This article first appeared on petbusiness.com.
You’ve likely been told to focus on the top five ingredients and the percentage of protein or fat when it comes to picking out a food for your canine partner. While these may appear to be important, they aren’t the ideal way to pick out a food. None of these factors consider what happens to ingredients when they are processed and enter a dog’s body. Believe it or not, these factors can make the ‘best looking’ and most expensive pet food labels quite deceptive. Regardless of your pet food philosophy, we must look past the marketing hype of raw, fresh, healthy grains, grain-free, ancient grains, locally sourced, natural, etc. and instead ask basic questions about the company who makes your canine’s food.
Marketing—Don’t Believe the Hype
Nutrition goes far beyond an ingredient label and the guaranteed analysis. Neither tells you anything about the quality or amount of nutrients that your canine can utilize. Not surprisingly, this is because these numbers can be easily manipulated though use of various ingredients and processing methods that may not serve your dog’s best interest. The perception of the food is further complicated by marketing puffery buzzwords like “biologically appropriate” and imagery that creates an illusion that pet food is something that it is not. This is an unfortunate fact that many pet food makers don’t want consumers, retailers or veterinarians to know.
What we’re getting at is that your dog is not able to use every nutrient or ingredient that is listed on the bag, which brings us to the topic of digestibility. Digestibility is simply the percentage of food (whole or processed) taken into the digestive tract that is absorbed into the body. This is one of the critical discussion points that is lacking in any pet food debate.
Why Should You Care About Digestibility?
The simple answer is that digestibility tells you if you have a high-quality food, or not. Said differently, it deals with the amount of poop you scoop! There are many groups with multiple training philosophies and brand loyalties, but these groups do not consider that their chosen food may not be providing what is actually listed on the package. You may believe you are providing the best nutrition available; however, if it is not digestible or bioavailable the percentages on the bag are meaningless.
What is Digestibility?
As mentioned earlier, digestibility is essentially the percentage of nutrients the body can absorb. This test is non-invasive and shows the amount of nutrients (such as protein, fat vitamins, etc.) an animal absorbs from the food it is fed. This applies to all food types, including kibble, canned, raw, cooked or any other diet option. Everyone that owns a dog does “mini” digestibility tests every day we clean up after them!
It would seem logical for pet food companies to provide this information to the public, but the reality is that most do not. The reasons for this are because the companies do not conduct this test on their products before or after launching a food. In this case, they usually try and claim testing is an animal welfare issue, and they do not test on animals; or, if they do, they claim this information as proprietary. Let’s look at what digestibility testing actually entails.
Digestibility studies, or testing, involves feeding a predetermined amount of the formula being tested to several dogs for about 10-plus days, although this can vary. Typically, the first half of the study allows for proper transitioning to the food being evaluated. During the second half of the study, the stool is collected and analyzed. The process determines the percentage of nutrients absorbed, in comparison to what was fed. This does not involve any invasive procedures, inhumane conditions or otherwise harm to animals. In essence, it’s no different than us scooping our dogs poop each day. These facts strike down the “animal welfare” response from many companies.
The real frustrating part for us in the field is that it typically costs less than $5,000 for anyone (including the public) to send any food to a third-party facility to determine the digestibility profile. Based on this, we know that cost is not a prohibitive factor, so why don’t multimillion-dollar companies do this basic testing? These facts strike down the “cost or proprietary” arguments and expose them as an excuse for not wanting to spend the money or do the work—or it may indicate their lack of knowledge or experience in animal nutrition. That’s a whole other topic for another day.
How Do You Know What is Actually in Your Dog’s Food?
In short, without digestibility reports, you don’t. And if a company is not performing digestibility testing for their product, it simply means that they also have no idea what the actual calorie content or digestibility of their food is—meaning that your pet is ultimately the one being experimented on. If they are unwilling to provide you with digestibility information, then you won’t know what is in your dog’s food, or what they are able to utilize and therefore you shouldn’t be feeding it.
Digestibility is critical for demonstrating if you have a high-quality food or not. Digestibility testing is non-invasive and shows the amount of nutrients an animal absorbs from the food it is fed. This would apply to all food types, including kibble, canned, raw, cooked or any other diet option. This is different from a guaranteed analysis, or a typical nutrient analysis of a food, which we’ll explore at a later date.
Without knowing the amount—in percentage form—of nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals) that are absorbed, we simply cannot know if a food is providing adequate nutrition to your canine. Without this information, how can a manufacturer or pet food company be confident that they are selling products that provide nutrition that meets the needs of the pets that consume it? How can you be confident feeding it?
We challenge you to ask your pet food company if they perform digestibility studies, and if they are willing to provide you with that information. The truth is, many brands do not conduct these studies or make the data available. If you ask, and they do not conduct them or use the excuse of information being proprietary, it’s probably time to find a new company to trust with your dog’s nutrition.