Discussion: Dog Food Wonkery, Now With Added Science!

Talking about feeding starchy foods to dogs is one of those things that tends to stir up controversy.  So let me state up front that this post is going to discuss feeding starchy foods (potatoes, grains, etc.) to dogs and I am neither encouraging nor discouraging anyone from changing whatever they choose to feed their own dog, assuming they are satisfied with the results.

My experience with feeding my own dogs (your mileage may vary) is that they do well with starchy foods.  I like to take full advantage of this since it means less cost and less meat in their diet.  My thinking has been that my dogs probably seem to do so well with starches because they have adapted to a diet of human table scraps over the millennia.  I have never found any study suggesting this (until today!) but it seemed to make sense to me.

And now for a moment of science:

Fido may prefer steak, but his digestive system is also geared up for rice and potatoes. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that dogs have evolved to eat a more varied diet than their wolf ancestors.

The link gets into the harder science, for those who are fond of single-nucleotide polymorphisms and such.  But suffice to say that this study suggests that as the domesticated dog evolved, he relied more on food humans threw away and less on live prey.  Dogs whose digestive systems evolved to make better use of starches, a primary human food scrap, were at an advantage over those whose systems did not adapt to this change from the wolf model.

Which brings me to a favorite fun thing:  sharing old dog food practices.  If someone would write a 50,000 page book on this, I would retire to a deserted island with it.  But for now, I am sharing a tidbit from Paddy Petch, author of The Complete Flatcoated Retriever (1988).  In the book, she states that she feeds her adult dogs three meals a day.  One meal is comprised of 1/3 meat (canned, fresh or dried), 2/3 biscuit or mixer meal (I believe this is basically a meat free type of kibble) and any scraps from the kitchen, including vegetables.  The other two meals are made up of milk plus regular kibble (which would be primarily starch) or cereals (just starch).  Her diet plan obviously involves a much lower amount of meat than many home prepared feeders give to their own dogs.  Again, not trying to influence anyone in their feeding choices, just sharing info.  Because it’s wonky and I like it.  A quote from Paddy Petch:

To my mind there is far too much nonsense talked about scientific feeding these days, and many dogs would benefit by going back to the good old fashioned ways of going on.

If you have thoughts on the linked study, Paddy Petch’s feeding regimen, or want to share some old dog food recipes (especially that!), please join in.

31 thoughts on “Discussion: Dog Food Wonkery, Now With Added Science!

    1. One of mine too and her blood work showed she had low protein. Upping her protein resolved the poop eating. She’s also an ancient breed. So probably on the less evolved side of the scales. Being lazy, I fed the same diet to my Lab for a while but she did fine with just about any food. Glad to see some science on the topic and suspect they’ll eventually decide a single diet isn’t optimal for all variations of “dog” they same way they are already finding that true of humans.

  1. I haven’t read the actual paper yet but can’t wait. We know that dogs are scavengers by nature and that they will eat anything organic. They are not obligate carnivores. There is evidence from campsites dating dog/human socialization to about 33,000 years ago, so I would challenge the 11,000 years in the news item but overall very interesting and certainly believable.

  2. Mixer in the UK provides amounts of calcium sufficient to provide the correct ratio to the phosphorus in the meat. (A cardinal rule of feeding.) SoJos makes something similar in the US, one with grains and one without.

    As with many things, just because they *can* eat it, doesn’t mean they *should*. In my experience, eliminating grains from the diet benefits *many* dogs, and we see a ton come into rescue with grain allergies. Sweet potatoes seem to be well tolerated, though, and while I have fed home made since 1993 and prey model raw for the last 10+ years, I do find that some seniors really do need some carbs added to maintain weight.

  3. If I feed my dogs once a day – as per one vet’s recommendation – my dogs are throwing up yellow froth during the night, and that has been the case for all of my dogs over the years no matter their breed. Two meals a day for my lot.
    One of my dogs can’t tolerate products with flour in them and will suffer a noisy, painful gut all night and sleeplessness for both of us.
    One of my dogs couldn’t digest bones and the results were the same for him, yet all of the others seem to have benefited from raw bones in their diets.
    Seems it depends on individual dogs and the most important thing about kibble is to know how to read the labels and ensure balance and variety of different food types.
    My final analysis after 38 years of dog ownership is to try to replicate a natural kill with the appropriate balance of muscle, organ and offal meats, blanched veges, fruit and some grains as per what they’d get in the prey animal’s gut content, raw bones and additional oils like fish and/or flaxseed.

  4. Well, I’m of the opinion that you cannot trust the pet food industry any further than you can throw them. I absolutely think that people should feed table scraps and whatnot to their dogs in addition to whatever diet they’re feeding.

    My guys never did well with many starches (especially grains and potatoes) – the Lab would get yeasty ears so quickly with the addition of anything of the sort to his diet and it definitely aggravated joint pain from arthritis in the others. I will say that they all digested it just fine, though.

    Milk is an interesting one. I have never tried to feed milk to the dogs, but I do know it goes right through the cats like a bullet train (and not pretty on the other side). I wonder if the author was using raw milk in her regimen?

      1. EvoLibrary’s article on lactose tolerance in people:

        Kittens and cats don’t digest cow’s milk all that well, no matter their age. At least, so I’ve always been told by vets, I’m sorry I don’t have an academic ref to link. Me, I’ve had cats who liked a drop of milk if they could cadge it, but none whom it didn’t give some level of gastrointestinal trouble.

        Back before KMR was around, the ‘kitten glop’ recipe my vet gave me to use for orphans was basically goat’s milk with egg yolk, plain gelatine powder, and a little plain yoghurt. If I couldn’t find goat’s milk – I always could, I lived in health nut central – then I was to substitute evaporated cow’s milk, not fresh.

        No, I don’t know why home-made kitten milk formula is traditionally called ‘kitten glop.’ Except, well, it is pretty much glop.

      2. Geez, you’re expecting to remember the sources my professor in animal nutrition at UC Davis used to discuss lactose intolerance in adult mammals?!?!?!

        Ellen Kienzle studied lactase production in kittens and adult cats and found an inverse relationship. Lactase breaks down lactose and as mammals age lactase generally decreases dramatically into adulthood. So adult cats have low levels of lactase and are therefore generally lactose intolerant…it certainly matters HOW MUCH milk they consume.

        Other studies have shown the same thing with dogs too, but they have higher levels of lactase than cats do.

  5. My dogs eat a lot of raw veggies and a lot of fruit for snacks. My vet says not to feed them grapes or chocolate ever.They love milk and I give them table scraps. I also give them dry dog food to make sure they are not lacking any thing.

  6. I’ve got a 16-month old, so my two dogs have certainly been getting a lot more table scraps than they used to. They seem to love all vegetables – peas, potatoes, etc.

    I’ve also been giving them peanut butter filled Kongs to occupy them when we want to let our daughter run around more. I don’t know if it’s because it’s because the peanut butter is organic, but it definitely gets things rolling intestinally. Whoa Mama.

  7. OK, a few facts on this subject.
    1) Dogs are NOT omnivores. They are faculative carnivores. This means while they do best on meat and bones they can survive on veggies and starches for some time.
    2) Dogs produce very little amylase (cats produce none). This is the enzyme responsible for the digestion of carbohydrates including starches. This means that starches like those found in corn, wheat and potatoes pass through the animal largely undigested. In the end they only add bulk making the dog feel full but, very little nutrition.
    3) Starches slow the passage of food through the gut and lead to a rise in the levels of bacteria. Not so bad unless you are feeding a combination of meat and starches. Now, you have a serious problem. As the meat passes slowly through the bacteria laden gut it begins to rot. This is what adds that “special” fragrance to the feces of kibble fed dogs.
    4) Starches cause the pH of the stomach acid to drop. This means that protein is not fully broken down in the stomach as it should be. It also means that bacterial contaminates like Salmonella and E. coli are not destroyed and can lead to sickness in both the dog and it’s owner. This is also why you have to feed a dog a lot more commercial food than you do raw meat, bones and organs. It’s also why kibble fed dogs produce about 3 times the volume (and 10 times the smell!) of feces that raw fed dogs do.
    I highly encourage everybody her to research this subject. unitedstatesrawmeatybones.com is a good place to start.

      1. Hey, the study has to be wrong, because it says what the Dogs Are Carnivores fanatics know to be false! :)

        Seriously. I’m a amazed at the eagerness of people to believe a spiffy-looking website over peer-reviewed research.

        Also, the difficulty people have with distinguishing “dogs are better adapted to digest starches than wolves are” from “you should be feeding your dogs potatoes exclusively!”

        Geeze. They followed humans around and lived increasingly off our leftovers, until they moved in with us and lived even more off our leftovers. No one should be shocked to discover that selection favored individuals who were better able to handle starches effectively–and in a diet that mixed starches and meat–than wolves who continued to have nothing to do with us.

        For those who want to, clicking a few links can get you access to the full paper in Nature.

      2. Fanatics should be the happiest people on earth because they absolutely know what they believe is right and that it can never, ever change. And yet they don’t come across as particularly happy, to me at least.

  8. I think every dog’s needs are different. My two little dogs get table scraps and free feed on Iams. It is winter so they are chubby but they will lose it in the spring. I have to keep it cold in the house so they need that extra layer of fat to keep warm since they live on the floor where it is the coldest. One is 19 and the other 17 and they play like puppies so I guess it agrees with them.

  9. Grains are fine from my very real experience with 15 of my own dogs in the past 5 years (fosters and adoptees). But our cats generally eat meat and fish and little else. How is it people have been convinced that dogs and cats do not eat real food? Where in history did someone say, “Hey, don’t let that dog have fresh meat, it’s bad for him!” and we learned to agree, “oh yeah, he should eat dried, overheated, compressed, rendered material from the outcast by-products of the human food chain”. And I also agree that in the past 15,000 years or so of our relationships with dogs, their food needs have become much aligned with the majority of our diets, except that now ours is starting to fall apart with all the processed food out there , much in the same way we have relegating our pets to eat for decades. Pet food essentially did not exist 100 years ago. How on earth did they survive?

  10. You just reminded me that somewhere, I have a book from the 1960s about chow chow dogs, and I am almost certain it has some interesting feeding info. If I find the book, I’ll post the information.

  11. Oatmeal, fish meal, and milk- traditional sheepdog diet from Black’s veterinary dictionary. Apparently they do well with some blood meal when working particularly hard.

    I’ve read books on keeping dogs in India which reccommended chapatis and milk as the best base, along with soup made from bones and scraps, supplemented with lentils and leftover vegetables. There was a book on the Newfoundland which reccommended one part meat, one part cereals, and one part vegetables. A mix of meat, bread, and mashed vegetables (all table scraps) was reccommended in The Dog Book by James Watson (1906), though I think he reccommended rice, hominy, and oats, with a little meat and milk, for kennel dogs.

    Yes, I do read too many old books, how can you tell?

  12. I feed my dogs what makes them happy and what eases my conscience. They’re currently on a vegan diet (oh noes!) although this may not work for my older dog who has a problem with UTIs (which she had on an all meat, grain-free diet too…and the vegan food she’s on is wheat, corn, soy, gluten free so who knows why she keeps getting them).

    My younger dog eats everything and all things. When she is feeling that I am being cruel to her with this vegan nonsense, she goes out and kills a small furry and eats them. I judge her harshly for this, but she just wags her tail and crunches away.

    Any food I don’t eat, I give to my dogs – mainly my younger one and smaller portions for my older one (she has so many digestive woes).

    I used to be a food snob. I used to believe super “premium” grain-free $80/bag dog food was the only way to go. Then I used to believe only raw meat/bones/organs was the way to go. And then that got old. So now I just feed what keeps my dogs healthy and happy. And if they’re not healthy, I alter it.

    Food is food. I don’t get why there is this tendency to believe irradiated kibble = dog food, while carrot = human and/or rabbit food. If it’s edible and non-toxic, it’s food for anyone (nonhuman or human) who can eat it.

    Glad to see actual peer-reviewed research on this issue.

      1. I did a home-made vegan diet for awhile, but Mina is so freaking sensitive that she didn’t do well on it (and I don’t eat as healthfully as I could so it became a little time consuming for me!!). It was mainly quinoa or couscous/barley (until I found out Mina’s also allergic to barley), brown rice, other starches and veggies.

        So now she and Celeste are on V-Dog, which is organic, gluten, soy, corn, and wheat free (Mina is allergic/or intolerant of soy and corn). And when I cook myself a healthy meal (even when I don’t), they get the leftovers.

  13. My dogs eat Natural Balance Vegetarian Dry Dog Food in the morning and I cook for them at night, with added supplements. It sounds a little complicated, but it’s not, because the humans and the animals in the household eat mostly the same home-prepared food and slightly different breakfast “cereal.” We even take the same multi-vitamin. Here’s what my two 50-pound pit bulls get at night:

    2 cups cooked brown rice and/or steel-cut oats
    2 cups cooked lentils and/or other legumes
    1 medium sweet potato, cooked
    1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
    1 tablespoon peanut butter
    1 tablespoon nutritional/brewer’s yeast
    1 tablespoon Now Foods powdered calcium citrate (1260 mg)
    1.5 teaspoons Now Foods powdered L-Carnitine (6 g)
    1 teaspoon Prozyme enzyme supplement
    ¾ teaspoon Now Foods powdered Taurine (3 g)
    1 capsule Now Foods Methionine (500 mg)

    I mix all of the above in the food processor, divide it into two bowls, then slice each of the following tablets with a pill slicer and put 1/2 in each bowl:

    1 tablet Freeda Zinc Glouconate (15 mg)
    1 tablet Freeda Children Multivitamin Chewable

    The humans eat the rice and legumes and cooked and raw veggies and fruits. The dogs beg for all of those, too, and often get them. No grapes, raisins, onions, or chocolate. I also avoid feeding the dogs wheat, corn, and soy, which the humans enjoy occasionally.

  14. Many, many, years ago I read somewhere, maybe and old dog book about how Chow Chow dogs were raised in China as a meat/food crop and so were given a largely cereal/grain based diet and as a breed do well on a diet with more grains than some other breeds of dogs. I think this same book also said that the high north breeds of dogs (like Alaskan Malamutes) were traditionally feed a diet with a lot of fish and do better on a diet with some fish or fish oil added to it.

    Some dogs seem to do very well on a raw meat diet and some others seem to thrive on a vegan diet and I know of dogs that lasted 17-18 years on a cheap as you can get kibble diet.

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