Two thirds fresh meat from the butcher, one third raw vegetables and fruits. With eggshells, green-lipped mussels, fresh parsley – the menu is ready for Alma, the two-and-a-half-year-old Labrador from Lübeck.
Once a week, its owner Stella Weber* prepares several daily rations, fills them into bowls and stores everything in the freezer. “This may sound exhausting, but it is relaxed in preparation and the most natural form of nutrition for the dog,” she says. “Since we feed Alma raw, she has soft, beautiful fur, good digestion and is just super fit.”
Raw feeding is en vogue. The trend towards barfing (abbreviation for: biologically species-appropriate raw feeding) began ten years ago and follows the idea of giving dogs what the wolf gets itself in the wild. As a predator, it eats its prey raw and as a whole – with skin and hair, offal, bones, cartilage and including the plants, berries or fruits in its intestines.
Experts estimate that currently about 20 to 25 percent of all dog owners in this country barf.
Nutrition is on everyone’s lips. This now applies to the dog as well as to humans. Nutrition-conscious owners want to control what their darlings get.
The growing scepticism towards industrially produced dog food makes them look for alternatives – and makes feeding a science. Anyone who rejects a can or bag is confronted with complex questions: What nutrients does dry or wet food contain? What is a complete feed, what is a complementary feed? Which minerals and trace elements do I have to add? Is slaughterhouse waste advisable? Does grain-free, vegetarian, vegan work? What are the hygienic problems with barfing or self-cooking?
Ready-made food vs. barf: there is no better or worse
Nine million dogs live in Germany – at least one in about one in five households. The number of pets is growing faster than that of households. As a result, sales in the pet food and demand industry are also increasing: in 2018, it amounted to almost five billion euros. Owners spent a good three billion euros on industrially produced feed.
“Even though more and more people are barfing or cooking themselves, the majority of dog owners feed with ready-made products,” says Astrid Behr of the Federal Association of Practicing Veterinarians e. V. There are good reasons for this: Ready-made food can be prepared faster, is sometimes cheaper and is regularly checked for content and pollutants.
The selection of products is now unmanageable even for experts – and every owner is spoilt for choice, for himself and his animal.
“Large dogs need a lot of food every day. The owners therefore prefer dry food that can be easily stored at home even in large quantities,” says Behr. Moist food, on the other hand, is usually tastier and not quite as well tolerated. “There are also dogs that respond to canned food with diarrhea.”
One thing is clear: there is no better or worse. “As long as industrial products contain what is written on them, they are completely fine,” says the veterinarian.
According to German and EU feed law, manufacturers must list and break down the ingredients. But the duty leaves a lot of freedom. “For example, a product declared as complete feed must contain all the nutrients in the right composition that the animal needs,” says Behr. But that’s not always the case.
Wet food test shows significant quality differences between products
In the case of complete feed, a distinction is made between so-called dry food, wet food and semi-moist food. Just recently, a recent wet food test by Stiftung Warentest showed that various products are not balanced. There were 26 cans of wet food competing with five frozen menus of raw meat for barfing.
Even in terms of price, there were differences: The most expensive product, converted to the daily requirement, was ten times as expensive as the cheapest.
The testers also discovered serious errors with regard to the content. Nine complete feeds failed the test with “deficient“. The products lacked vitamins and minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iodine, copper, vitamin A, B1 or D.
More than every second product also declared a quantity specification that was too high or too low for some weight classes. Especially the tested Barf menus often proved to be heavily contaminated with germs.
Only just under every second feed was recommended by the examiners as “good” or “very good“.
Important are the right ingredients in the right amount
The study confirms what experts have been criticizing for some time. “The often high-priced and currently popular wet food is often advertised as products with food quality and without additives,” says Berlin veterinarian Susann Kröger. “For years, we have been discussing in colleague circles whether these wet foods really work as complete feed. Important trace elements and vitamins are often missing.”
Added trace elements should be declared as such. For example, iodine, which determines the function of the thyroid gland. If the food contains too much or too little iodine, this can impair thyroid function. “If the declaration lists an iodine source such as seaweed flour, I can assume that there is enough iodine,” says Kröger. Copper and zinc, on the other hand, are trace elements that are never sufficiently contained in the nutrients.
“If they are not on the list, there is probably too little of them in them,” says Kröger, a specialist veterinarian for animal nutrition and dietetics. Nevertheless, it is not recommended to admit the trace elements yourself, because one risks such an oversupply. If you want to be sure, check the declaration with your veterinarian. Another important mineral is calcium. Dog owners should add calcium citrate, calcium carbonate or algae lime to home-cooked or barf menus.
“Bones are also a good source of calcium,” says veterinarian Behr. “Too much bone, on the other hand, can lead to constipation.” She therefore advises mineral mixtures. “Or every now and then a bovine bone to gnaw off.” Just as important for dogs are the fat-soluble vitamins E, D, K and A. “Since the body stores them, you should pay close attention to the dosage here,” says expert Behr. A lot does not always help much, on the contrary: “If a complete food contains all nutrients and minerals, you do not do your dog any good to add additional vitamins.”
There is always scepticism about complete feed because of the slaughter by-products such as lungs, kidneys and livers of healthy animals, which, according to the manufacturer, were slaughtered exclusively for human consumption.
More often there was criticism because these products are also said to have contained waste such as bristles and hair. Although the wolf also consumes them, for many dog owners the idea borders on disgust. Even skins, skins, horns, hooves or bristles of healthy slaughter animals are allowed to migrate into animal feed according to EU law.
The current test by Stiftung Warentest as well as previous tests from 2016 and 2017 were able to reassure owners. The investigators found no evidence of slaughterhouse waste in the samples examined.
In addition to complete feed, there are complementary feeds. This includes all products from oatmeal to pure muscle meat, carbohydrate-rich or fatty substances to vitaminized mineral feed. As the name suggests, nutrients, minerals, vitamins or other substances must be completed here in any case. Only then is the total ration full-fledged in its nutrient content, and there is no threat of malnutrition or malnutrition of the four-legged friend. “Every dog owner should check the listing on the packaging, it is clearly stated whether it is a complete food or a complementary food,” recommends veterinarian Behr.
How to read the declaration on the dog food?
The labelling of feed follows established rules. In addition to the type of feed, all ingredients must be indicated.
The moisture content shows how much feed is contained. The higher the value, the more (useless) water is in it.
The raw ash describes mineral components of the feed – minerals or sand. A value above ten percent makes little sense, because ash contains no energy. The comparison of dry with wet food should refer to the dry matter.
The crude fibre contains components that are difficult or difficult to digest and is indispensable for the regulation of intestinal activity and the stabilisation of faecal consistency. It should not exceed four percent of the dry matter.
Good dog nutrition means a balanced ratio of ingredients
And what about the special food? For certain breeds or large and small animals? The veterinarian sees only lure offers in this. “What’s important is that a puppy gets puppy food, an adult dog gets adult food, and an older animal gets senior food,” she says.
Older dogs, for example, should not eat as many proteins, which puts too much strain on the kidneys. “All age groups in between, whether large or small, purebred or mixed, do not need any extra food, only the right amount,” says Behr. It shouldn’t be too much meat either.
Unlike cats, which need 90 percent meat, dogs are omnivores. Experts recommend a balanced ratio of highly digestible protein for growth, muscles and metabolism as well as nutrients and vital substances, carbohydrates and fats as energy suppliers.
“It’s enough if meat makes up half of the menu,” says Behr. As long as the diet contains eggs and milk, experts say that the nutritional requirements of a healthy adult dog can even be met in a vegetarian way.
However, veterinarian Behr remains skeptical about a purely plant-based diet. “I think a vegan diet is unsuitable for the dog,” she says. “He would never eat vegan in the wild. This form of nutrition follows exclusively a human need.”
Carbohydrates for the dog: cooked fine
The situation is similar with carbohydrates – bread, pasta, potatoes, rice – which many owners reject. “Again and again, the myth arises that dogs cannot digest carbohydrates because they allegedly have too few enzymes,” says the Berlin veterinarian Susann Kröger.
However, since the Canis lupus familiaris has accompanied humans for about 17,000 years, it has adapted. Amylase, the main enzyme for digesting starch, is present in dogs in higher amounts and is more effective than in wolves. However, carbohydrates should be cooked. There is also “no evidence” for the myth that carbohydrates cause diseases such as allergies, cardiovascular diseases, cancer or osteoarthritis in dogs, according to Kröger.
Nevertheless, an adult dog does not necessarily need starchy components such as potatoes or pasta. “Puppies, on the other hand, have a very large energy requirement,” says Kröger. “If you want to cover this primarily with proteins and oils, this clearly exceeds the recommended amount of protein.”
Many people have removed grain from their menu for fear of glue protein. The same thing is now happening to the dog: Veterinarian Kröger estimates that 90 percent of her clients assume that grain is harmful to the dog.
More and more are also convinced that their dog has a food intolerance. There is no scientific evidence that gluten leads to allergies. Studies have shown that beef, chicken and soy in particular trigger allergies.
Create a nutrition plan with the veterinarian
On the other hand, owners who mix the food themselves often make mistakes, observes veterinarian Kröger. “Almost all the menus put together are not balanced,” she says. The physician advises self-cookers to a veterinary nutritional consultation including individual needs analysis.
Sick or decrepit dogs need different ingredients than four-legged friends who are still growing. Dogs with kidney disease or urinary stones can also benefit from a diet adapted to their needs. “If the dog is very lean, I recommend carbohydrates for more energy,” says Kröger, who gives owners recipes with two variants of a daily ration each. Meat, oil, vegetables and minerals are indicated to the gram.
Kröger also recommends such a plan to owners who mix self-prepared food with industrial feed. “Owners who barf must know the individually necessary nutrients and additives.” Many determine them with so-called Barf calculators on the Internet. Kröger advises against this: “So far, not one program I have tried has calculated the need correctly.” Of course, the personal wishes of the owners are taken into account. It also depends on the good feeling of giving the dog exactly what he needs.