Reasons to Feed Raw
What do you feed your dog?
If we ever meet in person, and you have a dog, there's a good chance I'll ask, “what do you feed your dog?" When I mention that I am a specialist in raw dog food nutrition, most people have questions about what is a raw diet and why would someone choose to feed a raw diet to their dogs.
For about 90% of dog owners, kibble is the default choice of food for their dogs. Kibble is convenient, it takes the guess work out of feeding, there are a number of price points, and it's familiar.
The problem is ...
kibble is an ultra-processed product. Kibble is not what's best nutritionally for our dogs.
Let's take a quick look at how kibble is made so that we can better compare processed diets with fresh food diets.
The Kibble Process: A Quick Explanation
Kibble is made by processing ingredients into a dough. The dough is heated a number of times at high temperatures and then extruded into nuggets. The nuggets are cooled and coated with a mixture that may contain old restaurant grease, rancid fats, flavours, animal digest, sugar and salt. This coating is called a palatant and is needed to make dogs want to eat the kibble.
The enticing pictures of real whole meats, vegetables, fruit, and grains on the bag of kibble are misleading. In the majority of cases, the ingredients used in dog ‘feed’ are by-products - the left overs of the left overs of the human food industry - things that no other industry can use. Kibble cannot be produced without using a fair amount of starch, just like cookies need starch to hold together.
Typical dry kibble contains 40 - 50 % processed, high glycemic, often poor quality carbohydrates (i.e. grain by-products, legumes and their by-products, high glycemic root vegetables, etc.). This is bad news for a species that has no nutritional or biological requirement for carbohydrates. High carbohydrate diets are problematic for a number of reasons. In the ancestral diet of dogs only 6% of calories came from carbohydrates such as low glycemic vegetation, grasses, and berries. The high carbohydrate content of kibble means that there is less meat protein in the kibble. In the canine ancestral diet, 49% of the calories came from protein whereas typical dry kibble diets supply considerably less protein at 25% of the calories. (Steve Brown, Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet. 2010 )
Processing, heat, and extrusion have a negative impact on the nutritional quality of kibble, and a vitamin and mineral premix must be added to help it meet AAFCO guidelines. Most of these vitamin and mineral pre-mixes are synthetic. The majority of synthetic vitamins and minerals are sourced from overseas markets and are at risk for quality control issues. In order for kibble to remain shelf stable while in the bag, it must contain preservatives. Manufactures may use preservatives such as BHA and BHT which are known, or suspected, carcinogens. The fats in kibble oxidize quickly. Once a bag of kibble is opened the fats begin to oxidize and will become rancid after only a few weeks. Rancid fats promote cell destruction and aging, which are the precursors to disease.
"Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot." Michael Pollan, Food Rules
Ultra-Processed Food is Not Healthy Food
When someone first suggested that I switch my dog Jake to a raw diet in order to cure his chronic digestive issues, I couldn't fathom why I would do such a thing. At the time, I reasoned dogs should eat 'dog food'. It didn't take long for me to come to the conclusion that what I had considered 'dog food', also known as kibble, was far from healthy food for a dog.
Science and our own human health care professionals tell us that we should eat more fresh food and less processed food; the same is true for our dogs. Dogs and cats are the only species that are told by their health care practitioners to eat more processed food and less fresh food. Kibble is not a natural food choice for a dog. Nature would never have created a species that needed to rely on factory produced food in order to survive.
We know that good nutrition is the foundation of good health, and while kibble is marketed as the best nutritional choice for our dogs, we should question why our dogs are experiencing increased obesity, skin and digestive disorders, allergies, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, endocrine disorders, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and decreased longevity. If kibble is truly the best nutrition for our dogs, shouldn't we see lowered rates of disease and increased longevity?
Sure it's cheap and convenient to swing by the drive-thru on the way to and from work, but eating processed food for every meal, for every day of your entire life is not a healthy diet. We would never consider a life time of ultra-processed burgers, tacos, or boxed cereal with an added multi-vitamin as a healthy diet for ourselves. This is also true for our dogs; kibble is the dog equivalent of cheap, inferior quality drive-thru food with added vitamins and minerals.
The occasional processed meal is not a concern, but a lifetime supply of entirely processed food is not what's best for the body - human or dog.
Before There Was Kibble ...
Dogs managed to live and reproduce for thousands of years before the 1950’s when the pet food industry convinced us that feeding an entirely processed food to our dogs counted as optimal nutrition.
Despite how humans have manipulated the outward appearance of dogs, whether Great Dane or Yorkshire Terrier, the digestive system of our 'modern' dogs of the last several hundred years has not changed much from their ancestors. Today's dogs have essentially the same digestive system as their wolf cousins and should be fed a diet that more closely resembles the macro-nutrient profile of their ancestors. This type of ancestral diet is high in moisture, high in animal protein, moderate in healthy fats, contains no processed carbohydrates, and only a small amount of low glycemic vegetables and fruit. The ancestral diet is rich in natural whole food sources of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, healthy fats, digestive enzymes, fiber, phytonutrients, and moisture.
Food is everything. In order to help our dogs achieve their best health, we must feed them the diet that they are designed to eat, which is a species appropriate, fresh food diet.
Top Reasons to Feed a Fresh Food Diet
This a summary of my top reasons to feed a nutritionally complete raw diet:
1. Biologically Appropriate - A fresh, high meat protein, high moisture, low carbohydrate diet is more closely aligned with the diet of our dogs' ancestors and more appropriate for the dog's digestive system and metabolism.
2. Health Benefits - When we feed the type of food that an animal is designed to eat we lay the foundation for optimal health. Pet parents who feed raw diets report improved digestion, ear, eye, and skin health, shiny coats, improvements in allergies, sharper cognition, fresher breath, smaller stools, increased energy and vitality.
3. Fresh Food is Superior to Ultra-Processed Food - Regardless of the quality of ingredients used by a pet food manufacturer, fresh food is better than ultra-processed food. A top quality piece of organic beef can be rendered nutritionally void by high temperature cooking, processing and long term storage. Food that is highly processed and shelf stable for years is not the best nutrition for our dogs. (*Grains, legumes and some vegetables must be cooked in order to be properly digested by dogs.)
NOVA is a food classification system used by food scientists and researchers that categorizes food based on the levels of processing involved in their manufacture. NOVA defines ultra-processed food as industrial formulations of ready to eat packaged foods that have undergone heating, extrusion or molding and contain ingredients such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives, as well as additives, dyes, and flavour enhancers.
In the human food industry ultra-processed foods include: "mass-produced packaged breads and buns; cookies, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; ‘; infant formulas, other baby products; ‘many ready to heat products including pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products, and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts." (source: World Nutrition Volume 7, Number 1-3, January-March 2016)
It is completely logical to include dog kibble in the classification of ultra-processed food.
NOVA is recognized by the World Health Organization, and research suggests an increased risk of cancer in humans who over consume ultra-processed food. Likewise, the Heart and Stroke Foundation links diets high in ultra- processed food with elevated risks for obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Again, it is reasonable to assume that these risks to human health also apply to dogs whose diets are high in ultra-processed food.
4. Preservation and Supply of Nutrients - We know that it's best to get our vitamins and minerals from food, and not from multivitamins; and the same is true for our dogs. Vitamins and minerals work synergistically and are better absorbed and utilized by the body when they come from real whole food. Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are destroyed by excessive heat, while raw or gently cooked protein sources preserve the amino acids in the food.
5. Gut Microbiome Health - Inside your dog's small intestine is a whole community of microbes - bacteria, fungi, pathogens, viruses - that work together to support your dog's immune system. An out of balance gut microbiome is the precursor to many, if not most, diseases. Scientists have shown that a diverse diet leads to a diverse and abundant number of gut microbes, which in turn, supports the immune system. Correctly balanced fresh food diets that contain a wide variety of food are much better than feeding one single brand of kibble to your dog for his entire life. This is a fascinating study that looks at the relationship between fresh food diets and gut microbes of dogs: BMC Veterinary Research Study.
6. What's Not in Kibble - One of the most compelling reasons to feed a correct raw diet is because of what's not in raw food. A good quality raw diet plan does not contain biologically inappropriate ingredients such as synthetic vitamins, minerals, preservatives, flavours, colours, or animal feed-grade grains and grain by-products. Most importantly, raw diets are low in carbohydrates. Biologically inappropriate food ingredients contribute to chronic inflammation in the body which is the root of many diseases.
7. Targeted nutrition - We have the ability to directly impact the health of our dogs and influence their gene expression by feeding specific nutrients that target certain areas of the body and disease processes. This area of study is called nutrigenomics and is a fast growing area of scientific research. We now know that compounds in certain foods have the ability to affect how the body responds to many diseases such as diabetes, kidney and liver disease, brain health and cognition, allergies, digestive disorders, thyroid disorders, cancer, etc. Feeding fresh foods to optimize health and combat disease is incredibly exciting.
There is a growing amount of research that proves the relationship between specific nutrients and their impact on disease. One well known study is from Purdue University, 2005, which demonstrated the positive impact of orange-yellow and green leafy vegetables on the transitional cell carcinoma rates of Scottish Terriers: PubMed Research Study.
The book, Canine Nutrigenomics, by W. Jean Dodds, DVM and Diana R. Laverdure is a must read for anyone interested in learning about the relationship between food and gene expression in dogs.
It's time to rethink how we have been feeding dogs. Research, ask questions, and choose your dog's food as carefully as you choose your own.
This article on choosing a commercial raw food for your dog will help you get started.
View or print my handy Reasons to Feed Raw infographic!
* Anytime I say "raw diet" I mean a correct raw diet that covers all of a dog's nutritional requirements. A raw/ fresh food diet is not better for your dog if it is not balanced or deficient in nutrients.
This article is for information purposes only. Every dog is different and has a different tolerance level for new foods. Please always do your own research when making health decisions for your dog. You are your dog's best health care advocate.