With Channel 5 releasing a documentary about pet food at the end of January, their PR machine seems to have gone in to overdrive with every man and their dog (excuse the pun) weighing in to the debate. Unfortunately, most of the people involved in the debate seem to either have a commercial agenda of their own, or be chosen for their looks more than their expertise.
The truth about pet food is that there is no truth. There is no one-size fits all diet that will be right for every dog, just as there is no one-size fits all diet that will work for every human.
The only truth is that the diet that is right for your dog is the diet that they do best on and which is the best that you can afford. If your dog has bright eyes, a wet nose, a high quality coat, solid stools and you can feel their ribs with just a small covering of fat then what you are feeding them is right. It doesn’t matter whether it’s prime rib or polystyrene, if your dog is healthy that is what matters most (although obviously dogs would most likely not meet the healthy criteria on a polystyrene diet, and you certainly should not try it!).
To make sense of the arguments I thought it was worth looking at what a few people are saying, and the people saying it:
Who are the ‘experts’Bold Support
As there is no 100% right and 100% wrong when it comes to feeding your dog, other than whatever makes your dog the healthiest that it can be, it is difficult to find unbiased ‘experts’. An ‘expert’ at a raw feeding company will have a different opinion to an ‘expert’ at mass-produced commercial dog food. These people are certainly knowledgeable and they should be listened to, but what they say should be taken with a pinch of salt and their views should be balanced against each other. They are very well informed opinions, but they are still just opinions.
However there are many unqualified people who have weighed in to this debate. I don’t want to name names, but the channel 5 PR machine seem to have selected someone as the focus of their campaign, who may be good looking, and may have links to celebrities, but who in my opinion is not qualified to talk about nutrition. The reason that I say this is that she is quoted as saying, “'If you feed a dog a food made from sugar, salt, meat derivitives and ash, it's similar to you eating a highly processed ready meal. Not great”. At first glance what she is saying makes sense, but if you know how to read the label on a dog food bag you will know that ‘ash’ is not an ingredient in dog food. 'Ash' is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms in pet food. Contrary to the images it conjures, ash is simply a measure of the mineral content of a food. When calculating the food's calorific content, it is incinerated and the energy released is measured. All of the carbohydrate, fat and protein burn off leaving only the minerals. This is known as the ash content.
Simply put, someone who does not know what ash refers to on a label is not an ‘expert’, and although their opinions may well be worth consideration, they should not, in my opinion, form the main PR drive for this debate.
There are other articles, by other ‘experts’ that state that dogs should not be fed anything that is not ‘human grade’ and that they should eat the ‘wolf diet’ where they get a third of their nutrition from the bones. One of the main ingredients in dog foods that is not ‘human grade’ is ‘meat meal’. Meat meal gets a bad rep in some corners of the internet. One of the main problems is that there are different grades of meat meal and it is difficult to tell if they are high quality or not. A general rule is that if something is listed as ‘meat meal’ it can be bad, but if the animal is listed (i.e. ‘chicken meal’ or ‘lamb meal’) then this is likely to be higher quality and, in fact, more nutritious, that fresh meat. The irony here is that one of the main ingredients in meal that makes meal ‘not suitable for human consumption’ is bone, yet in the same article the same person is arguing that we should not feed our dogs ingredients that are ‘not fit for human consumption’ and that we should feed them bone – as bone is inherently not fit for human consumption (dogs digest bone very well… we don’t!). To me the value of an ‘expert’s’ opinion is diminished when they effectively do not agree with their own arguments.
Scavengers Vs Wolves
The 2 sides of the battle seem to have laid out their stall like this:
The scavenger argument: Dogs are scavengers; you don’t have to be that precious about what they eat.
The wolf argument; Dogs’ digestive systems are the same as wolves, so they should eat what wolves eat.
Having said that there is no right or wrong, I cannot say that either of these arguments are wrong, but they are certainly flawed.
The scavenger argument. Yes, dogs are naturally scavengers. Historically they developed close relationships with humans by scavenging from early settlements, probably about 10-15,000 years ago (or possibly up to 30,00 years ago. The first problem with this argument is that the foods that they scavenged remained unchanged until the industrial revolution. They will have scavenged discarded bones, meat, fat, veg, fruits etc – Ironically this is the diet that the ‘wolf argument’ says is right for dogs. Secondly, you only have to take a look at dogs in countries like Sri Lanka who do survive by scavenging to see how unhealthy they are. Dogs living on the streets in these countries tend not to look healthy, they look thin with dull coats – on this basis alone the scavenger argument is flawed.
The wolf argument is the other extreme. Whilst the raw feeding/ wolf argument is arguably a healthier diet for a dog that scavenging modern foods, it is still flawed. A pet dog’s digestive system may well perfectly match a wild wolf’s, but that does not mean that their nutritional requirements are the same. Pet dogs have taken the myriad shapes that they have, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, though human intervention via selective breeding over thousands of years. Breeds have been developed for specific purposes from companionship, to hunting, to retrieving. A Pomeranian has a fluffy coat, will spend most of it’s time in a house, do relatively little exercise and be fed twice a day, probably at exactly the same time. A wild wolf is about 5 times the size of a Pomeranian, lives outdoors, has a coarser coat, is very active, has to hunt for its food – so doesn’t have regular meal patterns. Arguing that a Pomeranian and a wild wolf have the same nutritional requirements is like arguing that Mo Farrah, running over 100 miles per week training for the Olympics, has the same nutritional requirements as the average person who spends 8 hours a day sitting at a desk. This is obviously flawed… and if you add into the argument the fact that double-Olympic-gold-medallist Mo Farrah is a vegetarian this confuses the argument even further! Secondly most of the people who buy (or sell) the wolf argument don’t take into account that one of the first things a wild wolf will eat when making a kill is it’s prey’s stomach and the stomach’s contents. Most of the ‘wolf’ diets that I have seen try to match the nutritional content of the prey itself, such as deer or rabbit, but do not account for the contents of the stomach, thereby leaving a lot of nutrients out of the diet.
Meat derivatives and the horsemeat scandal
Meat derivatives are, I expect, going to be one of the main villains of the Channel 5 documentary. I personally would not feed my dog food that listed it’s ingredients as meat derivatives, but meat derivatives are not necessarily bad: According to European law, 'meat and animal derivatives' is defined as "All the fleshy parts of slaughtered warm-blooded land animals, fresh or preserved by appropriate treatment, and all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcase or parts of the carcase of warm-blooded land animals".
This means that if you make your dog food from sirloin steak you can list it on the ingredients as ‘meat derivatives and animal’… you would be stupid to, but you can. From a nutritional point of view meat derivatives may not be bad, they may not be good either. The truth is that we just don’t know, because the meat derivative description is so wide ranging. The reason that I suspect that most commercial dog foods list meat derivatives is so that they can change the exact meat content depending on price fluctuations of ingredients, without having to change their packaging. I think that it is underhand to sell a food as a “chicken” dog food and only include 4% chicken in the meat derivatives. This seems deceptive, but is not necessarily nutritionally bad. In my view it is similar to the horsemeat scandal; It is absolutely deplorable that Findus lasagnes were made with horsemeat, when they were sold as beef, but from a nutritional stand point horsemeat isn’t bad for you, all the other preservatives and ingredients that make it possible to sell a lasagne for £1 are probably worse.
What’s in and what isn’t in
What goes in to dog food is clearly a subject of huge debate, and as I say, there is not absolute right or wrong. As with humans we should be aware of things that are added to food that don’t need to be there; added salt and sugar which are nutritionally unnecessary, added artificial colours which are only there to appeal to humans (dogs do not see colours like we do) and artificial preservatives which just give a longer shelf life to give manufacturers economies of scale. From my point of view and the point of view of my company, Pooch & Mutt, the problem is as much what doesn’t go in, as what does. Many foods claim to be ‘nutritionally balanced’, but when every dog is different not only in terms of their genetic make-up, but also in terms of their activity levels, their domestic situation and any underlying conditions (such as arthritis or colitis) no one food can fit all. That is why people turn to products like our supplements (Bionic Biotic and Mobile Bones). These give dog owners the ability to ‘top up’ the nutritional qualities of their off-the-shelf food and tailor them to their dog’s specific situation.
Pooch & Mutt’s simple goal is to help dogs lead happy, healthy lives. Undoubtedly there are lots of well-meaning people out there trying to do the same thing, but many do so by pedalling information (potentially mis-information) that they have learnt from specific sources. Many of these sources have commercial, rather than dogs’, interests at heart. People feel that they are doing ‘the right thing’ by pushing this information without questioning it.
I have not written this article to get across the point that all commercial pet food is bad, nor have I written it to defend the petfood industry. I would not call myself an expert, I am someone involved in the petfood industry, who works with experts and I am someone who has enough knowledge to see through the spurious arguments of people who call themselves experts.
My goal is not to put forward one argument or another. It is simply to try and put forward some balance and to get people to question the expertise of the so-called ‘experts’. Seemingly everyone involved in the TV debate is extremely at one end, or at the other. If there is a truth it is to be found somewhere in the middle.
As I said at the start of this article, the right food for your dog is the one that makes your dog the healthiest that it can be… the truth is that simple.