What Do Dogs Eat When Given a Menu?

processed pet foods

Story at-a-glance

  • The processed pet food industry thinks “the dietary needs of dogs and cats are more complex than ever,” but this isn’t the case for pets fed nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate fresh food from weaning
  • However, most pets fed processed food will at some point develop specialized dietary needs to address the health issues that result from a lifetime eating biologically inappropriate food
  • If Big Pet Food is genuinely concerned about the growing complexity of pets’ dietary needs, they could start by developing fresh food diets high in quality animal protein and low in carbohydrates
  • Many dry pet foods are loaded with carbs (40 to 50 percent of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems
  • The goal in feeding your dog or cat a diet she can thrive on is to mimic her ancestral diet as closely as possible

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently I was scanning a pet food industry journal and came across this misguided statement: “The dietary needs of dogs and cats are more complex than ever.”1 No, they’re not! Healthy dogs and cats still do best when offered food that mimics their ancestral diet. In my experience, the need for a special or “complex” diet for a dog or cat is often the result of many years of having been fed highly processed, biologically inappropriate, moisture-depleted commercial pet food.

A lifetime of trying to digest and absorb food he was never intended eat tends to wreak havoc on an animal’s body, ultimately causing organ systems to malfunction, which can lead to the need for a more easily digestible diet or one that addresses a specific health problem.

In my experience, it’s processed pet food that ultimately creates complexities in a dog’s or cat’s dietary needs. The vast majority of pets fed nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate fresh food from weaning simply don’t develop the kinds of health conditions that require a special diet as they get older.

Why Isn’t Big Pet Food Concerned About the Carb Content of Processed Diets?

A study published recently in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition2 evaluated the macronutrient intake of 15 dogs allowed to choose which food to eat from a selection of three wet diets.

The primary goal of the study was see whether the dogs went for the high-fat or high-protein diets first, and whether their choices changed over the remainder of the 10-day study. And as I’ve come to expect from these types of studies, the researchers were also forced to concede, “ … given the option, dogs do not select carbohydrate to be a significant portion of the diet.”

As I often discuss here at Mercola Healthy Pets and when I’m lecturing and teaching, the vast majority of processed pet food is loaded with carbohydrates — especially grain-free formulas. Yet despite canine (and feline) physiology that isn’t designed to process carbohydrates, or the fact that dogs and cats self-select diets very low in carbs, Big Pet Food continues to ignore the long-term implications of feeding carb-laden diets to pets.

Carbohydrate-Heavy Processed Diets Are Making Pets Fat

Over 50 percent of U.S. dogs and around 60 percent of cats are overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity in pets is both a primary disease and the root cause of many other diseases that develop as the result of too much weight, including arthritis, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and a significant reduction in the quantity and quality of your pet's life.

While some pet parents remain oblivious to their dog's or cat's condition, others know but aren't concerned or don't seem to realize they're compromising the animal's health.

"Obesity continues to be the greatest health threat to dogs and cats," observes veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, founder of APOP (the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention). "Obesity is a disease that kills millions of pets prematurely, creates immeasurable pain and suffering, and costs pet owners tens of millions of dollars in avoidable medical costs."3

A very big contributor to the pet obesity epidemic in this country is processed pet food. And while it's true many pet parents overfeed, very often the problem is also the quality of the food in addition to the quantity.

The incidence of obesity, cancer, diabetes and several other chronic health conditions in dogs and cats is much worse now than it was 20 years ago. Consequently, many sick pets have been switched to processed grain-free diets because their owners mistakenly assume they contain less sugar than regular pet foods.

But if you're feeding a dry diet, while it might be free of grains, it can't be free of carbohydrates, because carbs are necessary to form kibble. If you look at the package label, you'll see potato, sweet potato, lentils, peas (pea starch), chickpeas, tapioca and/or other carbohydrate sources. What many pet parents don't realize is starch breaks down into sugar, even though you don't see sugar on the pet food package label.

Unfortunately, many dry pet foods are loaded with carbs (40 to 50 percent of total content in some cases), which can lead to blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes and other health problems in pets, including offsetting protein and amino acid requirements, which can negatively impact muscle and heart health.

This isn't something many consumers are aware of because pet food manufacturers aren't required to list carbohydrate content on package labels.

How to Calculate the Carb Content of Your Pet’s Food

Carb intake above the daily needs (less than 10 percent) of your pet activates internal enzyme factors that go to work storing the excess as body fat, so the diet you feed should contain less than 10 percent carbohydrates. Here’s how to do the math based on the “guaranteed analysis” information on the package:

100 - % protein - % fat - % moisture - % ash (if not listed, assume 6 percent)
= % carbs

Fiber is the indigestible roughage that doesn't break down into sugar, so you don't have to include it in the formula. Below is an image of the guaranteed analysis on a bag of popular grain-free dog food.

guaranteed analysis dog food

Plugging in our formula:

100 - protein at 20% - fat at 8% - moisture at 10% - ash at 6%
= carbs at 56 percent

A carbohydrate content of 56 percent, as is the case with this dog food, is over five times the amount your pet needs. Remember: carbs break down into sugar and are stored as excess body fat.

The Diet I Recommend for Dogs and Cats

Dogs and cats need quality protein, fats, and a small amount of vegetables and fruits (roughage). Vegetables and fruits provide antioxidants and fiber to animals that no longer hunt whole prey. Natural sources of trace minerals, vitamins and fatty acids must be added, since the soils in which foods are grown are depleted of many of the nutrients pets need.

Also, food storage, whether it's in a freezer or a pantry, decreases critical essential fatty acid levels in foods. Pets need unadulterated, fresh, whole foods that are moisture-dense.

If you've watched my pet food rankings video, you know I advocate feeding your dog or cat the highest-quality diet you can afford. The top five types of pet food I recommend are a variety of nutritionally balanced, unprocessed (living), whole food diets. That's because the goal in feeding pets a diet they can truly thrive on is to mimic their ancestral diet as closely as possible without breaking the bank.

My essential recommendation is to feed your pet as much unprocessed, fresh food as you can afford. If you can't afford to feed an entirely fresh, living, raw food diet, offer fresh food snacks instead. Research shows that providing any amount of healthy foods to dogs and cats is better than no healthy food at all.

Other options to consider: Feed, for example, two to four fresh food meals out of 14 in a week, or do a 50/50 split, meaning one meal a day is a processed pet food, and the other is a fresh food meal. Take baby steps toward providing the best diet you can afford for your dog or cat, and keep in mind that any amount of species-appropriate fresh food snacks and meals is better than none. Every “fast food” kibble meal replaced with real food is a step towards better health.



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