What’s your dog really eating?

A veterinarian and an engineer dive deep into the dark and confusing world of dog food. Is kibble junk food? Is premium natural kibble any better? Is raw food safe?

Update, January 2020: We originally wrote this at the start of a long journey to find a better dog food. After many dog years, this search became a company called Sundays.

“Why do we feed our dogs that food?” I asked my girlfriend Tory, a practicing veterinarian, as we cleaned up after our sick dog, Stevie, at 3 am. “It seems good enough,” she replied. “And I got it for free in vet school.”

I adopted Stevie four years ago from a shelter in downtown Manhattan. I named her after Steve Jobs, because she has a black turtleneck of fur. I hadn’t thought deeply about her dog food until that night, even though I’m typically one of those obsessive consumer-types. I once consulted my favorite product reviews site, TheSweetHome to find the Best Spatula. But why hadn’t I given my dog’s food the same thought?

I’m typically one of those obsessive consumer-types. I once consulted my favorite product reviews site, TheSweetHome to find the Best Spatula. But why hadn’t I given my dog’s food the same thought?

When Food Companies Fund Nutrition Research

Nutrition research is complicated for both dogs and humans, because most of it is funded by the food and beverage industry. Coca-Cola lobbyists, for instance, popularized the widespread idea that “all calories are the same” (e.g. that drinking 500 calories of Coke will have the same physiological effect as eating 500 calories of Kale) [3,4]. Independent scientists have started to debunk this idea and ones like it, but it’s taken a long time due to the corporate funding dollars pushing against them. A consensus is finally emerging, however, that added sugar is bad, processed foods are unhealthy, and vitamin supplements — as opposed to those found in whole foods — are poorly absorbed. In other words, don’t eat junk food [5]. Dog food, as it turns out, is mostly junk food.

A consensus is finally emerging that added sugar is bad, processed foods are unhealthy, and vitamin supplements are poorly absorbed. In other words, don’t eat junk food. Dog food, as it turns out, is mostly junk food.

Extrusion and canning are food processing techniques that heat ingredients to extremely high temperatures to make the finished product non-perishable. To be sold in a store, retailers dictate that dry dog food needs to be shelf-stable for at least 18 to 24 months and canned food for 3 to 5 years. The problem is, of course, that it’s hard to make healthy foods that last that long.

A vet bluntly described kibble as “cardboard with vitamins sprinkled on top,” and that description is fairly accurate.

The Marketing Myth of Premium Natural

But I fed my dog a premium, “natural” kibble, with nature pastels and frolicking wolves on the packaging. Isn’t that better? No, it’s not, I learned. Not at all. The so-called “Wholesome Natural” or “Super Premium” dog food segment emerged in the wake of a 2007 recall scandal that shook the industry. A Chinese ingredient provider used by all the major firms had been inserting a chemical called Melamine to artificially inflate protein values. This Melamine, however, was toxic to animals and killed thousands of dogs [9]. A new industry of alternative, independent kibble brands popped up, offering supposedly healthier ingredients. They marketed ideas borrowed from human diet fads (like gluten-free) and commanded higher prices. Dog parents were convinced. In the last 10 years, the average price of dog food has more than doubled. But is premium “natural” kibble any healthier?

In the last 10 years, the average price of dog food has more than doubled. But is premium “natural” kibble any healthier?

Vets and the big corps alike argued strongly and persuasively against this wave of pricier “natural” foods. They published peer-reviewed research to debunk them. Much of the premium natural branding revolves around the myth of mimicking the “ancestral” diet that wolves eat. The most common example is “grain-free” formulas, peddled because of allegedly undiagnosed grain allergies in dogs and the fact that wolves don’t eat them. The reality is that less than 1% of dogs have an actual grain allergy [10,11]. Furthermore, a study published in the prestigious journal Nature showed that dogs have specific enzymes to digest grains — which wolves, interestingly, lack [12]. As it turns out, dogs have been co-evolving alongside human eaters for at least 15,000 years (which is 15,000 generations for dogs!), and at this point your Chihuahua or your Labrador have starkly different digestive systems than their distant, lupine cousins [13]. We don’t agree with Big Pet’s assertion that kibble is healthy, but we are convinced by their evidence that premium natural kibble isn’t any healthier.

Is “Grain-Free” dog food really healthier? The reality is that less than 1% of dogs have an actual grain allergy, and a recent study showed that dogs have specific enzymes to digest grains, which wolves lack.

The Buffalo in the Room

Blue Buffalo is the category leader in premium “natural” pet food. They IPO’d in 2015 and now boast a valuation of over $5 billion. The company’s founder, Bill Bishop, also made his first fortune selling unhealthy foods with slick natural marketing: he started the sugared beverage company SoBe, which he sold to Pepsi in October of 2000. Blue Buffalo popularized trends such as “grain-free”, but sell what essentially amounts to the same old junk food kibble.

In one bizarre and telling episode, Blue Buffalo pursued a marketing campaign against animal “by-products” — the usable leftovers from human food production, which includes organ meats like liver. The twist is that organ meats are actually highly nutritious for dogs and a cost-effective source of nutrients at that since they’re less popular among human eaters. Their competitor, Nestle Purina pulled some Blue Buffalo bags off the shelf and had them independently tested by a lab and discovered that, in a strange turn of events, the supposedly “by-product-free” food contained plenty of by-products. Purina financed a class-action lawsuit for false advertising, which Blue Buffalo settled in late 2016 for $32 million [14].

To recap: Blue Buffalo marketed a misleading health claim (“by-products are bad!”), but then used the by-products they argued against in their own food, and were eventually caught doing it. Yikes.

The marketing myths behind premium dog food proved so powerful that eventually even the big corporations couldn’t ignore them and began to follow suit. In the past few years, most of them have started or acquired their own bogus natural brands, only to go to extreme lengths to hide their ownership, afraid that consumers would be repelled if they knew of their true corporate identities.

Taste of the Wild, one of the best-selling premium natural brands, has risen to popularity with grain-free recipes and wolf-adorned bags, but it’s actually made with unremarkable ingredients by Diamond Pet Foods — the 5th largest manufacturer, who makes Costco’s discount Kirkland food among others, and has arguably the worst recall and safety record among the major firms. Organix, the most popular Organic dog food brand (even though, misleadingly, it freely mixes Organic ingredients with low-quality conventional ones, which, if you ask me, kind of defeats the purpose) appears to be owned by a quaint family business called Castor & Pollux. That company, however, was purchased by a Texas-based manufacturer called Merrick, which, in turn, was purchased by Purina, which, as previously mentioned, is owned by Nestle. Far from being mom-and-pop, Organix is manufactured by an international mega-corporation through four layers of subsidiaries.

Then what should dogs eat?

If kibble is bad and “premium natural” kibble is no better, then what should dogs eat? To answer the human version of this question, best-selling food author Michael Pollan famously instructed, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The dog equivalent is probably similar, but perhaps with the addendum of “mostly plants and meats.” In the directive to “eat food,” Pollan means to consume whole, uncomplicated ingredients as opposed to junk. There is an early but growing movement in the dog food world away from heavily-processed extruded dry foods and canned wet foods towards healthier alternatives.

While kibble is low quality, it has at least one thing really going for it: it’s extremely easy. You just pour it in a bowl and you’re done. No prep or clean-up required. Virtually every other method of feeding your dog, including canned and alternative foods, are a huge hassle by comparison. Since canned foods are wet, bowls need to be thoroughly cleaned after every meal. Frozen foods need to be thawed and freeze-dried raw foods need to be rehydrated, inconveniences that can take hours, plus also leave you with messy wet bowls to clean.

Even if you can look past the inconvenience, the expense of refrigerated shipping really adds up: perishable “human grade” foods can cost a whopping 10X more than premium kibble, and some use ingredients that are scarcely better.

Where does that leave us?

So where should you turn? How do you pick a dog food? It’s further complicated, because, in addition to everything else, you’re not the end user, your dog is. We believe that the vast majority of dog parents and vets alike genuinely just want what’s best for their dogs, but it can be hard to figure out what that is. You have to rely on various third parties who all have their own angle. Veterinarians, who are still your most trusted source of information, can be influenced and sometimes even employed by big food companies; big box pet stores have commissioned salesmen; the attendants of neighborhood pet stores are often uninformed hourly employees who themselves are pitched by sales reps from the food companies; and then there’s the Internet.

We believe that the vast majority of dog parents and vets alike genuinely just want what’s best for their dogs, but it can be hard to figure out what that is.

It shouldn’t be so hard to be a great dog parent. Just to feed your dog you shouldn’t have to wade through 3,000 different brands, countless BS marketing myths, and pseudoscience from sketchy websites and companies alike.

Who we are

Dr. Tory Hooker, VMD is a practicing small animal veterinarian. She has a BS in Animal Science with Distinction in Research from Cornell, a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and completed a rotating internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.

Michael Waxman is a software engineer and designer. He previously started the dating app Grouper, which was funded by Y Combinator. He dropped out of and later graduated from Yale University. Michael grew up in Ohio with seven dogs.

References

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[2] Neff, Jack. “Amid Packaged-Goods Dreams of Service Plays, Mars Goes All In.” Advertising Age CMO Strategy RSS. Advertising Age, 09 Feb. 2016. Web. <http://adage.com/article/cmo-interviews/amid-packaged-goods-dreams-service-plays-mars/302570/>.

[3] O’Connor, Anahad. “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html>.

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[8] Ballantyne, Coco. “Fact or Fiction?: Vitamin Supplements Improve Your Health.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 16 May 2007.

[9] “Melamine Pet Food Recall of 2007.” Melamine Pet Food Recall of 2007. http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/RecallsWithdrawals/ucm129575.htm

[10] Roudebush P, Guilford WG, Shanley KJ. Adverse reactions to food. In: Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P, eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 4th ed. Topeka, KS: Mark Morris Institute; 2000:431–453.

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[13] Liane Giemsch, Susanne C. Feine, Kurt W. Alt, et al. “Interdisciplinary investigations of the late glacial double burial from Bonn-Oberkassel”. Hugo Obermaier Society for Quaternary Research and Archaeology of the Stone Age: 57th Annual Meeting in Heidenheim, 7th — 11th April 2015, 36–37

[14] Brown, Lisa. “Purina, Blue Buffalo Settle False Advertising Lawsuit.” Stltoday.com. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. <http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/purina-blue-buffalo-settle-false-advertising-lawsuit/article_6ecf86d3-7dcb-5fac-8f2a-724b2ddc4363.html>.

[14b] Blue Buffalo’s response was that third party suppliers and manufacturers inserted the byproducts into the food without their knowledge. Regardless of how much truth there is to this, at the very least it still raises some alarming questions about their quality control practices and ingredient accuracy.

[15] Wall, Tim. “Prescription Dog, Cat Foods Face Anti-trust Lawsuit.” PetfoodIndustrycom RSS. N.p., 16 Dec. 2016. http://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/6188-prescription-dog-cat-foods-face-anti-trust-lawsuit

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