Should Any Dog Food Formula EVER Have Corn Starch as the Main Ingredient?

Dog Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pet food manufacturers are targeting pets with GI disorders (and there are millions of them) to sell new formulas of dog and cat food. Recently, a new low-fat dog food marketed for pets with GI disease was introduced.
  • Upon closer inspection, the formula – while certainly low in fat – primarily consists of non-nutritious and biologically inappropriate ingredients like so many other pet foods available today.
  • Even when legitimate studies are cited to indirectly promote a specific type of commercial pet diet – including diets sold by veterinary clinics -- dog and cat owners must be vigilant in researching the ingredient list. No matter how well a pet food is marketed, “it’s what’s inside that counts.”

By Dr. Becker

I ran across a couple of trade journal articles recently about the benefits of low-fat diets for dogs with GI disease. One was titled Low-fat petfood may benefit dogs with gastrointestinal disease, and the other was very similar: The Benefit of Low Fat Pet Food in Dogs with GI Disease.

Since I focus so heavily on nutrition with my dog and cat patients, I dove right in.

The condition the articles primarily focused on was hypertriglyceridemia-related GI disease (hypertriglyceridemia means there is a high blood triglyceride level).

The articles went on at some length about hypertriglyceridemia, and studies of miniature schnauzers (a breed prone to the condition) in which the condition was managed by switching the dogs to a low-fat diet.

The author of one article also briefly mentioned the GI diseases pancreatitis and severe gastroenteritis, including inflammatory bowel disease, with or without protein-losing enteropathy (loss of plasma proteins into the GI tract). He went on to assert that:

Even though patients do not have hypertriglyceridemia, they cannot appropriately deal with the normal amount of fat in the pet food and require the feeding of a low-fat food and the avoidance of fat-containing treats.

To be honest I found these articles confusing, since I was expecting a broader discussion of GI diseases (many of which are much more common than the abdominal symptoms seen in cases of hypertriglyceridemia) and the benefits of low-fat diets.

Indirect Advertising for a New Commercial Low-Fat Diet for Dogs with GI Disorders

Then I reached the end of one of the articles and noticed it had been “underwritten” by a manufacturer of prescription pet food diets.

Curious, I did a little more digging and uncovered the fact that the “underwriter” of the article had recently launched a new prescription low-fat dog food marketed as helpful in restoring the GI tract.

I went looking for more information on this newly released formula and found it easily. It is indeed low in fat at 7.4 percent per cup on a dry matter basis. However, the first five ingredients in the formula are:

  • Corn starch
  • Brewers rice
  • Corn gluten meal
  • Whole grain wheat
  • Chicken by-product meal

The only animal product in this diet is well down the ingredient list at number 5 and it’s one of the lowest quality animal proteins available, chicken-by-product meal. AAFCO’s definition:

Chicken by-product meal consists of the dry, ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines -- exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practices.

The first four ingredients (meaning there are more of those ingredients in the formula than even rendered chicken pieces-and-parts), are low-grade fillers that are also notoriously allergenic.

No matter what ails your beloved canine companion, you can certainly do much better than this at mealtime.

The Truth Is, Most Dogs Don’t Need Low-Fat Diets

There are actually only a few situations in which dogs may need a low-fat diet:

  • Dogs with pancreatitis or dogs prone to the condition
  • Dogs with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) due to damage to the pancreas
  • Some dogs with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Dogs with hyperlipidemia or hypertriglyceridemia that can lead to pancreatitis
  • Dogs with an intolerance for dietary fat or malabsorption issues

It’s not a bad idea to try a low-fat diet with any dog with GI issues to see if the situation improves.

However, I don’t recommend the vast majority of commercially available low-fat pet foods on the market, and that includes the prescription and therapeutic diets sold by veterinary clinics, as well as vegetarian and vegan formulas. Most don’t have sufficient protein or good quality protein, and are high in grain-based carbs and other non-nutritious fillers.

For Dogs That Do Need a Low-Fat Diet …

As a general rule, the following fat content guidelines apply:

  • Food with less than 10 percent fat on a dry matter basis (less than 17 percent of calories from fat) is considered low fat.
  • Food with 10 to 15 percent fat (between 17 and 23 percent of calories from fat) is considered to contain moderate fat.
  • Food with over 20 percent fat is considered high in fat.

It is very rare that a dog will need an extremely low-fat diet. Such diets are almost always nutritionally inadequate. The National Research Council (NRC) recommends a minimum of 5 percent fat on a dry matter basis (10 percent calories from fat) for adult dogs.

Lower fat meats to consider -- whether you’re preparing your dog’s meals at home or buying commercially available formulas -- include skinless chicken breasts, turkey, venison, goat, buffalo and rabbit. Lamb and pork are generally high in fat. Ground beef and other cuts of red meat vary in fat content.

I recommend you work with a holistic vet to design a nutrition plan – homemade, commercially prepared, or a combination – to meet the individual needs of a dog who requires a low-fat diet either short or long-term.