Preferential Carnivore

Over the past decade,  there has been a veritable explosion of information about canine nutrition, with books such as Dr. Billinghurst’s series on raw feeding, Richard Pitcairn’s venerable Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, Monica Segal’s gold standard K9Kitchen and Optimal Nutrition (by far the best to be found anywhere) and a multitude of  questionable how-to recipe books – some of which offer reasonably balanced recipes, others that appear to not even have bothered with the basics, and succeed by appealing more to human aesthetic sensibilities than to canine needs.  Pet food companies, following consumer trends and demand, are offering a range of “premium” foods such as we have never witnessed since the start of the kibble and canned food industry; many of these formulas proudly and loudly proclaim that – this above all – they are GRAINFREE! and others promise to mimic the “ancestral diet” of the domestic canine – or simply make the consumer feel really good about the product by putting a wolf on the bag, listing off trendy ingredients ( Now with Yucca! With Pre AND Probiotics! Don’t forget – Essential Fatty Acids!) and other marketing ploys.

I always want to say, well good that the ESSENTIAL fatty acids are in there. But then again, I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to trends in nutrition and marketing gimmicks designed to appease the public’s latest craze for – well just about anything.And lest I sound too terribly jaded; the plethora of books, yahoogroups, websites, and commercial products is not all a bad thing – far from it. I remember way back when I first started feeding one of Dr. Pitcairn’s recipes to my own dog – there were only two brands available to me here in Canada, Innova and Wysong. When I went to the local butcher to ask for bones and hearts and fattier ground beef for my DOGS, I was stared at like the Village Weirdo. Times have changed with regard to canine health concerns – and that’s clear cause for celebration. But along with an increase in the good stuff – consumer and veterinary awareness, better food for dogs, much more to choose from – along with this comes an awful lot of hype, sloganism and reductionism; a lot of generalizing, and, perhaps most alarmingly, a huge amount of fanaticism.

However; dog food is what I do for a living – part of what I do, as a therapeutic nutritionist and herbalist,  I also use Tellington Touch and Flower Essences for dogs, so I suppose I’m more of a Canine Naturopath than anything; but I digress. When you do the work I do, centered on canine nutrition for all kinds of dogs, all health issues and conditions – you get to see far more deeply into the reality behind the hype and pop-nutrition approaches. Dog food trends and gimmicks bug me, I admit it. There’s good reason for that. High protein is not the best choice for all dogs; all dogs are not one identical entity who should eat as we believe wolves do; raw is not always optimal and carbohydrates as a group are not “the enemy”. Yet, daily, I have to hear this trumpeted  loudly ,  with a marked lack of critical analysis. In this entry, I want to go into why this is worrisome and why, if nothing else, people should learn the facts of canine nutrition before jumping on any dietary bandwagon. What works for your neighbour’s aging Basset Hound may be totally wrong for your youthful  Weimeraner.  What works for your aging basset hound NOW may not in another year. If you’ve had 4, 12, 25 basset hounds in a row all doing well on (BARF, Pitcairn, premium kibble, fill in the blanks)   there is no guarantee the very next one you acquire will do as well. All dogs are not the same and furthermore, they change throughout life. Many do great on commercial diets, ad hoc home made diets, some even live long happy lives on really awful food. but none of this makes a case that any one method of feeding is optimal for all dogs. It really doesn’t. I promise you that.

In this blog I plan to go through breeds, conditions, life stages,  compound problems and more, to illustrate just how personal nutrition really is. For dogs as well as for us. There are some rules, sure there are; we stop taking in Vitamin C, we get scurvy. Yes there are requirements and those need to be understood and supplied. But outside the requirement box, there’s a sea – an ocean of individuality. So the remark “I feed a raw diet” or “my kibble is grainfree” tells me only one thing; this works for YOUR DOG at THIS TIME . Both of these diets are disastrous for many other dogs. I have seen it, lived it, made it my main area of research for fourteen years now. And one of the most oft-quoted and deeply misunderstood aspects of the trend to homogenizing canine needs, is the statement “Dogs are carnivores” – which leads directly and immediately to, ” therefore we should not feed any carbohydrate”.

There are so many problems with this nearly-universal extrapolation I hardly know where to start. It seems to come from three sources: one, the idea that dogs are strict or obligate carnivores like the cat(false); two, that there is no recognized requirement for dietary carbohydrate in the canine diet (true) and three, that all individuals will thrive on one specific type of diet (wrong, wrong, wrong).

Let’s take a look, first and foremost, at what the differences are between and obligate and a preferential carnivore.

First of all, a basic but also fairly useless definition of the term: a carnivore is an animal member of the family Carnivora.  Perhaps more pointed is the Latin meaning of the word: which reduces to “flesh-eaters”. Carnivores are animals that eat other animals. They are adapted physiologically, anatomically, metabolically to deriving most or all of their nutrient requirements from flesh, fat and bone. That’s still  a broad definition. A closer look reveals some striking differences between individual species within the family. I like to contrast dogs with cats to highlight why canines not only can but should be fed a reasonable amount of specific types of carbohydrate. And while it’s beyond the scope of this entry to provide a full comparative analysis of canine and feline digestion,  there are some standout points that should be understood.

– while neither cats nor dogs secrete salivary amylase as true omnivores do, their dentition is significantly different. Cats have 10 premolars and only 4 molars, teeth designed for grinding and breaking down plant matter, whereas dogs have 16 premolars and 10 molars.

– length of digestive tract (cats much shorter and much smaller cecum). Both have shorter GI tracts than omnivores, but the dog’s is better adapted to digesting plant matter.

– pancreatic amylase activity – about three times higher in the dog, meaning greater amounts of starch are readily digested

-Vitamin A:   The cat differs from most other species (including the dog) which can satisfy at least some of their Vitamin A requirements with dietary carotenes. Cats lack the metabolic pathway necessary to convert carotenes to retinol, the active form of vitamin A, and therefore need dietary pre-formed vitamin A. This means a source of animal fats, as pre-formed vitamin is not found in plants.

– fatty acid requirements – cats require dietary arachidonic acid while dogs can metabolize adequate levels from linoleic alone

– protein requirements in the cat are significantly higher than the dog, and taurine must be supplied dietarily -unlike the dog, who can make enough endogenously to meet needs. Dog’s RA (recommended allowance for total dietary protein is 3.28 grams per unit of BW (to the power of 0.75) while the cat needs 4.96 (to the power of 0.67).

– L-arginine sensitivity:     arginine is a key amino acid in the urea cycle.. The effect of arginine deficiency in cats is particularly dramatic; they will become ill within a few hours of eating a deficient meal. Clinical signs include lethargy, hypersalivation, vocalisation and ataxia, all as a result of ammonia toxicity. Most other animals require arginine (at least for growth) but they are far less sensitive to a deficiency of this nutrient

-niacin requirement –  while the dog is able to convert the amino acid L-tryptophan to niacin, the cat cannot, and thus must ingest a preformed source in order to meet requirements

The short version is while cats and dogs are indeed both carnivores, there are many nutritional differences, and dogs can survive and even thrive on vegetarian diets while cats, as obligate carnivores, cannot. You will hear “dogs are carnivores” cited as a good reason to feed not just a high fat and protein diet (which may or may not work) but an ALL fat and protein diet (which has some serious drawbacks and may even set the stage for illness to develop). Are you starting to see why I gnash my teeth everytime I hear “Grain free, no-carb” touted as the Gold Standard of diets for all dogs? If you’re not sympathizing yet, by the end of this series I think you just might.

When I was casting about in google looking for something succinct to offer, by way of comparing an obligate carnivore to a preferential, I found mostly very biased sites proclaiming the merits of a “raw, species-appropriate diet” and contrasting “dogs and cats” with omnivores and herbivores. A finer distinction as you have seen, occurs when we compare the dog with the cat. I would encourage everyone with a serious interest in this topic to look past the sites pushing one diet over all others, look past the books and yahoo groups pushing everyone to one type of diet, and learn some real nutritional science to start with. Once you are armed with an arsenal of facts,  it’s much harder to get sucked in by rhetoric and half-truths represented as science. your dog is a preferential carnivore, and he or she should have a good presence of meat, poultry, fish, eggs – protein and fat – in the diet. There is also an important place for *some* carbohydrate. how much and what type will depend on your dog; his or her unique system and responses.  In my “Think like a Nutritionist” series we’ll talk about the foods we call carbs and take a look at how much and what type to use – and above all, why. WHY? if the dog doesn’t *need* – read, require, any carb in the diet –  so what if his mouth, gut and metabolic abailities reflect that he *can* eat them? Why should we feed them?

Ahhh – but that’ll be coming soon. If you got through all of this, take a deep breath,  comment (please!) and I’ll be back to this – tomorrow.


11 thoughts on “Preferential Carnivore

  1. Your Facebook self wondered about an editor. Well, I *am* an editor! So here’s an example of the kind of idea technical editors come up with:

    To reduce the quantity of text and improve communicability, consider putting your ‘standout points’ in a table with three columns, entitled something like “Characteristic”, “Dog” and (ready?) “Cat”. Very efficient way to present that kind of detail-mass in a much more (forgive me) digestible form.

  2. Haha, well yes this was a long post and I’ve had several hundred views in less than 24 hours, but no comments – must be putting people to sleep. I’m hoping to address whyI include fiber in my diets for those who believe it is a terrible thing to feed. Hopefully the next entries can be more succinct. I’m not quite sure how to make the suggested table, but it’s an excellent idea!

  3. If you got several hundred posts in a day, then you don’t need this editor’s help.
    Montaigne’s motto never stops resonating: Que scais-je?

  4. Well you didn’t put me to sleep! I enjoyed the read, every bit of it! In fact I’m looking forward to the next post and also going back over and reading again when time allows.



    • Thank you – I found the carbs entry needed a little pruning so it’s not a book length entry too – tomorrow for sure. I have more topics than I have time, but I’ll be getting to them all. And if there’s anything specific you want to see, don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂 I may do “Top Ten Things I get asked over and over and over…” – SOON.

  5. Didn’t put me to sleep either. Found it very interesting and love the comparison between dog and cats diet requirements given that they are both carnivores. You have started to answer a lot of questions for me… looking forward to finding out more about those carbs.
    Many Thanks Lisa

    • The carb entry will be up today – I’m troubled, as a professional who evaluates dozens of diets every week – by the perspective many people have, that the most important issue in canine nutrition is carbohydrates (or as often expressed, ‘grains’) – and the avoidance of them. It’s too great a pendulum swing from the old fashioned, grain based way of feeding, to this new trend, of feeding all protein and fat. Both have consequences for susceptible dogs. I hope you will enjoy the carb article, my intention is to clarify, not dictate any single method of feeding. 🙂

  6. Ferrets are obligate carnivores, but they can convert beta carotene to usable Vitamin A like the dog.

    • Interesting how different species evolve and adapt – I know nothing about ferrets – well until now, that is. 🙂 One animal I have never had, I understand they don’t get on with cats, and in this house, that’d be problematic…

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