I wish I could watch more TV. My schedule and kids and general requirements outside of work make that a tall order, but I really wish I could. The present age of television is second-to-none, and most of the modern shows that have broken out are so well-written and done that it's hard not to want to watch more. (My wife and I really enjoy Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Longmire, and a few others.) But, to watch TV means you also have to see commercials.
Dog food commercials are also second-to-none in the modern age in the way that they make you think they are teaching you something while really giving you little useful information. Nutrition is a passion of mine and something I have spent a lot of time learning about and researching, so I can view these commercials with a critical eye that most can't, which is what they rely on. In fairness, I guess all advertising relies on us not paying much attention. So, when I see a commercial or come across an article online, my response is often much different than what they intended. (And, like anything, it probably goes without saying that far more dangerous, misleading or outright incorrect information is available online regarding animal nutrition than anywhere else.)
So, I want to address a few common misconceptions about pet food this month and next so all of us can make slightly more informed decisions. Advertisers and well-meaning internet types love to prey on emotion or what we "feel is best". But, sadly, that does not generally equate to either true, helpful or without harm. Therefore, the information I am providing is what we know medically and scientifically about foods and nutrition. Information to the contrary, without significant future evidence, is therefore highly unlikely to be true, no matter how good it sounds. And, as always, I strongly encourage you to talk to your veterinarian about the appropriate diets and nutritional needs of your pet, as these can vary from patient to patient.
The first question many people probably ask is: What makes a great food? Answering that is very patient dependent, but presuming no medical issues that might radically change our dietary needs, there are a number of things I look for. First, and foremost, I look for food from companies that produce a great deal of clinical nutritional and general scientific nutritional research. I want to know they "put their money where their mouth is." Your veterinarian can discuss this with you and tell you who these companies are so that you can make a more informed decision. Most companies do very little research, if any. I can certainly say that the majority of the companies that do the most advertising do the least - and often absolutely zero - scientific research. This makes believing their claims difficult. Also, I like companies that put their food through feeding trials. You would think all foods do this, but very few companies spend the money to do this. This simply means the food was fed for an approximately six month period to a live test colony of animals, who are monitored, to make sure the food is acceptable and that they do well on it. The way to find this out is simple: Look at the AAFCO statement on the food bag. It will usually open with one of two lines: "This food has been formulated..." or "Animal feeding trials have demonstrated..." The latter is what you want. The first simply means they showed via computer models that the food meets minimum nutritional standards, but did not ever have to verify that by feeding it to live animals. Beyond that, most of the other decisions are based on patient need.
Grain free foods are the new fad, and the rest of what we will talk about this month. I am hard pressed to think of two words that have become a bigger part of modern animal nutrition, for better or worse, in recent history. Just about every company in the world has a food that is "grain free", including the companies that do the most, and best, scientific nutritional research. Unfortunately, they are simply responding to customer desire for what is little more than a fad, as these words have essentially no scientific merit. There are numerous reasons why people felt this was needed and companies utilized this to sell product, but I will only focus on the two most common 'scientific' arguments people make to justify it, and why they do not hold up.
The first argument is one I often call the 'evolutionary' argument. People state that wolves and other wild dogs do not eat grains, so our dogs - who are descended from them - should not either. The first part is true: wild dogs eat mostly other animals and fruits and do not take in much in the way of grains as part of their diet. Yet, there are problems with the rest of this argument. One is simple: Your dog is not a wolf. Dogs evolved next to humans for eons because we are similar in many ways, and help bolster each other's weaknesses (they hear and smell better, while we are smarter and able to process more information). This means that these dogs that became our modern companion dogs ate what we as people ate. This included grains. So, to base your pet dog's nutrition on animals they are only distantly related to and that often die at a much younger age in the wild with less access to regular, balanced nutrition is a poor decision. More importantly, the scientific journal
Nature put the argument to bed completely. They studied the DNA of modern dogs and wild dogs (like wolves). And, it was no surprise they found differences. But do you know what a prevailing difference was? Modern dogs have evolved the mechanisms to digest grains completely and to utilize their nutrients well. Wolves still don't have those tools, because they didn't share that evolutionary path.
The other argument is the 'salivary amylase' argument. So, what the heck is salivary amylase? Amylase helps break down starches. It exists two places in many species: the saliva and the pancreas. But, dogs do not have it in their saliva (yet, their pancreas makes it just fine.) Some argue that because dogs do not have amylase in their saliva, it is proof that they weren't meant to eat grains (they never seem to explain why they still have it in their pancreas.) Again, the statement that they lack this in the saliva is true. The problem is that doesn't tell the whole story. Think about how you eat. You take a bite, chew it, take your time, and swallow. Your amylase gets tons of 'contact time' with what you are eating to help that initial breakdown of starch begin. Now, think about how your dog probably eats. Statistically, the average dog eats a cup of food in 60 seconds. Quite frankly, they do not keep food a morsel of food in their mouth long enough for that amylase to have any time to work. That's why they never evolved amylase in their saliva. It's just unnecessary.
Next month, we'll cover a few other 'hot topics' in animal nutrition and help split up fact from fiction. In the meantime, I hope you all have a pleasant beginning to Spring and we can all get a little more time to catch up on our shows.