proteins. On the other hand, if your dog loves the sun and wants to sleep under the covers and suffers even in a Florida winter, do look for lamb-based foods. You might think the idea of warming and cooling foods is mumbo-jumbo, but it has definitely helped both Cali and her sister Dora resolve recurrent hotspot issues. I’m a believer.

Are Raw Diets Safe?

Jana holds her food bowl in her mouth

A recent Canine Corner post by Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-known writer on canine cognition strongly suggests that they are not. I’d like to present an opposing view of this often contentious question.

Full disclosure: I feed Cali a partially raw diet; I did the same for Jana for several years and she thrived on it. Cali’s sister Dora recently added raw food to her diet, and she’s healthier and more energetic than I have ever seen her. Other dogs I know have had similar experiences. So, with some caveats, I favor raw or partially raw diets. How’s that for hedging my bets?

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Coren; I’ve read most of his (copious) work on canine intelligence and relationships with people; I’ve even taken a graduate seminar with him. He’s a psychologist, though; not a nutritionist, so I am skeptical of his advice on canine nutrition.

His column starts with a terrible story about someone who fed raw until her child got salmonella; he then goes into detail about why many veterinarians recommend against raw diets and how the people who feed raw diets tend not to trust vets. I have no idea if the statistics he quotes are accurate or representative. But it doesn’t really matter.

I go to my veterinarian, as I go to a doctor, for medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of medical problems. Just as my doctor might advise me to lose weight or warn that my weight could cause health problems, I’d expect my vet to warn me if my dog were severely overweight. (If my golden retriever were underweight, I’d already know there was a problem!) If a medical condition indicated a particular dietary restriction, I’d expect the vet to tell me that, too. But if I needed more detailed diet advice, I’d go to a dietician, not my internist. Similarly, when I seek nutrition information for my dogs, I look to experts who specialize in canine diet and nutrition.

In most cases, that is not the vet. Surprised?

Just as vets are the wrong address for questions on behavior and training, the vet is not the best source of information on canine diet. Of course, just as some vets are also certified companion animal behaviorists, some take an interest in nutrition and become experts, even board-certified nutritionists. But these are the exception. And the nutrition courses that vet schools offer are unlikely to focus intensely on canine nutrition; vets learn to treat many species of pet and farm animals.

I’m fortunate that one of Cali’s vets has taken a deep interest in canine nutrition and has continued to study nutrition and new research throughout her career. This vet firmly believes in and advocates a raw diet for dogs. She urges low-carb diets, too, and, since most kibbles have a lot of carbs, she’s not a huge fan of kibble. She argues, convincingly, that fresh, real food is far more healthful, and, based on dogs’ ancestry, a more natural diet for dogs than hyper-processed cooked kibble.

Another source of in-depth information about canine diet is The Whole Dog Journal. It takes no advertising, so is not beholden in any way to pet food companies. This is markedly different from the average vet, who sells (and profits from) so-called “prescription” diets and who may also push a particular line of foods for all their clients. The Whole Dog Journal publishes detailed reviews of canned, dry, and dehydrated raw dog foods every year. It has published several articles exploring the pros and cons of raw diets as well. (See: Raw Dog Food and Salmonella Risks and High Pressure Processing and Your Dog’s Raw Food, for example.) When evaluating commercial foods, WDJ asks probing questions of the manufacturer; it has a fairly high bar for including a company in its list of acceptable or recommended foods. I’ve said it before: If you don’t subscribe to The Whole Dog Journal, you should!

Recently, a nutritionist who works with Deni’s guide dog school recommended a raw diet for Koala, Deni’s guide. Koala has “leaky gut,” and the nutritionist said that the raw diet was easier for her to digest than kibble and would allow her gut to heal. I found that interesting because one of my hesitations with raw diet was that I thought it was recommended only for dogs with a healthy digestive system. But Koala is doing very well; she has not had any of the issues — vomiting, stomach upset, etc. — that she had consistently on a kibble diet.

I still would be very careful about introducing a raw diet to a dog with a compromised immune system, but I think it is a healthful and desirable option for most dogs.

What is my other area of concern? Well, the story that Dr. Coren based his blog post on illustrates it nicely: safe handling.

The woman in the story let her young son feed the dog, handling the raw food. I don’t eat meat or seafood, but when I did, I would not have trusted a child to handle and prepare it safely or to thoroughly clean the utensils that had been in contact with it. Similarly, I would not let a young child feed Cali her raw food or do the cleanup. I wash everything carefully, just as I would with raw meat if I were cooking that for myself. It seems like common sense. But if I had young children in the house, I probably would avoid a raw diet just because it would be harder to enforce the safe handling protocols.

So, all that is a long lead up to this: I think that raw diets are perfectly safe if handled with proper care. The presence of Salmonella in some samples does not worry me; eggs and chicken commonly carry some Salmonella. Many dogs “shed” Salmonella and other pathogens in their feces; that is not an indication that they are sick and most never have symptoms. But it is an argument for picking up your yard often — and washing your hands afterward. Dry foods have more recalls for Salmonella contamination than raw dog foods, though that might just be a question of volume. Lots more dry food is out there than raw!

The bottom line is, we eat food — as do our dogs — from an imperfect system that exists in a world full of germs and pathogens. We therefore should take precautions with all of our food. A raw diet has many, many benefits for dogs, and, if you can afford it and handle it safely, it is something that I think is worth considering.

 

 

 

 

Dogs and the Paleo Diet

Time for a snack! (photo by Sae Hokoyama)
Time for a snack! (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

Figuring out what to feed a dog never used to be so complicated. For generations, dogs simply ate whatever the people in the family ate. Or, to be more precise, whatever they didn’t eat — dogs were often fed the leftovers from a family’s meals.

Then came commercial dog food. Kibble, canned, semi-moist — all were convenient and were touted as much more healthful for our canine companions. Over the past 10 years or so, dog food has gone gourmet, with organic foods, human-grade foods, foods that cost more than the average family spends on groceries for the humans … but is it better for the dogs?

The latest fads are raw food and no grain or low carb diets, all touted as closer to dogs’ “natural” diet. The “natural” diet is defined by looking at what wolves eat. Wolves eat a high-protein diet, with lots of bones mixed in. They are opportunistic omnivores and will eat fruit, greens, and vegetables if they find them or if meat is scarce, but they thrive on a high protein diet. Carbohydrates can lead to inflammation, some argue, and aggravate problems, such as arthritis, that feature painful inflammation. Raw diets are easier to digest. The less processing the better. Dogs may have evolved considerably since diverging from their wolfish ancestors, but their digestive system hasn’t changed. In short, the Paleo Diet for dogs. (The Paleo Diet encourages eating lean meats, seafood, vegetables and fruits and avoiding dairy, grains, legumes and processed foods.)

Or so one theory goes.

Yet another theory points to a recent study that shows that, in fact, dogs’ digestive systems have changed as they’ve become our housemates— they’ve evolved the ability to process and use (small amounts of) carbohydrates more efficiently than their ancestors. Their life sharing the sofa and the remote with their couch potato humans has made them more amenable to snacking on (and digesting) potato chips. This could be a boon for dog food manufacturers who pack their products with inexpensive and starchy fillers.

This theory is based on research by evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson. He was looking for genetic differences relating to dogs’ and wolves nervous systems. But he found something surprising: He found that the three key genes involved in digesting starch are different in dogs and wolves.

While several theories are debated concerning how dogs became domesticated, all involve wolves spending enough time around humans — and humans’ food and leftovers — to form a relationship. That the wolves hanging out with the humans evolved to eat the kind of food the humans ate makes sense. (And hey, if our early ancestors were eating starch, doesn’t that make the Paleo Diet irrelevant and wrong? Pass the popcorn!)

Which theory is right? What should we be feeding Fido?

First of all, dogs are not wolves. In dog training, myths based on idea “dogs are the same as wolves”  have done untold damage to dogs’ relationships with their humans. Is the same sort of damage now being done to their health through misguided nutritional guidelines?

Modern humans eat a wider variety of foods than our long-ago ancestors did, and our bodies work differently — though a diet high in unprocessed, whole foods and low in simple carbohydrates is still the healthiest option. The same is true, I believe, for our dogs.

In a discussion of Axelsson’s study, PetMD.com’s Daily Vet blog recommends a balanced approach. If your dog’s diet includes grains, whole grains are recommended. Less-processed food is preferable to highly processed. Starches should only form a small part of the dog’s diet.

What might matter more than whether your dog’s food includes brown rice and barley or is completely grain-free is the quality of the ingredients and the relative proportions. As I wrote in “Ask the Thinking Dog” last spring, choosing a safe, healthful dog food can be challenging. I look for U.S.-sourced, high-quality ingredients and avoid food processed in any of the large pet-food factories that are the source of the never-ending recalls. Our dogs eat Fromm Family kibble and Sojo’s, but each dog’s needs are different, so you’ll need to figure out how best to meet your dog’s needs.

A word of caution: While discussing your dog’s diet with your vet is a good place to start, I have found that many vets strongly recommend foods that they sell — but that might not be the best choice for your dog. For example, several vets over the years have recommended putting our dogs on prescription diet foods, available only (and at extremely high cost) through the vet. In most cases, a “prescription” food is not necessary, and a higher-quality food can be purchased less expensively elsewhere.

Do your research! Understanding what proteins and other ingredients work best for your dog can help you choose the correct (non-prescription) food. Talk to the people at a locally owned (not big-box) pet supply store that sells a variety of high-quality foods. Often, these folks are quite knowledgeable. Talk with other dog people, and pay attention to how your dog’s energy level, digestive system, and skin and coat health are affected by different foods.