By Dr. Becker
Despite the fact that an increasing number of pet owners are becoming better informed about nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diets for dogs and cats, sadly, it seems there’s still an awful lot of kibble being sold. According to a Packaged Facts survey conducted earlier in the year, pet owners generally believe dry food is: 1) healthier and 2) better for pets’ teeth.1 Honestly, nothing could be further the truth — more about that shortly. Even more disheartening is this observation:
“Alongside these pet health-centered convictions,” writes David Sprinkle of Packaged Facts, “and perhaps helping to keep them afloat, is a more self-interested pet owner preference for pet foods that aren’t overly odorous.”2
What Sprinkle is saying is that it’s possible many pet owners are concerned first and foremost with less smelly pet food, and not so much about the supposed health and dental benefits of kibble. This isn’t entirely surprising, since it was convenience that made kibble so appealing in the first place, similar to the popularity of processed and fast food for humans.
And it certainly doesn’t help that pet food manufacturers spend huge amounts of money marketing their dead, overcooked formulas as “healthy,” or that the majority of veterinarians promote the stuff, often selling it in the lobbies of their practices.
The Myth That Will Not Die: Kibble Is Good for Your Pet’s Teeth
This is like a zombie myth — it just can’t be killed! Dry pet food is promoted as helping to keep pets’ teeth clean, but it’s complete nonsense. Kibble is no better for your dog’s or cat’s teeth than crunchy human food is for your teeth. It would never occur to you to eat a handful of peanut brittle or granola to remove plaque and tartar from your teeth, would it? The idea that dry food keeps your pet’s teeth clean is just as silly.
However, diet certainly plays a significant role in the development of tartar on your pet’s teeth. Wild dogs and cats have strong, healthy teeth partly because they eat raw meaty bones. Raw diets — even prepared, ground raw diets — help control tartar. Raw ground bone is a gentle dental abrasive, acting like fine sandpaper when chewed, which helps remove debris stuck on teeth. The meat contains natural enzymes, and in addition, raw food doesn’t stick to teeth, unlike starchy kibble.
For dogs and cats, chewing also plays an important role in removing plaque and tartar from teeth. Even though there are plenty of toys and food products on the market that can be of some, raw bones are really the best option, and few dogs will turn them down.
It’s important the bones are raw, because cooked bones can splinter and do serious damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The size depends on the size of your pet and whether she’s such an eager chewer that she risks injuring herself or even breaking teeth. Your dog should always be supervised when she’s working on a bone to minimize the risk of choking or tooth damage, and raw bones should be refrigerated between chewing sessions.
Daily Brushing Is the Best Way to Keep Your Pet’s Teeth Clean
With a gentle hand, patience and persistence, most pet parents can teach their dog or cat to submit to daily tooth brushing, which is the ideal way to insure tartar doesn’t form on tooth surfaces. One of the secrets to successful tooth brushing is to progress slowly and gently, allowing your pet to adapt at his own pace.
Start with your finger rather than a toothbrush and get him familiar with having your finger in his mouth. Gently rub the top front teeth and all the way to the back teeth. Then do the same on the lower teeth. Praise him often and keep sessions short.
Once your pet is accepting of your finger in his mouth, wrap a very thin damp cloth or piece of gauze around your fingertip and rub the teeth. You’ll probably be stunned by the amount of gunk you wipe off with just a piece of gauze. The next step is to use a safe, natural dental cleaning product designed for pets and apply a small amount to the gauze before you rub his teeth. Once he gets used to this, you can progress to either a finger brush or a soft toothbrush the right size for his mouth.
If your pet is highly resistant to having his teeth rubbed or brushed, there are products available that when applied to the teeth go to work to break down plaque and tartar without brushing. However, the more rubbing and brushing he’ll allow, the more quickly you’ll see results, and the easier it will be to maintain your his oral health.
Why I Almost Never Recommend Dry Pet Food
While most kibble is formulated to meet the basic nutritional requirements of dogs and cats, it certainly doesn’t provide optimal nourishment for the long haul. I have several issues with dry pet food, but let’s start with the quality of the raw ingredients. Rendering plants create meat and bone meal from a variety of dubious sources, for example, parts of cows that can't be sold for human consumption, including bones, the digestive system, the brain, udders, hide and more.
They also may use the carcasses of diseased animals, expired grocery store meat (including the plastic and Styrofoam packaging), road kill, zoo animals and dogs and cats that have been euthanized. Here’s how Slate describes the process of turning these raw ingredients into pet food:
“This material is slowly pulverized into one big blend of dead stuff and meat packaging. It is then transferred into a vat where it is heated for hours to between 220 [to] 270 degrees F. At such high temperatures, the fat and grease float to the top along with any fat-soluble compounds or solids that get mixed up with them.
Most viruses and bacteria are killed. The fat can then be skimmed off, packaged and renamed. Most of this material is called 'meat and bone meal.' It can be used in livestock feed, pet food or fertilizer … There is essentially no federal enforcement of standards for the contents of pet food.
… Indeed, the same system that doesn't know whether its main ingredient is chicken beaks or Dachshund really cannot guarantee adequate nutrition to the dogs that eat it."
There is one dry food company, Carna4, that prides itself on using ethically sourced, humanely raised meats and no synthetic nutrients from China (unlike all the other brands). So if you must feed kibble, I suggest this brand. However, there are still other issues with kibble, in general.
Additional Problems With Feeding Pets Kibble
Aside from poor-quality meats, byproducts and synthetic vitamins and minerals, most commercial dry pet foods are based on high-glycemic, genetically modified (GM) corn, wheat, rice or potato — grains and starches that have no place in your pet's diet and create metabolically stressful insulin, glucagon and cortisol spikes throughout the day.
In fact, many grain-free dry foods have a higher glycemic index than regular pet foods due to excessive amounts of potatoes, peas, lentils or tapioca included in the formulas. Carbs also break down into sugar, which fuels degenerative conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cancer.
In the last 50 years we've learned the hard way that feeding biologically inappropriate diets (low-fat, high-carb diets that permeate the pet food industry) does not create health in dogs and cats. In fact, the amount of chronic inflammatory and degenerative diseases is epidemic, all relating to diet and lifestyle, in my opinion.
Further, low-quality proteins and fats (not fit for human consumption), when processed at high temperatures, create cancerous byproducts, like heterocyclic amines. It's estimated that meat going into pet food undergoes at least four high-temperature cooking processes in an average bag of food, leaving the digestibility, absorbability and overall nutrient value highly questionable.
Most dogs and cats will thrive when given fresh, whole foods, which mimic their ancestral diet, but unfortunately, many must make do with entirely processed, largely inferior alternatives. Your pet may have adapted to this diet, but it's a recipe for chronic disease.
The low moisture content of dry food is also problematic, especially for cats. Dry cat food provides only about one-tenth the amount of moisture cats receive from prey animals, living foods and even commercial canned diets, which puts significant stress on their kidneys and bladder.
Dogs also tend to become excessively thirsty when fed a dry food diet. The carb-heavy nature of dry food, along with the propensity for owners to feed more than their pet metabolically needs, is also a significant factor in rising rates of pet obesity.
Kick That Kibble to the Curb!
I recommend pet parents ditch dry food entirely and instead feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, which means food containing high-quality animal protein, moisture, healthy fats and fiber, with low to no starch content.
A nutritionally balanced raw or gently cooked homemade diet is the top choice for pets, but you should only attempt this if you're committed to doing it right. If you don't want to deal with balancing diets at home, choosing to feed a pre-balanced, commercially available raw food is a great choice. A freeze-dried/dehydrated diet is second best. Human-grade canned food is a mid-range choice, but can be hard to find.
And be sure to incorporate a variety of fresh foods into your pet's diet, too. Blueberries, chia and hemp seeds in coconut oil, raw pumpkin seeds, fermented vegetables and kefir can provide your furry family member with a variety of nutrition and flavors.