Commercial dog food is crap: That’s the belief held by growing legions of pet owners at least, who have resorted to cooking homemade meals for their dogs. It seems to be somewhat true, too — canned dog food produced by the massive commercial dog food manufacturer Gravy Train was recently recalled after testing revealed that it contained low levels of pentobarbital, a lethal drug commonly used to euthanize dogs, cats and horses (and also used to execute inmates sentenced to death).
“It’s the dirty little secret of commercial pet food,” says Christine Filardi, certified applied animal behaviorist, certified canine and feline nutritionist and author of Home Cooking for Your Dog. “Dead animals basically go to rendering plants, and then — allegedly, of course, unless I see it with my own eyes — the plants sell the ground meat to commercial pet food companies […] which came to light when the food started testing positive for drugs used to euthanize animals.”
While there’s no actual proof that commercial pet food contains meat from euthanized animals, manufacturers also haven’t provided any other reasonable explanation for the existence of pentobarbital in their food. “It comes from euthanasia of animals using that euthanasia drug,” Nicholas Dodman, chief scientific officer for The Center for Canine Behavior Studies and former director of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts University, told the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. when the presence of pentobarbital in pet food came to light. “So, these animals could be dogs, they could be cats, they could be horses — but how is it getting into the pet food? If they say it doesn’t come from dogs, cats and horses where does it come from? It doesn’t come from outer space.”
But even if the “Soylent Green is made of dogs!” claim turns out to be purely urban legend, there are still plenty of reasons to distrust commercial dog food. As Filardi explains, many commercial pet foods are filled with preservatives, sweeteners, texturizers and an abundance of other highly-processed (and highly-unhealthy) ingredients. For instance, as I concluded in my analysis of the many ingredients in Gravy Train dog food, “It’s an artificially-colored, bean-flavored mash of throwaway animal parts, reinforced with powdered vitamins and minerals.”
If that doesn’t constitute as crap, I don’t know what does.
Of course, this also leaves many pet owners, myself included, wondering what exactly to feed our precious puppers. The best option, according to Filardi, is essentially a Paleo diet for dogs — and I must admit, I find her argument for this diet, which harkens back to the evolution of man’s best friend, convincing:
“All dogs come from the Eurasian grey wolf. All of them. We didn’t domesticate dogs: Wolves, at some point […] decided that it was cool to be near humans, because humans mean food. We always say that we domesticated dogs: No, no, no. Wolves—a certain group of them, probably the young pups—decided that it was cool to be near humans.
“Dogs basically became a distinct species anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, depending on what archaeological evidence you’re looking at. Now, let’s fast forward to commercial pet food […] Commercial pet food basically started in the early 1900s, so you tell me what [dogs] lived on for tens of thousands of years. The answer is prey animals and table scraps.”
Evolution aside, Filardi also argues that most commercial dog food is nutritionally unfit for canine biology, explaining that dog bodies aren’t able to efficiently use carbohydrates as a source of energy — and yet, carbohydrates are the dominant ingredient in most commercial kibble, because, as you might have guessed, they’re cheap. “Their first source of energy is actually protein, which is used for muscle repair and muscle growth,” Filardi says, all of which means that your dog might experience chronic fatigue and hunger if their diet is predominantly commercial kibble.
Filardi even goes as far as suggesting that, because kibble rarely contains the ingredients necessary for efficiently fueling dogs, it may be to blame for common behavioral problems like excessive chewing, paranoid barking and separation anxiety. “Animal protein provides the amino acid tryptophan, and tryptophan allows the brain to create serotonin,” she explains. “But if [the dog] is eating kibble all day long, it’s not getting animal protein.” This, she explains, means that a diet of carbohydrate-heavy commercial dog food prevents dogs from creating enough serotonin to offset the aggression-inducing effects of other hormones, like noradrenaline and dopamine.
She’s definitely on to something here. One 2017 study on man’s best friend found that, “a diet high in tryptophan can lower territorial aggression score while a high-protein diet without tryptophan supplementation can induce a high dominance aggression score.” This basically means that dogs who consume more tryptophan — which is predominantly found in animal protein — also have higher levels of serotonin that work to keep them generally more level-headed.
Explaining what a day on this diet might look like, Filardi emphasizes that pet owners are more than welcome to substitute cooked food for the raw food that she prefers to feed her own dogs, adding that she trusts the raw meat she serves to her dogs because she gets it from a canine butcher who specializes in dishing out meat for dogs and cats. “My dogs get raw meat—I can get raw beef, duck, chicken, lamb and rabbit from my canine butcher. Seventy-five percent of their meal will be raw meat,” Filardi says, adding that the remaining 25 percent consists of fish, fruits or vegetables (she mentions canned squash and pumpkin) and a hard boiled egg, which is particularly high in tryptophan. Filardi also mentions that she sometimes feeds her dogs small portions of grains, like couscous, quinoa or rice.
Now, it’s extremely important that you consult with a veterinarian before changing up your dog’s diet, and Filardi also recommends tapering your dog off of their commercial dog food, rather than instantly swapping out their kibble for raw hunks of meat. More specifically, she suggests substituting a quarter portion of kibble for a quarter portion of cooked meat over the course of four weeks. So, week one should consist of three-quarters kibble and one-quarter cooked meat, week two should consists of half kibble and half cooked meat, and so on.
While this might sound like a lot more work than pouring kibble into a bowl every day, Filardi emphasizes that it shouldn’t be. “I tell people that you feed them one fruit or one vegetable—you’re not cooking fruits and vegetable all day,” she says, stressing that dogs don’t need complex stews or gourmet filets. “Think of a prey animal. If your dog were to go out and kill an animal — let’s say a chicken — it would eat bones, muscle meat, organs and undigested stomach contents. That’s all you’re replicating.” It’s worth noting, too, that cooked bones can be particularly harmful to dogs, as they tend to splinter into dangerously sharp pieces.
With that, I feel the need to emphasize once again that there’s a lot to consider when changing your dog’s diet, and you should definitely seek out the advice of a veterinarian before doing so. But there’s also a lot of evidence that not only suggests that we’re feeding our dogs unhealthy commercial crap, but also that canines around the world would be a whole lot happier and healthier on a diet similar to the one I’ve outlined above.
And if anyone deserves happiness and healthiness, it’s the good bois that keep us company.