Should my dog eat dog food?

| 15th March 2009
Obesity, allergies and heart disease… If you think our diets are getting worse, spare a thought for our dogs says Laura Sevier

Take a trip down the dog-food aisle and you’ll be confronted with a mind-boggling range of brands and varieties, all vying for your attention. The packaging shows pictures of plump chickens, choice cuts of beef and fresh grains, along with claims like: ‘100 per cent complete and balanced’, ‘healthy vitality recipe’ and ‘a meal he’ll love every day’.

As with humans, a pet’s diet is the basis of good health. For thousands of years, feeding the dog was a simple matter of giving it scraps and leftovers. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to hear of dogs on low-carb, low-fat, high-protein diets, or dogs that are ‘intolerant’ to wheat and soya. There are vegetarian dogs and those that are only fed organic brands or ‘real’ home-cooked food. There are even dogs on diet pills.

With more than seven million dogs in the UK, the pet food industry is big business. We animal-loving Brits spend around £3 billion a year on pet care, and pet food accounts for about 80 per cent of that. Globally, canned pet food is a £600-billion-a-year industry – the vast majority of which is made using intensively reared animals. In fact, what most people don’t know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries, and many pet food companies are subsidiaries of gigantic multinational corporations.

Commercial pet food provides a convenient way for grain wastes and meat byproducts considered ‘unfit for human consumption’ to be turned into profit. This waste can include everything from euthanised shelter animals to cancer-ridden livestock, roadkill, downer animals (those unable to walk), mouldy grains and rancid restaurant grease (see below).

Only available for the past century, grainbased, processed, commercial dog foods are a far cry from the variable meat-based diets the ancestors of today’s dogs ate. Fed on the same old convenience foods that comes out of cans, bags and boxes, can dogs really thrive?

Surveys show that overall pet health is declining almost as rapidly as human health. Cats and dogs are now developing a vast list of degenerative diseases, including autoimmune diseases, allergies, heart disease, diabetes, chronic digestive problems joint and arthritic problems and cancer.

Our dogs are also getting fatter, and dog obesity is a growing issue. According to a 2008 report by the veterinary charity PDSA, almost one in three dogs (around two million) in Britain is currently overweight. The report also found that the areas with the most overweight people have the most overweight pets. It appears that as we humans get fatter and more sedentary, so too do our dogs – bringing a whole new meaning to the notion of dogs looking like their owners.

This has spawned another pet food marketing opportunity: doggie diet pills. 2007 saw the launch of Yarvitan, the first weight-loss drug for dogs in the UK. Apparently it ‘prevents fat from being absorbed into the bloodstream’, and can ‘help dogs shed 8-10 per cent of their weight.’

It’s a dog’s life

Unfortunately there is a frustratingly little research into how pet diets and lifestyles can contribute to illness or behavioural issues. Such studies are usually funded by major pet-care product manufacturers who have no real interest in finding out if they do cause problems.

There is, however, plenty of anecdotal evidence. ‘Over the 13 years I’ve been a practising vet, I have seen a substantial rise in cases of problems caused by poor diet, including allergies and intolerances, and behavioural issues linked to artificial additives in food,’ says TV vet Joe Inglis, who spearheads the Campaign for Real Pet Food. His concerns are backed by experts including clinical animal behaviourists. The campaign, launched in September 2008, aims to educate people about what really goes into dog food, and to promote foods that are made from good-quality, natural ingredients, are free from artificial additives and have open, honest ingredients declarations.

Inglis set up his own line of natural pet food, Pets’ Kitchen, in 2005. He had been devising home-cooked recipes for dogs and cats in his surgery, and saw the benefits that feeding fresh, natural meals was having on pets with chronic diseases. For those who don’t have time or energy to prepare daily home-cooked dogs’ dinners, these readymade meals – made on a little farm in Devon, using local meat and fish mixed with rice and vegetables, then steamed – are a good bet. There is also a growing number of ‘real food’ brands like Inglis’s hitting the market. Most are a far cry from the rest of the sludge you’ll find on the supermarket shelf.

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor


What goes into dog food?

Look at the ingredients label on a tin of dog food and you’ll see such vague terms as ‘meat and animal derivatives (minimum meat claimed 4%, minimum 4% fresh meat)’. What this tells us is that those ‘delicious, moist, meaty chunks’ are about four per cent meat and 96 per cent something else. Typically, pet food is likely to contain:

- ANIMAL BYPRODUCTS Heads, blood, fat, ligaments, feet, beaks, unborn young – the overspill of butchery. Body parts from ‘4D animals’ (dead, diseased, dying or disabled) are also used, which means that whatever made the animal sick and whatever medicines it was given before death remain in the food chain.

- SUBSTANDARD PROTEIN The amount of grain and vegetable products has risen dramatically over time. Corn and wheat gluten meals and soya bean meal are often
used to boost protein, which are poorer sources of protein compared to meat.

- FATS Rendered animal fats or unwanted vegetable fats and oils are sprayed on to dry food to make it palatable.

- SALT As much as 1,000 times more than your pet needs in a day, and SUGAR in many forms, such as sucrose, corn syrup, and caramel. Semi-moist food usually contains as much as 25 per cent sugar.

- VITAMINS and MINERALS Dog food is ‘fortified’ with these as the ingredients used are not wholesome, their quality may be variable and harsh manufacturing
practices destroy many of nutrients.

- GMOs Soy and corn are used in many pet foods. By 2006, 89 per cent of the planted area of soybeans and 61 per cent of maize (corn) in the US were of GM varieties.


Chemical additives include:

  • Humectants to keep food moist, which can contain up to 10 per cent propylene glycol (used in the making of antifreeze).
  • Artificial colours and flavours to make the product more palatable to dogs and attractive for consumers.
  • Synthetic preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). These antioxidants have been shown to affect the nervous system and are potentially cancer-causing agents. Also of concern is ethoxyquin, a newer antioxidant, which has been linked to allergic reactions, major organ failures, behavioural problems, skin problems and cancer.

For more details, see 'What's really in pet food', a report by the Animal Protection Institute (API)


Veggie dogs?

Is it okay for a dog to go vegetarian?
The Vegetarian Society website maintains that ‘given plenty of variety, deficiencies are unlikely if a wide variety of foods is eaten’. TV vet Joe Inglis says that ‘it can work for a dog, but not for a cat (which will die if it doesn’t eat meat). Dogs are better, healthier and happier eating meat. Dogs would not be vegetarian by choice. It’s a bit much to impose your ethics or habits on them. I haven’t come across many.’


Visit the Campaign for Real Pet Food website to pledge your support and to find out where to buy real pet food.

A Lot of Organics has a list of suppliers.

What’s In This Stuff? by Pat Thomas has more information on natural pet care.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009


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