I spend a great deal of time thinking about food. I wake up and think, “What’s for dinner?” This isn’t totally crazy, because Jim and I have much of our food stored away in a freezer the size of a live cow, and it needs to be defrosted before it is cooked (the food, not the cow). Besides, I love to cook. I, sigh, especially love to bake and so of course am a dedicated fan of The Great British Baking Show. However, as much as I love making bread and perfecting pie crusts, I do spend time trying to create a balance of meals that focus on nutrition, taste, environmental health, and the welfare of any animals involved.
I’m pretty sure that our dogs are uninterested in how food is prepared or what’s contained in it. At present both the Border Collies are enjoying poopsickles, when they can snatch them, as much as they enjoy fresh food. Any and all food is gobbled up as if the dogs have been starved for weeks, whether it is broiled, roasted, fried, raw, or recycled through the gut of another animal.
I’m confident that’s true of 95% of all other dogs in the universe. (This is not news: The Navajo word for dog translates as “eater of horse poop.”) But because we control their take, it is up to us to ensure that our dogs are getting the nutrition that they need. There are some great commercial dog food companies out there that work hard to provide good nutrition for dogs. However, it would be naive indeed for us to count on them, and their marketing departments, to tell us what to feed our dogs.
That’s why I’m grateful for nutritionists like Dr. Linda Case. I was reminded of the importance of her work while reading her article in Whole Dog Journal about the digestibility of different types of protein sources. In it Dr. Case summarizes studies done by researchers from two universities in Denmark, who looked the digestibility of different types of proteins found in commercial kibble. As Dr. Case reminds us, food manufacturers list the percentage of protein found in the food, but they don’t tell us how digestible it is. And that’s the information that matters, because if the protein in a food isn’t actually absorbed, it might as well not have been there.
Here’s the bottom line of what the researchers found:
Lamb meal was the least digestible of the foods tested. It had a digestibility of 70.5%. (Under 75% is considered “poor digestibility,” while over 85% is considered “good”.) Poultry meal didn’t do so well either, with a digestibility of 80.2%. The winner was fish meal, which rated 87%.
The other big surprise was that replacing 25% of the poultry meal with fresh chicken meat resulted in a lower digestibility than using just meal. The best guess is that, because this was extruded kibble that was being tested, the heating and drying processes involved in manufacture had a more deleterious effect on the fresh meat than on the meal. (This is not news to folks who advocate feeding dogs a raw diet.)
In other words, using “real meat first” as a criteria for selecting manufactured dog food isn’t necessarily going to help use choose the best food. Dr. Case emphasized, as did the researchers of the study, that “… information of amino acid composition, and digestibility is crucial.” She’s been arguing this point for years, and does a great job of it in her excellent book, Dog Food Logic. I highly recommend it.
Overall, this is yet more evidence that we need to be thoughtful about what we are feeding our dogs. I myself feed my dogs a combination of kibble, canned food, fresh meat or eggs, and cooked vegetables. Until my life changes radically, I simply can’t imagine feeding my dogs raw food in a way that feels safe and is possible given my time constraints. Lucky for me, the kibble that I often feed is fish-based, with fish meat and fish meal as the primary ingredients.
One last comment, to add a bit of perspective: We are wise to balance our concern about feeding our dogs well with the knowledge that most of our dogs eat better than much of the world’s population. Don’t fall into feeling guilty because you don’t prepare fresh halibut and organic-raw-but-safe-chicken on a daily basis for your dogs. Our family dog, Fudge, ate commercial dog food that I now label as”total garbage food,” and lived a long, healthy life. But don’t ask your dog what he or she wants to eat. We took the dogs out on a leash walk in an area with lots of other dogs, and I forgot to bring my bait bag. I’m always working on good responses to their seeing other dogs in close encounters, so we stopped at a market and bought the worst kind of junk food for dogs imaginable. They went ballastic over it. Seems dogs are just as susceptible as we are to salt, sugar and a vast array of molecules that make strange chemistry experiments look like food.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Just back from LA, visiting family. It was brief, but exquisite to see my sisters and nieces. Not to mention the sunny, mid-70’s weather. A couple of observations– First: Out of about 35 dogs I saw walking around, only two of them were over 12 pounds. Very different from New York City, where you see lots of dogs of medium size. Second: Californians appear to be obsessed with edging their lawns. Never thought of Californians as anal compulsive, but seriously, you guys need to chill out. Third: Just about every house in Burbank and Beverly Hills has a security system sign. So sorry about that. Fourth: Please send some of your food. To Red’s BBQ in Simi Valley, and all the Ethiopian restaurants in Beverly Hills–I love you.