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The Vegetarian’s Pet Food Dilemma

As our understanding of livestock animals, and the conditions in which they are “farmed,” continues to grow, more and more American’s are avoiding meat – or at least being choosier about where their meat comes from. A recent survey found that two-thirds of Americans are actively reducing their meat consumption and 75% of Americans are concerned about the welfare of farm animals raised for food. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of vegans in the United States increased by 600%

At the same time, pet ownership has steadily increased over the last few decades with approximately 85 million families including at least one pet. Dogs and cats make up the overwhelming majority of U.S. companion animals, which can lead to an ethical conundrum for the plant-based consumer who decides to welcome one of these carnivores into their home. 

Although vegan and vegetarian dog foods are available, most experts agree that dogs are healthier on a species-appropriate, meat-based diet. Eating meat is even more vital for cats and we discourage ever putting a cat on a vegetarian/vegan diet as the likelihood of chronic illness increases dramatically. This is because despite thousands of years of domestication, dogs are still biologically, domesticated wolves, and cats are nearly indistinguishable from their African wildcat ancestors. As carnivores, there are a host of essential vitamins and minerals that dogs and cats can only acquire from meat.

If you’re one of the 90% of pet owners feeding your pet kibble, this may not seem like much of a dilemma, however, even the best kibble has devastating consequences for livestock animals, the environment, and the health of our pets. 

The Problems With Kibble

was designed as a cost-effective, convenient method to make use of byproducts from the human food supply chain that would otherwise go to waste. Kibble is typically  mass-produced in factories;often with multiple brands being manufactured at the same location with nearly identical ingredients. The big pet food manufacturers then market these burnt balls of grain and meat byproducts  as a wholesome, complete diet.

Mass-produced products are inherently problematic when animal welfare and ethical sourcing are not involved, and it’s almost impossible to guarantee that the millions of farm animals turned into kibble were treated ethically and humanely. At The Happy Beast, we carry only a handful of brands of dog kibble and no cat kibble at all. Even among these few ethical companies, it is difficult,  to find detailed sourcing information. Rather, consumers are assured that ingredients are “responsibly sourced” or “farm-raised,”which are vague labels that don’t actually mean much given the lack of standardization of these terms.. 

Beyond the impact on the lives of farm animals, there is a negative environmental impact of mass-produced pet food. A 2017 study estimated that dog and cat food is responsible for up to 30% of the environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture. Additionally, it is important to consider the environmental toll of manufacturing, packaging, and transporting the 9.4 million tons of pet kibble produced in the U.S. each year. The food we select for our beloved companion animals can have a much larger carbon footprint than we ever could have imagined.

Above all, kibble just isn’t a very healthy choice for pets. Most of us would be shocked if our doctors encouraged us to eat a diet consisting strictly of a single, highly-processed food. And we’d be even more skeptical if the doctors themselves were the ones selling it. Yet this is what we’ve grown to accept as healthy and acceptable for our pets; often without a second thought. Processed pet foods have been recalled hundreds of times due to deadly aflatoxins, mold, salmonella, foreign objects, and insufficient vitamins and minerals. Because of its high carbohydrate content, low moisture, and low-quality ingredients, kibble has also been linked to obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, urinary issues, and periodontal disease. 

What should conscious consumers feed their pets?

While the question of what to feed your pet may seem complicated based on the above information, the solution is surprisingly simple: fresh foods from small companies that emphasize transparency. The idea of handling fresh meat may make many vegetarians squeamish, but the benefits for the planet, farm animals, and our pets far outweigh any personal misgivings that may come from having meat in the kitchen. 

At The Happy Beast, we’re passionate about the planet and the animals we share it with. That’s why we’re working hard to create a sustainability rating for all the products we carry. While it’s still a work in progress, there are three companies we’d like to highlight based on their commitment to sustainability and animal welfare. 

Answers Pet Food

Based out of Pennsylvania, Answers partners with small family farms that practice sustainable, rotational farming practices. All of their meat is organic, pasture-raised, and certified by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) with some of their poultry reaching the highest standards possible. They have focused on reducing plastic in their packaging, and the paper and cardboard their food is packaged in is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The company even raises a large percentage of its own chickens and ducks and has its own goat herd for its raw goat milk and cheese. 

Smallbatch Pet Food

As their name suggests, Smallbatch makes their food in small batches in Portland, OR. Smallbatch also strives to source its ingredients from local farmers who practice good stewardship of their animals, land, and environment. Many of these animals are also certified humanely raised by GAP. Organic produce means that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides don’t make their way into the environment, or your pet. Smallbatch also offers their food in lightly cooked preformed sliders for dogs, which can minimize handling for the truly squeamish vegetarian. 

Anderson’s Pet Food

Anderson’s is a local Colorado company and sources all of its ingredients from Colorado, which immediately lowers its environmental impact. With a focus on novel proteins like bison and elk, all of Anderson’s livestock are pasture-raised and live their lives in a stress-free environment in the Rocky Mountains. Produce is also locally sourced and non-GMO. Every part of the animal is used so Anderson’s also offers healthy, natural chews like antlers, marrow bones, and tendons. 

There are many other small, local companies working hard to create healthy, sustainable food with the welfare of  animals in mind, but these are three of our favorites. For the welfare of farm animals, the environment, and our pets, fresh food from small producers will always be a better solution than mass-produced kibble.

Further Reading

Check out more of our blogs or stop by the store to find the best food for your pet.

  1. Meat & The Environment: Beef
  2. Understanding Puppy Food
  3. Overweight and Obese Cats – Why You Should Act Now
  4. From Kibble to Raw: A Feline Food Journey
  5. Simple Diet Solutions for Anti-Inflammation
  6. How to Decipher Pet Food Labels & Misleading Marketing
  7. Retrain the Cat Brain: Solutions for Eliminating Kibble
  8. Feline Nutrition with Veterinarian Dr. Angie Krause

What to Know about Grain-free Diets & DCM

Over the last year, and especially ramping up over the last couple of months, we have had a lot of discussions with customers regarding grain-free diets, and concerns about their potential of causing heart disease in dogs – more specifically, canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). We feel it is important to address this topic and review new research with an open mind by looking at all the information and facts available.

What is the issue? 

The concern being raised by some in the veterinarian community is that the legumes and/or potatoes in grain-free diets are either interfering with the absorption of taurine, or that these diets simply do not have enough taurine in them, which is leading to diet related Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). However, not all dogs that develop DCM are taurine deficient and the causes of DCM can also be hereditary or unknown. At this time, the research is inconclusive and the information that is available is rather difficult to navigate. 

What is DCM?

Canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart disease in dogs that is characterized by weakening of the heart muscle, which leads to a decreased ability of the heart to pump, and if untreated, to cardiac failure. 

This article, “DCM in Dogs: Taurine’s Role in the Canine Diet” in Whole Dog Journal is another great resource if you’re looking for more background information.

What is Taurine? 

Taurine is an essential amino acid found in meat, fish, and in smaller concentrations in dairy products. It is an essential building block of protein. From our perspective, the current debate shouldn’t be about Grain-Free vs Grain-Based, but what happens when we feed a carbohydrate-based food? All kibble is produced with a heavy amount of carbohydrates. Making kibble is like baking –you have to have a flour source, whether that is grain, potatoes, or legumes. All companies add a synthetic vitamin and mineral pack to their kibble diets in order to compensate for the lack of fresh ingredients, especially meat, in order to meet minimum nutritional requirements. Because kibble is so heavily processed, there could be other factors affecting the levels of taurine found in the food and how it is absorbed in the body. 

What should I take away from all this? 

We feel there are valid reasons to question the nutritional completeness of all kibble formulas; not just grain-free diets. It has always been our motto to incorporate as much fresh, less-processed food into your animals’ diets as possible. 

We need to broaden our considerations when it comes to the food we traditionally feed our animals. For example, asking, “What happens when we feed our dogs one diet for most of their lives?” “Can any one brand, protein, or flavor meet the nutritional needs of every animal on an individual basis?” “If humans cannot thrive on a fortified cereal for our entire lives, why do we expect our animals to be able to?”

Long story short, we recommend: 

  • Adding fresh, unprocessed meat into the diet. Taurine is an essential amino acid derived from meat, so if the concern is that these animals are developing DCM from a taurine deficiency then we conclude that adding meat is the solution.
  • Use kibble for additional calories and a budget buffer and consider fresh food as your animal’s nutritional foundation.

Other Resources

Simple Diet Solutions for Anti-Inflammation

Inflammation is a healthy and normal response the immune system uses for healing, but if not kept in check, can cause pain and more damage. For animals suffering from chronic inflammation and inflammatory diseases, we look for diets that are anti-inflammatory instead of pro-inflammatory.

When is inflammation a good thing?
Inflammation is a useful response of the immune system to attack foreign debris, objects, viruses and bacteria. When the body is attacked, white blood cells surge to the affected area to combat possible infection and to repair or destroy affected cells. The increase of blood flow and the release of healing chemicals cause the affected tissue to warm and swell, which creates pressure or pain. In acute cases, inflammation is a great response, it lets us know we are hurt, and it helps us to recover.

Inflammatory Disorders
Chronic inflammation results in conditions like ear infections, allergies, arthritis, colitis, IBD and IBS, dermatitis and pancreatitis, and can cause cancer and chronic pain. Most inflammatory disorders begin as a healthy immune response. Inflammatory disorders develop for a few different reasons. 1) The cause of initial inflammation is not eliminated, 2) the immune system responds to the pain resulting from the initial inflammation and more inflammation occurs to treat the existing inflammation, or 3) the body suffers from an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakes healthy tissue for a pathogen, and the body attacks itself.

Anti-inflammatory Diet
Unfortunately, we can’t control everything that contributes to inflammation, but we can control what our animals eat. Because the body’s natural response is inflammation, we choose foods that keep that response in check. This is especially important for animals suffering from disease, but healthy animals benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet as well.

  • Feed raw, species appropriate foods
    Remember, inflammation occurs when something foreign enters the body, so we want to feed our animals foods that the body recognizes and accepts as natural nutrition. Our animals evolved eating fresh meat, and we can mimic that with species appropriate raw diets that are either frozen, freeze-dried or dehydrated.
  • Dogs may benefit from added fruits and vegetables
    Fruits and veggies with anti-inflammatory properties like berries, cruciferous vegetables (like brussels sprouts, kale and spinach), and dark leafy greens. Some commercially available raw foods, like SmallBatch and Bravo include these ingredients in their dog food formulas. For cats, we always want to avoid plant-based proteins and carbohydrates.
  • Avoid kibble and other highly processed foods
    High cooking temperatures actually increase the pro-inflammatory property of the food. Processed, dry dog food (we call “kibble”) are heated to temperatures of 400°, resulting in denatured proteins and high levels of AGEs, both of which can trigger an inflammatory response.

Inflammation Fighting Supplements

How to Decipher Pet Food Labels & Misleading Marketing

Digestive Enzymes for Pets

What are digestive enzymes? Enzymes are responsible for making the chemical reactions in our body faster and more efficient. Digestive enzymes aid the body by breaking down proteins from food into amino acids which can be absorbed and utilized. Enzymes facilitate proper absorption of foods.

Digestive enzymes are found in raw foods. They are what cause foods to break down and decay. For example, bananas contain the enzyme, amylase. Amylase breaks down raw starch into sugar, which is why green bananas become softer and sweeter as they sit on the counter. All raw foods contain the right amount of the specific enzyme required to break the proteins they are made of.

Why is this important? Cooking destroys the enzymes that are required to break food down, so when we eat cooked food our bodies have to source enzymes from an internal supply. If the body is focused on producing enzymes for digestion, less energy is allotted to the metabolic enzymes used in organ, muscle and cell function.

Efficient and complete digestion is essential to good health. When the digestive system is functioning well, the rest of the body is prepared to maintain good health and fight disease. Digestive enzymes can take the body from merely surviving to truly thriving. This is especially important in animals with allergies, compromised immune systems, IBD, IBS, and pancreatitis. Symptoms of an enzyme deficiency can include bloating, gas, irritability and fatigue.

How should this affect your choices for pet food?

  1. Feed raw. Any food that hasn’t been cooked over 118 degrees will retain its required enzymes. Choose a frozen, dehydrated and freeze-dried raw food that is complete and balanced. See some of the foods we recommend here.
  2. Supplement with a digestive enzyme. Choose a plant-sourced enzyme as they survive under more diverse conditions. Avoid enzymes called “animal pancreas extracts” which may not survive the acidic environment on the digestive tract. We like InClover’s Optagest.
  3. Choose raw treats like frozen marrow bones and raw goat milk. These treats contain live enzymes to support the digestive tract and overall good health and your animals will love them!
  4. Read our blog post on “Helping Pets with Digestive Problems for more info and recommendations.