THE THREE WEAKNESSES OF MODERN DOG FOODS
Most modern dog foods come up short in comparison to the canine ancestral diet in three major ways:
1. Not enough protein.
2. Unbalanced and incomplete fats.
3. Can’t be completely nutritionally balanced without some fresh foods.
Not enough protein
This weakness is clearly evident in Table 2.1, which compares the percentages of calories derived from the three major nutrients contained in dog foods (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) compared to that of the ancestral diet.
Protein provided 49% of the calories in the dog’s ancestral diet, our gold standard. Modern dogs eating typical dry foods get about half as much protein (25% of calories) and seven times the amount of carbohydrate (43% of calories) as their ancestral diet provided. Even dogs being fed typical raw food diets are getting a lot less protein because meat from domesticated, feedlot-fed animals contains less protein and more fat than wild prey animals.
Table 2.1 Percentage of calories from protein, fat, and carbohydrate, various foods
Some modern premium dry and canned foods, shown in the table above, attempt to address this shortage by adding more meat. While it does raise the protein level, the downside is that it also raises the amount of fat. Consequently most dogs today consume either more carbohydrate or fat calories than protein calories—and that’s a big change over what their ancestors ate.
Unbalanced, incomplete, and, at times, rancid fats
You are what you eat applies to fat more than any other macronutrient.10
The scientific evidence is overwhelming—dogs who eat the proper amounts of balanced fats, with a complete range of fatty acids, are healthier and happier. These dogs:
• Learn faster.
• Remember more.
• See and hear better.
• Have fewer skin, coat, and other inflammatory problems.
• Are more coordinated.
• Are less likely to be obese.
• Will probably live longer than dogs who do not consume a proper balance of fats.
Not only is a complete range important, but also the fatty acids must be “defended-from-oxidation.” This is important because oxidation causes rancidity.
Most dogs do not eat balanced fat diets, and consume little, if any, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), probably the most important fat for the brain and eyes. Even most dogs fed homemade diets do not eat the proper balance of fats because modern feedlot animals have different amounts and balance of fats than do wild prey animals. Poorly balanced fats are one of the major weaknesses of almost all commercial and most homemade dog foods. Fortunately, it’s easy to correct.
Fats in dog foods
Until recently, nutritionists thought that the primary function of fat was to provide energy, favor, and deliver vitamins. It was not until the 1980’s—more than 30 years after the introduction of commercial dry foods—that canine nutritionists recognized that at least one specific fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA), was essential in a dog’s diet.
In 1985, the NRC listed just one fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA), as being essential for dogs. By 2006, however, the NRC had updated its findings and listed five fatty acids as essential: LA, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), arachidonic acid (ARA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and DHA. I expect that the next NRC update—probably in 20 years—will list gamma linolenic acid (GLA), conjugated linolenic acid (CLA), and probably other fatty acids as essential. These were all fatty acids the dog consumed in the ancestral diet, and these are the fats your dog will consume if you follow the ABC way.
Now, even though the NRC and almost all “fatty acid experts” consider DHA to be an essential fat, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO, the pet food regulator), has not yet updated its recommendations and still considers LA to be the only essential fat in dog foods. I think they are hesitant to require DHA in dog foods because, at least with today’s technology, these expensive fats are just too fragile to be included in bags of dog food meant to be kept open more than a few days. Fragile fats oxidize, which means they turn rancid. No DHA in the diet is better than rancid DHA.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) for dogs
That being said, some dry foods, most often premium puppy foods, do include fish oils, a primary source of omega-3 DHA. The problem is that DHA is very fragile—think fish kept at room temperature. Although the original DHA content of the food is listed on the bag, it is not necessarily the amount of DHA that is in the food when you feed it to your dog. Extrusion processing (where the food is quickly cooked under high pressure, the way most dog foods are processed) and long-term storage make oxidation of the DHA likely. In 2006, the NRC stated, “Many of the PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats, which includes DHA) in the diet such as those from fish undergo peroxidation during processing and storage before ingestion.”11 Peroxidation means the fats turn rancid.
Advances in packaging have reduced, but not eliminated, the amount of oxygen that is transmitted through unopened dog food bags. Once the bags are opened, air rushes in and accelerates the oxidation of the fats. All the studies and nutrient analyses tests I’ve seen on the DHA content of dog foods were conducted at or very close to the time of manufacturing, when the foods were fresh. The tests were not conducted in time frames that reflect when the dog eats the food, for instance four months after the dog food was manufactured. Such a time frame might well include three weeks in a hot Houston warehouse, and 20 days after the bag has been opened in the dog owner’s sometimes humid kitchen or garage. How much DHA is left under these rough, but typical, conditions? The data I’ve seen suggest little DHA is left, and many of the other fats have also turned rancid. This is especially common when large bags of dry food are opened, but not completely consumed, for several days or even weeks.
While we can’t always avoid at least some rancid fats in food, we certainly want to minimize the consumption of them.12 When a fatty acid becomes rancid the shape, structure, function, and activity of the fatty acid is profoundly changed. Rancid fats reduce the nutritive value of the protein, degrade vitamins and antioxidants, and can cause diarrhea, liver and heart problems, macular degeneration, cell damage, cancer, arthritis, and death.13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 It’s good policy to avoid feeding rancid fats to our dogs.
My recommendation: the best way for dry and frozen food feeders to ensure the proper balance of fats and to avoid rancid fats is by feeding a properly stored (see Chapter 7), recently made, basic food without added fish oils or EPA and DHA. Instead add these fragile fats yourself, as you will learn in the next chapter on ABC day feeding. The ABC plans provide the essential fats like DHA in fresh, highly usable, non-rancid, natural forms, much better than any bag of dog food.
Can’t be complete without some fresh foods
Dogs, like people, need some fresh whole foods. In the past ten years, many long-term studies have shown that vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from whole foods are more nutritious than the synthesized or refined forms found in most dog foods. Refined nutrients (as opposed to fresh foods) have a role in preventing deficiency diseases, but are not sufficient for best health. They lack the cancer-fighting nutrients found in vegetables and fruit, for example. I discuss this in more detail in my book See Spot Live Longer, co-authored with Beth Taylor (www.seespotlivelonger.com).
The canine ancestral diet provided thousands of different micronutrients, some known and many yet to be identified. Scientists are learning that some of the recently-discovered nutrients, including taurine, carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and many more, are important for overall body and brain health.
For example, the lack of taurine (an important, heat-sensitive, eye, brain, and heart nutrient) in pet foods has a long, sad history. About 30 years ago, before canine and feline nutritionists understood the role of taurine, some cat foods were sold without sources of taurine. Cats, unlike dogs, cannot make any of their own taurine, and must receive all of it in the diet. Thousands of cats went blind and then died before pet food nutritionists understood the cat’s need for taurine. But the story does not end there. Pet food nutritionists, based upon tests with Beagles living in laboratory settings, assumed that all dogs did not have a dietary need for taurine.19 Wrong. It took the early death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dogs, including Newfoundlands and Portuguese Water Dogs, who were eating lamb and rice diets before the dog’s need for taurine was better understood.
Taurine is now well studied and added to most lamb and rice dog foods, but hundreds of other amino acid and protein type nutrients, all part of the ancestral diet, have not yet been well studied and therefore may not be included in many commercial foods.
The three weaknesses of most modern dog foods are: not enough protein, unbalanced fats, and a lack of nutrients from fresh foods. Fortunately, it’s easy to correct these weaknesses with the ABC day and diet plans. Now that you know what the weaknesses are, turn to the next chapter to learn about some of the many well-documented health benefits of improving the ABCs of the foods you currently feed.