My dog, Koda B. Jordan, came to me with nearly every problem in the book. Found in a ditch in Buckeye, Arizona, Koda had medical conditions that ranged from parasites all the way to burnt paws. The harsh desert hadn’t treated Koda very well, and his digestive system was among the many things that took a hit from surviving in the desert alone at just 5 weeks old.
One of the first problems that Koda’s vet had revealed to me was that he had contracted giardia — a microscopic parasite that can be found anywhere that has been contaminated by feces, whether it be an animal or a human.
But it didn’t stop there.
Koda also had roundworms. Roundworms are a common parasite that is usually found in puppies. They can be contracted in two ways. They can become infected by eating eggs in the environment, from plants or the soil. They can also become infected by ingesting animals that are already infected. During puppy stage, dogs’ immune systems are not fully equipped to fight off these adult roundworms.
Obviously enough, this had a terrible effect on the state of Koda B.’s digestive system. Roundworms derive the puppy of the nutrients it eats, “thus symptoms of a heavy roundworm infection can include signs of malnutrition such as weakness, weight loss and stunted growth. It also leads to diarrhea and vomiting.
Diarrhea is among the symptoms of giardia as well, accompanied by stomach cramps, gas and dehydration.
Twelve-hundred dollars and what felt like a hundred vet visits later, Koda was free of all parasites, but his prior digestive system registered some fears in our household.
We instantly limited Koda’s foods to brands that advertised only natural and healthy ingredients. Whatever that meant.
Treats were always natural or organic, and his human food didn’t go any further than my roommate’s little sister tossing pieces of ham down from her highchair.
This isn’t an irregular approach for dog mothers. Many pet parents opt to feed their pets natural food without preservatives. In fact, “70% of people who follow a diet for themselves admitted to putting their pet on a special diet too.”
Humans have been paying close attention to what they feed their dogs since 2000 BCE. During the middle ages, however, dog food diets were made up of a diet very similar to their owners, eating any scraps that the owner could spare.
According to Pet Food Institute, “The desire for prepared dog food resulted from a combination of dogs being viewed as luxury items with a need to protect the owners’ investments, the increasing availability of such food (dog biscuits, dog bread, canned food, etc.) and marketing.”
In the late 1800s, veterinary nutrition emerged, and scientists in this field began to understand more about what animals needed to eat. In the early 1960s, the first pet food created to meet the needs of puppies was manufactured.
And how do people decide what food to feed their dog? They look at the labels. This is why there has recently been an increase in sales for dog foods with “clean labels.” This includes foods labeled as “GMO-free,” “grain free,” “preservative free” and more.
“According to a consumer insight company Nielsen’s 2016 consumer report, pet owners are becoming less concerned about the cost of pet food, but more interested in the quality of the food. Almost half of American pet owners admit they would sacrifice their Netflix subscription to afford high-quality pet food and at least 55% of American and French pet owners admit they would even sacrifice chocolate for their high-quality pet food.
“The demand for higher-quality premium food has increased retail sales dramatically over the past 10 years, with the annual household pet food spend among pet owners increasing 36% between 2007 and 2017.
These are the kind of labels I would look for when searching for food options for Koda, admittedly not even knowing why foods with these labels would be “better” for him.
At first, this seems like a wholesome, good idea. Until I realized I was only being mislead by the marketing of these products to think that they were healthier for my precious pup. The problem with the natural-advertised pet foods is that while the ingredients may be GMO and grain-free, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for pups.
Some staple ingredients in these naturally advertised foods include peas and lentils. These foods are healthy for humans, so it is a common belief that they are just as healthy for dogs.
However, according to the FDA, “some canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) cases were correlated to dogs eating diets containing large amounts of potatoes and legume seeds, also known as pulses, such as peas and lentils.” These are found especially in grain-free dog foods.
In fact, nearly 50 percent of grain-free dry dog foods contain peas, 23 percent include chickpeas, and 14 percent have lentils. These numbers are slightly lower for dog foods that are not advertised as grain free. Of all dry dog food recipes, potatoes are in 28 percent of products, while chickpeas are in 12 percent, and peas and lentils are in 5–8%.
This often leaves owners to decide what risks they want to take with their pets, and whether they would rather have food that contains peas and lentils or contains grains.
But, according to veterinarians, grains aren’t even harmful to dogs. “Dogs can definitely have grain. Their not glucose intolerant, they don’t have celiac so that’s a fad,” said Dr. Cameron Folkers, a veterinarian at Canyon Pet Hospital in Flagstaff.
Grain is among the many ingredients that pet food brands take pride in leaving out of their recipes, despite the fact that most of the vet-recommended dog food brands don’t have incredibly “clean” labels.
Vets recommend four major brands — Purina, Royal Canin, Science Diet and Iams — to pet owners. They also recommend Natural Balance for pet parents who are set on feeding their dog only natural ingredients, which, according to Dr. Folkers, makes no difference at all.
According to Dr. Folkers, dogs given these brands of food have been proven over time to live longer than dogs fed other food brands. “That’s why we have veterinary-recommended diets is because they have done studies on these dogs for over whole lifetimes over thousands of dogs and they know…what the dog needs,” he explained.
Okay, so you just pick one of these brands for your dog or cat and you should be fine. Right?
The problem is, it’s not possible to be 100% sure that even these brands are safe. Purina, one of the vet-recommended brands, recently issued a recall due to the presence of rubber pieces in their cat food.
Purina addressed the recall with a statement: “Out of an abundance of caution, Nestlé Purina PetCare Company is voluntarily recalling a limited amount of Muse wet cat food Natural Chicken Recipe in Gravy in three-ounce cans. The product could contain rubber pieces that are translucent yellow with a blue backing, which may present a potential choking hazard.
“We’re pet owners and pet lovers, and our number one commitment is the health and well-being of pets. We only want products that meet our high-quality standards in your pet’s bowl. We became aware of the issue after receiving complaints from pet owners who observed the rubber pieces in the product. We have made changes to our process so this should not happen in the future,” Purina stated on its website.
Darwin’s Natural Pet also recently experience a recall due to the presence of salmonella in their dog food.
This leaves buyers questioning what is really in their pet food, despite what the labels say.
In Europe, researchers found that many pet foods contained unlabeled meats, whether it was horse, duck or other meats. This is extremely dangerous for pets with allergies, and it make is significantly harder for owners to control their pets’ diets.
After finding out natural foods weren’t really beneficial and that labels in general weren’t as reliable as I once believed, I started to reconsider what I was putting in Koda’s food bowl. I thought, well if I just make his meals myself, I won’t have to question whether or not I knew what he was really eating.
I immediately started researching healthy recipes for dog foods made at home. I found a book with easy recipes to make, that would still be healthy for Koda. However, I soon found out that even making his food at home could have a negative impact on Koda B.’s health.
“It can cause a lot more problems than good,” said Dr. Folkers.
“At home diets can be okay, but they need to be under the supervision of a vet nutritionist,” said Dr. Folkers when I visited him to discuss switching Koda to an at-home diet.
The same way that we need a certain balance of nutrients, so do dogs, but on a larger scale. “If you’re missing one little thing that you wouldn’t even think about, your dog could get really sick from it,” said Dr. Folkers.
The best way to go about implementing a homemade diet is to hire a vet or nutritionist to monitor your pet. But let’s face it, not everyone has the money or the time to be consistently visiting a vet’s office. Other options include balanceit.com, a website that takes into account your pet’s specific needs and generates a balanced diet.
For fear of altering Koda’s nutritional balance too much, I decided to replace only 1 of his two daily meals. Even just doing this proved to me how unrealistic this idea was. First, it was far too time-consuming. Even making tuna casserole in bulk and portioning it out throughout the week took more time and resources than I felt like I had.
After just 5 days, I realized that doing this had complicated both mine and Koda’s life too much, especially if it was still risking Koda’s health.
While I wasn’t so great at it, there are companies who have experience in dog food that make fresh food out of natural ingredients, and some even deliver them out weekly. Pet Plate is one of the few companies that delivers natural meals for your pets.
“Before starting Pet Plate, I was a consultant in the pet food space, working with traditional pet food and kibble brands. After getting a first-hand look at the low-quality ingredients and substandard processes used to make most pet foods, I was inspired to find a better option for my dog Winston,” said Renaldo Webb, the founder of Pet Plate.
Pet Pate uses a short quiz to determine a meal plan for your dog and creates nutritionally balanced diets that contain a vitamin and mineral blend to make sure that dogs get the nutrients they need. The meals are made with 100% human-grade ingredients, including meat, fruits and vegetables certified by the USDA.
“Fresh, high-quality meals can have a very positive impact on dog health. Our customers have reported improvements in their doggos’ allergies, digestion and energy level. Pet Plate has also been a big hit with picky eaters,” explained Webb.
While Koda is definitely a picky eater, and I really wanted to try out a set meal plan with natural ingredients, I realized that I, along with many other people, can’t afford to have these fresh meals delivered each week.
Back to the aisles I went, searching once again for the best food option for my sweet Koda, who couldn’t help me choose if he wanted to.
This time, I was more aware of these labels and advertisements, seeing the “preservative-free” labels that had once fooled me before. I realized that these labels were more about the money they attracted than the health of Koda.
According to Dr. Folkers, the $8 billion pet food industry has attracted people to making dog food, even if they don’t really know how. In 2017, Purina owned 25.5% of the market share of dry dog foods in the U.S. Iams, another vet-recommended brand, owned 5.5%.
“Pet food is one of the biggest industries you can get into right now. That’s why when you go to the grocery store you can see aisles and aisles of pet food,” he said.
This is how the now-famous pet food brand Blue Buffalo got its rank. Blue Buffalo got so popular because of their advertising,” said Dr. Folkers, explaining how there are employees at PetCo whose only job is to recommend Blue Buffalo. The problem with Blue Buffalo is that it was previously owned by Mars, the candy company. There was no vet or nutritionist on staff, so the only thing claiming the benefits Blue Buffalo has on dogs was its commercials and packaging.
Blue Buffalo is now owned by General Mills, and they have recently hired a nutritionist to the staff.
There is no way to truly know if your pet’s food is 100% safe, but for worried owners, it’s best to just go with the vet-recommended brands. And don’t be fooled by the advertising.