The Benefits of Whole Food
The benefits of whole food feeding are many, and it’s – in our opinion - the best diet for dogs. Our detailed dog feeding guide helps you prepare high quality nutrition for dogs by outlining the advantages of non-GMO dog food, treats and supplements over the contents in commercial products.
For more information, we invite you to see Tigger's book, The World According to Kemosabe, and also peruse our Blog!
Accordingly, some people feed their dogs commercial dog food, others feed the RAW diet, some feed home-cooked meals, and some feed a combination of commercial with cooked and/or raw.
Whichever feeding method you choose, the fundamental nutritional components of the canine diet stay the same: protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, water, and carbohydrates.
Dogs require 22 amino acids. They are able to synthesize 12 of these through the liver, while the other ten must come from their diet; these are known as the essential amino acids: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. This group includes the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are important for maintaining and building muscle.
Dogs active in agility, fly ball and other canine sports have higher protein and fat requirements than dogs with a more sedentary lifestyle. Hunting dogs, herding dogs, working dogs, sporting dogs, and sled dogs can utilize a higher-protein and higher-fat diet for their energy, endurance, and muscle requirements. Lactating mothers and puppies also need more protein.
The protein percentage found on a label does not equate to quality protein. A variety of protein-providing commercial dog foods list ingredients that can include items like fish meal, animal digest, corn germ meal, corn gluten meal, poultry byproduct meal, rice, chicken meal, meat meal, as well as grain protein sources like rice, barley, and oats.
Fish meal, chicken meal, poultry meal, and meat meal are created through the rendering process. Depending on the process used, rendering, which is sort of like cooking a stew, can include some very unsavory ingredients like flea collars, antibiotic residue or a variety of pharmaceuticals used to treat the animal before it was slaughtered or euthanized. Remember: no meal product can be better than the raw material used to make it. “Poultry meal” might be, say, a blend of chicken and turkey, while ingredients like “meat meal” and “animal digest” could be pretty much anything. Look for fish meal labeled with the type of fish used — salmon, herring, menhaden, etc. Whenever a company lists what specific animal the meal is from, it is generally a higher-quality protein.
Keep in mind that there are only a handful of commercial dog food producers in the US, and these several companies make most of the various brands of dog food we see on the shelves and online. This is one of the reasons for so many recalls on commercial dog food, often from many different companies at the same time; they get their ingredients from the same suppliers.
- Typical sources of omega-3 fatty acids in commercial dog food can include fish oils (herring, salmon), as well as flax seed and canola oils.
- Typical sources of omega-6 fatty acids in commercial dog food include pork fat and poultry fat (or simply “animal fat”), as well as safflower oils, sunflower oils, corn oils and soy oils (or simply “vegetable oils”). Grains, like oats and barley, also supply omega-6 fatty acids.
Animal fats and oils
Animal fat, as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), is fat “obtained from the tissues of mammals and/or poultry in the commercial process of rendering.” Since companies aren’t required to identify their mammal fat sources, the ingredient “animal fat” could come from diseased animals, slaughterhouse waste, dead zoo animals — even roadkill. Rendered fats could also come from euthanized cats and dogs. Remember, rendered animals can be processed into “meat meal” which can be used for chicken feed which, once the chickens are rendered, can be used for fat in dog food.
Soy oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, and canola oils are (unless stated as “organic”) genetically modified. Typically, they are also processed with a solvent called hexane, which is listed as a neurotoxin. On top of that, the high-heat processing most of these commercial oils endure destroys most of their beneficial nutrient components, including any fat-soluble antioxidants.
Flax oil, hemp seed oil, camelina oil, and coconut oil are generally GMO-free (although a long-abandoned variety of genetically modified flax has been recently identified in several countries that previously imported the flax from Canada). Hemp seed oil is predominately cold-pressed, not heat-treated, allowing it to keep its nutritional integrity. Camelina oil is beneficial due to the fact that is has higher Omega 3 content than Omega 6. Coconut oil may be processed with hexane unless labeled “organic” or otherwise identified as a cold-pressed oil. Most flax oil is expeller-pressed, although there is still a fair amount of heat generated during the expelling process. You can always alternate fat sources, choosing among flax oil or hemp seed oil or coconut oil. Remember, our dogs are ominvores, capable of eating a variety of sources for all the nutrients described on this page, including protein, fiber, carbohydrate, and fats.
Fish oils are processed under heat, and some companies use a CO2 extraction (a combination of pressure and heat) to concentrate the omega-3 content of the finished product. The higher-quality fish oil companies use a molecular distillation process to remove heavy metals, dioxides and mercury, and may also use flash-distillation, which removes impurities with steam rather than with a vacuum.
Technically, fiber is not considered an essential component of the canine diet, but most every commercial dog food provides it, and there are important benefits to feeding it. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
- Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel, which slows down digestion. Slower stomach-emptying may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, which is particularly important for dogs suffering from diabetes. Soluble fiber sources include legumes, oats, rye, barley, some fruits, vegetables, flax seed and nuts. Meat does not contain fiber.
- Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, and has a stool-softening/laxative effect. Insoluble fiber sources include whole grains, beans, peas, skins of potatoes, and some fruits.
What to look for, what to watch out for…
The best fiber sources include canned pumpkin pulp (not pumpkin pie mix), steamed or cooked green beans, apple slices, and coconut meal. However, the fiber sources found most commonly in commercial dog foods include beet pulp, grain hulls, whole grains, flaxseed, fruit pectin, oat or wheat or rice bran, psyllium, powdered cellulose (wood pulp), and tomato pomace.
Keep in mind that commercial pet food can include GMO beet pulp and GMO grains such as rice and wheat. Pectin is often isolated from citrus and apple pomace, then processed with added ethanol or isopropanol. Tomato pomace is the cheap, leftover byproduct of tomato juice and ketchup production. Its primary component is the tomato skin — the part of the tomato with the highest potential for pesticide residue.
No carbohydrate requirements or guidelines for dogs have been established by the National Research Council, although more and more companies are providing grain-free dog food. Some nutritionists and veterinarians favor grain-free, others do not. Remember, though: grain-free does not mean carbohydrate free! Vegetables and fruits contain carbohydrates.
If we think about the evolution of the wolf into the domesticated dog — we’ll call this in-between creature the “wolf-dog” — we have to consider that the wolf-dog was in the process of being tamed, living with or very near to humans, stealing or begging for scraps and leftovers. Twenty thousand years ago, our hunter/gatherer ancestors would have been eating primarily meat, some roots and herbs perhaps, but little if any grain. The deer they hunted would have eaten clover, wildflowers, tree nuts, bushes and bark; even if the wolf-dog hunted down its own deer, there would be very little grain in the intestinal tract of the prey. Later, with the advent of farming, the deer began to take advantage of gardens and cornfields, but not during the time of our hunter/gatherer ancestors.
As humans became more agrarian and cultivated more grains, the dogs had access to stale breads and leftover porridge. Dogs living in the Far East had access to fermented soy — tofu, miso, tempeh. While oats, barley, quinoa and rye have remained relatively unchanged between then and now, other seeds have not. Corn, wheat, rice, and soy have been altered significantly through methods ranging from radical hybridization (wheat) to recombinant genetic modification (corn, rice, soy).
About the grains in commercial dog foods
The most commonly used refined grains in commercial dog foods — wheat, corn, rice, and soy — are contributors to the decimation of soil quality via mono- culture farming practices and GMO seeds. The greatly increased use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers further impacts the ecology of the soil and groundwater.
High-carbohydrate dog foods may be less expensive in the short term than grain-free dog foods, but those carbohydrate calories add up over time. Since carbohydrate values are not required on canine labels, there is a simple way to calculate what percentage of the dog food is carbohydrates: If, for example, the protein is 25%, the fat 15%, the fiber 4%, the moisture 8%, and the ash 3%, then this all adds up to 55%. Subtract 55% from 100%, and what’s left is the carbohydrate content: 45%. (This amount is considered high, while a value in the 20-40% range is considered moderate.)
Refined grains have been over-processed, destroying many of their beneficial nutrients. There is evidence that excessive amounts of refined grain can contribute to obesity and diabetes. Minimally processed grains are found most often in premium and/or organic dog food. These include oats and barley. Because ingredients must be listed by weight, not volume, it can be difficult to know by reading the label what volume proportion grain contributes to the food. The total carbohydrate amount can be calculated, but not specifically what percentage comes from grains.
Potatoes are added to some grain free feeds. Sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, so dogs who are overweight would benefit from avoiding the white variety.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Commercial dog foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Fortification is needed because of nutrient loss during processing and to ensure, in the case of “complete feeds”, that all essential nutrients have been met in the right amounts. Vitamins in most commercial dog foods and supplements are either synthetic, or are byproducts of the petrochemical and coal tar industries. In any case, these “fractionated” or “isolated” ingredients are not from food:
- Vitamin A, unless stated to come from fish oil, is derived from petroleum esters.
- B vitamins are from coal tar residue.
- Vitamin C is made from corn or wheat and then processed and purified through biotechnical techniques into ascorbic acid. China sells the most ascorbic acid in the world.
- Vitamin E, commonly sourced from palm, is extracted with hexane, a neurotoxin. The destruction of much of the Indonesian rain forest — displacing the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran elephant, and the orangutan — is due to the creation of palm plantations for vitamin E production.
Minerals are essential and critical for the proper functioning of multiple body systems and biochemical components including bones, tissues, organs, enzymes, and amino acids. Of all the minerals, calcium is required in the greatest amounts. Egg shells, bones, dairy products, legumes, kale, spinach, and blue-green algae are excellent food sources of calcium.
Phosphorus is an essential mineral required in slightly smaller amounts (the recommended ratio of calcium to phosphorus is 1.2 to 1). Meat, chicken, eggs, and fish are high in phosphorus but low in calcium, with the exception of sardines, which are closer to a 1:1 ratio but still higher in phosphorus. Other common protein ingredients like soy, turkey, duck, and lamb are also higher in phosphorus than calcium, as are cereal grains. Balancing these high-phosphorus foods with extra calcium is critical.
The most common forms of minerals found in commercial dog foods and supplements are the inorganic forms (carbonates, oxides) and the chelate forms (proteinates and amino acid chelates). The inorganic forms have low bioavailability; for the highest bioavailability, the body must find an organic compound to attach to the inorganic mineral. This is known as chelation. The most bioavailable mineral forms come from food and amino acid chelates, with a bioavailability of approximately 60%, while the inorganic forms range from 8% – 10%.
Ascorbates (minerals bound to ascorbic acid) are also chelate forms. The challenge with ascorbates is the GMO connection; if the ascorbic acid is made from corn, it is going to be GMO. Of course, since there is no required labeling of GMOs, it’s up to the consumer to contact the feed company and find out the source of the ascorbic acid.
Plants and algae do their own chelation with free amino acids that the plant binds to inorganic minerals in the soil or water. Plant chelated minerals, such as minerals found in spirulina, have high bioavailability because they are amino acid chelates. Amino acid chelates in dog supplements and food, however, are commonly minerals with only 1-2 bonds with synthetic amino acids. Proteinases, on the other hand, are commonly 2-8 bonds using amino acids from soy or rice. Unfortunately pet food companies and supplement companies are not required to label the source of their proteinates. You must contact the company to find out where it is soy or rice used. This is particularly important for dogs with soy allergies and sensitivities.
Dogs fed home-cooked food, or on a raw diet, or a paleo diet need to supplement with a multivitamin/mineral — preferably one free of petrochemicals and coal tar — that provides amino acid-chelated minerals.
There are many different diets for dogs: raw, paleo, home-cooked, vegetarian, regular canned food, regular kibble, freeze-dried raw food, dehydrated whole food, dehydrated raw food, frozen raw food.
The combination diet
At BioStar, we recommend a combination diet: some raw food, some home cooked or dehydrated whole food. Premium kibble can be used as a base on which to add raw, cooked or dehydrated food. The reason we favor this blend is to provide dogs with various sources of important proteins, fiber, fat, vegetables, and other nutrients. If you choose to use a commercial dry dog food as a base, make sure it’s premium, meaning the protein sources are identified as beef, bison, fowl, fish, or lamb, and are not labeled with the generic terms “beef meal”, “fish meal”, etc. Check the carbohydrate content and fat percentage.
A word on convenience: since we are horse people as well as dog people, we know many horse owners take their dogs with them to shows and other venues. A 100% raw diet or 100% cooked diet is a little more difficult to maintain when you’re spending days at a time on the road, making the combination diet an even more attractive option. Many dogs thrive on it, although dogs with digestive sensitivities may do better sticking to one particular diet.
BioStar does not recommend free-choice feeding for dogs.
Dogs that are overweight need to take in below-average amounts of fat and calories. Increasing protein will help the overweight dog feel more satisfied after eating. Be wary of treats, as many of those dog cookies contain pro-inflammatory factors like molasses or have a high percentage of fat. Be mindful of dog food kibble that contains over 40% carbohydrates even if it is labeled a low fat food.
Of course, getting more exercise is also important for overweight canines and humans alike.
Hunting dogs, agility dogs, herding dogs, sled dogs, fly-ball dogs and Frisbee dogs require energy, and the best source of energy for these dogs is fat. Grain foods (carbohydrate energy) can increase excess lactic acid in muscles, and can increase inflammation. Performance dogs do have a higher protein requirement for tissue repair and hormone production. Higher protein diets should be between 30% and 40% protein.
Performance dogs also have a greater antioxidant need because of oxidative stress. Antioxidant foods include blueberries, apples, carrots, sunflower seeds (de-hulled, raw, unsalted), hemp seed oil, fish oil, spirulina, and microalgae (which provides astaxanthin).
There’s an excellent database at dogfoodadvisor.com that offers updated information on all commercial dog foods and rates them for quality. We highly recommend this site, which also provides an updated list of pet food recalls.
Whole-food meals for dogs
When you add raw or cooked food to dry dog food, you must reduce the amount of kibble to adjust for the added food ingredients and calories. It is also important to add water to dry dog food, as fresh meat is loaded with moisture.
The crockpot method
Put your protein (beef, fish, chicken, etc.) in a crockpot with some peas or lentils, or chopped green beans, some carrots, add water and cook on low, all day or overnight. Some protein sources won’t require cooking as long. If you choose a tilapia fish, for example, you will only need it in the crockpot for an hour or so. Whichever meat or fish you use, the cooking water ends up making a great broth!
You can add some raw bison or antibiotic-free, grass-fed ground beef either to the cooked food, or as an alternative to the cooked food. You can also add a free-range, antibiotic-free egg (raw) once or twice per week, and/or do a 50-50 blend of raw and cooked if you’d like.
Do not feed raw fish or raw chicken meat.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON CANINE WHOLE-FOOD DIETS AND SOME GREAT RECIPES, SEE TIGGER MONTAGUE'S BOOK: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KEMOSABE.
If you would like assistance with your dog's diet, contact us by email, phone, or through our online consultation form.
Every dog owner has an opinion about the best diets and dog foods. At BioStar, we respect differing opinions and different points of view, and we understand that the best diet is the one that works the best for your dog.