Watching what they eat – a guide to doggy diets

What big teeth you have there- good thing I am not what is for dinner.
What big teeth you have there- good thing I am not what is for dinner.

Most people know, dogs will eat about everything (anyone with a cat will detest this fact). There are so many brands of food out there and you hear so many different things, that you might wonder what you should be feeding your dog and what will make a dog sick (luckily, that “kitty roca” will not, although, remembering he ate it and then kissed you might turn your stomach).

Carnivores or Omnivores?

I hear people say “my dog loves sweet potatoes, so he is an omnivore.” Simply consuming something does not change your genetics, for example, I know a person who drank gasoline- this does not make him a car. I also ate a marigold once (I vomited immediately so don’t recommend you try it); however, I am still not a snail (or an herbivore). Just because dogs will eat food other than meat, does not change all the biological factors that make them carnivores. Looking at their sharp teeth, which are designed for cutting flesh, will tell you they are carnivores. Their teeth are not flat, like those of a grass chewing goat, who simply needs to grind their food. Humans, as omnivores, have both flat and pointed teeth because we eat meat and plants. All the teeth in a dog’s mouth are pointed which also leads to their not being omnivores as their best friends (humans) by their being carnivores.

Look at those scary meat eating teeth!
Look at those scary meat eating teeth!

Another way to know that dogs are carnivores is by looking at their intestines. Unlike humans, whose intestines are long (but not as long as the intestines of an herbivore), dogs have a short intestinal tract. Anyone who has swallowed whole kernels of corn would understand why herbivores and even omnivores would need their food to stay in their stomachs longer to break down food. Furthermore, carnivores (dogs) have different types of acids and enzymes in their digestive tract than omnivores or herbivores.

Salad? None for me! Give me a steak and some belly rubs.
Salad? None for me! Give me a steak and some belly rubs.

So does it matter whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores you ask? Not completely, except it is a great bit of info if you ever play Animal Jeopardy. Dogs have survived for thousands of years off of humans, eating our scraps. They have the ability to digest carbohydrates (such as rice), starch (corn) and vegetables, which is apparent in most of the main stream food choices out there. However, understanding that dogs are carnivores will help you understand what diet would be best for your dog.

Kibble

Before doing rescue, I used to volunteer at the City Shelter. One of the first horrific facts you learn while volunteering there is after killing dogs and cats, the animals are not buried in a field covered in poppies and little crosses. They are instead put in barrels and sold to a rendering plant. According to the Sacramento County website regarding Sacramento Rendering Company, a rendering plant “accepts and processes (renders) animal waste materials” from a variety of places including the shelters but also from road kill, butcher shops, ranches, zoos, sick animals and feedlots. They take all the left over parts (or animals that are otherwise unfit for human consumption) and then they “recycled them into materials that go into manufacturing soap, paints, cosmetics, lubricants, candles, animal feed, and biofeed.” I know, that makes it sound really ideal, recycling dead animals so they do not fill our landfills, but I am betting that right now you are wondering if that means what you think it means, and the answer is a scary yes! When your neighbor took his aggressive dog to the shelter, that dog was not adopted but then later used possibly to make your soap or “animal feed.” This is important because when you pick up a bag of dog food, and you see the words “animal fat” or “bone meal” (and it does not say “salmon,” “chicken” or even “salmon meal” or give you a specific protein source, it very well may contain Fluffy, Sparky, and Daisy. Now, you might expect this enrages me as a rescuer and dog lover because I know that food is full of dogs and cats, but honestly that is not my biggest concern. Do I find it grotesque, yes, but (as an omnivore who used to live in China) I understand that protein source is protein source. I don’t want to eat that (and it is illegal to sell for human consumption), but my true concern has to do with the fact that the shelters are poisoning the animals, that animals are dying of unknown diseases, and even that oftentimes the meat is not refrigerated for some time and all the illness and poison is in their blood and organs and then they are being put into food- the same foods I used to feed my animals. There are many companies that use quality proteins (and are kitty and puppy free), just read your label to make sure if yours is one of them. Also know “meal” and “by-product” are not equally as good. So if the first ingredient is “beef by-product”, drop the bag (or box) and walk away (don’t look back lest you want to be chased by zombie zebras that may be in it).

Read the label

We told you of one huge red flag to look out for, but there are many others. Some are much simpler to detect, for example, knowing that dogs are carnivores you can make improvements simply by ignoring any food that says “rice” on the front. But also make sure to avoid anything with corn in it as well. We see many foods with sweet potato in them, and generally they are a good choice, but we have even seen some food with quinoa in them as well. High quality ingredients are important, less chemicals and more real food. In preparation for writing this blog, I asked people to send me pictures of their dogs’ food. I understand most of my contacts understand about the importance of feeding quality dog foods, and so most of the labels I received were great. One I read was a little like reading the back of a candy wrapper. When I said it was the worst I had seen, the owner said “it is a good thing it is only a topper for the real thing.” This idea of it being ok (even as a flavor topper), to me, is like serving your children broccoli covered with moldy candy. Look at the label below and tell me, if those ingredients were in your food, would you eat it?

moist n meaty

I was a bit horrified by this label, not just for the lacking protein source, but the fact that the top ingredients include so many things we know we should not consume (like high fructose corn syrup which leads to fatty livers, corn syrup, and a plethora of soy). The first (and only) ingredient I would call “real” food on this label is “beef” and it is found 8th in the ingredient list. Our rescue takes in a lot of dogs with demodex, an autoimmune skin condition, and most of these dogs eat this low quality dog food (learn more about demodex from Stacey’s article http://recycledpetsnorcal.org/fight-the-mite-the-safe-way/), which shows me how important good food is to a dog’s overall health (especially for puppies).

What do you think? Is this something you would feed your furry family member?
What do you think? Is this something you would feed your furry family member?

What to buy?

For most dogs (excluding Chow Chows who often thrive on a vegetarian diet), a high protein and grain free diet is best. This means that you cannot buy your dog food at a normal drugstore or grocery store. Check your area for good affordable options. In our part of the country, Diamond foods works with Costco to produce a brand called Nature’s Domain. This is the food we feed our dogs as it is medium quality and a decent price, as well as not full of scary ingredients and it is grain free. It is almost the same as their higher end food Taste of the Wild, but instead of using salmon, it uses salmon meal. This is something I think is acceptable with feeding. And at about $.92/lb, I have not found any food that is better for the price. Of course, if you do not have a Costco near you, just ask your friends (not vets as they are not doggy dieticians and mostly learned via classes and information provided by Science Diet and Iams) about what foods they use and look around.

good food
You can see the first ingredient here is Salmon (not even meal) so you know this has quality ingredients in it.

Most people do not realize that grain-free dog food is considered “all life stages.” This means that you can feed it to puppies, adults and seniors alike. The difference between puppy food and dog food is that puppy food has a higher protein content to provide for their growing bones and muscles. Adult food tends to have more fillers in it, however, grain free strips most of those fillers leaving it as a high protein dog food so it is suitable for puppies and dogs alike. Which is nice because keeping on one food means you do not have to worry about the explosive diarrhea often associated with switching foods when going from puppy to adult dogs (ok you can avoid that anyways, we will post tips later on how to do that). Also, if you hate picking up poop, since there are less fillers in grain free dog food, this means the dogs eat less and poop less- which is amazing in its own right.

Raw- the most misunderstood feeding practice

On a pretty regular basis people will tell me all sorts of hilarious things that I have to dispel about feeding dogs bones, raw meats and all sorts of things. It is important to remember that dogs are animals and not people. They do not get grossed out by blood, guts, and strange body parts.

My FAVORITE myths

“I don’t give my dog bones, they don’t get people food.”

I don’t know about you, but I have NEVER eaten a bone, so I am not sure how anyone would consider a bone to be “people” food. But I have actually heard this several times in just the last few months. I am not sure why kibble, which is full of rice, corn starch and other food dogs would never eat in the wild, is somehow considered, by so many, to be better than “people food.” Please, do NOT feed your dogs chocolate, coffee, French fries, candy, and other people food, but animal parts should never be considered to be “people food.”

“Dogs can’t eat chicken bones.”

My response is a simple question. Have you EVER seen a dog kill a chicken (which they do regularly) stop, pluck the feathers and gently debone a chicken? The answer is a simple no. I know you feel silly when thinking about that, but this tape is one that has been played over and over again. We have been told and have been passing around this myth for a long time. Cooked bones can be more problematic, but I will get into that later.

“If you feed a dog raw meat it will get sick.”

Have you ever seen a dog, use two sticks and a ball to start a fire, then cook the chicken, lizard or week old road kill? Of course not, that is a ridiculous idea. Dogs (due to that highly acidic stomach and those short intestines we mentioned earlier) are capable of eating raw meat. Raw bones are actually better for dogs than cooked or smoked bones (although I admittedly make huge cooked bones for my dogs as leaving meat out on my carpet grosses me out).

“Don’t feed your dogs dark meat, skin, or fat”

I see this at Thanksgiving all the time, the myth that too much fat will make them sick. Again, I go back to that dog who has killed a chicken, before cooking the chicken (on the fire it starts with those two sticks and tennis ball) does it carefully remove only the lean meat and eat that to avoid doing 100 crunches at the gym? Absolutely not, they are consumed in entirety, bones, fat, organs, and toe nails (people often ask me if I trim chicken’s toenails before giving the feet to my dogs, again I imagine a dog at a manicurist table, filing down chicken nails before eating the chicken). If you give your dog too much fat, just like if you consume too much fat, it can lead to loose stools.

“Dogs will get salmonella if I feed them raw meat”

I will not deny that there is a very slim chance of this, but how many recalls have we seen of raw processed kibble for salmonella or other really serious things? In 2007, there were recalls for dog food which had melamine (plastic) in it. This plastic was poisoning dogs and cats. Why put plastic in food? It was used as a substitute for wheat gluten which is a common protein source (cheaper than expensive meat products.) This caused the deaths of over 3,000 family pets. This was more deadly than any Salmonella outbreak I have seen, and even then, we see Salmonella recalls in kibble as well.

My cat Remy loves bloody disgusting liver. Most of my dogs won't eat it raw but like it cooked.
My cat Remy loves bloody disgusting liver. Most of my dogs won’t eat it raw but like it cooked.

What is Raw and BARF feeding exactly?

We recently took in a dog that had serious allergies to kibble and his previous owners fed him a raw diet. They gave him 4 drumsticks a day. While the food was raw, this is not Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet. Back when dogs were strict carnivores, they would kill and eat a complete animal. This means not only would they eat the legs, but the beak, stomach (and all the grains it had digested), bones and all. For most people, touching and feeding your dogs intestines, hearts, bones and raw flesh may seem creepy (and the bloody liver my cat loves is so messy to cut). Many of these parts are either parts we have been told we cannot feed (bones in particular), don’t know where to find, and have only had minimal contact with (like pulling it out of the Thanksgiving turkey and promptly throwing them away). But all these parts really can be a part of a more balanced diet, and if you opt to feed a raw diet you need to make sure you have a balance of meat, bone, organs and fat. Bones are better uncooked, as they can become more brittle and splinter after being cooked (for the record I have never had a problem with any bones but I feel like I needed to add that disclaimer in there for everyone else).

$15 of bones from the Asian Grocery store, kept the dogs quiet!
$15 of bones from the Asian Grocery store, kept the dogs quiet!

Rocky, the raw fed dog, was a bit of an anomaly at his foster home. His foster mom has kept up with the raw diet and sent me a picture one day of poop. Yellow poop. She told me she had been looking for his poop but couldn’t find it. No, aliens weren’t coming and collecting his poop- but dogs fed a raw diet excrete perhaps 1/3 the amount of those who eat kibble. We discussed those fillers before and this is where it makes a huge difference. Katie was so excited to find that he was just pooping the yellow left over minerals and basically it would dry up and blow away. I think most of you wouldn’t be so excited about feces, but any foster parent (especially with puppies) knows why lack of output can be so exciting. Katie started to feed her own dogs a partial raw diet as well, and told me she noticed they had nicer coats and their energy level had improved as well. Katie continues to partially raw feed her dogs along with fully raw fed Rocky. Now, I am not going to go into the ins and outs of a BARF diet, so if this appeals to you, please research it fully before just doing what Rocky’s owners did.

What I feed my dogs

I figured everyone would wonder what I feed my dogs. Let me start by saying my interest in this subject started when my Pit Bull/ Rottweiler mix had some sores which the vet diagnosed as allergies. It was not until then that I learned to read labels and started paying attention to my dogs’ food (wish it happened sooner and perhaps we would not have lost our first dog at 5 to bad kidneys). But when it comes to food, I am realistic. There is no perfect system, so I use my understanding and personal constraints to feed my dogs the best I can. I mentioned previously Nature’s Domain dog food, which is what we feed out foster and rescue dogs. I buy the salmon and sweet potato (again, if resources weren’t an option, I would probably buy Taste of the Wild but this food works for him and is affordable enough for my three big dogs and all the other slackers –aka fosters– in the house).

When my cat decided that he no longer wanted to eat cat food, at the ripe and annoying age of 14, I started learning more about raw as I was doing whatever it took to get him to eat anything. Since then, I do not give my dogs (personal or fosters) packaged treats. All of the treats in my house are homemade either raw meats or dehydrated meats. We go through a lot of chicken/duck feet, pork bones, chicken hearts, and fish. I dehydrate them (even though it smells awful dehydrating organ meat) so they last longer and to make the chicken feet a crispy treat the puppies love. I have never had any problems what so ever in doing this and our dogs are all super healthy.

remy and fish

I just implore you to read your dog’s food label and maybe check out Dog Food Advisor (http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/) to compare how your food checks out. Understand that dogs are not people and although they should not eat like people do, that we should care about what goes into our animals. Feeding them healthier foods might help us keep them around and healthier longer. As they cannot go out and go shopping for food, they require that we do the homework for them and bring home the best food possible. It is our jobs, as guardians, to make sure we are not filling them up with rendered meat, chemicals, and corn – just because it is cheap. We know, same with humans, healthy food is more expensive, but just as we deserve it, they do too. They will love you no matter what you feed them, but they might just be around longer to love you with the right food.

Chicken hearts and bung (don't ask) really stink while cooking, but the dogs really love getting them.
Chicken hearts and bung (don’t ask) really stink while cooking, but the dogs really love getting them.
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