dog food

“We’re kind of loving them to death”

Late last Thursday night I returned from a week-long trip to Montenegro where I joined a group of incredible speakers at a tech conference held at a hotel across from the beach. I will write more about that experience—in particular the early morning James Bond movie moment I had with a taxi driver who missed a ferry and had to break at least nine different laws in order to get me to the airport in Croatia on time. And he did, but not before we stopped to take in the sunrise for a few minutes together. For those who are wondering: yes, I got his phone number. And yes, we are still texting.

But a major point of the speech that I gave in front of that very generous audience involved why I decided to start blogging again and how I plan to support myself doing it. I’ve been vocal about the disruption of content now that brands have so much control over “native advertising”—the nice and neat euphemism for sponsored content—and how that’s become the most lucrative way to make any sort of living doing this anymore. Bloggers or “influencers” have to manufacture experiences featuring products or brands, and then pass them off as authentic and candid moments.

That gorgeous picture of the family frolicking through Central Park with two smiling kids and obedient dog? They had to take at least 300 photos to get that one shot. Because the kids were grumpy or crying or screaming, or their faces and clothes were covered in the snack that they used to bribe them to get them to participate in this total farce.

We’ll never see the other 299 photos.

Authenticity means nothing anymore. It is a commodity to be bought and sold.

However, what you are reading right now is a sponsored post. I am working with a brand, and this whole rambling introduction is to answer, “How do I plan to support myself doing this?”

In 2005 when I turned this website into my business I took a giant leap off of a cliff hoping my parachute would open. I guess you could say that I am doing the same thing again 12 years later. The industry changed and I became incredibly uncomfortable with what brands were asking me to do. So I took a step back, gained some perspective, and now I’m only working with brands who are comfortable and even eager to work with my style of storytelling. I’m not going to fabricate an experience, especially not when my children are involved. And I am certainly not going to hide the messy parts of my life. I will always celebrate the dirty side of the room.

I will show you all of the photos.

That’s why I have continued to partner with CANIDAE®. They are a family-owned business whose transparency about the pet food they make mirrors the raw and unfiltered nature of my storytelling. They are independent and open-minded enough to want to associate with me because they see how dedicated my audience is. They understand how dedicated my readers are not only to their own dogs but also to my own.

My partnership with CANIDAE® enabled the redesign of this website. And when we were brainstorming ideas about what this partnership would look like my friend there said that they’d love to give me access to the veterinarian that they use to inform every aspect of their business—someone who provides training information for the sales and marketing team when it comes to nutrition, advice for scientists who are working on new formulas, and making sure they meet all regulatory compliance in their packaging. Basically, someone who wears 17 different hats. Which is a segue into these photos and my conversation with Melissa Brookshire, DVM about a whole slew of things I didn’t know about pet nutrition that I really want to share with you, including why you should never give your dog a stick of gum.

Melissa: [laughing] Yes! It is a lot! I wear quite a few hats. I do a little bit of everything. My team and I also work directly with customers if there are questions that come into the customer support department, questions like, “My pet has diabetes. Is there a specific food I should feed my pet?” We answer all of those kinds of questions. Myself and my team, we are the veterinarians behind the “Ask a Vet” feature on the CANIDAE® website.

Me: When CANIDAE® approached me about switching to CANIDAE® Under The Sun they mentioned that the big thing in pet food now is single animal proteins. I have not ever heard of this before and I was like “What on earth are you talking about?” Can you expound on that a little bit?

Melissa: Sure. A lot of pets have itchy skin or intermittent digestive problems. And a lot of pet owners feel like it’s a food allergy problem when, in fact, food allergies are not that common. They’re the least common type of allergy that pets experience.

Fleabite hypersensitivity is the most common allergy that causes itchy skin. Sometimes we see a dog or cat that gets bitten by a single flea and their entire body itches because of that single bite. And then we have “inhaled allergies,” the symptoms that we think of when we think of hay fever. And then finally, we have food allergies or food hypersensitivities. These are the least common.

Me: It’s the least common?!

Melissa: Yes. But a lot of pet owners think that when their pet is itchy there’s something in the food. If somebody thinks their dog has a lamb allergy and a food has a blend of proteins including lamb, then that food is not going to work for that particular pet. If there’s a recipe that is chicken protein only or a lamb protein only or a fish protein only, then those are seen as solutions for these pets with itchy skin. With a single animal protein food, it’s easier to determine which protein is causing the problem and remove it from the diet.

The other thing that we’re seeing more of in the pet industry and with pet owners is “the rotation concept” for feeding their pets. Some consumers will find a line of foods that have multiple formulas with individual protein sources, and then they’ll rotate through those foods. This concept is built on the principle that if you keep changing what that dog’s body is exposed to, the immune system is never going to start reacting inappropriately to a protein source. So their immune system never gets programmed to start triggering to chicken or lamb or fish or whatever the protein.

Me: CANIDAE® Under The Sun doesn’t have soy or wheat either, right?

Melissa: Right. And no corn. No wheat and no soy. Corn and wheat are very common ingredients in the pet food industry. I’d say 20 years ago, most diets had corn and wheat, and there still are a lot of diets that do, mostly economy brands. Over the last 20 years corn and wheat have proven to be a problem for pets with potential dietary sensitivities or food allergies. No corn and no wheat is something that’s really consumer driven. Consumers don’t like to see those ingredients in pet food and there can be some benefit to having a diet without those, not that dogs can’t eat them.

With soy, a lot of dogs will develop flatulence or gas when they eat a diet that contains soy. And soy is a pretty extensive component in a lot of pet food. There are some brands that use soy as a backup protein or as the main carbohydrate source, and these foods just really mess with some dog’s digestive systems.

Me: So this is a common problem? Like most big brands?

Melissa: Corn and wheat more than soy. This is something we’ve seen as the industry evolves, and CANIDAE® is kind of on the cutting edge of the evolution of the pet food industry.

I don’t think they have ever featured diets that have corn and wheat in them, from back when they very first started the brand. They’ve always been corn, wheat, and soy free.

Me: There are certain specific things that people should always avoid feeding their dogs, right? Like, chocolate is toxic to dogs. I think grapes is another one?

Melissa: Oh, yes. Grapes and raisins. There’s another really big one that a lot of people don’t know about, xylitol—this is the sugar substitute that’s used in gum and candies and now they’re using it in sugar-free peanut butter—it’s very toxic to dogs.

So if you have that dog that gets in a kid’s backpack or they ever get into your purse and pull out a pack of gum as mine does—haha! very sneaky!— they can have a toxic reaction. Actually, xylitol can be lethal to the dogs if they have a lot of it and they’re not treated pretty quickly.

In the veterinary community the sugar-free peanut butter thing is a real concern because a lot of people use peanut butter to hide a medication that they’re giving their pets. Or they use it to put on the inside of a kong toy or one of those hard rubber toys to entertain the dog. This has been a big animal health newsletter topic, xylitol and the dangers of it.

Me: I had never heard that about this, but it’s in everything!

Melissa: I know! It’s in all the gums and candies because it’s good for cavity prevention. That’s why it’s used in so many things for human consumption.

Me: Do you have a professional opinion about feeding dogs scraps of food from the table? I don’t feed my dog scraps of my own food, and that’s mostly because I don’t want her to become a beggar. Is there a medical perspective to that? I mean does it matter if I’m feeding my dog scraps of food?

Melissa: People often supplement their pet’s diet with human foods—vegetables, fruits, a bit of meat here and there. The thing about table scraps: if it’s food that we’ve prepared for ourselves, we usually add a lot of seasoning. Spicy things just aren’t good for dogs. And the concern with meat would be the fat content. Dogs are accustomed to the diet they’re getting and the protein level and the fat content that’s in that diet. If suddenly—I mean, especially if you don’t do it on a regular basis—you have steak and decide to trim off the fat and give them this great treat of steak and fat, that high fat consumption can trigger pancreatitis in dogs which, again, that can be a life threatening illness.

Me: Wow. Whoa. Okay. I’m holding my hand up. Guilty of this. It’s a rare thing and I thought that because it was a rare thing it wasn’t harmful.

Melissa: There’s a lot of stuff you have to be careful about.

Me: When I adopted my my first dog—he sadly died a couple of years ago—I didn’t know anything about dogs. Not a single thing. And I was walking around the neighborhood and met a woman who had this tiny Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. And the previous week the dog had eaten an entire box of tampons. She said the emergency surgery drained her life savings.

Melissa: Yep! Things with strings like that or socks, underwear… things that smell good, these are all very real problems.

Me: Pet obesity seems to be a problem here in the States. Are we overfeeding our dogs, Is this a concern?

Melissa: Actually, that’s a huge concern. You know, we’re kind of loving them to death.

People want to feed their pets things from the table. They want to give them treats. Every time the dog does something cute they’re getting a treat and the owner is not adjusting the food downward to compensate for the additional calories that are coming from the treats that they’re giving.

There are a lot of veterinary organizations that are trying to work to educate pet owners about obesity and how much damage that does to the pet. You know just like people, pets that are overweight have more arthritis, they’re more likely to have heart disease and liver disease. Pancreatitis seems to be a problem that we see more commonly in overweight pets and it shortens their lifespan.

When you think about a dog, they don’t live as long we do. And in most cases they are much smaller than us. A pound or two is much more significant on a 30-pound dog than it would be on a 150-pound human. Two pounds is a tremendous percentage of their normal body weight.

We get so used to seeing overweight dogs that I think we have almost kind of lost vision of what a normal dog looks like. You have a dog that’s on the lean side and a lot of people look at that dog and say, “Oh my gosh, your dog is skinny! Are you starving him?” People are so used to seeing overweight dogs that they’ve almost got this skewed reality of what a normal healthy dog looks like.

Veterinarians are the best resource to monitor the healthy weight for individual dogs, and people have to be honest with what they’re feeding. They can’t say, “Well I’m only feeding him half a cup of food twice a day,” when they’re really feeding a half a cup of food twice a day plus fifteen treats and food from the table every single night.

Me: Right. A half a cup a day plus two slices of pizza, a bowl of cheddar goldfish and, and oh! The three-year-old didn’t want her mac and cheese so she slid it under the table to give it to an animal who would really enjoy it. Do you have any pets of your own?

Melissa: I do. He is some kind of lab mix probably, has some pit bull in him and I don’t know what else. His pedigree is unknown. I’ve had him since he was a year and a half and he’s about six. And he’s one of those dogs that people would think is too skinny.

Me: That is my first dog. The trainer I hired to help me out with him when he was a puppy said that he was basically the dog that would be the offspring if every single dog in the world mated. He was Every Dog. He was also super, super skinny and people commented on it all the time.

Are there be any general guidelines you give to people to get them thinking about nutrition for their dogs?

Melissa: Mostly, look for a quality brand, one, and there are a lot of quality brands. My dog eats the All Life Stages formula from CANIDAE® and does really well. You know, obviously I love the brand and I’ve worked with them for a long time and I love their transparency.

Me: I actually visited the headquarters of CANIDAE® a couple of years ago and they showed me some of the stuff that’s put into commercial pet food that looks like asphalt, and most of it was being manufactured in China. Most people don’t know that this is what is in their commercial pet food.

Melissa: Yeah, that’s true. There are all different levels of quality, of course. You know, the reputation of the brand, I think, it’s really important.

What we’ve started to see in the industry is the importance of the privately-owned or family-owned companies really taking pride in their ingredients and recipes and doing the right things for the people who are buying food for their pets. I think we’ll see more and more of that.

There’s been so much consolidation in the industry where these huge companies are even bigger because they’re swallowing up some of the smaller players.

Me: I was I was so surprised when I went to the headquarters, how small and intimate it was. Like, there were 10 people, and each person had three dogs with them in their office. And I was like, “This is it. This is who they are.” I think it’s incredible that they are running at this capacity—and sticking to their value system with unwavering integrity—given the competition.

Melissa: Yeah. They have an amazing story.

Me: They do. That’s why I have been so happy to work with them. I mean, while my audience is mostly mothers, there’s also this combination of parents and dog lovers. I mean, my readers love my dog Coco, but Chuck. Whoa. Chuck had his own fan base. And Chuck was very loyal to CANIDAE®. I’ve been so privileged to be able to continue to work with them.

Right now CANIDAE® is offering dooce readers a $10 coupon off any CANIDAE® Under The Sun® recipe. Enjoy!