Considering the fact that dog food companies are ostensibly improving their foods all the time, you would think it would get easier to choose a good, healthy food for your dog. Speaking as the owner of four starving dogs (or so they claim) and someone who writes about dog food, it seems to me that it only gets harder to select a food that makes you feel satisfied. I think this might be due to the fact that there are so many competing philosophies about how best to feed your canine companions.
Among the popular approaches at the moment is the idea that dogs are the descendants of wolves, so they need an ancestral diet. There are lots of foods very high in meat protein that take this approach. Many of these foods tend to be extremely expensive because, well, meat is expensive, even in dog food. Good quality meat in good quality dog food costs a lot. The ancestral view had a slight setback not long ago when a genome study found that dogs have evolved the genes for digesting starches – which their wolf brethren do not possess. In fact, the development of these genes likely helped dogs adapt to human domestication. They were able to eat bread and other human leftovers as humans developed agriculture thousands of years ago. Naturally, people who support ancestral diets for dogs have criticized this study, but it still offers rather good evidence that dogs can handle starches in their diet. This has been an unpopular idea for the last few years.
Since starches – and grains, in particular – have been in disfavor for at least the last decade, grain free dog foods have risen in popularity. Dog food companies have over-used wheat and corn for decades in dog foods and there has been a strong backlash against these ingredients, spurred on by the 2007 dog food recalls. However, if you’re going to feed your dog a dry kibble, it usually requires a fairly large percentage of carbohydrates from some source. If dog food companies avoid wheat and corn, they have to find some other ingredient to take their place. Even premium quality dog foods – spending most of their money on the meat ingredients, presumably – look for cost-efficient carbohydrates for their foods. This brings us to peas, chickpeas/garbanzo beans, lentils, legumes, pulses – they go by various names, depending on the company, but they are used for the same purpose and they have similar pros and cons. (Most premium dog foods avoid soybeans because consumers have objected to them due to the health problems they cause for dogs.)
Like grains, peas and lentils have high amounts of phytic acid. Phytic acid can prevent the body from absorbing certain nutrients, especially if legumes make up a regular portion of the diet – as they would if you feed your dog a grain free food daily for months. Legumes are also FODMAPS. They contain a kind of carb called galaco-ligosaccharides. FODMAPS can cause some rather extreme digestive problems for people and for dogs if they have a sensitive gastrointestinal system. It’s not unusual for some dogs to have diarrhea and flatulence when they eat a grain free diet that uses a lot of legumes. I recently heard of one veterinary clinic that adamantly counsels its clients against feeding grain free dog foods.
While many people are excited about the addition of fermentation products to dog foods today, some of them are likely added to grain free foods to help dogs better digest the peas and lentils in the food because these ingredients are not easy for all dogs to digest. There are many good probiotics that you can add to your dog’s diet. Probiotics can be great. It just hasn’t gone unnoticed that dog food companies began loading up their foods with fermentation products around the same time they began using lots of legumes. Similar fermentation products have been used for years to help digestion and growth with farm animals.
So, if ancestral diets might be over-hyped and grain free dog foods might cause digestive problems for some dogs with continuous use, what does that leave for concerned dog lovers? You can see why dog owners might be left singing the blues. If you check Facebook or popular dog review sites dogfood.guide, you will find people begging for advice about which food to buy. There are long discussions about all kinds of popular and obscure holistic foods because people care so much about what they feed their dogs.
Dog foods probably are getting better. They are certainly better than they were 20 years ago when we had fewer choices and most foods featured wheat and corn, lower meat levels, and poorer quality ingredients. Good foods aren’t cheap but for a moderate amount of money you can buy a good food for your dog. You don’t have to completely buy in to a dog food philosophy to try a food. At one time I used to be committed to this or that brand for years but these days it’s so easy to order holistic foods from small companies online that I tend to try different foods for my dogs every couple of months to see how we like them. I don’t care who makes the food or whether it’s a big or small company. I only care if it looks like a good food. I buy grain free, low-grain, foods with grain, high protein, food for old dogs. We try all kinds of food. If I run out of food before the auto-ship comes I will even run to the grocery store and pick up the best food I can find. My taste-testing dogs have learned to go with anything I put in their bowls.
As always, read labels, look at ingredients, figure the dry matter basis for foods, watch for splitting (including peas, pea protein, pea starch, and pea fiber – splitting is not just for corn), and try to understand what is really in the food and why it’s being used. You may find one food that you and your dogs love or you may decide to rotate foods. The only thing that really matters is your dog’s condition and good health – not a dog food philosophy or a dog food agenda.