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Six dog nutrition myths busted by a vet

A chocolate lab getting the best dog nutrition from her food
(Image credit: Getty)

We all want to feed our dog the best possible diet and the best dog food, but it’s easy to get distracted by dog nutrition myths and misconceptions. You are constantly being bombarded with information from your friends, neighbors, pet store employees, television commercials, and online articles; unfortunately, this information is often biased and isn’t always accurate. Being a responsible pet owner requires the ability to separate dog nutrition fact from fiction, so you aren’t misled by false marketing claims into buying a food that is less than ideal for your dog. 

Dog nutrition myth 1: Corn and grains are bad for dogs. 

Many pet owners wonder if grain free dog food is best. But contrary to what some boutique pet food manufacturers would have you believe, corn and grains can actually serve as a valuable source of dog nutrition. Corn contains a number of beneficial nutrients, including Vitamin E, beta carotene, and lutein. Grains provide B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, and iron. In addition to the vitamins that they contain, both corn and grains serve as a highly-digestible source of carbohydrates and calories to provide energy for your dog. 

Some people try to avoid grains because they mistakenly attribute common allergies in dogs to corn and grains. However, most food allergies are triggered by proteins. The most common food allergens in dogs are beef, chicken, and other animal proteins. While corn and grain allergies can occur, they are both uncommon compared to meat allergies. 

In addition to nutritional benefits of corn and grain, there may be specific risks associated with grain-free dog foods. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation into reports of a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating grain-free foods. While a definitive cause of the DCM cases in these dogs was never identified, it is thought that there is some aspect of grain-free foods that predisposes dogs to developing this condition. Until this connection is better assessed, many veterinarians recommend against feeding grain-free foods at this time. We don’t definitively know whether grain-free foods cause heart disease, but there is enough concern that it’s smart to avoid these foods until we know more. 

Dog nutrition myth 2: Raw food diets are best for dogs

Depending on where you get your nutrition  information, you may have seen the benefits of raw dog food touted as a safe and healthy option for dogs. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support this perspective. A study conducted by the FDA found that 8% of tested raw food samples contained Salmonella, while 16% of samples contained Listeria monocytogenes. These bacteria can cause illness in dogs, as well as to humans within the household who come in contact with the pet food, the pet’s mouth after eating, or the pet’s feces. 

Some people are aware of these foodborne illness risks, but feel that the benefits of feeding raw food outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support these claims. A well-formulated cooked diet can offer the same nutritional benefits as a raw diet, without the risk of foodborne infection.   

Plastic trays of raw dog food

(Image credit: Getty)

Dog nutrition myth 3: By-products are unhealthy and should be avoided

In order to assess the nutritional value of by-products, it’s important to ask one question: what is a by-product? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines by-products as “secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.” By-products, therefore, are anything that is left over after an animal is processed for human consumption. For example, when a cow is slaughtered, humans typically eat the aesthetically-appealing steaks. In this case, by-products include both unattractive muscle meat (meat that is bruised, for example) and the internal organs of the cow, such as the liver and kidneys. 

When you think about wild animals that hunt for their own food, these animals often eat the internal organ meat first, before the muscles. This is likely because the internal organs are more nutritious, in many ways, than muscle meat, containing high levels of certain vitamins. Feeding internal organs (commonly referred to as by-products) can increase the nutritional value of a diet, while also ensuring that large portions of a slaughtered animal do not go to waste. By-products are not inherently lower quality than muscle meat; in fact, they often have more nutritional value. 

Dog nutrition myth 4: Meat is a better option than meat meal

Meat meal is rendered animal meat, or animal meat that has been processed in a way that separates the fat from the protein. Unlike muscle meat, which contains large amounts of water, meat meal serves as a concentrated source of animal protein. 

When you read pet food labels, you may find yourself looking for a pet food that lists meat as a primary ingredient. However, it’s important to note that muscle meat is mostly water, while meat meal is dehydrated. Because ingredients are listed in the order of weight, a food that has a meat meal listed as its second or third ingredient may actually provide a more concentrated source of animal protein than a food that lists meat as its first ingredient. For more information read our article Dog food ingredients explained.

Dog nutrition myth 5: Dogs are carnivores and need a meat-based diet 

Although cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they need meat in order to survive, dogs are omnivorous. This means that dogs require a diet that includes both animal meat and plant products, such as vegetables, grains, and fruit. A dog that is eating an exclusively meat-based diet will develop nutritional deficiencies associated with inadequate plant matter intake. In fact the answer to the question “Can a dog be vegan?” might actually surprise you.

Dog nutrition myth 6: Foods that are labeled or marketed as “natural” are the safest 

The definition for “natural” is very broad, including any substance that is derived from plant, animal, or mined sources. Even supposedly natural ingredients can be subjected to extensive processing or may contain trace amounts of synthetic compounds. Natural is not the same as organic, which is a fact that many consumers find surprising. 

Natural foods can be assumed to be free of synthetic vitamins and minerals. Natural foods are also free of synthetic preservatives; natural preservatives may be used, but these natural preservatives often offer a shorter shelf life than synthetic preservatives. Natural foods are also free of artificial colors and flavors, but these ingredients are rarely used in pet food. 

Don’t Forget to Use Your Veterinarian as a Resource!

While it can be difficult to determine which dog nutrition myths and misconceptions to ignore, you always have an excellent resource in your veterinarian. Veterinarians receive training in animal and dog nutrition during vet schools and typically receive ongoing continuing education in the field of nutrition throughout their career. If you’re having a hard time deciding what to feed your pet, talk to your veterinarian. They will be able to provide you with a list of healthy dog food options that are based in science and research, not myths and misconceptions.