It’s often challenging to think about a new approach to something, when we’ve become so accustomed to a particular way of doing things for decades on end. There is no truer example of this, than the type of food that many people serve to their pets each day. The vast majority of the population have somehow come to view a homogenous diet of ‘little round pellets’ as the most appropriate and normal thing to feed to its companion animals.
It’s only when we really drill into the history of pet food and start to more deeply consider exactly what goes into making those smooth, perfectly round little nuggets, that things begin to feel a little unsettling. It’s not just the ingredients on the label that are cause for concern, but all the processing it takes to transform the fresh ingredients that Mother Nature (or it could be Big Agriculture) provides, into something so homogenous and dry - and ultimately so unrecognizable, that it almost fails to qualify as even being food.
Kibble is convenient
The main advantage of an extruded, pelleted ‘kibble’ diet of course, is convenience. Kibble takes no time at all to scoop out of the bag and into the bowl - it’s quick, easy, and requires almost zero thought or effort. Kibble also often results in smaller, harder stools, which are less bothersome to pick up and many pet owners, this accents the propaganda that’s put out by the kibble manufacturers, making them think the pellets are even more ideal. But pet food choices should be more about what’s right for the animal and less about what’s convenient or easy for the owner. A key element in what’s better for the pet, is plain old moisture.
Mammals need moisture
Mammals need to consume a certain amount of moisture, in order to digest their food properly. If it isn’t consumed with the food itself, the body compensates by robbing moisture from the tissues, and sending it to the digestive tract to help facilitate the digestion of each dry meal. (Just imagine eating a bowl of breakfast cereal without the milk, or a whole meal of oyster crackers without the soup- day after day.) Both the liver and kidneys can become stressed, and constipation and other health problems may result from insufficient moisture in the food.
Some pets will drink large volumes of water after their meals to try and re-dress the balance, and the problems with this are discussed below. Many pets, however, don’t drink enough to properly compensate for their dry food diets, and holistic vets link this to the fact that so many pets in the US suffer from chronic, low-grade dehydration. This dehydration can give a kibble-fed pet that tell-tale ‘bloated’ look caused by fluid retention in the body’s tissues as it tries to hold onto as much fluid as possible because it knows it’s not receiving enough fluid from the continuous cycle of dry meals. In humans, studies have shown that chronic low-grade dehydration can result in problems with digestion, elimination, urination, kidneys, respiration, skin, blood pressure, cholesterol, joints and PH balance.
Excessive water consumption to compensate
In an effort to compensate for the lack of moisture in the dry pellets, many dogs gulp down large amounts of water following their meal of kibble, in an attempt to moisten it after consumption, and thus facilitate digestion. However, this can place undue stress on the organs (especially if the dog is suffering with age-related or congenital problems), since those organs may already be struggling to cope with a rendered diet of difficult-to-assimilate proteins and manufactured nutrients. Pets who consume a long term dry food diet can also begin to suffer with metabolic stress.
Pellets can swell in the stomach
If you have ever seen what happens to kibble pellets when they come into contact with moisture, you’ll know that they can swell to several times their original size. When this happens in the GI tract or stomach, it can increase the risk of bloat or gastric torsion in dogs who are prone to these disorders – and cause a potentially fatal medical emergency, especially for larger, barrel-chested breeds. In contrast, foods that do contain sufficient moisture have the benefit of not swelling up in the stomach. This may make a high-moisture diet better suited for bloat-prone breeds.
Dry food can cause urinary problems
There’s nothing worse than dry food, for a dog that’s prone to urinary tract infections, crystals or stones. Many holistic vets have linked the long term feeding of dry kibble, to the increasing prevalence of urinary and kidney disorders in dogs (and especially cats) in the developed world. Dry food can place more strain on the kidneys and cause the urine to be more concentrated, which can increase the risk of infections compared with a dog whose urinary system is sufficiently hydrated, thanks to a higher moisture diet.
Moisture-rich food helps prevent to chronic dehydration, so it’s also really beneficial for pets that are prone to urinary tract infections or blockages and even kidney problems, because the extra moisture helps to keep the urinary system flushed out. It’s common sense that a higher moisture diet will help to promote and maintain over all urinary tract and kidney health.
Carb-laden homogenous chunks
Another disadvantage of kibble is the fact that it’s such a uniform, homogenous product; it’s hard to identify what’s really in those smooth brown chunks. The process of making conventional kibble usually means that a certain amount of carbohydrate or starch, is required, to provide the ‘glue’ that’s necessary for proper pellet form and shape. The presence of high quantities of refined carbohydrates in dry food diets has been linked with the increasing incidence of pet obesity, diabetes and irritable bowel.
Proponents of a fresh or non-conventional diet such as homemade, raw or dehydrated food where variety is king, compare kibble consumption to a monotonous diet of nothing but processed ‘fast food’ or manufactured ‘TV Dinners’ for themselves.
The dental myth
Some kibble manufacturers claim that kibble helps to keep the teeth clean, by scraping off tartar and plaque during chewing. This, sadly, is a myth. Kibble isn’t abrasive enough to really clean the teeth, and in fact it isn’t actually crunched, either. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing a dog throw up his dry food, you’ll notice those uniform chunks come out just the same way they went in, as complete round pellets – just a little swollen from all the moisture they absorbed from the intestinal tract. To really clean the teeth, a raw beef marrow bone is perfect for the job.
A primary advantage of canned, dehydrated and raw food diets, is their naturally high moisture content, which more closely resembles the diet that nature intended. By definition, one requirement of a diet that’s ‘biologically appropriate’ is to properly emulate the amount of moisture found in a wild or ancestral diet. A dog’s natural diet is about 70% water. Kibble is usually 10% moisture or less.
Canned and raw foods can be more costly than kibbled diets, especially for larger breed dogs, but there are some nice quality products on the market that use real, identifiable whole food pieces in their recipes – reassurance for those guardians who’ve been made nervous by the visual mysteries of kibble. And often the savings in vet bills over the long term, can justify the higher cost.
Home-made diets are another alternative, but can be time consuming to prepare and it can take a lot of prep work to grind up the various components as well as to ensure all the necessary nutrients are provided over time.
Most holistic vets recommend a diet as close as possible to its natural state, to optimize digestion and nutrient assimilation. Ideally, kibble should be eliminated completely for pets who are prone to health problems that result from (or are exacerbated by) lack of dietary moisture. Failing that, incorporating at least some fresher, less processed, wet foods like those above, or even healthy table scraps or home cooked meals served along with the kibble or in place of just one kibble meal each day, can go some way to providing the essential food-based fluids that pets so badly need.
© 2013 Lucy Postins & The Honest Kitchen This article may only be copied with prior written permission from the company. Reproductions must include credit to the author and a link to this website.