Updated: Mar 22, 2021
It's a new year, and after all that naughty snacking and no doubt many dogs have managed to find extra food on their celebratory plates (or just scavenging in general, like mine), we are thinking about taking things easy diet wise. It's a great opportunity to reassess what you are feeding, and to take a look at the various options out there. Here, we want to draw your attention to something called bio-availability and the various options of food with this in mind, without forcing any particular agenda.
What is bio-availability?
A bio-available diet looks at the best possible way to offer your dog a food which is closest to its natural needs as a species. For optimal health and digestion, food needs to be as biologically available to the body as is possible. This relates to how food is digested - the more whole and un-processed the food, the more biologically available the nutrients will be.
We have all heard the saying, you are what you eat, however this simply isn't true. The fact is we are what we digest. When a highly biologically available food is consumed, your dog’s stomach will breakdown the ingredients and use all those nutrients at an optimal level. Consider the rabbit in the field is around 85% moisture - that includes blood and other bodily fluids; this is the correct bioavailable design for a dog (or even a cat).
Pre-prepared foods which fall into this category use human grade ingredients and whole cuts of fresh muscle meat. This will include tissue such as breast (low fat, good protein), thigh (high in zinc and other vitamins), but also heart, which is super high in taurine, and other cuts. The food will also need to include the correct percentage of organ meat, which provides a balance of essential nutrients. Also, don’t be put off when you see ingredients such as ‘neck’ or ‘stomach,’ or even if you see bits in the food such as arteries; these are all there to provide your dog with a complete vitamin and mineral profile. Arteries, for instance, provide a powerful source of chondroitin and are an ingredient in human glucosamine and chondroitin joint supplements! A whole food is just that!
What's the opposite?
Cheaper commercial pet foods are made with a variety of ingredients which are ultimately designed to be profitable. For instance, even some superior quality kibbles use ingredients such as feathers, beaks and claws to provide a base protein; artificial supplements are then added to provide the vitamins and minerals required: grains, husks and vegetable fibres provide the fibre and carbohydrates. So there we have a protein, fibre, carbohydrate source and all the vitamins and minerals provided for. Most commercial pet food is cooked at very high temperatures to make the ingredients used more digestible; th as well as to sterilise the ingredients.
So a food that is complete in vitamins and minerals may not necessarily be very bio-available, in that the processing of the food changes the natural ingredient into a product which is actually very difficult for the body to break down. Therefore, not all the nutrients are absorbed by the body, and so they are simply pooped out. The rule of thumb for me is, if a dog is a super pooper, it may not be getting the right food.
To counteract the effect on the digestive system that low quality food sources have, the product is then enriched with stool hardeners which are added to ensure the pooh is not sloppy. In kibble, the final product is sprayed with aromatised oils to make them more appeasing to the human feeder - so the addition of an extra additive in the animal's body is really to please humans, not for the benefit of your dog. What is created is a ‘perfect’ artificial food with everything provided for; however, it is very low in bio-available ingredients, and this can eventually affect the immunity and health of a dog.
So lets now take a look at the various food options, keeping the idea of optimised bio-availability in mind.
Raw food diets
The most biologically available food is a natural, raw diet; indeed, this is referred to as a species appropriate diet. This would be at the top of the bio-available food pyramid as every morsel is digested and used by the body. Many raw feeders will tell you the proof is in the pudding - their dogs poop far less frequently, and often see smaller 'chalkier' (that's the bone tissue) looking poop. This is because the body is using up so much more of the foods and converting it into nutrients.
A raw food diet includes in the right proportions: blood, muscle and skin tissue, bone, sinew and organs. There is very little risk of bacterial infection such as salmonella, as dogs actually have an enormous capability to digest rotten meat as part of their inbuilt scavenging design. In the past few years, raw food has made an enormous claim on the pet food market, with many good quality raw food diets already prepared for you, both fresh and frozen. Our recommendation would be that, if you would like to feed raw, try a product already prepared as this ensures the right proportions of everything is met. We would also advise it best to feed organic if you can. A good product to take a look at is Honey's Real Dog Food, who also offer lots of nutritional advice and have a really good community values.
Freeze dried diets
This diet takes raw food and freeze dries it to preserve all the nutrients and flavour, and can be rehydrated before feeding. Freeze drying is a slow process which essentially stabilises nutrients and protein structures, and doesn't require refrigeration. This is a great option if you want to feed raw but have a big dog or a multi dog home and very little freezer or fridge space! The freeze drying process also leaves the raw food unchanged and kills off any bacteria which would otherwise spoil a fresh raw food diet.
Wholesome wet food diets
If you prefer not to feed raw, that's ok too and another food option is wet food that has been cooked very slowly in the tin. Products such as these are sometimes seen advertised as 'whole food' or 'holistic diets.
All the ingredients are packed into the tins raw and then sealed before being gently steam cooked to preserve the nutrients. The sealing of the tin prior to cooking traps any free flowing amino acids such as taurine. A word of warning though: many commercial pet brands have clocked on to the whole pet food market, so watch out for clever marketing from brands which have great luxury or natural looking packaging, but are lacking in quality. These brands are just there to take a slice of the market. There are also some great new foods on the market which can be bought through a subscription service, and these tend to offer really good discounts to encourage you to make your first order.
There are many reasons why you may want to consider a dry food diet for your pet, and this includes the economical value of feeding a large breed or a multi-dog house. There are a whole range of kibbles to confuse you out there, and sadly many have great packaging and a high price point which suggests high quality whole food, when really they are not that different to much cheaper brands on the supermarket shelf.
Many commercial kibble products are produced using the extruded process, and cooked at high temperatures. The cheaper commercial brands contain lots of additives, sugars, and fillers. See above for an explanation of bio-availability, as cheaper commercial brands are the antithesis of this. You will find your dog probably poops rather a lot when fed a diet like this, as the bio-availability is low and the body is just passing out the fillers. At the lower rungs of the market, a cheap processed dry food is particularly unnatural and biologically speaking, the body of any animal is just not meant to break heavily processed food down full time. However, not all dry foods are bad, and kibble can form an important part of a dogs diet being beneficial for teeth by strengthening and cleaning (through the crunch factor). So are all kibbles the same? Not at all!
Luckily, there are some kibble hero's out there. These companies use human grade whole ingredients, and cook their products slowly and at a much lower temperature. Some companies even cold-press their ingredients. Gourmet Dog Nutrition is a small family run business who create wholesome dry food using whole human grade ingredients and also give back to Balkan Underdogs with every purchase. You can find out more about their offer here.
A quick note on home cooking
Cooking a warm hearty meal for your dog is a wonderful thing to do. Some owners like to do this at weekends as a special treat! There are lots of recipes out there to create healthy meals. But what about cooking full time for your pooch? This is actually difficult to do. Unlike humans, dogs do not process their vitamins and minerals in the same way that humans do, and they require certain elements in specific ratios to get this right. Many years ago, when I worked in pet nutrition, I would sadly meet a lot of owners who would come to me to help their dogs who were diagnosed with heart and kidney diseases because they were feeding an incorrect (un-supplemented) home made diet too long, and their dogs suffered the consequences. Unfortunately, there is no going back, and many of these pets suffered from serious medical issues. However sometimes a home cooked diet is the only way to go, either as a preference or for medical reasons (for example, my dog requires a low fat, low protein diet and has multiple allergies). In any case, speak to your vet about supplementation. I'll write more about this in another blog post.
I have kept this as simple as I can for our first post on nutrition and diet, just as a way to really help understand the idea behind bio-availability and a few options of good food. As any dog owner will know, food is a delicate subject and we can be very protective over our regimes and preferences. This post is not supposed to force any one in any particular direction; it's just some food for thought. If you have a particular idea about food you would like to share, leave a comment below. We would also love to hear your stories, so if you would like to contribute to a blog, let us know!