They Are What They Eat

By RuthAnn Leigh-Phillips

My journey through the maze of “what to feed/what not to feed” started in the early 1990s when I noticed that the coats on my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers (I didn’t get Briards until the mid 1990s) were not great. They seemed to be molting all of the time. I knew from having horses that feeding corn caused them to shed their coats in the spring every year. (Digestion of corn is highly exothermic and raises the body temperature in horses so they shed their coat). I started looking more closely at the ingredients in the food I was feeding the dogs and …yes, it had a very high percentage of corn.

Once just filler, grains and grain by-products have become a larger part of the pet food mix over the last decade. Grain by-products are the indigestible hulls, stems, and waste from grain processing for human consumption. Commonly, two of the top three pet food ingredients are some type of grain or grain by-product. “Ground yellow corn, soybean meal, poultry by-product” are listed as Alpo’s Beef Flavored Dinner’s first three ingredients.

At about the same time that I made the realization that grains in their foods were causing my dogs problems, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that reported that only about 50 percent of every food-producing animal is utilized for human consumption. Whatever remains is used in pet food, animal feed and other products. That means slaughterhouse remnants or meat by-products (as listed on pet food labels) including diseased, cancerous and contaminated meat, animal heads, bones, blood, pus, intestines, lungs, ligaments, horns, hooves, toe nails, feathers, feet, beaks, and “other parts.” The article also indicated that by-products also include dead animals picked up from the nation’s roads and picked up from animal shelters and veterinarians offices. These animals are rendered along with their flea collars (not to mention the ear tags from cattle).

While the article was vehemently denied by the Renderer’s Association, it was confirmed by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Actually, there was more information in that article, even grosser than what I have already mentioned. Suffice it to say that this article set my course. I wanted to change the way I fed my dogs.

So, I started feeding a higher protein food from a source that I trusted in terms of the ingredients. Keep in mind that my father was a butcher/store owner in Chicago, and I had some familiarity with reputable, meat/slaughterhouse companies. Sounds great right? But I found that my dogs did not thrive on the high protein food I chose. In fact, they were very hyperactive, overactive, and lacked the kind of concentration that I had known them to have when we were working (obedience/hunt tests).

Back to square one. I started worrying about chemicals, especially preservatives. All commercial pet foods use preservatives. Potentially cancer-causing agents such as butylated hydroxanisole (BHA) , butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less toxic version of automotive antifreeze) and ethoxyquin are common.

Many veterinarians believe that ethoxyquin is a major cause of illness, skin disease and infertility in animals. This chemical is not approved for human use except in spices such as cayenne pepper. Some pet food manufacturers have responded to concerns about synthetic preservatives and are using “natural” preservatives such as Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) and Vitamin C (ascorbate).

So, now I had a nice quality food with very few added chemicals. But it was not enough. AT the time, I had a veterinarian friend who was shifting her practice to a more holistic approach. She suggested that the dogs should get something raw every day. “RAW!” I said. “Like, uncooked?”

Yes. Overwhelmingly, raw food diets are winning out among holistic minded dog owners and veterinarians. There are a number of reasons why dogs might do better on a diet largely comprised of raw foods. Foremost, is that dog’s bodies are designed to produce only about 25% of the enzymes they need to digest their food; the remaining 75% should be within the food they eat. All raw food contains the enzymes the body needs to digest the food. But when you cook foods, the enzymes are destroyed. In order to digest a food devoid of enzymes, the body needs to work overtime to produce its own digestive enzymes to break down the food. Cooking also destroys a large percentage of the food’s nutrients. Also, to some degree, cooking generates a certain amount of toxins in food. Raw food enthusiasts cite the fact that the number of white blood cells circulating in the blood stream usually doubles or triples immediately following consumption of a cooked food meal; the number does not rise when raw food is eaten. In other words, digesting cooked food is a lot of work. After all, I want to take a nap after every meal, don’t you?

So what should one put in a raw food diet for a Briard? Despite numerous small variations of opinion regarding supplements, the basic proportions of raw meat to grains to vegetable matter are roughly the same: about 40 percent meat, 30 percent vegetables, and 30 percent grains. Of the meat, it should be a mix of muscle meat (60%) and organ meat (40%). A good rule of thumb for the vegetables is a 50/50 split between an above ground vegetable and a below ground vegetable. The vegetables should be prepared in a food processor. Good grains are oatmeal (not the instant stuff, the real stuff) and barley. Fatty acids and bone meal are common supplements mentioned in raw food diet manuals. As with any thing, if you are going to go with this, you need to do the research yourself. A good place to start is with The Whole Dog Journal which published raw food articles in the November 1998, January 1999, and the June 2001 issues.

So do I feed my dogs (mostly Briards now) raw food? Not exclusively. The fact is that with my dog population ranging from 7-10 dogs, I am not equipped to feed raw exclusively. I feed a very high quality kibble that has the balance of meats, vegetables, and grains that I think is appropriate (much like the balance discussed above). The exact ingredients are listed on the bag. There is no doubt about what is in it (i.e., no by-products of anything). It is preserved with Vitamin E. I supplement with raw fruits and vegetables and yogurt. I am not going to name the brand of food I use because this is not a promo for any given company. It is just a description of my process, some of the alternatives, and a hope that you too will think your way through this maze to find the best food for you and your dogs.