Don’t worry, you’re not feeding a wolf:

What you really need to remember when feeding a dog.

 I admit it – I love my dogs. In fact, I don’t understand the commercials where actors are given the line, “We love our dog like he is family.” I consider my canine companions family, not “like” not “almost” – they’re part and parcel; I’ve not only moved across the nation but from one nation to another and no more considered parting with my companions than my parents considered putting my siblings and I up for adoption when they moved. (I’m going to give my parents the benefit of the doubt on this one – given how we sometimes behaved that may have been more seriously pondered, for a moment….)

What I am about to say is also not meant as a criticism of those who enjoy cooking for their dogs, or who spend a great deal of time worrying about what their dogs eat. I personally have given a rather large chunk of my brain and time to considering ingredients in dog food, home-cooked food for dogs, etc. And if RAW or something similar speaks to you, so be it. I have no interest in trying to convert anyone to anything food related.

This post is for those who may feel guilty because they do not feed their dogs RAW, or BARF or cook for their dogs, or who cannot – or will not – afford the most meat based food out there for their dogs. Or for those who just are not sure what to feed your canine companion.

Take a deep breath. You are not a bad person if you do not cook for your dog, or prepare the dog’s food from scratch. Or if you cannot afford the most expensive kibble on the market. Do not get sucked into the hype, hyperbole, or advertising. Your feeding a dog, not a wolf, and evolutionarily and genetically there is a rather significant difference.

 I will point to several scientific studies that back up what I’m talking about. First, there was the study reported in January 2013 in Nature magazine, and online on the Scientific American website, by E. Axelsson and colleagues from Uppsala University in Sweden. Their findings include that a significant step in the transition to domesticated from wild animal (dogs from wolves) includes lengthening of the intestinal tract specifically for the purpose of the animal being able to digest larger quantities of starch.

An Assyrian hunting dog – ancient evidence of early genetic changes

Those early wolves which choose the relative safety of scavenging leftovers from humans vs. fighting other predators for survival and sporadic food, became genetically modified to survive on more bread crusts and scraps, than on meat. Think about it – meat was a high value item and the majority of that meat was going to feed people, not canines. Both this study and another recent study indicate that wolves self-selected for domestication, versus earlier ideas that people may have stolen wolf pups to  intentionally domesticate.

 The other recent study was published in Molecular Biology and Evolution (and synopsized in the Science section of The New York Times; the Times reporter also interviewed lead research scientist Dr. Ya-Ping Zhang.) Dr. Zhang’s work has found that after dogs and wolves genetically split, dogs genetically went a different path (remember, the oldest surviving breed of dog is the Chinese Shar Pei, decidedly not wolves.)

Some of the differences include a differently developed pre-frontal cortex, which drives dog behavior; their sense of smell has been enhanced as has their willingness to both work with and defer to people. Dr. Zhang and the international scientific community he researches with also suspect that the idea that some wolf pups were stolen by people for domestication is false; their work supports the theory that some wolves chose to stay near human communities, and from them a different animal emerged.

Again, this would be an animal that was willing to stay near humans for food scraps, rather than aggressively seek out fresh meat.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that people feed their dogs bread crusts and other scraps of food. Dog longevity and health has improved as a result of the development of nutritionally balanced dog food, just as human health and life span has significantly improved since early humans and scavenger wolves started rubbing shoulders. I am suggesting that we all be aware of the emotional appeal that advertizes make to us when they suggest that the source of our dog’s food needs to be similar to a) the diet of a wolf, or b) the exact same quality of food we would eat.

I would also remind people that in very industrialized, often urban lifestyles we have become fussy about our own food to an extent that is not necessary for our own survival – while I personally am too OCD to eat food taken from dumpsters, I do recognize that we throw out still eatable food because of how it appears, versus it’s actual safety for consumption.

Individual dogs may have allergies to certain grains and/or protien sources.
Lil the Labrador for example, gets increased wax build up in her ears when she eats anything with a chicken base. This indicates a mild allergy to chicken, so I avoid feeding her chicken based foods.
Jenny the Collie does not do well with food that is fish based – she starts to develop a waxy buildup on her skin. As a result, I tend to feed lamb or beef based kibble to my dogs and they all do well, with good coats, health, joints, etc.

Cavaet – at times I give into my own human emotional guilt that I should be feeding “better” food, with higher meat content, while at other times I logically choose a less expensive food with a slightly lower meat content.

Nada, nothing, no difference. I can spend $39 for 40 pounds of food, or $50 for 30 pounds, and there is no impact on my dog’s health. It is strictly my own inner need that I am feeding – and I do feed it semi-frequently – but I try to recognize what I am doing when I do it – satisfying my own need, not my dogs. I feel better when I feed them a more meat based food because I have internalized so much of the judgement of other dog people in this particular arena.

Now some people will argue you will see significantly less waste product if you feed a more meat based food. This will be true if one feeds a food that is primarily grain based, vs. foods that have more meat. This is not true when one switches between meat based foods and one food has a few more starches than the other. Dogs’ intestinal tracts have developed over thousands of years to make better use of starches than a wolf can, as a result, dogs can do very nicely on a meat/starch food and digest a significant portion of both food sources.

For those of you worried about what to feed your dog a recap:

  • The packaging on the outside of a dog food bag/can/ container is designed to appeal to you
  • Advertizes, and other dog people, may try and convince you there is only one way to feed a dog – not true, in part because dogs have different allergies/needs
  • Dogs can thrive on a variety of diets
  • Unlike wolves, dogs can digest larger quantities of starch
  • Look for Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) certification that a food meets a dog’s nutritional needs
  • Learn to read labels – the first five ingredients listed make up the majority of what is in the food

As someone who has read labels for decades, and fed generations of dogs, I will also add a few of my personal observations:

  • Dogs are most likely to have a problem with foods containing high quantities of corn or soy
  • Usually a dog with dry skin will respond well to foods with a fish based protien
  • Dogs with excess gas often respond favorably to a change in protein sources (I know Boxers who have done well on fish based proteins)
  • No one protein source works for all dogs – humans have modified dogs genetically and created a large number of sometimes unintended small variables in their immune, digestive, and other systems

Don’t forget the significance of adequate hydration, i.e., dogs need a lot of water. I’ve started adding water to my dogs’ kibble and this has benefited Jenny’s ability to eliminate and reduced the amount of time Lil and Gracie spend at the water bowl. Clean water and AAFCO certified food, affection, exercise, and guidelines/socialization – that is what your dog needs.  A lot of the rest of us we do for our own needs. And that is okay, as long as we recognize our compulsions for what they are and do not judge other dog people because they do not share our compulsions.

Final confession – I have to fight an internal desire to lecture people when I see them buying what I consider an ‘inferior’ dog food, when an alternate food which I judge to be ‘better’ is available for a similar cost – but perhaps at a different location. I’m beginning to think dog food choices are maybe closer to religion and we just shouldn’t foist our beliefs onto others unless they ask.

If dogs were allowed to choose their own food….

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