IT'S Monday morning's online editorial meeting.
First, Gumi, Max's Italian greyhound, jumps on his lap. There is cooing. Gumi may be her name, but there is also Poppels and Tienkel (according to Max, dogs like to have more than one name).
Then we see Laureen's Yorkie, Krismisrosie (she has her own Instagram account), who, with Sadie-from-Hout-Bay-harbour, is stretched out on a stylish sofa. Willem shows us Fielies. His other names are Ginsberg or Ginsey (yes, named after Allen Ginsberg). And Elmari shows us her friend's white, woolly Maltese, Bessie.
I can't get grumpy Snowy off the sofa to come and show her face (Snowy doesn't do people-pleasing.)
We're talking about dog food. Max's dogs only get dry pellets. I mostly mix wet food and pellets. Sometimes I even cook a meat-carrot-pea mixture for old Auntie Snowy. My neighbours spend a fortune on a specially formulated raw meat diet.
But what exactly is the best food for dogs? (Remember that they are not allowed the following foods because they are toxic to dogs: macadamia nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, raisins, grapes, onions, too much garlic and the natural sugar substitute xylitol.)
When dogs began to accompany humans thousands of years ago, they were hunters and scavengers, but over the centuries they became omnivores. (Cats remain out-and-out carnivores, but that's a story for another week.)
Although meat makes up the bulk of (most) dogs' diets, domestic dogs can also obtain nutrients from grains, fruits and vegetables. These foods are not simply fillers; they are a valuable source of essential vitamins, minerals and fibre, says Dr Gerhard Giliomee, a veterinarian at Stellenbosch Animal Hospital.
“The best dog food contains high-quality ingredients suited to a dog's digestion. For example, organ meat and intestines contain more nutrients than muscle meat which humans mostly consume."
The typical unprocessed products used in manufactured dog food are the waste products of human nutrition. Still, in South Africa we mostly have to import protein because people in Africa eat much more of an animal's carcass.
Lamb meal is imported from New Zealand and Australia (made from sheep that are deemed unsuitable for human consumption), and chicken carcass meal from Europe. The latter is made from chicken heads and legs and the carcasses of laying hens — all of which in SA enter the human food chain.
Giliomee's interest in animal nutrition led him to collaborate with nutritionists from the University of Stellenbosch and Onderstepoort to develop a food range, Omega Pet Foods, which also contains vegetable byproducts “such as dried beetroot pulp and chicory, which acts as a prebiotic".
Dr Elizna Boag is a veterinarian at Montego Pet Nutrition, South Africa's biggest dog food manufacturer (and the 61st largest in the world). It produces many dry and wet foods for dogs and cats.
“The ‘best' food depends on what you can afford," she says. “There is a difference between economy products and premium and super-premium products. Well-known super-premium ranges are Hill's and Eukanuba. Montego's is called Karoo. Regarding formulations and unprocessed ingredients, our product is on the same level as imported products
“Montego's Monty & Me range is our economy product. It gives a dog or cat everything they need; although it has a lower protein level than some others higher up in the range, the unprocessed ingredients are very high quality.
“Montego Classic is our premium range. Other things are added to the formula, such as omega oils and glucosamine for joints. And with our super-premium range, Karoo, more ingredients are added, such as fish oil, linseed oil and various protein sources. We always use lamb and then also chicken or beef. In our Karoo range, we also use only rice, while the more economical products have a combination of maize and rice in them."
Giliomee says it can be challenging to ascertain exactly what the ingredients in some commercially produced dog food are, and some are poor quality.
“You have to know what to look for on a label. The essential elements are the protein and the fat content. Those are always the most expensive components in any formula. The price difference comes down to what the source is.
“Carcass meal made from chicken heads and feet and feathers may be labelled [on the packaging] as ‘chicken', but it has a much higher ash content and a much lower protein content than a quality carcass meal made from whole chickens. And some manufacturers will use plant proteins, like soy, because it's cheaper. The highest-quality protein is egg, but it's costly. The highest-quality products will contain meat, carcass meal, eggs and good oils.
“We mainly use chicken fat and fish oil, but many formulas will use linseed to decrease prices. One has to know what to look for."
Boag says Montego tries to be transparent with the ingredient list on its packaging, precisely so consumers know what they are getting.
“Some manufacturers will say, for example, that they use grain [cereal]. It can be anything from corn or wheat to rice. We'll specify that we use rice. Some only refer to ‘meat'. We say lamb, lamb's liver or chicken. So look at the back of a food bag or a container. If there is a V-number, then it means it is strictly regulated. And there won't be things like feathers, nails, hooves and hair in it. You run that risk with unregistered products."
Another tip from Giliomee on reading a label: “Inferior products often group ingredients, while a high-quality product will list each raw ingredient. The only ingredients that are acceptable to group are vitamins and minerals."
Dry food or pellets
The most significant advantage of pellets is availability, affordability and convenience. And veterinarians generally like them because the formulas can be perfectly calibrated, they are easily digestible, and pathogens are destroyed during manufacturing.
Wet dog food, or canned dog food, is generally slightly more expensive than dry food because it usually contains less carbohydrates and more meat. And because it has more flavour, it can help stimulate picky appetites. “Sometimes dogs don't drink enough water, so mixing some wetness into dry food can help with that," says Boag.
Regarding homemade food, veterinarians are always concerned about nutritional imbalances and vitamin or mineral deficiencies if it is the sole source of an animal's diet.
“Of course, there are formulas to do this. On many farms, dogs will be fed maize meal porridge and offal, and if you add some carrots and broccoli for fibre, it will probably be very close to a fully balanced diet. But most of us don't live on farms and don't have access to cheap offal, which is why I'm a proponent of an extruded product. Extrusion is the name used for the cooking and drying process to make dry food. My animals eat only that," says Giliomee.
Boag adds: “Formulating a balanced diet is a specialised field. If you cook for your dog, it can be tricky to provide a well-balanced diet. Some people do it, and some places can help you, but doing it right is a lot of effort and expensive, and there is always the question of whether your animal is getting all the nutrients they need.
“With a well-formulated commercial dog food, which is based on European guidelines like we do at Montego, you know from a formulation point of view that your dog is getting everything he needs. And if you want to add little white meat from a chicken for the deliciousness, there is nothing wrong with that."
Dr Katy Sommers is an American veterinarian and the author of The Complete Holistic Dog Book. She says dogs and humans have different nutritional needs. “Dogs need high-quality proteins and more calcium and minerals in proportion to their body size. Dogs don't need vitamin C like humans, but calcium is essential if you follow a homemade diet. Even if you feed a variety of foods, you will probably need to provide an extra source of calcium.”
Some people (like my neighbours who get so evangelical about very expensive bags of chicken heads, livers and intestines) insist a raw meat diet is the right thing because dogs are evolutionary carnivores. One of South Africa's leading producers of raw meat products is Doggobone.
“Cats are carnivores, but dogs are not, and vets are generally not advocates of a raw diet," says Boag.
“With a raw meat diet, there is again the issue of whether your dog is getting the right nutrients in the right amounts. And there is the added risk of pathogens, disease, worms and bacterial infections. You can buy an expensive chicken breast which can still have salmonella on it."
Meat vs. vegan
A large study by the Centre for Animal Welfare at the University of Winchester in the UK, conducted in 2022 with 2,639 dogs and their owners, looked at health outcomes for dogs eating a conventional meat-based diet and those eating a vegan diet.
Vegan diets are among a range of alternatives being developed to address consumers' growing concerns about traditional meat-based pet foods, including their environmental “pawprint", their perceived lack of “naturalness", health fears and impacts on animals in the food chain used to formulate such diets.
Considering seven general indicators of health, it turned out that dogs fed a conventional diet (which also contained meat) were less healthy than those fed either raw meat or a vegan diet. They had poorer health indicators in almost all cases. Dogs fed raw meat diets fared slightly better than those fed vegan diets. Still, the study also found that a raw meat diet carries certain dangers, including nutritional deficiencies, imbalances and pathogens. Bacteria and parasites were more common in these dogs, and there were risks for people who share their households with such dogs.
The percentage of dogs in each diet group that suffered from health disorders was 49% (conventional diet with meat), 43% (raw meat diet) and 36% (vegan diet). Substantial evidence suggests raw meat diets are often associated with dietary hazards, including nutritional deficiencies, imbalances and pathogens. Consequently, the pooled evidence from the study to date suggests the healthiest and least dangerous dietary choice for dogs is a complete, balanced, nutritious vegan diet.
Dr Hazel Brown, one of the study's co-authors, says: “There is no evidence that biological and practical challenges in formulating a complete, nutritious, balanced vegan diet for dogs mean that its use should not be recommended ."
However, it is precisely in formulating such alternative diets where the challenges come in, says Boag.
“It comes down to the protein. It isn't easy to incorporate the amount of protein a dog needs into such a diet if plant protein is your main source. And there is also some concert that with grain-free dog food — in other words, legume-based food — there might be a correlation to animal heart disease. To produce a [balanced] vegan diet without high levels of legume protein is very difficult. And look, a vegan diet for a cat just doesn't make sense."
Giliomee agrees: “You can formulate a vegetarian diet for a dog, but you must still be careful. Your combination of amino acids and other things must be properly composed using various protein sources to achieve the right balance. It's complicated."
According to Giliomee, fishmeal is one of the best protein sources for dry dog food. Still, the issue surrounding the sustainability of fish sources is becoming a concern.
Boag says other protein and fat sources are increasingly being looked at as awareness of sustainability increases worldwide.
“I believe that insect protein as a source for especially dog food and cat food will increase greatly because it is much more sustainable. For example, certain fly larvae's nutrient and fat profiles are excellent. It is also easy to farm with, it requires less water and space, and there are fewer emissions. So there are many benefits to using insect protein in pet food, and I think it will be done much more in the future."
♦ VWB ♦
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