Real Food – It’s Not Just for People Anymore

There are easily as many opinions on dog diets as there are on human diets. If you thought the Atkins/Ornish debate could get heated, get a kibble feeding advocate and a raw feeder together and watch the sparks fly. Dog nutrition is one of the hottest topics in animal care right now and many want to know, “Who should I believe?”

The schools of feeding tend to fall into three different categories. There are commercial-diet advocates who serve primarily kibble or canned diets, raw food enthusiasts who mix-up fresh foods for their dogs without adding heat, then there are home-cookers who also choose fresh food from their grocer, but use their stoves and ovens to complete the meal-making process.

Commercial foods are convenient, quick, and consistent in their nutritional makeup. They’re easy to serve, don’t have strong odors or make much of a mess in the kitchen, and are a fast meal for busy humans to serve to their dogs. Commercial dog food is a relative newcomer to dog care, originating in the early 1900’s. With the need to create a shelf-stable product that would appeal to the human consumer, new ingredients previously not found in the dog’s diet were introduced. Health conscious dog guardians read labels carefully and are becoming wary of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. They realize that they have little control or knowledge of the origins of the ingredients in their dog’s food. By-products and other ingredients may not be fit for human consumption due to disease, contamination, or pesticide residue, yet considered acceptable by dog food regulators. Thankfully, reading labels does pay off, and there are dog food manufacturers who use only human grade ingredients. It’s important to read labels carefully, however. Price does not always indicate quality, and many premium foods charge quite a bit for by-products, digests, and other ingredients many find to be of dubious quality and usefulness for your dogs’ nutrition.

Some people, in an effort to provide the very best for their dogs, want to take their knowledge of ingredients a step further by choosing the individual ingredients themselves. By purchasing fresh, whole foods from their grocer or local farmer’s market, they know a little more about the parts of the animals, vegetables, or grains used. They can choose entirely organic or locally-grown ingredients if they like. They can also ensure variety, something kibble lacks due to the efforts made to create an extremely consistent product. Home preparation is becoming more and more popular among guardians and there are two main feeding philosophies we will discuss: raw and cooked diets.

There are a number of raw diets available. Some feed sprouted or soaked grains; others feed no grains at all. Some feed primarily poultry, others beef. Some even choose to cook the vegetable and grain portions, but feed the meat portion raw. Sometimes bones are fed whole, sometimes ground. There are both benefits and concerns regarding raw diets, just as with any other dietary choice. Many feel that raw diets most resemble the diet of the wolf, our dogs’ earliest ancestor. Vitamins tend to be lost in the cooking process, so raw feeding retains the most nutrients at the time of feeding. Veggies and grains may be harder to digest in their raw state, even when ground finely. Raw bones are helpful in dental care for dogs, but some vets are concerned about the splintering of bones in the alimentary canal, even when uncooked. Raw and other home-prepared feeders know exactly what goes into their dog, which can help dogs with allergies and other health issues find appropriate foods that may not be common in commercial diets, or eliminate ingredients that don’t agree with their systems. Raw diets, however, are time consuming and sanitation should be impeccable. While dogs may have stronger immunities to food-borne illness, there is still a risk of illness to their humans in the home if the feeding and preparation areas are not properly sanitized, or if dogs are permitted to carry bones and food around the house or yard, particularly in areas where small children play.

Home cooked diets, have their own advantages and disadvantages. Balancing the diet is very important for any dog, and when we choose to prepare our dogs’ food, that responsibility falls upon us. Home cooking opens a dog up to the widest variety of foods, since cooking helps increase the digestibility of plant foods in general. Variety can help ensure that the animal receives the widest array of nutrients, trace elements, and other food benefits available. The risk of food-borne illness is reduced with cooking, though care should still be taken when handling raw meats, eggs, or unpasteurized dairy and juice products. Plant-based protein sources such as lentils, beans, amaranth, and soy become an option that can be very helpful for dogs with certain ailments, or for guardians who have ethical, health, or environmental concerns about serving their dogs animal products. Many feel that cooked food is closest to the diet of domesticated dogs during the thousands of years of pre-kibble feeding when animals were fed the table scraps of humans. They often feel that domestic dogs in those years of captivity have bred to thrive on this type of diet through the survival of the dogs most suited to this diet. Some also feel that cooking helps mimic the rotting process, helping the digestibility of food for a species believed to have lived as a scavenger and pest in its history and one who still does live this way in some countries, including Taiwan. It is important for the longevity of the dog that home cooked diets be carefully balanced and entered into knowledgeably and that nutrient amounts in foods are understood to be diminished from their pre-cooked state. While somewhat time consuming, many feel that home cooked and raw diets are well worth the work. The dogs seem to like it too.

There is one more option worth mentioning, and that is semi-homemade diets. Several companies produce mixes that are to be blended with raw or cooked meat or lentils. These can help decrease the time needed to prepare a home cooked diet. This is especially convenient for those with busy schedules, multiple large dogs, or people who are unsure of their ability to handle preparing a fresh diet from recipes.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help guardians and their dogs. With a little reading and research, one can learn to feed the diet one feels is best for their dog. Every dog is different and has different needs and requirements. What works for one may or may not work for another. Be flexible and try different foods as needed. If cooked isn’t working, maybe raw will, or vice versa. The advantage of so many feeding options is that there are a vast number of possibilities for every dog and with some reading, knowledge, common sense, and a keen eye on your dog’s health and behavior, it’s not difficult to find the one that’s right for your best friend.

by E. Veronica  Noechel