Not Fit for a Dog to Eat: The Dog Food Dilemma
The first dogs were wolves. Maybe they weren’t the strongest wolves in their pack. Maybe they were the runts of the litter, the misfits unable to make it among their peers. Too dependent to become lone wolves, but too weak to hold their own among their kind, they found easy pickings among the garbage that always surrounded human habitations. They were not too proud to beg. They were not too proud to grovel. And they were certainly not too proud to eat leftovers. They lingered on the periphery of human villages, and whatever the humans discarded they took.
Humans first tolerated them, and later, as with all our dependents, a bond grew between the two species. These wolves were willing to lavish love and affection, loyalty and trust on humans to an extent not available in human to human relationships. Because of the inequality of the relationship, the bond between man and dog is greater than the bonds between and among dogs or the bonds between and among humans.
If you seek unconditional love, a dog is your best bet. The price for eternal loyalty is small indeed: you have to feed your dog. Up until recently, this was fairly easy. Whatever you did not need or want from your table, you gave to the dogs.
Our Friend the Dog
The Secret to a Dog’s Empathy
We all have the same feelings. Sadness, happiness, anticipation, surprise, irritation, joy, merriment, grief, shame… these are all mammalian feelings. As such, you would think any two people would be able to share their feelings. But in human to human relationships, there is a wide disparity in intellectual development, frame of reference, belief system and arbitrary preferences.
It’s just as evident to most humans as it is to most dogs what another person is feeling, when they can read the nonverbal signals, the facial expression, the carriage, the gaze direction and the hundred and one other tell-tale signs. The problem with humans is that it is not enough for them to know how someone else is feeling. They want to know why. After they find out what event triggered the feeling, they tend to try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and see if they would feel the same. If they are very similar to the other person and share his frame of reference, they will come out with a pronouncement such as this: “I know exactly how you feel.” If, on the other hand, their frame of reference is quite different, they will say: “But why? Why are you sad? There’s nothing to be sad about.” Or conversely: “I don’t understand why you’re so happy. What do you have to be happy about?” And they will hound the other person until the other person at least pretends to feel differently.
Dogs don’t do that. They know that humans and dogs have vastly divergent frames of reference. Dogs hear and smell things that we don’t and are privy to information relayed to them from other dogs miles away. Humans have a very complicated internal life that involves all sorts of abstract concepts that are of no interest to dogs. When a dog notices that his human is sad or happy or playful or gloomy, he responds to the feeling, without any attempt to understand its cause. In this way, dogs achieve perfect empathy.
If you ever want to be close to another human being, you might try the canine approach. Stop telling yourself that you understand your friend and that all you need to know is what happened. Tell yourself this instead: my friend and I live in different worlds and want different things and operate by a different set of rules. But my friend is sad today, so maybe he’ll feel better if I lick his face.
A Diet for Carnivores
Wolves and dogs are carnivores, This does not mean that they can’t consume any vegetable matter. We have all seen dogs chewing on grass and eating vegetables. Sometimes they have vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are best supplemented by plant matter. Nevertheless, as carnivores, their primary dietary need is to consume the flesh of other animals. If you care about your dog, you will see to it that meat is a big part of his diet.
Now this does not mean that you have to feed your dog exclusively on sirloin steaks and filet mignon. If you are very rich, you might do that, but most of us can’t afford that for ourselves, and this means the same for our dogs. Your dog is dependent on you. For economic reasons alone, he can’t be expected to eat any better than you do. But… how much worse must he fare?
What Your Dog Wants in a Dog Food
I am not a dog myself, but from observing the dogs I have known, here is a list of things that dogs look for in food:
- odor — It should smell like meat. In fact, it should smell period. Many of the dogs I know like slightly rancid smelling meat. Give them a bowl full of freshly chopped chicken heads, and they will bury them, and then dig up the ones you gave them a week ago to eat.
- texture — It should have a flesh and bone type of texture, so that the dog has something to gnaw on for hours after the more fleshy bits are consumed.
- fat content — It should be high in fat. Dry dog food is not acceptable, not because it isn’t wet — as in covered with water. It is not acceptable, because it’s not oily and soaked through with fat.
Do dogs know what’s good for them?
Sure, you may be thinking, that’s what dogs want. But should we give it to them? Do dogs really know what’s good for them? After all, how many books on nutrition has the average dog read?
Your dog does not have an absolute understanding of its nutritional requirements, but neither do you, and quite frankly, neither do the people who write books about nutrition.
The dog evolved in a particular environment, and what your dog likes is what’s good for him, to the extent that what is available now is similar to what was available then. This does not mean he recognizes all toxic substances as such. If, for instance, chocolate is bad for him, he may not be aware of that. You might want to monitor his intake of foods that hadn’t existed until quite recently and for which the dog has not evolved any protective mechanisms.
Nevertheless, for most intents and purposes, I’d trust a dog’s preferences in diet over those of a nutritionist, since the canine preferences have been tested over tens of thousands of years, whereas nutritionists spout new theories every decade.
Commercial Dog Foods
The Wikipedia on Dog Food
What Dog Food Manufacurers Want in a Dog Food
I don’t believe that dog food manufacturers are trying to kill dogs or to shorten their lives. For the most part, they are trying to do a good job to satisfy the market demand for high quality dog food. Nevertheless, it is important to understand where the interests of dog food manufacturers and the interests of dogs might conflict. This conflict is made all the more serious because dogs do not pay for their own dog food, so the ultimate consumer is not making the purchasing decision.
What do dog food manufacturers want in a dog food?
- long shelf life — Manufacturers don’t want dog food to spoil on its way to the store. They don’t want it to lose its value while it waits on the shelves to be bought. This is perfectly understandable. Foods with high fat content go rancid more easily than foods that have had the fat removed. That is why most dog food is dry, and any fat content it has is superficially sprayed on after baking.
- inexpensive ingredients — Because dog food must be less expensive than human food to be competitive in the marketplace, dog food manufacturers look for ingredients that will not cost them much to acquire. What they use are mostly the by-products of human food manufacture that humans don’t want. In a sense, they use left-overs, just as we do at home, in order to feed dogs. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes in when too many of these leftovers are from grains, and not enough of them are from animal flesh. The chief ingredient in many dog foods is corn. Can dogs eat corn? Sure. But should that be their one and only food source? No. Fresh corn is not a sufficient source of all the nutrients a dog needs, but corn meal, which is what commercially produced kibble mostly consists of, is even less nutritious.
- nutritional cachet — Dog food manufacturers are very much aware of the nutritional concerns of dog owners. Whatever vitamin, mineral or other nutrient the kibble is deficient in naturally, they tend to supplement. They add artificially produced vitamins and minerals to the final product. This is why most dry dog food smells like medicine, not food. This nutritional supplementation allays the concerns of dog owners, but leaves many dogs with a product they can barely stomach as their one and only food source, especially when owners believe that leftovers and table scraps are bad for dogs.
The dog’s preferences in dog food never even comes into play. Some humans are very picky about dog food, but their concerns have nothing to do with what their dog might want. Those humans who are critical of dog food and buy special products are sometimes making the wrong choices based on their understanding of current nutritional theory. They often complain that dog food contains too much animal fat or not enough rice, as opposed to corn or wheat. Animal fat is good for a carnivore. There is no requirement that dogs have to eat rice. Animal by-products are seen by many as undesirable ingredients. In fact, that’s what dogs have been eating all along. People used to go to the butcher shop and get the leftover meat that nobody wanted, the chicken heads and feet and other unmentionables to feed to their dogs. Those are the things dogs hunger for, if they can’t have steak or hunt rabbit on their own!
The problem is not really with the dog food manufacturers. The problem is that dogs have no say in their diet, but nutritionists do.
Dog Food Compromises
Feeding your dog table scraps isn’t a bad thing to do, provided that you yourself are eating good food. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to feed your dog on jelly donuts and chocolate eclairs, but if that’s all you’re eating, then you are probably in really bad shape, too.
However, if you have a reasonable amount of meat and especially of animal fat in your diet, sharing scraps with your dog is not a bad thing. If you don’t have enough scraps, it might also be okay to use commercially produced dog food as a filler, but to supplement it with real food. Add drippings from your roast to the kibble. Add chicken skins or any gristle that you don’t want. If there was no meat on the menu today, throw in a raw egg or two. Most commercial dog food isn’t poison. It doesn’t contain “bad” ingredients. It just doesn’t have enough good ingredients. It doesn’t provide all the nutrients your dog needs. But you can solve this problem by making sure that your dog gets plenty of the right kinds of food from your table.
Are your table scraps good for your dog? It depends on what you’re eating. Man and dog have shared a diet for centuries. If your food is not fit for a dog to eat, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it, either!
(c) 2010 Aya Katz