If you randomly polled people on the street and asked about what their dog eats, most wouldn’t have much to say on the subject. We know, because we’ve done it. You’ll hear everything from, whatever’s cheapest at Costco, to whichever brand my vet’s office sells. Few people have actually researched their dog’s food, and most blindly trust the opinions of veterinarians, pet store employees, or whichever price is right.
But have you ever thought about your dog’s food the way you think about your own? Have you ever wondered why every piece of kibble is the exact same shape? Or why it can sit in your hall closet for years at a time, without going bad? Have you ever questioned why so many dogs you know have battled cancer, allergies, fatty tumors, or any other host of illnesses?
Dog food, like our own food, comes in all shapes, sizes, and levels of quality, and we’ve all been living in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of world. Well, we made the “mistake” of asking a few years ago, and we’re ready to share. Any loving pet owner has a right to know what’s in their food, and we’re here to share our findings. And no, you shouldn’t feel badly that you’ve never asked– most people don’t. Good thing you’re here now!
What you don’t know about your dog’s kibble
1. How it’s made
When you look at a little piece of kibble, perfectly-formed and smelling of the roasted-chicken flavor your dog is obsessed with, it’s easy to see it as a simple choice for a dog. It’s nothing like what we eat, but it’s okay for them. Wait– it is like something we could eat. It’s kind of like a chicken nugget, right? Not that we all regularly eat them, but somewhere down the line, you’ve had your share, right? We don’t really know how the ‘chicken’ got formed in that perfect little shape (okay, we know it was shoved through a tube in that shape, but we don’t like to think about it), we don’t really know what counts as ‘chicken’ by these rules (although we have some guesses), and we don’t really know what else is in it. We know we should feel guilty if we eat it, but we can’t help but admit…They’re kind of good, if you forget all the logical reasons they’re really, really not.
A chicken nugget is not that different from your dog’s kibble. And actually, your dog’s digestive system isn’t that different from yours…So unless you’re okay with chicken nuggets being a part of your daily diet, why are you okay with your dog eating them? Every day? For their entire life?
Kibble, even the premium, grain-free, organic kibbles, are made with an expanding and extrusion process. Raw meats, vegetables, carbs, and fillers, are mixed together to make a ‘dough’, which is then placed into a machine. Hot water or steam is applied at extremely high temperatures and pressure, which ‘cooks’ the dough. We all understand how extreme heat and pressure can zap the nutrients in our own food, and the same thing is happening to the chicken, or salmon, or whichever combo of ingredients makes up your dog’s kibble. By the time it’s done, you have something to work with– it’s just pretty far removed from the whole ingredients that were started with.
Next, this dough is pushed through tubes to help it get it’s ‘shape’. Like the chicken nuggets, there a bit of forcing here, yet again breaking down any nutrients that may be left. A sharp knife chops off each piece at the end, and these kibble bits roll along a conveyer belt towards the next step.
Water in our food is an essential source of hydration, but that doesn’t help food have a long shelf life. So the kibble is passed under a heavy-duty ‘dryer’, which removes any remaining moisture from the food. Now, you can imagine that the kind of sad, shriveled, brown bits that are rolling along the conveyer belt at this point, and you know even the hungriest of dogs isn’t going to see the appeal in this final product. So what could be done to make dogs like it…
This is when, I imagine, someone somewhere had a big, ‘aha!’ moment, not dissimilar to when whoever came up with the idea to use a firehose to spray the orange cheese powder on Cheetos (yes, they do that). Fatty ingredients taste good, and what dogs really want is meat right?
Animals fats are sprayed on the final product, to make them palatable to dogs even after sitting on a Costco shelf for years. Vitamins are also added, to try to make up for what was lost during the cooking process, and artificial colors (such as caramel) are added to make sure it still looks ‘good’ to the humans buying it. Preservatives are also sprayed on top, and the whole thing is packed in a big bag so can be shipped around and eventually arrive at a store near you! Just like Mom used to make it.
2. What it’s made of
So, we can probably all agree that the process isn’t pretty, but meats, veggies, and vitamins? If we overlook the additives, where’s the harm in those ingredients?
Again, I recommend you reflect on some human food examples to think of the possibilities. You’ve read the exposés on taco meat and hotdogs, and you know that regulations on what counts as ‘meat’ in your own food are pretty flimsy. Did you really think they’d be any better for your four-legged friend? (We think they should be, but the world is still catching up).
What counts as a ‘meat’ source in dog food can range. Whole, ground carcasses may be used, and animals can include those that are sick, diseased, or dying. Animal by-products such as grease and feathers are processed in the same facilities as the meat (do you think anybody is cleaning the massive conveyer belts and grinders in between each use?), and various recipes and even brands are not separated (so don’t pay too much more for a major brand’s premium label– it might be the same as the cheapest offering).
Vegetables are usually limited to whatever’s cheapest, and more expensive superfoods aren’t used (all those antioxidants and omega 3s wouldn’t survive the extrusion process anyway).
Carbs that can bulk things up and provide body to the kibble ‘dough’ are used to expand a recipe, and are necessary to help the dough bind together. Your dog eats grain-free kibble, you say? Just remember that ‘grain-free’ doesn’t mean carbohydrate free, so it simply means that other carbohydrates such as potatoes or legumes will be used instead, and they will need to be used in large quantities to ensure the dough can bind. Carbs can offer your dog benefits, but excessive carbs simple act as filler. Only a detailed analysis can really show a breakdown of the ratios of protein to fat to carbohydrates, but this guaranteed analysis is a good place to start.
Another important factor in assessing kibble ingredients regards understanding the types of vitamins included. Vitamins are added to many dog foods to compensate for any vitamins lost during cooking, however not all vitamins can actually be used by your dog’s body. Unstated vitamin sources are often a sign that synthetic vitamins are used, typically sourced from China. If your dog is fed synthetic vitamins that they are unable to process, the side effects can include malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, as the other ingredients in the diet are not sufficient in providing the nourishment your dog needs.
3. How kibble is affecting your dog
The scariest thing about kibble is that it’s like any unhealthy diet, even our own– the implications are rarely obvious in the short-term, though undeniable in the long term. When we wonder why so many dogs are suffering from cancer at a young age, or why food allergies and reactions to different kibble is so high, many dog owners rarely look at the one daily factor in their dog’s life to be able to identify their kibble as the cause.
It’s hard to say that, as a whole, kibble causes x, y, and z diseases. However, many ingredients in kibble have been linked to a range of conditions, and research has clearly shown the benefits of alternative diets such as home cooked dog food diets, in reducing the incidence of these.
This TedxTalk by Rodney Habib does a great job of exploring the correlation of kibble and other processed foods to shortened life spans in dogs (due to food-caused conditions), and I prefer to let his research speak for itself in regards to the ways in which kibble affects our dogs.
4. Who actually recommends it
Many people trust the advice of pet store employees and veterinarians, looking no further. Which makes sense, when you don’t know a ton about dog food and dog nutrition. But are those actually the people best qualified to guide you on the one routine your dog engages in every single day?
One thing many dog owners don’t know about kibble is who is actually behind recommendations for it. Let’s talk pet store employees first. Like many other businesses, commission models encourage salespeople to push customers towards options that they know are likable enough to promote higher sales. So that’s fine, we know a pet store employee is likely receiving a kickback on whatever they sell us, and may give us a choice that is the easiest to say yes to (likely something that strikes the perfect balance between the ‘right price’, and the right number of catchy keywords to help you believe it’s a responsible choice for your pet).
But what about our veterinarians? We all trust them with the lives of our dogs. But are they all qualified to give us nutrition advice? I know, it’s a pretty radical suggestion that your veterinarian, the individual who specializes in the health of your pet, may not be guiding you towards the best diet plan, but here are a few reasons why you should give the notion some consideration.
Veterinarians focus on a range of topics in veterinary school, nutrition being a small part of that. For veterinarians who are actually passionate about nutrition alone, it’s possible to acquire an additional degree to adopt the title of a ‘Veterinary Nutritionist’. They are exactly 100 veterinarians with this additional qualification in the entire United States, and you can find the full list here. Is your veterinarian one of these? If so, you should absolutely take their guidance on the right diet for your dog. If not, let’s step back and discuss a little about how the dog food and veterinary industry works. Like many industries, there are big giants who dominate the market. There are also many incentive programs for a veterinary to receive a ‘kickback’ for promising to recommend a specific food. Because money does guide how most people do business, and the veterinary practice you visit is still just a business.
This isn’t to say you can’t trust your veterinarian. Many care deeply about the health of your pet, and do want to help. But when your veterinarian only sells one type of dog kibble and says it’s because they recommend it, ask yourself (or them) if they recommend because they actually believe it is the healthiest food on the market. Do your own research, and know what you’re considering feeding.
If you’re not sure about how to assess a dog food, you can make an appointment with a veterinary nutritionist when your dog is a puppy, and get healthy dog food recommendations that you will utilize for the rest of their life. Know what an actual expert has to say about which dog food is best, and don’t fall victim to a large business that doesn’t prioritize your pet’s health. With enough research and input from the right experts, you can find many healthy, fresh, and homemade diets that aren’t kibble, and will save your dog from dangerous (and costly) health issues in the long-run.
We think dogs deserve to be fed right like any other member of the family, don’t you?
To learn from veterinary nutritionist Dr. Justin Shmalberg about how to select or prepare a healthy dog food, you can read more here.