Reader Giovanni asks:
Would you be able to explain how gluten affects dogs? I’ve heard that it is not great for their digestive system but am skeptical to believe that it’s true for all breeds.
Thanks Giovanni! Having consulted the joepastry.com house veterinarian, Dr. Amanda Rizner, I have been authorized to say that while some dogs — like some people — can be sensitive wheat, gluten is not bad for dogs. Though grain-free diets have become all the rage in recent years, the high-dollar chows don’t create healthier dogs so much as tidier profits for dog food companies.
UPDATE: A reader who calls himself Almighty Hat replies with this:
You imply expensive kibble isn’t worth it. If you’re going to buy kibble at all, you should know what you’re in for and at least get good stuff– no corn, ever (I know, I know, but I’m not demonizing all corn here– corn has this frequent tendency to cause skin-irritating allergic reactions in lots of dogs, which causes a funky dog-smell, itching, scratching, and due to the itching and scratching, shedding– and it’s not exactly the best corn that goes into kibble, anyway), and named meat or named meat meal as a primary ingredient. (Just meat as a first ingredient isn’t actually that trustworthy, as meat is always measured by its wet content before it’s cooked and rendered down into something that goes into the kibble.) Basically, if the protein content in any given kibble isn’t at least 22%, put it back on the shelf.
Basically, internally, dogs are wolves. They do not have flat molars meant for grinding up plant matter, and though they’re happy to have a share of what the rest of the pack (the human owner or family) is having, what’s actually good for them is another story entirely. They’re meant to hunt and they can and will scavenge; if meat or carrion isn’t available they’ll eat whatever they can get to in order to survive, just like your average college student. Just please, Joe, don’t go around telling people that buying better pet food isn’t good for their pets. It’s really not true. Price may not be the be-all and end-all of quality, but in general if you only buy the cheap stuff, you’re not doing your dog any favors. If you have to feed kibble, read labels, do research, and find the good stuff.
I think this is the first time I’ve ever put up a response to a post that’s twice the length of the post itself (and this was about half of Hat’s email!). I want to parse what I’m about to say by pointing out that when it comes to dog biology, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’m sure that more than a few of my readers would argue that when it comes to pretty much anything I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I surprise myself at how often I’m in agreement.
To Hat’s point, one of the things that I did uncover in my research this week was that a ratio of about 25% meat products has been a tried-and-true formula for dog food for well over 100 years. As to the point that dogs are wolves on the inside, I’ve seen that argued time and time again. If dogs are like wolves then they must want meat, since wolves are hunters. No grinding teeth means they’re not adapted to grains and carbohydrates. It makes a lot of intuitive sense.
However the reality is that wolves do take in quite a bit of vegetable matter, grass and grain in the wild. The source: the intestinal tracks and feces of the ruminant animals they eat. Again I want to underscore my utter lack of training in this area, yet it makes sense to me that if you’re consuming non-meat substances that are already broken down inside a deer, you wouldn’t need the same sort of teeth that the deer needs to deal with them in their natural state. I’m not going to get deeply into this debate, though I do think it’s very interesting. I’ll add any more novel thoughts on the subject that I receive as the day goes on.
This from reader and dog breeder Dave:
It’s true that raw corn is indigestible for dogs, however science shows cooking corn breaks it down and makes it nutritionally beneficial. Would I feed my dog Ol’Roy? Hell no it’s MOSTLY corn. Would I feed a food with some corn, hell yes. To make kibble you need some starch to hold it together. It’s highly processed food, much like frozen pizza, or Salisbury steak. We have found more problems with chicken than corn, and the easy way to get the fat up in kibble is adding rendered chicken fat. Even the high-dollar feeds use this trick.
Whether dogs NEED carbs isn’t the issue. Can they use carbs? Yes. Are they harmful? No. Are they beneficial? The science says yes.
I should also say that dogs do have molars. They use them to grind plant material and probably originated to grind tough tissue. The majority of dogs, like 85% will do just fine on Purina ONE or Iams. The rest might have allergies or sensitivities. But even then, if you know what the problem is (blood test for allergies, experimentation for sensitivities) you can usually find a reasonably priced feed. In my opinion, once you get to a certain point, the geometric increase in price doesn’t justify the incremental improvements in the ingredient quality. Particularly if your dog is “normal”. Just because a feed is expensive it doesn’t guarantee it’s good for your dog.
[But] dogs are not wolves. They have had probably ten thousand generations since the wolf and yes, the are similar, but dogs have been bred by humans, not selected by nature.