Food. Some say that it’s the universal language. Others call it the cornerstone of civilization. Whether you buy that or not, there’s no denying that we spend a lot of time thinking about it. All of us are aware of its ability to please our palettes, nourish our bodies, and satiate our hunger. You are what you eat, we’re told.
And it’s true. The jury is out on the connection between dietary patterns and health in human beings. We all know that we should strive to cultivate a nutritional regimen packed with fibrous leafy greens, healthy fats, complex carbs and all the rest. All around us, we’re reminded of nutrition’s importance; in fact, much of our societal shame centers around the food we choose to put into our bodies. To deviate from a healthy diet is deemed a naughty act, a dietary infidelity that we should really feel quite ashamed of. While our relationship to food may seem a bit obsessive, we pay a lot of attention to nutrition, and with good reason.
Yet, when it comes to our dogs, we have a tendency to take an altogether different approach. Without even realizing it, many of us fail to extend our own nutritional mindfulness to our furry friends, mostly as a result of education and societal conditioning. We’ve been taught that animals can eat anything, that they’ve survived unencumbered in the wilderness for millennia, so they could probably get by eating worms out of the dirt if they had to. While we push for higher standards in our own food systems (and rightfully so), we are content to put our faith in the giants of the pet industry to produce healthy, economical food for Fido.
So what is the deal with the grub we buy at the supermarket for our pooches? Is an attitude of skepticism towards mass-produced dog food justifiable? Or are we making mountains out of molehills? Let’s take a look and see what we find.
How is Dog Food Made?
Wander the pet supermarket’s pet aisle and you’ll see an aisle dominated by kibble, canned food, more kibble, and a few semi-moist options. In 2018, dry pet food raked in nearly $20 billion in US sales. With a 72% share of the market, it constitutes the majority of pets’ diets. Kibble is the illustrative example of how we think about dog food today, so it’s worth exploring a bit.
Adjusting your dog’s diet later life involves a lot of factors. Common changes to dogs’ health that necessitate dietary adjustments include lowered activity levels, difficulty maintaining water balance, decreased digestive function, and decreased appetite. The key recommended adjustments to your dog’s diet are explained below.
Since the late ‘50s, manufacturers have utilized a process called extrusion to mass-produce dry pet food. First, the ingredients are combined, pulverized, and cooked together, then forced through grates, where they’re cut to size and dried. The resulting pellets are hard, uniform, and shelf-stable. This is what we call kibble.
At the end of the extrusion process, supplementary ingredients like minerals and synthetic vitamins can easily be added to fortify the kibble. Thanks to this, the idea goes, you can fulfill your pet’s dietary needs with a single product. And best of all, it requires no preparation. Just open the bag and pour it into the bowl.
However, there is a downside. Certain nutrients are destroyed by the extreme heat and pressure that is used in the extrusion process. This wasn’t always obvious, and has created a serious problem for some kibble manufacturers. It was discovered that taurine, an important amino acid found in animal flesh, was zapped by the heat and pressure. This caused a widespread deficiency of taurine in canines, which in some cases led to blindness and serious heart problems.
Taurine deficiency is not the only problem that can plague many of the kibble brands found on your local pet food shelves. Much of the dry food on the market is mass-produced from the remnants of low-quality food scraps. The standards that are imposed upon human-grade food manufacturers do not apply here. Often, the food that’s used is expired or even rotting. In a way, this demonstrates an ugly truth: from the top down, we treat our dogs like living garbage disposals.
While there are some higher-quality kibble manufacturers out there, most of the industry bigwigs are focused on making really cheap chow that meets the bare minimum of nutritional standards required by law. A question to ask yourself when food shopping for your dog is, would I buy food of this quality for myself or my kids? After all, your dog is a part of your family.
Industry Standards: Testing & Studies
The reality of the situation is that most commercial dog food is designed to provide sustenance, but not nourishment. This is not accidental. We might even call it a design feature of the commercial pet food industry. This is evident in the way that feeding trials are designed by AAFCO, the non-regulatory organization that unofficially sets the standards for commercial pet chow. The feeding trials’ requirements are minimal. They go something like this: for 6 months, 8 healthy animals are fed a particular food (which must first meet AAFCO’s nutrient profiles). If none of the animals die or drop out of the trial for nutritional reasons, and at least six of them finish the trial without losing too much weight, the product has a good chance of receiving AAFCO’s stamp of approval. Again, AAFCO is not a regulatory body, so they do not impose or enforce laws, but they do carry a lot of sway, so their recommendations help shape the industry.
Unfortunately, there is a disappointing lack of scholarly research examining the relationship between a dog’s diet and well-being. Because of this, disinformation spreads like wildfire, and consumers are easily manipulated by marketing tactics that convince us that our dogs can do just fine with the bare minimum.
Still, we think there’s hope. We expect to see this lack of scientific data mitigated in coming decades. In the meantime, studies like this one by the American Veterinary Medical Association do confirm the link between canine diet and longevity. The results suggest that “a 25% restriction in food intake increased median life span and delayed the onset of signs of chronic disease in these dogs”. We imagine that future studies will demonstrate a similar connection between not just the quantity of food a dog consumes, but also the quality.
Alternatives to Traditional Dog Food
This isn’t to say that the way forward is to start prepping green smoothies and kale salads for our dogs. Instead, we can turn to companies who focus on producing high-quality, ethically-sourced food rich in amino acids and essential nutrients. Thankfully, a few players in the market have had an ear to the ground in recent years. We’re hopeful that these companies represent a paradigm shift in the way we think about feeding our animals.
Best overall: Ollie
Headquartered in New York, Ollie is a subscription-based meal-delivery company that has captured much of the high-end market’s attention. Their small-batch meals, which are produced in a USDA-certified New Jersey facility, are delivered to your doorstep every two weeks. Currently, there are four different recipes to choose from: beef-, chicken-, turkey- and lamb-based, all of which have been formulated by expert veterinary nutritionists. Made with premium, human-grade ingredients, they’re totally free from preservatives, fillers, and artificial colors and flavors. By all accounts, you could eat the stuff yourself if you were so inclined.
And yes, it’s costly, but we love the attention and care the company puts into their process. When you subscribe to the service, Ollie asks you about your dog’s current weight, his ideal weight, etc. Your answers help them determine the size of your pooch’s daily portions. The ingredients are cooked at a low temperature to retain their nutrient value (unlike in the aforementioned extrusion process), then weighed out, frozen, and analyzed by a verified third-party for quality-assurance before being shipped.
The convenience of having premium meals delivered to your door comes at a price, but not so much that we can’t put our recommendation behind it. When you do the math, Ollie can be as cheap as three bucks a day. This sounds expensive compared to kibble, but this food is not just meant to keep your dog alive, but to have him thrive.
We believe Ollie’s food model represents the changing tide, and we hope that in time, market competition and other developments will help lower its cost. Scour the internet a bit and you’ll see that pets seem to rejoice at a bowl of premium chow like that served up by Ollie & its competitors, which are listed below.
Currently, Ollie is offering 20% off your first box, but you can get 50% off through this link for a limited time only.
Nom Nom Now
Every dog is different, so it may take some trial and error to find what Buster likes best. In the end, maybe he insists on supermarket brand kibble. If it keeps him healthy and happy, that’s great. But otherwise, we believe that a healthy diet is just as important to your pooch as it is to you.