Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free?

A golden retriever carries her food bowl
Fill that food bowl with health, high-quality proteins and veggies.

A spate of atypical cases of a serious heart condition in dogs is raising the question of whether grain-free dog food formulas are somehow responsible. The FDA is investigating a possible link between diet and the disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dog breeds where the condition is extremely rare. DCM causes the heart to become weak and enlarged; it can cause heart failure. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Breeds that have a genetic predisposition for DCM include Irish wolfhounds, great Danes, and boxers. According to a New York Times article on the potential link with grain-free diets, concern was triggered when a large veterinary cardiology practice noticed an unusual number of cases among other breeds, including Labradors and golden retrievers.

There’s no definitive link, and researchers are exploring whether the absence of grains in the diet could be problematic. Another potential problem: the legumes, like lentils and peas, that are used in large quantities to replace the grains in these foods. One avenue of research is whether the legumes inhibit the production of taurine, an essential amino acid that most dogs get from the meat in their diets or synthesize from amino acids in other proteins in their diets. To do this, they need to get enough real meat protein in their diets. To further complicate matters, not all meat proteins contain the same levels of taurine; poultry has more taurine than lamb or beef, for example.

What’s a concerned dog owner to do? Choose a dog food carefully, considering only the dog’s nutritional needs and ignoring food fads. For example:

  • Choose a quality dog food brand that uses specified (named) meats and meat meals as the top ingredients. Use the Whole Dog Journal‘s list of approved dog foods, and you will not go wrong. Don’t use supermarket brands, which are full of fillers like corn and wheat (common allergens), artificial colors, sugar, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
  • Choose a protein that is right for your dog. It’s unlikely that your dog needs an exotic, and expensive, protein like kangaroo. If your dog has shown signs of food allergy, sure, try a “novel” protein — but that just means one she hasn’t eaten before. Switch from chicken to fish or duck or lamb.
  • I tend to favor foods with one or two proteins, rather than those with four, six, or more. This is simply convenience: If my dog were to develop a sensitivity, it’s easier to find a novel protein if she hasn’t been consuming lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bison, and fish at every meal.
  • Ensure that the food has enough protein and that most or all of it is from high-quality meat sources. Many dogs do well with kibbles that are 25 percent to 30 percent protein; higher-protein foods are great for some dogs and not for others. Puppies will grow too quickly on a high-protein food. Educate yourself. Consult a vet or canine nutritionist, talk with knowledgeable experts at small pet stores that focus on high-quality foods (I’m not talking about those boutiques with a room full of doggy clothing and luxury accessories and only one or two very pricey foods), and read the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs Naturally.
  • Make sure the other ingredients in the dog food are of good quality and, preferably, sourced in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. I’ve avoided any and all food products sourced in China since the melamine and other contamination scares several years ago.
  • Pay attention to whether your dog runs hot or cold. A vet who treated Jana for many years (and who was Cali’s pediatrician) talked with me about “warming” and “cooling” foods. This turned out to be a wonderful guide to choosing proteins for my girls, who both were “hot.” Since moving to duck a few years ago, for example, Cali has not had a hot spot.
  • Don’t treat your dog like a person. I am a committed vegetarian, but I know that neither Jana nor Cali had any desire to become vegetarians. While I have no desire to go gluten- or grain-free, if I did, that would not extend to my dogs. Dogs are omnivores. Give them a balanced, varied diet, avoiding things (like chocolate) that are known to be toxic or harmful to dogs.

As to whether we should avoid the grain-free foods — the jury is out on that question. My advice would be to look at the specific food(s) you are feeding and see whether it meets the Whole Dog Journal’s criteria for a high-quality food. If so, and your dog is healthy and energetic, has normal digestive processes (translation: look at her poop) and a shiny, healthy coat and bright sparkly eyes, don’t make changes. If your fancy boutique food was selected based on the marketing copy or you’re simply following the latest diet craze, reconsider.

What does Cali eat? For breakfast, she gets a Steve’s Real Food Turducken patty. For dinner, she gets a heaping cup-and-a-quarter of Canidae Sky limited ingredient duck formula. Yup, they’re grain free. They’re also chock-full of high quality, nutritious ingredients. She also gets fish oil, joint support and digestive enzyme supplements, eggs, cucumber, plenty of cookies (not grain-free!) and coconut popsicles (ice cubes made with coconut water), and all the fresh raspberries she can reach.

Read more about the potential problems with exotic diets here: “A broken heart.”

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Chow Hounds

How many of you have dogs who steal food from the table or countertop? How about dogs who beg? On the flip side, how many have to cajole and hand-feed dainty treats to a fussy dog?

Taking available food is a natural behavior for dogs, so puppies generally have to be taught to respect some boundaries and not “steal” human food. They don’t necessarily accept our characterization of “helping myself to a snack” as “stealing.” We also tend to disagree on what items belong in the “food” category, but that is a whole separate issue. Some trainers claim that dogs can’t be taught not to steal food, but that is absurd. Of course they can. But if they keep getting rewarded by tasty snacks left out on the counter, well, that’s not their fault, is it? If you have a food thief, management is necessary. Great temptation plus no chance of getting caught is a tough test for even well-trained dogs, especially once they’ve formed the habit.

I recently spent the weekend with family, including my “cousin” Beau, a boxer. He loves to do the dishes, and his humans allow him the pleasure of this “chore.” Despite knowing that he’ll get some, or maybe because he knows, he doesn’t beg. He’s totally chill while we’re eating, even when we eat sitting on the sofa, just inches from him (reclining on his dog bed).

Jana would never steal food from the table or counter. She generally respects boundaries. But, when she was a puppy, she was invited to a 2-year-old’s birthday party. She was unable to resist the temptation of dozen of cupcakes walking around at exactly her nose level. Never mind that each cupcake was being held by a toddler … She wasn’t invited to the 3-year-old party.

She did learn her manners, but, a girl has to give in to temptation once in a while. I came home with her once and my roommate was sitting on a low chair on the patio, eating a turkey sandwich. She leaned forward to get up, sandwich in hand … at nose level. Gone in one gulp. Well, Jana thought she was offering her the sandwich. An honest mistake. And the now-former roommate is still a good friend. Though I haven’t seen her eating a turkey sandwich when Jana’s been over, come to think of it.

Then there’s Cali. Cali begs. To be brutally honest, Jana sometimes begs. She does so by resting her chin on my lap while I am eating. Or staring me down. If I tell her to stop, though, she seems a bit embarrassed and stops. Not Cali. Shameless beggar. She’s never actually stolen anything, though I wouldn’t put it past her. Besides, she has a family history of food theft. Her great-aunt Oriel, an otherwise perfect dog, would steal food given the tiniest opening. Ory even stole sandwiches from picnic blankets in the park near our house.

Scarlett-Eating-Peas-07-01-16
Scarlett makes sure to eat several servings of veggies a day (Photo by James Cramer)

Cali feels entitled to some (all?) of whatever I am eating. She employs a combination of the stare-down, the nudge, the head on the knee, the LOOK … plus whatever pops into her head at the time. She’s relentless. And I have never fed her from the table, though I occasionally let her lick out a dish, it’s rare, and not at the table either. She will stop when I firmly tell her to settle and stop begging, but she never seems the least bit embarrassed. Hey, a girl’s got to try, she shrugs. She also checks out any snack I put on the little TV table. She’s never taken anything, and she leaves it when I tell her to, but she definitely pushes the boundaries. I wouldn’t trust her alone with a tasty dinner.

And then there’s Scarlett. She has Cali beat, paws down, for shameless begging and food theft. She steals vegetables right out of the garden! Her dad has to scheme and trick her just to get a few peaches off of his own tree!

IMG_2090But these dogs are all “normal” for retrievers. Retrievers are chow  hounds. You can’t leave food out when they’re around. I get that. What I don’t understand, what none of us understand is the fussy dogs. What kind of dog turns her nose up at chicken?

I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one. Deni hand-fed cheese and crackers to a fussy house guest last summer, who enjoyed her visit immensely and did not waste away from starvation while she was with us. But getting her to eat required some creative thinking.

It’s really a question of management: Managing expectations (ours and the dogs’) and managing opportunities, as in, not providing opportunities for the dogs to steal food.

 

 

Alberta’s Marshmallow Test

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In the 1970s, a psychologist tested the self-restraint of preschool children. Each child was offered a marshmallow. The children were told that they would get two marshmallows if they could delay eating the treat, and then left alone in a room for fifteen minutes. The researcher recorded what happened. The efforts of some children to stare down the treat or to distract themselves from it are both comical and painful to watch. Of course, some children inhaled the treat as soon as the researcher left the room. A recent book (The Marshmallow Test) describes this experiment and the follow-up studies of those children. The marshmallow test and other research on the ability to delay gratification shows that those who can exercise self-control in the face of temptation have better “life outcomes,” as measured by a variety of criteria, including SAT scores, social and cognitive functioning, long-term health, and retirement planning.

What does all of this have to do with thinking dogs?
Alberta experienced her own version of the marshmallow test recently. To say that Alberta loves treats is a bit like saying that I love chocolate. Alberta not only loves treats, she is not terribly fussy about which treats she gets. For sure, there are better treats, for example this bison and beef jerky concoction that I get at Costco and that, for some reason, Jana, Cali, and Alberta will do anything for. But ordinary, boring biscuits are fine too, and they are happily accepted as rewards for a job well done.

In her guide dog work, Alberta comes across many items that fit this dog’s definition of “treat,” and she works very hard to resist bits of food that just happen to be lying on the floor.
Alberta is justifiably proud of her hard-earned restraint, but more importantly, she wants Deni to know. So, in the course of a day’s work, if Alberta sees food on the floor and gives it a wide berth, she also nudges Deni to make sure that Deni knows just how good she is being. She pushes Deni hard with her nose, hoping that Deni will notice the ignored object. She often nudges Deni right near the pocket where Deni keeps the dog treats, just in case Deni might want to reward this extraordinary show of restraint. A girl can hope, can’t she?

Alberta knows the rule that she can’t grab food off the ground when she’s working. She wants to believe that that rule does not apply when she’s off-duty (her harness is off). She also knows that, even while working, she’s allowed to take treats that Deni hands her for particularly notable service. But she recently encountered a situation that blurred these lines a bit, a marshmallow test for dogs. Her reaction was remarkable.
Guiding Deni down a street in Saugatuck, Michigan, Alberta (along with her entourage of two other human family members) passed by a store that not only had a full doggy water bowl sitting by the sidewalk, but also a full bowl of doggy cookies. Just sitting there for the taking. An open invitation. Irresistible.
Or not.
Alberta headed for the water, took a drink, noticed the cookie bowl and … stopped dead. Confused. She looked at the biscuits. Looked at Deni. Furrowed her brow. Looked longingly at the treats. But she did not touch the treats.
We’d all stopped to watch the unfolding marshmallow-like drama. Alberta really wanted to gobble up as many of those dog cookies as she could. But she did not take one. She did, however, look at every one of us to make sure that we all knew how good she was being. Deni rewarded her by picking up a few biscuits from the bowl and handing them to Alberta.
Watching the interaction, I got to thinking. Most dogs who walk by this shop are not trained service dogs. Though many, like Jana and Cali, have had some training and certainly know that they are not supposed to just devour everything in sight, they don’t always have the restraint to follow through. Having more than once found myself alone with a new box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, I can relate.
I wondered how often a doggy passerby just digs in and eats all the cookies in the bowl. How many battles between hungry hounds and their hapless handlers has the shop owner witnessed? Does the handler ever win? And really, what was that shop owner thinking?

But back to Alberta. In need of photos for this blog post, I asked Deni to re-create Alberta’s marshmallow test. The photo gallery (presented in order) at the top of this blog post shows that, like the successful children in the original marshmallow test, Alberta devised a series of ways to distract herself. Some of the children looked away, as Alberta did. Some sang songs or recited the alphabet. Alberta did neither of these. Some children closed their eyes. Upon realizing that, even after she had turned away, the bowl of biscuits was still there, Alberta closed her eyes.

Alberta has not only learned to resist random bits of food on cafeteria floors, sidewalks, and the like, but there she was, on that Michigan sidewalk and again in Deni’s office, passing up food that was obviously meant for dogs, placed there for her enjoyment. This shows us that dogs are able to do some high-level thinking and processing.

If Alberta were purely instinct-driven, that bowl would have been emptied in seconds flat. If she were operating only out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, she might have surreptitiously sneaked a mouthful of biscuits before Deni noticed, just to see if she could get away with it — and been rewarded by the treat, even if she got scolded after. But she went beyond a gut-instinct response and even beyond the basic (low) level of moral development that governs much of human and animal behavior. She paused, checked in with Deni, and did the right thing — even though she really wanted those cookies. We’re eagerly looking forward to seeing Alberta’s SAT scores and are consulting her for retirement advice. But in my next post, I will describe more practical ways we can apply the doggy marshmallow test to our relationships with our dogs.