Visiting Veterinarian : Canine cuisine
Over millennia, dogs have gradually moved from cave, to farm, to backyard, and finally to the living room couch. As their place in our families has changed, so has the source of their food, from the forest, fields, and barn, to the pet food aisle of the grocery store. Is commercial dog food good for Chowder, the chow-chow? Or would he be better off eating whatever you're eating? Isn't home-cooking healthier? What about this bones and raw foods (BARF) diet you keep hearing about?
Up until the last century, dogs ate mostly what they could catch or scrounge, or whatever their owners could spare, usually a base of grains with scraps of meat and vegetables. Then, in the 1860s, American James Spratt was on a business trip to England. When his ship came into port, he noticed dogs enjoying hardtack remnants left by the sailors. Eureka! Dog biscuits! Spratt developed the first commercial dog treat, made from wheat, beef blood, and vegetables. By the early 1900s Milk Bones were being sold in the United States by the F.H. Bennett Biscuits Co. Mr. Bennett thought the bone-shaped treat was fun and good for dogs to gnaw. He also developed a more nutritionally complete dog diet, but due to problems with mold and spoilage, as well as a public unused to the concept, the idea of commercial dog food did not catch on in a big way.
After World War I, three brothers named Chappel began selling canned dog food. The Chappels were involved in the horse trade and had connections with the packing industry. (You can see where this is headed.) Ken-L-Ration canned dog food was initially a profitable way to dispose of dead horses. The Chappel brothers then expanded their line to include a dry biscuit food. Soon after, Gaines Foods began selling canned fish cat food and dry meat meal for dogs. With the advent of World War II, metal was needed for the military and canning pet food was no longer an option. Using cereal and meat byproducts was an economical way to produce and market an affordable dry pet food.
In the 1950s, Ralston Purina revolutionized pet food with a new manufacturing process called extrusion. Ingredients were mixed together, cooked as a liquid, and pushed through a mechanical extruder, which puffed up the product. It was then baked and sprayed with a tasty coating. Voila! Dog Chow. Dogs liked the crunchy texture and taste. Owners perceived it as a good value, as extruded dry food was much bulkier than the older meat meal and biscuits. The war was over and canned dog food was also coming back strong. In households across the country, modern Betty Crocker moms served their families "convenience foods" - canned vegetables, frozen entrees, cakes from mixes. A dollop of Alpo and a scoop of Chow for Chowder fit right in. Following the lead of veterinarian Dr. Mark Morris, the founder of Hill's Pet products and Science Diet, who had introduced special diets for dogs with heart and kidney disease in the late 1940s, pet food companies began developing "premium" foods, puppy chows, senior diets, and focusing on being sure products were nutritionally complete. Sure, it was big business, but the research and development of these products was truly an advance for pets' health. Feeding commercial dog food rapidly became the norm.
Skip forward 30-odd years. People are thinking more about nutrition and reexamining the entire "convenience food" concept. Many buy organic produce, free-range chickens, and antibiotic-free milk for themselves, and they're wondering if dog food is really the best thing for Chowder. On the other hand, most veterinarians recommend commercial diets and many espouse a "No table scraps for pets" policy.
What's a dog lover to think? Here's my two cents. I still believe the safest and simplest solution is to feed primarily a good brand name commercial dog food. I also think it's fine to add a small amount of sensible home-cooking to round out Chowder's chow. I repeat. Small amount. I repeat. Sensible. No pastrami. No cheesecake.
What about those pet food recalls? Yup, that was a terrible mess, but there are risks with fresh produce and meats too, such as outbreaks of Salmonella from spinach or E. Coli from hamburger. Statistically such events are rare, and the food industries, both pet and people, work hard to prevent them. What about all those byproducts on the label? We may turn up our noses at these leftover bits and pieces, but there is nothing nutritionally wrong with them. Besides, if you are so inclined and have the budget, you can opt for an organic, preservative-free, premium dog food made from choice cuts of meat and no byproducts.
Now, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the only healthy way to feed Chowder is by purchasing commercial pet food. Obviously dogs ate and survived long before James Spratt made that first dog biscuit. But it is also true that dogs and cats have different nutritional requirements than people, and owners who home cook sometimes end up harming their pets. If you insist on feeding completely homemade food, please, please consult your veterinarian and a reputable veterinary nutritionist. There are several good ones online. Then, stick to their plan.
Small amounts of ingredients that may seem unimportant, like that smidgeon of bone meal or vitamin supplement, are critical. Owners tend to slack off on these ingredients over time, but without them, significant nutritional deficiencies can result. It's also tempting to be swayed by arguments such as "wild canines eat bones and raw foods."
It's "natural," people say. So was smallpox. The BARF diet has many risks. Parasites. Bacteria. Intestinal obstructions and perforations. Nutritional deficiencies. My advice is to take advantage of half a century of veterinary nutrition research. Unless you're ready to spend many, many hours educating yourself, talking to your veterinarian, consulting a nutritionist, then preparing scientifically balanced complete meals for Chowder, I suggest you rely on a good commercial dog food to keep him healthy.