A wolf streaks across the frozen tundra, pursuing its prey. It leaps, teeth bared, claws extended, and brings down—a stalk of corn? A bushel of rice? If this scenario seems unnatural, it may be time to consider stocking a wider array of pet foods. In nature, dogs are omnivores and scavengers, but the vast majority of a wild dog's diet consists of meat.
Increasingly, pet food manufacturers are offering products that come closer to the natural diet, free of grains and in some cases made entirely of raw meat. These products sometimes come in the familiar form of cans or bagged kibbles, but can also be found in the freezer case or as dry mixes to be added to ground beef at home.
"When we first came to the U.S., we wondered how they'd managed to convince people to feed their dogs the way they feed their cows," says Richard Osborne, owner of Country Pet, a New Zealand-based manufacturer of frozen all-meat dog foods with U.S. headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. Most dog food is "pretty highly formulated to trick the dogs, and the first ingredient might be meat, but the other 929 aren't. These foods may be scientifically tested and nutritionally complete, but I'll give you a thousand dollars if your dog chooses a bowl of dry food over a piece of meat."
Country Pet products contain no grains or vegetables. The company adds only vitamins and calcium—in the wild, animals get their calcium from bones. The products, made from lamb, venison and chicken, are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and sold in plastic tubes like ground beef. They can be thawed and portioned, and they keep in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days after opening.
Another approach to grain-free foods is the new Wellness CORE line from Wellness Pet Foods, based in Chelmsford, Mass. CORE is a dry food made primarily of turkey, chicken or whitefish meal combined with fruits, vegetables and oils. Wellness also offers a 95 percent meat or fish canned food in beef, venison, chicken, turkey or salmon.
"Our grain-free line is a little different than others on the market, which try to pack in as much meat as possible," says Emily Saunderson, product manager for the dog food lines at Wellness. "They don't take into consideration that dogs today aren't wild and need a balance of nutrition, not just protein. We took out the grains and added more meat, but without the high levels of fat and minerals." The CORE line contains 80 percent more meat and 35 percent fewer calories than the average kibble, according to Wellness.
A third option comes from Belleville, Ontario-based Urban Wolf, a maker of grain-free base mixes. By adding ground meat and oil to the base mix, pet owners create a food that is BARF, an acronym for biologically appropriate real food. "I've been making homemade food for 25 years," says Catherine Woodliffe, a dog breeder and founder of Urban Wolf and Essex Cottage Farms pet food companies. "The quality and digestibility of puppy food I'd purchased were so poor that I started working with a vet at the local zoo to formulate my own."
Woodliffe warns against feeding dogs only raw meat without added calcium, claiming it can cause rickets and heart problems. Though it's possible to use ground bone-in meat in pet food, the calcium levels aren't consistent, she says. "The primary source of protein in Urban Wolf is the meat the consumer adds," she says. "The mix we sell provides added carbs in various forms, including fruits and veggies, and other ingredients that supply vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that dogs need to thrive."
Consumers are likely to have two questions when considering a grain-free diet for their pet. First, is such a diet appropriate for all dogs? Second, is meat alone sufficient, or do animals need carbohydrates from other sources, even if they're a much lower percentage than found in standard dry food?
"A no-grain, low-carb diet is fine, even for older dogs," says Christine Aiken, DVM, a veterinarian at Kilshannagh Veterinary Clinic in Ancramdale, N.Y., who specializes in pet nutrition. "Though most dogs can tolerate grain, it's never great for them. Often you see that when a pet is fed a grain-free diet, especially a raw diet, they will be healthier. They'll smell better, have better skin and coat, and have fewer chronic ear problems."
A dog with a specific medical condition, regardless of age, may need to have a higher-carb, lower-protein diet—for example, if a dog has compromised kidney function, a high-protein raw diet will be a problem. But as Aiken points out: "Carbs don't have to be grain."
Country Pet's Osborne sees the issue in simpler terms. "The real health benefit of this diet is that the dog is happier because it looks forward to eating," he says. He argues that, though a grain-free raw diet may not work if a dog has specific conditions including kidney disease or high cholesterol, it will work for any healthy dog, regardless of age or activity level.
"Even old dogs need to enjoy their food," Osborne says. "The fat content is irrelevant, but the amount of food is completely relevant. If you feed too much to a sedentary dog, it will get fat and die early, whether the diet is high-carb or low-carb. Feeding an animal isn't scientific; a dog needs quality food, lots of water, exercise and love. We like to make a simple food and keep away from the people in lab coats. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in this industry."
Urban Wolf's Woodliffe agrees with this assessment of high-protein diets, with a caveat. "Unless [the dog] has kidney disease, high protein won't hurt," she says. "But when a dog takes in protein, it uses what it needs and excretes the rest. If they're getting more than they use, it won't be as readily converted to energy as fat and carbs, so you're wasting protein."
So which approach to the grain-free diet is best? It depends on cost, preparation time, vet recommendations and, most importantly, the dog's palate. "Good food makes a difference to how happy they can be, and how long you can enjoy them as part of your family," Saunderson says. Ultimately, a dog's health and happiness are the best measures of success.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 96,98