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Plant-Based Dog Food: Responsible or Reckless?

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Plant-Based Dog Food: Responsible or Reckless?​

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker


STORY AT-A-GLANCE​

  • The processed pet food industry is engaged in a growing campaign to convince pet parents that plant-based dog (and cat) food is just as healthy, or even healthier, than meat-based diets
  • One of the marketing claims of plant-based pet foods is that they’re sustainable and environmentally friendly; this is up for debate, and doesn’t in any way address the fact that dogs’ bodies do best with meat-based nutrients
  • A new entry in the plant-based dog food space is the Wild Earth company, which has been heavily marketed by a veterinarian better known for founding the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), an important resource for both pet parents and veterinarians
  • Since a plant-based dog food brand promoted by a well-respected veterinarian will attract a great deal of attention, it deserves close scrutiny for its claim that it’s healthier for dogs and the environment
For years here at Healthy Pets, I've mentioned and quoted veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), in articles I've written about the epidemic of overweight and obese pets in the U.S.
Dr. Ward founded APOP in 2005 "with the mission of developing and promoting parallel weight loss programs designed to help pet owners safely and effectively lose weight alongside their pets."1 APOP published its first annual U.S. Pet Nutrition & Weight Management Survey in 2007, a report that has provided insightful, important information for pet parents and veterinarians about the dangers associated with excess weight in pets.
With that said, Dr. Ward's newest venture as Chief Strategy Officer of Wild Earth,2 "the first high-protein, high-fiber, plant-based dog food,"3 does not have my support. With $16 million in funding from Mars Petcare and other food and biotech investors,4 chances are you'll soon be seeing or hearing a lot about it, if you haven't already.

Forcing Carnivores To Be Vegans Is Not 'Sustainable'​

From the Wild Earth website home page:
"Clean ingredients to nourish your pet and planet. Wild Earth delivers the world's most responsible high protein dog food to your doorstep. Made plant-based with ingredients that nourish your pet, our planet, and the desire to do the right thing."5
While I applaud all pet food industry efforts to recognize the need for corporate transparency, ingredient traceability, and environmental stewardship, we must recognize, as scientists and doctors, that it is our ethical responsibility to also nourish animals in a way that best resonates with their physiology.
I believe it is not our place, as stewards of the earth and its inhabitants, to impose our personal dietary choices on other species, especially animals that would never innately choose to consume ultra-processed vegan pellets as their sole food source. Toward that end, we should not attempt to force carnivores to become vegans in the name of sustainability.
As a vegetarian of 37 years, I certainly understand the "why's" of this moral dilemma, but it's equally important to me, a doctor passionate about species-appropriate nutrition, that people not assume veganism is healthy for all species.
Some animals have been eating solely plant matter for millennia, including rabbits, sheep, cows and horses. Dogs and cats have not; their physiology and metabolism has not evolved to thrive on solely plants, much less ultra-processed feed-grade, genetically modified high starch pellets.
Understanding what constitutes biologically appropriate nutrition for the species you're caring for is a key first step in nourishing any pet in a way that respects their physiology. By feeding animals according to their physiology we reduce metabolic stress. Step two involves choosing ethically sourced, sustainable and non-toxic ingredients that fit within the framework of species-appropriate food.
Dogs evolved to eat very high moisture diets containing large amounts of clean, unheated fat and animal protein, moderate roughage (fiber) and low/no starch. You can use this carb equation to calculate the digestible net carbs in your dog's current diet.
Protein from plants isn't the same as protein from animal meat, and the dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) crisis in carnivorous pets has proven this. While it's a fact that dogs are not wolves, they haven't evolved into vegans in the last 200 years, either. I'll discuss more on this when I cover the long list of synthetic nutrients that must be added to vegan diets to meet minimum canine nutrient requirements.

A Few Questions for Your Consideration​

Below is the Wild Earth kibble ingredient label, followed by some questions every dog owner considering this product should ask themselves:
wild earth kibble

Where is the nutrition coming from? Do you want your dog's nutrients to come from real food or synthetic supplements?
How biologically appropriate is the food? Dogs do not have a carb requirement. Evolutionarily, dogs consumed less than 20% sugar in the form of starch from high glycemic grains.6 When given the choice, domesticated dogs choose to eat fat and meat (protein) first, never carbs.7
The carb equation indicates that Wild Earth kibble contains 44% starch (which turns to sugar inside your dog's body). The more sugar you feed, the more metabolic chaos you cause. How much metabolic stress do you want to cause?
What's the herbicide chemical load in the food? Wild Earth states their products aren't organic because the company supports genetically modified foods,8 so it's a good bet the glyphosate load is high, however, the company hasn't yet released third party transparency testing on the levels of Round Up in their food.
Does it matter to you if your dog consumes large amounts of chemical residues (glyphosate) known to disrupt the gut microbiome? Does it matter that your dog's food contains GMOs?
How much of your dog's diet do you want to come from ultra-processed food (aka "fast food")? The more high-heat processed carbs you feed, the more acrylamides and health-robbing AGEs your dog ingests. And a large number of synthetic nutrients in pet food means the raw ingredients (food) weren't that nutritious.

Any Change in Diet Can Temporarily Improve Symptoms​

Wild Earth advertises that its product reduces skin allergies in dogs, stating the number one cause of food sensitivities is meat, which is true. We see many animals improve dramatically with a change in diet. Holistic and integrative veterinarians have been aware of this phenomenon for decades; it occurs even when the new diet is, for example, homemade and nutritionally unbalanced.
Most dogs with food sensitivities improve when they're fed anything other than their usual diet, including bland diets meant to be fed for just a few days. Cooked ground turkey and pumpkin meals can improve a myriad of symptoms, resulting in better stools, fewer stomach noises, diminished itching, etc. Just giving your dog a break from problematic foods or ingredients can yield dramatic improvements, temporarily.
I call this the "honeymoon" period; the initial bliss of experiencing a dramatic improvement (or reduction of symptoms) when old food is stopped, and new food is started. But this temporary improvement doesn't last forever.
And while we veterinarians stress to clients that the new and sometimes nutritionally unbalanced homemade diet or the bland diet fed long term won't serve their dog well, many are so relieved their pet is no longer scratching and chewing at themselves (or having explosive diarrhea), they can't hear us. They continue to feed the diet until it harms their dog's health.
I and many of my functional medicine colleagues have seen a similar outcome with the short-term feeding of vegan diets as well. Initially they provide instant relief, often because the dog is no longer ingesting antibiotic and hormone residues found in pet-food quality factory-farmed, 4D (dead, dying, diseased, disabled) meats. But over time, denying dogs (and cats) quality sources of meat-based protein and forcing them to eat 100% plants takes a toll, metabolically.
Feeding meat-free meals now and then is fine for most species (if they'll eat it). I regularly tell clients with dogs who are profoundly ill with gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms to feed only steamed pumpkin for two days, and again, the improvement is typically dramatic. But none of these temporary fixes are viable long-term strategies for creating vibrant health, which is also true for biologically inappropriate vegan ultra-processed diets.
If you are thinking about trying a vegan diet for your dog with allergies or food intolerances, read my article Gastrointestinal Issues in Dogs: What Works and What Doesn't to understand my approach to treating dogs with suspected food sensitivities, including how to return them to a nutritionally balanced, species-specific diet that supports long-term well-being.

High in Fiber? Superfoods? A Closer Look​

Another claim by Wild Earth is that meat-based dog food doesn't contain enough fiber (which helps with digestion), but their kibble, which uses plant protein, is high in fiber. Setting aside for now the misguided notion that healthy dogs need high fiber diets (they don't), another problem with this claim is that the crude fiber in the Wild Earth food is listed at 5%,9 with the average pet food at 4%.10
Dog foods labeled "high fiber" may contain up to 10% fiber, but that pales in comparison to a true vegan animals' fiber intake, such as a horse or rabbit that consumes 100% of their daily calories eating grass.
Dogs (whether you call them carnivores or omnivores) need a small amount of healthy roughage to maintain their microbiome, but Wild Earth's 1% increase in fiber over other ultra-processed foods doesn't seem to qualify it as "high" in fiber compared to other ultra-processed dog food formulas.
Another claim: increased energy levels from superfoods like spinach and blueberries. According to the product label, these foods make up less than 1% of the ingredients. (Pro tip: learn to look for the salt divider in the ingredients list.) Bottom line: the true superfoods listed are in homeopathic (tiny) amounts, which is a classic industry marketing trick.

How Plant-Based Food Is Transformed Into Dog Food​

Now onto the problems with Wild Earth's main ingredients.
Dried yeast is the primary ingredient. Did you know many vegan blogs encourage vegans to watch their yeast intake?
  • Yeast contains a substantial amount of tyramine, a compound derived from the amino acid tyrosine. People who ingest large amounts of yeast can develop headaches and migraines because tyramine acts on the central nervous system, releasing various hormones that can lead to increased blood pressure.
  • Over time, yeast consumption has been shown to trigger inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in lab animals,11 and is associated with making autoimmune problems worse in people.12
  • Nutritional yeast is very high in glutamic acid, which ultimately becomes glutamate, an excitotoxin that can interfere with normal brain function by overstimulating neuron receptors in the hypothalamus. People who are sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG) know this and avoid eating foods containing large amounts of yeast.
  • Yeast can contain high amounts of purines. Dogs prone to urate stones or dogs with liver shunts should not consume an abundance of purine-rich foods.13
Chickpeas contain lectins, "anti-nutrients" naturally found in legumes that reduce the absorption of vitamins and minerals and can cause GI inflammation.14
Canola oil is marketed by many pet food companies, including Wild Earth, as a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which is maddening to me. Canola oil is loaded with pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. In lab animals it's been shown to impair memory and create inflammation, even in the brain.15
There aren't any of the memory-enhancing long chain omega-3s in the Wild Earth kibble. Substantial amounts of DHA and EPA are required for well-being, but these delicate essential fats only come from marine sources (in the large amounts dogs need to sustain health). Dogs can't convert plant omega-3s (alpha linolenic acid) to the DHA and EPA they need for brain, immune, cell and skin health.
Flaxseed meal is also marketed as an abundant source of omega-3s, but like canola oil, it also isn't converted to EPA and DHA efficiently in pets. Flaxseed meal supplies fiber and alpha linolenic acid, but none of the missing EPA or DHA dogs require.
Sunflower oil adds still more pro-inflammatory omega-6s, probably genetically modified.
Marine microalgae can provide trace amounts of DHA and EPA, but because it's so expensive, it's added in insufficient amounts that don't serve dogs at all — it simply allows the company to market the product as supplying DHA (note DHA and EPA levels are not provided). Watch my Facebook Live on why microalgae powder can't provide adequate EPA and DHA for pets.
Choline and taurine must be added because there's simply not enough coming from real, whole foods in this formula.
There's a long list of synthetic vitamins and minerals that must also be added because carnivores, or even omnivores must consume meat to obtain key nutrients that aren't present in vegan diets. The plant-based ingredients in the Wild Earth kibble formula provide only a handful of necessary nutrients, leaving the diet grossly deficient in a multitude of key nutrients that must be added in.
The majority of vitamins and minerals in the Wild Earth product don't come from biologically appropriate foods as nature intended, but from a bag, in powder form. The list of synthetic, lab-made nutrients in this dog food is extensive and must be added to make food pass minimum nutrient requirements set forth by AAFCO, or the food would be grossly nutrient deficient, akin to any other highly refined, high glycemic carb-based snack (think potato chips).
The list of added synthetics includes the highly questionable sodium selenite,16 along with zinc, iron, vitamin E, copper, potassium, vitamin A, manganese, niacin, d-calcium pantothenate (B5), riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin B12, calcium iodate (iodine comes from ocean sources, this food includes the synthetic option) and vitamin D2 (not D3)*, pyridoxine (B6), niacin, l-carnitine.
*What's the problem with dogs eating vegan vitamin D (D2)? D3 (from animal sources) is the metabolically active form that functions in intestines and bone, whereas other forms of vitamin D do not function at these sites.
"Therefore research indicates that 1,25-(OH)2 D3 appears to be the only functional form of vitamin D in biology (DeLuca, 2008)." Further, D3 is needed for long term proper immune function: "There is a regulatory role of D3 in immune cell functions (Reinhardt and Hustmeyer, 1987)."17
Bottom line: This food contains over 20 synthetic nutrients, supplying the bulk of the necessary vitamins and minerals required to avoid deficiencies from non-food sources.

Final Thoughts​

The Wild Earth FAQ page makes the claim that their dog food is better because it's not made with meat, which has been the source of 180 pet food recalls since 2009.18
While they are correct about the filthy rendering industry and the need for more pet food industry accountability and transparency, they aren't addressing the potential dangers of the undisclosed levels of glyphosate in their own diets. To the contrary, they state that they are a science driven company, and they believe genetically modified organisms are safe and more sustainable than organically grown crops.
I am an environmentalist and a proponent of sustainability, traceability and social responsibility when it comes to sourcing ingredients. I do not believe GMOs are the way to sustainably feed the world, in fact I believe glyphosate is causing profound damage to our planet.
I am frustrated this company uses the slogan "Clean ingredients to nourish your pet and planet," as most people would completely disagree that genetically modified and herbicide-laden ingredients constitute "clean" dog food.
I believe regenerative agriculture and organic farming is the way forward. I believe both humans and animals should eat less ultra-processed, GMO and glyphosate sprayed foods, not more.
In addition to being biologically inappropriate for dogs and likely glyphosate-laden, the Wild Earth kibble is extruded, creating substantial amounts of acrylamides and other AGEs that are undeniably toxic to the body.19
Add to these drawbacks the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats that are heated to high temperatures, and the food now runs the risk of containing substantial advanced lipoxidation end-products (ALEs), heat-created food-borne toxic compounds that are linked to organ dysfunction and premature aging in animals.20
Veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, as I mentioned earlier, has taken an active role in promoting this brand of pet food. I don't have a problem with vets creating animal products nor do I have a problem with vets helping companies make better products, I do this myself. In fact, I think more vets should offer their insights when companies express a desire to enter into the pet food or wellness space.
I would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know that I formulate a variety of animal supplements, pet food recipes and wellness products for many different animal health companies.
As a formulator, I am paid to create a recipe or formula for a company. I don't sell any products myself nor do I get a commission on any supplements I've formulated. I view helping passionate companies make better quality pet products as a gift to my clients who are seeking effective, non-toxic strategies.
I am not a stakeholder in the companies for which I'm a paid consultant, nor am I paid a commission for recommending products when I write. I regularly write for over a dozen different magazines, blogs and online educational platforms.
When I do make product recommendations, none of them are paid endorsements. I've been a veterinarian a long time and share my successes (and failures) openly, that's the reason behind recommending some of my longtime product favorites.
If you've been a subscriber for a while, you know brands and specific recommendations appear infrequently in my articles for a reason: I write to educate. The articles I write intentionally don't link to products I've formulated because I see that as a conflict of interest.
My goal is to empower pet owners to become knowledgeable advocates for their pets and able to make wise choices and discern what's best for them. In the case of products like Wild Earth kibble, my goal is to help people read pet food labels, websites and other advertising materials and see past marketing claims.
As more and more pet foods enter the market, I think it's incredibly important to give pet parents the tools to assess each brand for biological appropriateness, quality of ingredients (including possible residues and contaminants), as well as identify where the bulk of nutrients are coming from (real food or powders).
In the case of Wild Earth, pet owners can achieve their desire to support transparent and sustainable pet food brands with far more appropriate pet food choices.
 

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