Let’s start with a simple, scientifically proven fact: Dogs have absolutely zero nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. Domestic dogs are biologically and physiologically designed to get everything they need nutritionally from a diet composed of protein, minerals, and fat. Energy metabolism in the dog is elegantly and naturally designed for efficient fat oxidation and the breakdown of protein to produce glucose. Fiber plays a minor role, primarily acting as a prebiotic. Prebiotics provide nutrition not to your dog directly, but to the beneficial bacteria in the dog’s gut, which helps to maintain a healthy microbiome. There is no nutritional requirement for fiber in the diet, but the right form and amount (no more than 5 percent) of fiber can be advantageous for dogs.
So why do we feed our dogs diets that are predominantly made of carbohydrates? (“Wait, I don’t; not me,” you say. “I feed a ‘grain-free,’ ‘high-quality’ kibble.” Hold on a minute; we’ll get to this.) Unless you are preparing a truly low-glycemic diet at home for your animal, you are feeding a diet high in carbohydrates. Kibble is made with a minimum of 40 to 50 percent carbohydrate matter. These are carbohydrates your dog does not need—at all—and which are proving to be harmful to the health of your dog. And because of the way the pet food industry developed, carbohydrates in dog foods is a problem with all “complete and balanced” kibble, canned, and even most commercial raw foods.
The reason is because the development of dog/pet foods occurred in recent history during the the development of an industrialized food system. Grain milling companies originally created pet foods to utilize and commercialize their industry’s waste products and byproducts. Pet foods were developed to serve the needs of the food industry, not the nutritional needs of the animals.
This is how the original template was developed for manufacturing pet foods. We have not modified this template when it comes to the standards created for “complete and balanced” canine nutrition. Over time, pet food companies have worked to market and conduct studies that support these products, but the truth is, the original template for commercial pet food, and the predominance of carbohydrate included in “complete and balanced” diets, were originally and solely developed with the needs of industry in mind and not the unique needs of animals’ biology, physiology, or providing an ideal source of nutrition for their species. The template is flawed and needs to change.
Thankfully, now we know better which foods support health and vitality in dogs. We know that dogs do not require carbohydrates. We also are learning that when we eliminate or severely restrict carbohydrate matter in the diet, dogs experience improvements in their health including: the reduction of inflammatory diseases such as cancer; allergies, skin, and ear issues; GI symptoms; incontinence; behavioral issues; neurological disease; and arthritis and painful joint diseases. Pet food companies have responded with the development and marketing of “grain-free” products.
The problem is that these new grain-free products simply must include a large amount of carbohydrate matter by design—it’s just how kibble is manufactured. Manufacturers have not changed the template; they have simply swapped out one problematic element of commercial foods for another. These products were developed by grain millers; starch and carbohydrate matter are required to extrude and manufacture these foods. Unfortunately, the “grain-free” ingredients used in these new foods are more damaging and problematic to the health of animals than whole grains.
The problem is sugar. Yep, sugar. Carbohydrates are all forms of sugar, and when whole grain rice is swapped out for, say, potatoes in pet foods, the glycemic index (how quickly and slowly the sugar in the food is metabolized by the body) is worse than the original “whole grain” formulation. The original addition of a diet consisting of primarily whole grain was bad, but now consumers are paying a premium to feed foods that are more likely to promote inflammation and disease in dogs.
Pet owners should be concerned about the glycemic index of foods and the amount and form of carbohydrate matter in their dog’s diet because of their relationship with producing inflammation in the body, as well as their influence on inhibiting (or maintaining) a healthy intestinal flora, otherwise referred to as the microbiome.
Cancer is the single leading cause of death in dogs (it’s estimated that 1 in 3 will develop cancer) and should be a concern for anyone caring for a dog. Genetics, viruses, exposure to environmental toxins, age, nutrition, and sterilization status all have a role in the development of certain types of cancer. When it comes to preventing cancer through nutrition, it is true that there are no proven dietary changes or nutritional supplements that definitively guarantee the absolute prevention of cancer in dogs and cats.
However, cancer, like many diseases that harm and kill our dogs, is directly associated with inflammation. The good news is we have learned a lot about the prevention of inflammation through lifestyle and diet recently, so we can make better choices for animals when it comes to reducing inflammation in the body, especially with choices in the foods and treats provided.
Of course, nutrition plays a role in the prevention of disease. There are also easy dietary choices pet lovers can make to reduce the risk of their dog’s becoming ill or dying from cancer or other inflammatory diseases.
Research suggests there are two key components of pet health that guardians can control and influence through every day nutritional choices: microbiome diversity/health and reduction, or the promotion, of inflammation
New research shows that dogs are only as healthy as their microbiomes and the level of inflammation in their bodies. Reducing inflammation and promoting a healthy gut microbiome are critical for the prevention of illness in dogs.
Maintaining a healthy gut flora (or microbiome) not only has dramatic influence on animals’ overall health, ability to fight infection, and metabolize nutrients, but prevents several chronic, life-threatening diseases. Daily nutritional choices, exposure to environmental toxins (such as flea/tick medications, herbicides, etc.), and lifestyle/stress have a considerable influence on the health and diversity of pets’ microbiome.
It is encouraging and hopeful to know that consumers can make informed choices to support a healthy microbiome and reduce inflammation in dogs. One of the most important choices consumers can make is what their dog eats every day in the form of the daily diet and treats. Choosing foods and treats that are low-glycemic, natural/wholesome, species-appropriate, contaminant-free, and very minimally processed will make a dramatic difference in an animal’s health. That means skipping the “grain-free” options on the market today, eliminating kibbled foods entirely, and being much more selective about the treats given. Preparing a fresh food diet and making treats at home is ideal. Remember, this is how humans fed their dogs before industry got in the way of providing healthy, whole, and natural foods to our beloved canine family members.
It’s Not that Complicated
There are some excellent resources to learn how to feed your animals a healthy, nutritious diet that will help prevent disease through reducing inflammation and supporting a healthy microbiome, including these:
• The Dog Cancer Series: Rethinking The Canine Epidemic (DogCancerSeries.com)—A documentary series urging a huge change in the dog food industry and canine health.
• Pet Fooled (PetFooled.com)—This documentary features veterinarians and pet owners seeking information related to commercial pet foods with eye-opening research-based reporting.
• AnimalBiome (AnimalBiome.com)—This web-based service researches the domestic dog’s microbiome and provide information on its influence on dogs’ health and behavior.
• KetoPet Sanctuary (KetoPetSanctuary.com)—This website offers information and a free ebook, Pet Parent’s Handbook to a Ketogenic Diet & Canine Cancer on the ketogenic diet and cancer.
• “The Benefits and Dangers of a Ketogenic Diet for Dogs” by Ali Lehman—An article on PetTao.com.
• “Why Your Dog Needs More Meat (and Fewer Carbohydrates)” by Dana Scott—An article on DogsNaturallyMagazine.com.
Kasie Maxwell has been feeding home-prepared raw diets to her animals since 1989 and founded San Francisco Raw Feeders, or SFRAW, in 2003. She teaches workshops and provides private nutritional consultations from the SFRAW warehouse at 250 Napoleon St. in San Francisco. SFRAW is open to the public seven days a week.
Main article photo by: Christin Lola/iStock