Pet Nutrition is Fundamentally Broken
I know what you’re thinking. Why the heck is Woodstock Vitamins ranting about Pet Nutrition? One reason is that I enjoy snausages. The real reason is that our stores have always sold pet food, treats, and supplements for the same reason we sell vitamins and other natural products: the pet nutrition industry feeds us (nyuk nyuk) misinformation to fatten their wallets.
We’re here to help you and your family - four or two legged - live healthier, happier lives. We’ve connected with some great pet nutrition experts and have spent time educating ourselves on the matter. We will just skim the surface in this rant, but you will be better equipped to rage against the pet food machine.
There is no easy way to say it, so I’m just going to be blunt. Cat and dog foods are a mess. I’m not being dramatic. Do you know most dog and cat foods contain compounds whose purpose is to make their stools LOOK healthy? That’s right... their food is so bad that the pet's stools are troublesome - runny, too frequent, etc - and instead of, you know, fixing the problem, they go through tremendous efforts to conceal how bad it is, even altering the stools to give the perception of a healthy food. So, yes, it's bad.
What Poor Nutrition Means For Your Pet
Just like with humans, a bad diet for your cat or dog can lead to lots of problems. Preventable problems. The common ones are tooth and gum issues, skin and coat issues, joint issues, and diabetes. Do you know we sell insulin to dogs and cats? Well, not directly to them, but to their owners. In a majority of cases for these conditions, all of those sick visits, all of the prescription treatments, and all of the suffering can stop with a commitment to dietary changes.
It’s not enough to just hear that pet nutrition needs to change. We have to understand why. If we understand the way things work at a biological level, it will help us really wrap our hands around the situation, allowing us to make better decisions moving forward.
We start, then, with a biology lesson.
Cats and Dogs Are Carnivores
You may know this, but it is good to re-explain so we’re all on the same page. Cats and dogs are carnivores. This means that an overwhelming majority of their food should come from animal sources. We know they are carnivores for many reasons, but there are three pieces that stick out clearly:
- Their teeth. Cats and dogs have pointy teefies used for cutting and tearing flesh. Herbivores, or plant eaters, have wide, fat teeth used for grinding up plants. Humans have a combo; we are omnivores, deriving nutrition successfully from both.
- Their digestive enzymes. Cats and dogs have some ability to digest carbs, but lack crucial enzymes to get the job done correctly. They don’t have enzymes in the mouth for digesting carbs like amylases, a distinct sign of a meat eater. Doggos have been fed table scraps for about 10,000 years, so they’ve evolved some greater ability to break down the junk food we are feeding them, more so than their wild-wolf counterparts. This does not make them omnivores, it just shows the success of evolutionary biology.
- Their digestive tracts. They have short early digestive tracts, which is a sign of a carnivore. They have big acid pit stomachs to help digest partially chewed chunks of flesh quickly but lack long, windy small intestines to aid in carb digestion.
From a dietary standpoint then, think about a famous carnivore you know. Not lions... but good answer. Tyrannosaurus Re baby! Big T-Rex is the quintessential carnivore - eating almost exclusively animal flesh, soft bones, and organs. Carbohydrates - sugars, grains, fruits, and veggies - are a MINIMAL part of their diet, and is mostly ingested when eating the guts of other animals. Animal proteins and fats are the big-ticket items. When you look at your cat, think of T-Rex.
As a quick interjection, it’s important to understand that dogs and cats should not be fed a vegan or vegetarian diet, despite your own dietary or ethical choices. You are an omnivore - meaning you can survive of plants, animals, or both. I mean, you can certainly feed your animal whatever you want. But know there is no real controversy surrounding this - cats and dogs are carnivores and must get a majority of their food from animal sources. They may do fine in the short term, but in the long run they will be nutritionally stressed.
We have a better understanding of the biological needs of cats and dogs. The very rhetorical question I pose based on this understanding: Do we feed our cats and dogs carnivore-based nutrition using traditional foods? The answer is a big fat NO.
The Current State of Pet Food
You might be scratching your head if you are a pet owner. If you look at practically EVERY bag of pet food, there are pictures of fruits, vegetables, and grains, proudly displayed on the bag. The idea that fruits and vegetables are "bad" seems quite contradictory to what many people believe, and different than what the products all brag about containing. Why would they do such a thing? To mislead you of course.
We human-types identify these things as healthy and therefore feel confident selecting foods that seem healthy to us. It is great marketing, for sure... We'll happily buy the product with the most appealing packaging, especially if it appeals to our desire for simple, healthy diet fixes with those colorful carbs.
“But my dog LOVES carrots!” Technically I love M&M’s, but it doesn’t mean they’re good for me.
If you look at a pet’s diet through the lens of carnivore-based nutrition, you begin to see just how far into the unhealthy that the industry goes in the name of profit. Fruits and vegetables are used as "nutrition" simply because they are cheaper than their animal components, and they exploit an owner's desire to give what they perceive as healthy.
Most commercial pet foods are bloated with carbohydrates and plant nutrients and are almost the complete opposite of carnivore-based nutrition. The most direct comparison is a homemade meal to McDonald’s. There are calories and macronutrients in McDonald’s, sure, but not enough of ones that are good for you.
This, unfortunately, is true of almost all pet foods. From the cheap stuff at Walmart, to the gourmet/high-end brands, to the prescription stuff sold by vets only. I blame none of the people who sell or advise on pet nutrition, nor you for unknowingly choosing these products. I blame the industry for misleading us all.
Let’s go through some easy things we can do to make our pet’s diets better, which will help us understand just how nutritionally bad these products are.
Get Rid of Kibble
Most pet food is kibble. A kibble is pet food turned into soft or hard-ish, small shapes. It’s usually found in bags and referred to as “dry food.” It’s probably what most people think of when they think of pet food.
Kibble pet food, though, has to be 40 to 60% carbohydrate just to make the food stick together in those bits and shapes. A dog needs less than 30% of their diet to be carbohydrates. A kibble diet, by definition, means half their food will be poorly digestible and lack proper nutrients.
On top of this, dogs and cat’s teeth really aren’t made for chewing. Remember, pointy teeth are for tearing. Here’s a cool video on how a dog eats. Basically, dogs and cats create a spoon with their tongue, scoop up the food, and swallow it whole. This is why they have that big pit of acid in their stomach to help digest stuff quickly - they aren’t really breaking things down with chewing or mouth enzymes like we do.
When a cat or dog spends time chewing large clumps of kibble, they’re introducing a high carbohydrate food to the surface of their teeth and gums. Imagine eating Oreos before bed and not brushing; you’d have cavities in no time.
Dogs and cats suffer from teeth and gum issues commonly, and this is largely a preventable disease. It’s due to ingesting high carbohydrates, having high carbs be in contact with the teeth for too long, and not brushing regularly.
The process used to make kibble involves extreme temperatures. Any nutrients in the healthy ingredients used to make the food are significantly reduced, if not completely deactivated by the high heat.Wet food is a decent option over traditional kibble. The downsides are that it is still a bit higher in carbs, plus water accounts for a portion of the food. I try not to pay for water since it comes infinitely from my faucet.
If kibble is 100% necessary, each piece of food should be as small as humanly possible so chewing isn’t a concern. Specially processed kibble, using methods like freeze drying instead of high heat drying, is also a great option to ensure minimal carbs are used and nutritional components stay intact.
Ideally, though, we would move away from kibble and look at granular formulations. Granular formulations look like brown sugar. You can add a little water or unsalted chicken broth to give it a thicker consistency. Down the hatch with no chewing and lingering on the teeth. This allows VERY little carbohydrate as nothing has to stick together. Low carbs are the goal. I’ll admit, it’s a new concept that doesn’t “feel” normal, but it actually is easier and healthier for cats and dogs.
Ingredients used to formulate the kibble contribute greatly to the amount of carbohydrates dogs and cats get. It doesn't stop there though. They cram in other carbs, further increasing the percentage of carbs these carnivores are eating.
At the cellular level, carbs can wreak havoc on a dog or cat.
- Gluten rich carbs (potatoes and starches) are "sticky" and can stick to the parts of the intestines, drying out villi, breaking them off, and further reducing nutrient absorption.
- Alfalfa, a healthy green for you and I, has saponins which causes foaming in and irritation of their guts
High concentrations of carbs in the gut causes an osmotic diarrhea, meaning water rushes into the gut, causing frequent or runny stools. "But my pet's stools are fine!" This part blew my mind when I was first taught it: pet food manufacturers put "expanding agents" in their foods to absorb the water, expand, and make the stools look healthy and regular. If you see things like cellulose, tomato pumice, or beet fiber, that's what they are there for. If you feed a cup of food, many times the waste product is greater than 1 cup, instead of being less, like a nutritious food would be. What these things SHOULD be labeled are "artificial stool formers." Then people would at least see the truth.
Fruits and veggies are great for you, but not so much for cats or dogs. The super healthy stuff (blueberries, dark greens, etc) are added in such small amounts and exposed to such high temperatures, it's doubtful that any is left by the time your pet gets the food, despite it being a big part of the marketing. The problematic carbs that are in the final product in ample amounts are used as fillers, cheap protein sources, and to absorb water to make stools bigger.
If carbs are needed, it should just be small amounts of rice and grains. They are digestible by cats and dogs and provide a great source of all the vitamins and minerals an animal could need. Carbs should account for a small part of the diet, and instead, things like organ meats (liver, heart, etc) should be used for micronutrients.
Use Only Animal Protein Sources - And Dry!
Carbohydrates aren’t in pet foods just for filler or vitamins. Plant-based proteins account for a large portion of proteins found in many pet foods. Corn, wheat, or peas are often included as protein sources in pet foods. This is done because the raw materials are cheap, especially compared to real animal protein sources. Because plant proteins have low amounts of proteins, the foods SHOULD contain enough carbs to ensure they are getting ample amounts, but they often don't.
But beware: the pet food industry will use dirty tricks when it comes to animal proteins.
Let’s pretend we’re making our own commercial food. We want to use chicken as the primary protein source. An 8-ounce uncooked piece of chicken will have a little more than 2 ounces of protein. So what accounts for the other 6 ounces? A bit of it is fat and other micronutrients - vitamins and such. Most of it is water.
To be pet food manufacturers with integrity, we would want to dehydrate that chicken (gently), grind up what is left, then concentrate it. This powder is called a meal (think cornmeal). Our chicken meal would then be used in an amount greater than all other ingredients, and we can list it first on the label to show our food is mostly chicken meal - the concentrated, nutritious part of a piece of chicken.
What really happens is manufacturers will count the weight of the undehydrated chicken. Eight ounces of chicken will have MUCH less nutrition than 8 ounces of chicken meal.
Whenever you see a meat listed on a pet food that doesn’t have the word “meal” after it, think “water.” Think that it is practically worthless nutritionally, and know that it is only there to fool you.
Not getting enough or the right kinds of proteins can lead to muscular atrophy in animals. Sometimes limping is not just a sign of joint issues, but muscle weakness around the joint.
Does Good Pet Food Cost More?
Just like with supplements, there is no correlation between price and quality. High cost, prescription formulas have the same likelihood of containing unhealthy ingredients as bulk or cheap pet foods.
A good pet food will be more expensive than those discount brands, for sure. They are roughly equivalent, if not slightly less than prescription dog foods.
I would like to change the paradigm used when comparing prices. We have to stop looking at price per meal, though, and start looking at price per nutrient. My favorite analogy is CBD pricing. CBD is a widely used newer supplement that is all the rage right now, and people are flocking to stores to find all different price points and general confusion. You can buy a $40 CBD oil bottle, which is MUCH cheaper than an $80 bottle of the same size The thing is, the $80 bottle has 6 times the amount of CBD than found in the $40 bottle. When buying products - pet foods, supplements, whatever - we should not evaluate cost per volume, but cost per target ingredient.
The unfortunate reality is there is no way to know exactly how many grams of protein are found in most pet food servings. The requirements are different for pet foods, and the analysis numbers shown on the package are intentionally misleading. They highlight pre-processing weights OR volumes, which makes skews reality significantly.
A factor that must be considered is the elevated cost of medical care with poor diet. The prime example is with diabetes in animals. These high carb diets over a lifetime will cause insulin resistance, just like in humans. And just like in humans, this leads to diabetes, which is a serious cardiovascular risk. Insulin treatments are expensive injections that have to be given frequently throughout the day. Lots of vet visits to manage this.
It is more difficult to identify quality brands by cost. It is best to find a trusted expert who has vetted different brands (hey, just like us!), then compare costs from there. All costs should be considered, including medical care for preventable diseases. Quality pet food, like quality human food, will be slightly more expensive initially, but will be factors more nutritious, and in the long run, it will decrease your costs.
Some Practical Examples of Bad Pet Food
Let’s get some practice reading pet food labels so you can better identify quality foods. It’s very easy to look at ingredient lists on pet food and glaze over. In fact, that’s almost what manufacturers hope for. Don’t fret, it isn’t that hard. The first few lines will be eye-opening enough and you’ll almost be able to know quality from the first 5-10 ingredients. The list gets long because a majority of ingredients are vitamins added to ensure the formula meets legal vitamin requirements, so these can be ignored (until you become a pet food black belt).
Here is one of the top selling dog foods:
The first ingredient is buffalo, but not the dehydrated, ground up buffalo meal. The first ingredient then, is just water. We do have lamb and chicken meal, both are great. Then it lists LOTS of vegetables and carbs - potatoes, peas. It lists other whole, water-laden meats. Then more fruits. Then a laundry list of added vitamins.
This one isn’t TOO bad, compared to some of the train-wrecks of pet food out there. Still, this is not a quality food.
This is one of the top-selling brands in the country. Again, the first ingredient is essentially water, as it is the non-dehydrated version. Tomato pumice - an artificial stool former! Quickly we see grains and carbs. Chicken fat - again, water. Lots of vegetables and fruits and synthetic vitamins. This is not a quality food.
Here’s a prescription food recommended to friends of ours for their sick dog:
Big trouble here. The first ingredient isn’t even an animal product or protein, which should account for most of their diet. The second is corn - ugh! Just look at this list and you can easily see why we think pet food is a mess. And now I’m not invited back to my friends house.
How to Properly Feed Your Pet
When you find yourself in a hole, first stop digging.
Fixing pet nutrition is very easy. It’s not like the dogs and cats are going to the grocery stores to pick up their own food. We don’t have to worry about them overeating at restaurants or raiding the fridge when they’re bored. We have complete control over what they eat (mostly). Their diets are less varied than ours are; they predominantly eat the same prepared food, with a few excursions here or there.
A warning: before you make ANY changes, it’s important you speak with an expert. Some diets are truly pet specific and we can’t make blanket assumptions about your animal. We have resources available, including a clinical nutritionist veterinarian whom you can speak with, if need be.
Your pet’s diet should consist of a few different parts:
- The main, everyday food
- A ‘treat’ food to keep them interested and their diet varied
- Healthy, carnivore based snacks
Here is how to properly feed your pet:
1. Use a Vitality Approved, Carnivore-Based Food
The two foods we recommend currently are Ziwi Peak and Abady Pet Food. They are available in store (not online, sorry!) and we can ship these. Shipping pet food gets expensive, but we have a discounted rate through one of the carriers for large packages.
The main, everyday food should be a carnivore-based, nutrient-rich granular formulation that is age and weight specific.
2. Take Your Time
Don’t make all your changes at once. Switching from an unhealthy diet will take time. You can’t give a malnourished human a big steak as the first meal; proper nutrition must be introduced slowly, or all those carbs washing out will make a big mess - inside and out.
A good schedule of changing to a nutrient dense, carnivore-based food is as follows:
- Days 1-4: 80% Old Food, 20% New Food
- Days 5-8: 60% Old Food, 40% New Food
- Days 9-12: 40% Old Food, 60% New Food
- Days 13-16: 20% Old Food, 80% New Food
- Day 17 and beyond: A healthy, new diet.
If at any point in this process stools change too dramatically, go slower. It's taken a while to get to this point, so it may take a while to correct it.
3. Feed Them Less
You will be happy to hear that your pet will require less amounts of food since their new food will be so much more nutritionally dense. Frequently cats and dogs over eat because their brains don't sense enough nutrition and don't tell them to stop, though their stomachs are stretching more and more.
4. Use Carnivore-Based Snacks, Too!
Just like our concepts of good pet foods need to be changed, our idea of a good treat needs to go too. I remember giving my cats those soft, chewy treats all the time. Again, that's just carb-rich junk food.
Your Mileage May Vary
A final interjection, but one that has to be said. I love cats, but cats are jerks. Anyone who has owned a cat knows exactly what I mean. We live with them... they don’t live with us. Cats will do what they want, when they want. They are much more difficult to make changes with, so your mileage may vary.
Your dog will probably do this with a big smile, because that's why dogs are awesome.
One final point on stools. They will change when you change foods. Remember there are ingredients in there to make stools larger and firmer. Your pets stools may have different, varied consistency on a nutrient-dense diet.
What To Do If You Don't Wish To Change The Diet
Some people may not want to go through the steps of radically changing the pet's diet just yet. It's ok to want to test the waters first! We have some tips for you to help meet good nutrition needs without big changes.Here's a lightning round list:
- Add sardines to the food for Omega-3
- Add fatty meat scraps for other fatty acids the pet needs
- Add liver to food for a nutrient dense addition
- Use animal part treats like ears, trachea, etc to improve dental health
- Switch from kibble to canned wet food
Homemade Cooked and Raw Pet Food
Instead of prepared, preprocessed foods, some people do the work of making their own pet food. You are truly great people, and I will write a letter on your behalf if your pet doesn’t recognize this.
If you are going to venture down this route, we recommend you follow the same rules. Design the diet for carnivores, using meat, organs, and soft bones. Minimize carbohydrates.
Some pet food companies (like the Vitality Approved brands) make their own raw food diets. We usually recommend that more than when people try on their own because getting a raw diet right is difficult.
If you want help designing a raw food diet, give us a call!
Proper Pet Supplement Use
Remember, if a diet is great, supplements will be largely unnecessary. We have a few different supplements we’d recommend for those interested in not making a radical dietary change right away.
- Fish oil. Is anyone at all shocked that I said this? Not only is it a Vital 5 Supplement for humans, but it is crucial for cats and dogs. Pet foods add fats to the mix before processing, meaning most of it gets cooked off. Using a good pet oil can help tremendously!
- Extra protein - Besides throwing an extra piece of chicken or pork into their diets, Myocep Whey protein can be used and mixed in with food to help increase healthy, animal protein levels.
- Multivitamin powder - A multivitamin powder is essential with homemade diets to ensure minimum nutrition is met, but probably is unnecessary even with the worst commercial foods.
Pet Nutrition - Information To Chew On
Changing a pet's diet to a carnivore-based, nutrient dense diet will have tremendous benefits on your cat or dog's health. Improvements in the coat smell and feel, better muscle tone, improvements in teeth and gum health, reduced joint concerns, less GI problems, and most importantly, less preventable vet bills, all can be accomplished with a better diet.
With that in mind, I feel we are unintentionally not serving our cat and dog family members properly. This blame falls squarely on the pet food industry, whose lobbying and propaganda infiltrates all aspects of veterinary nutrition. Don’t call your vet and accuse them of killing your pet - they are not. They are making the best decisions they can with the resources they have. The industry sponsors vet societies, hold a monopoly on nutrition education, and use a marketing machine to convince us their cheap, unhealthy foods are best for our animals.
Now you are better informed to see the truth in the system. Understanding cats and dogs are carnivores will help you look at pet food ingredients with a skeptical eye. Just like with humans, it is never too late to take action towards a healthier life. You want to give them the best, and now, you can.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth