By Dr. Becker
If your canine companion gets plenty of strenuous exercise or participates in athletic events like agility, flyball or dock jumping, you may have noticed some new products in the pet food aisle: formulas designed for active dogs. It seems a growing number of pet food manufacturers have discovered a new sales niche and are hoping to appeal to dog owners who exercise with their pets or get them involved in canine-oriented activities and competitions.
Very active dogs do have somewhat different nutritional requirements than more sedentary pets, but their need for high-quality, biologically-appropriate food is just as important. In fact, I'm sure most parents of athletic, competitive dogs would argue their pets have a greater need than most for the right kind of excellent nutrition.
Since I'm always curious to learn about new and improved pet foods and whether the quality matches the marketing hype, I took a closer look at three formulas for athletic dogs that were introduced in January, all made by the same pet food company.
Ingredient List Does Not Impress
There are three new products in the lineup, all kibble, ranging in dry matter protein content from 26 percent to 30 percent, and in dry matter fat content from 16 to 20 percent. Since most canine nutrition experts agree very active dogs need more fat and protein than average dogs, on the surface, these numbers might seem reasonable. But let's take a look at the ingredient lists.
All three formulas list chicken as the first ingredient, but as we know, once chicken is processed for kibble, it slides down the list several positions and is no longer the primary ingredient. The next several ingredients in each formula include poultry byproduct meal, corn gluten meal, and animal fat.
Poultry byproduct meal, according to AAFCO, is comprised of the "ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcasses of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices." Note that "poultry" does not equal chicken, so we don't know exactly what type of fowl is in the mix. Byproducts are less expensive than chicken meat, and less digestible for pets. In addition, what winds up in each batch can vary tremendously in terms of ingredients, quality, and nutritional value.
The AAFCO definition of corn gluten meal is "The dried residue from corn after the removal of the larger part of the starch and germ, and the separation of the bran by the process employed in the wet milling manufacture of corn starch or syrup, or by enzymatic treatment of the endosperm."
The reason this ingredient is used so often in commercial pet food is because it's inexpensive and contains some protein, which helps to increase the overall percentage of protein contained in the formula. You, as a savvy dog owner, already know that animal-based protein – not grain-based protein – is the most beneficial protein source for your pet.
AAFCO defines animal fat as derived "from the tissues of mammals and/or poultry in the commercial processes of rendering or extracting. It consists predominantly of glyceride esters of fatty acids and contains no additions of free fatty acids."
No animal is specified in "animal fat," and this fat doesn't come solely from slaughtered animals. In fact, any kind of animal from almost any source can be used, including "4-D animals" (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter), rats, roadkill, restaurant and supermarket waste, and even animals euthanized at shelters.
Liberal Use of Inexpensive, Poor Quality, and Grain-Based Protein Sources
All three formulas also contained, among the top ten ingredients, corn germ meal, fish meal, and animal digest.
Corn germ meal is another inexpensive ingredient that's high in protein, and like corn gluten meal is used to boost the overall protein content of the formula without the need to use more expensive – and biologically appropriate – animal protein. As I discuss frequently here at Mercola Healthy Pets, corn and all corn-derived products are also well known in the holistic veterinary community as allergenic, problematic ingredients in pet food.
AAFCO defines fish meal as "The clean, rendered, dried ground tissue of undecomposed whole fish or fish cuttings, either or both, with or without the extraction of part of the oil."
Once again, "fish" isn't specific. In addition, unless the manufacturer can assure you they use human grade fish or fish meal, it's a sure bet this ingredient has been preserved with ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin is a banned substance in human foods except for very small quantities used in spices. It has been implicated in liver failure and other health problems in dogs.
Animal digest is essentially a cooked-down brew of unspecified pieces and parts of unspecified animals sourced from wherever. As is the case with animal fat, the source can be any combination of slaughtered or 4-D animals, horses, goats, pigs, rodents, roadkill, restaurant or supermarket garbage, or euthanized shelter pets.
How to Feed Your Canine Athlete
Your very active, athletic dog needs a nutrient-dense diet that provides optimum energy in a small quantity of food. The protein source should be good quality and animal-based, and the food should be relatively high in dietary fat, including supplementation with raw organic coconut oil.
The main components of a raw diet for an athletic dog with no health problems include raw meaty bones, muscle and organ meats, a few dark green vegetables, a constant supply of fresh clean water, and appropriate supplementation as needed. As always, I recommend you talk with your holistic vet about the right diet for your active pet's individual needs.
In my experience, no dog – whether a couch potato or an elite athlete – will thrive on the kind of low quality, biologically inappropriate nutrition found in the new formulas described above. So again I must caution you to look past the attractive marketing claims and beautiful packaging, and go right to the ingredient list to determine whether a newly niched pet food formula is really all it's cracked up to be.