The pet food industry, like human food is highly regulated. The guidelines are set out by the Food and Administration, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, and, as Dr. Al Townsend of Eagle Pack notes, the US Coast Guard can even play a role in the regulations. In light of the latest pet food recall, there is now an even heightened awareness about the quality of pet food. The FDA requires that “pet foods, like human foods, be pure and wholesome, safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled. In addition, canned pet foods must be processed in compliance with the low acid canned food regulations to ensure the pet food is free of viable microorganisms.” ( Dr.. Tim Hunt of Momentum Pet Foods notes that “pet foods are even more regulated than baby food.” He reminds us of the mix-up a few years ago when human grade tuna was mistakenly put in cat food tins, and cat food labeled as baby food. Perhaps the cat food was not so bad, and I bet the tuna was well received.The labels on pet food are also controlled and must follow guidelines. The ingredients listed on the labels are listed in descending order by weight. The main ingredients are listed first, usually with two to three animal protein sources listed first. After that comes carbohydrates, additional protein, vitamins and minerals. But, this is where it can get confusing. The heaviest ingredients are listed first, but determining whether that ingredient was added wet or dry can make a difference. “The curious thing about pet foods is whether you use fresh/frozen ingredients or dried products,” says Lloyd Gilbertson of Caribou Creek Pet Foods. “Your fresh frozen products, such as the poultry liver we use as our first ingredient, it is USDA approved liver, but if you were to dry that out, it would actually read as the 4th or 5th ingredient. The regulations say that the ingredients be listed in weight.” Rob Downey, of Annamaet Pet Foods adds that putting together a pet food formula is like putting together a cake recipe, you add so many pounds of this and so many pounds of that. “Usually you work on a per-ton basis. So, if you are adding 200 pounds of an ingredient, you can list it as 200 pounds, or as a percentage. Usually we work with dry matter, but when we work with wet ingredients it can get confusing. If I add 1000 pounds of chicken, I am actually only adding 300 pounds of chicken as 70% of the chicken is water. Now, if I add 1000 pounds of chicken meal, I am adding 900 pounds of chicken as there no more than 10% moisture in the meal.“Now, if that is not confusing enough, try pronouncing some of the other ingredients listed towards the bottom of some labels; Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide for instance. These names are not just there to make the labels look official and scientific. These are actual ingredients. Eric Morris of Redpaw says “AAFCO regulates not only how our ingredient labels are set up, but they also dictate the terms that we use for our ingredients. In a lot of cases they are vitamins and minerals that are complexed with amino acids to make them more bio-available.” The tongue twister above is actually iodine “which is necessary for the production of hormones in the thymus gland of the dog” says Morris. Morris explains that “A lot of these little things that we see on these labels in these long words are things that we know are necessary for the proper function of a dog but those ingredients themselves may be rare in the raw ingredients we’re using, and we have to guarantee that we have the proper amount for it to be effective.”Another interesting ingredient is chicken by-product. Morris says “It’s one of those ingredients that doesn’t get a fair shake because of what it sounds like.” He reads from his book of ingredient terminology: “Poultry by-product must consist of non-rendered, clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry. Heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter,” basically what he is saying is if you call it chicken by-product it has to be from chickens. Poultry by-product, from any source of domestic poultry comes in different grades. And while it may sound like an ingredient from a Fear Factor challenge, Morris says that some of the by-products out there are some of the best ingredients to use in a dog food. “When we’re looking at using poultry of any type in our dog food, the protein fraction is not necessarily the part of the bird that is going to give us the best balance after it’s mixed with the other ingredients. If the processing plant removes the breast and the thighs from the chicken and leaves us basically with the ribcage, the necks and the back, that is a very good source of protein and fat. They leave us with, what we feel, are the better parts. The spinal column is an incredibly rich source of fatty acids and so are the intestines. We don’t want to eat that part of the animal, but the dog actually needs that part of it.”Scott Faulkner of Alpine Pet Food adds that “all ingredients in a dog food perform a task. Some ingredients have nothing to do with your canine friend’s performance level. Sweeteners, artificial flavoring (and natural flavoring), food coloring, and water absorbing agents are some that come to mind. Why are they in there? Palatability, proper operation of extruders and pellet machinery, consumer appeal, and consistent or extraordinary coloring are reasons for these otherwise unnecessary ingredients.”Other ingredients which may seem oddly placed on a pet food label are beet pulp and psyllium, which aid digestion. Which brings us to digestibility of foods. Digestibility and bio-availability information is not printed on the label to protect the consumer from mis-information, says Townsend. A phone call to the manufacturer is a good way to get fairly accurate details of digestibility and bio-availability of the ingredients. The other way to quickly determine the digestibility of your dog’s food, and well known among mushers is is to look at the size of your poop-pile.“Most companies are going to shy away from giving you exact percentages, because they would be giving away their formula,” says Gilbertson, who encourages everyone to “compare one food to the next under similar conditions, and then look at what comes out of your dog when you are running them hard. That’s the best way to find out what is going on with your dog.”The ingredients themselves are not the only thing affecting digestibility and utilization of the food. The manufacturing process is very important. Downey explains that “processing has a tremendous affect on digestibility and intake. Animal proteins are more digestible in a raw state, so if you overcook them you render them indigestible. Starches are more digestible to the dog in a cooked form, but there is a fine line between under cooking and over cooking. It also depends on how fast you are cooking it, or extruding it.” Gilbertson adds that the carbohydrates chosen must have a “good cook”, that means they retain their benefits to the dog throughout the cooking or extrusion process, and adding them at the correct time is very important. Utilization of the food by the dog is important, but so is how we use the dog. With two main types of sled dog racing – distance and speed – we asked the manufacturers if there is a difference in needs for these somewhat different types of dogs. Morris says “Simply, the basic nutritional needs for the sprint dog versus a distance dog are the same. There’s a lot of things that we look at in a dog, like how they look on the outside and what we’re asking them to do, and there does seem to be differences, but a lot of what’s going on inside of that dog physiologically and metabolically are exactly the same. It’s critical when we’re feeding these types of dogs that we’re meeting all of their nutritional needs.”Dr. Tim believes, “The biggest difference is calories because the Euro-hounds are such thin-coated dogs. You definitely have to put more energy in the furnace to keep that machine running right, versus the traditional thick-coated husky that you see on the coast, those dogs hold their weight so much better that they just don’t need as much energy that way.” While we were interviewing Dr. Tim, he mentioned the fact that some Euro-hounds are much more active in their circles, and a quick glance out the window confirmed this; the huskies were all sitting calmly on their houses, while the hounds were actively running in their circles.Gilbertson notes that many people are still using traditional huskies very successfully in speed racing as well as distance. The needs of the dogs, while fundamentally the same, can vary in over a 24 hour period during training and racing for the two types. The biggest difference in their requirements are fat levels. “Most of the basic diet is going to be very similar in protein and fat content. The added calories needed on the high intensity days can be provided by fat, for long distance dogs, keeping in mind that you don’t fall below 32% protein on a dry matter basis. Otherwise, the dietary needs of the diet structure-wise is not any different. They both need super-high quality diets, and the long distance dogs need more food and probably a higher level of fat for when they are training or racing really hard.”Faulkner adds “carbohydrates and fats ‘burn,’ or are available, at different rates. Fast burning sources are great for sprinting while slow, more regulated, sources (i.e. complex carbohydrates) are attuned to distance. Alpine dog food for example utilizes brown rice as a slow burn complex carbohydrate. Furthermore, pork lard has a slower burn rate while chicken fat is more readily available for the dog to use.”Downey, who studied animal nutrition before starting Annamaet says “The Euro-hound tends to have a higher metabolic rate so they tend to need more calories to maintain them. Traditional maintenance requirements of the husky in the summer is about 1500 calories a day. In fall training it can easily go up to 3000 calories, but it comes down during racing season. The biggest amount of calories you are going to be burning with a sprint dog is in the beginning of fall training. This is because they are working hard and they are getting used to the cold. The calorie level used in the racing season could drop down to 1800 to 2500 calories per day.” Adding, that while distance mushers feed large amounts of additional fat, they should be careful. “If you feed too much fat compared to protein for 10 or more days you can get sports anemia. The dogs will look good but they are not performing well. In the early days of Iditarod, you used to see a lot of those teams stop at White Mountain after 10 or twelve days, when the race was taking longer. You find they were feeding too much fat relative to the rest of the diet.” Downey adds that, “altering the diet can alter performance by up to 30%.”Mushers look at the fat and protein levels in dog foods first. A typical high-performance food should have no less than 32% protein and 20% fat. One thing we don’t look at is the carbohydrates content. Humans use both carbohydrates and animal proteins for muscle energy, dogs use animal proteins primarily, but carbohydrates are essential to their performance,Dr. Tim says that dogs do use carbohydrates for energy, “it is just a lower requirement that they need, but they definitely need carbohydrates in their diet. The carbohydrates are used for energy to some degree, but most importantly it is used for GI health, the fibers that go into the food, and the carbohydrates are used more extensively by the lower intestinal tract more than anywhere else.” Adding that sugars are used extensively by the heart muscles and the brain. Dr. Tim adds that the amount of carbohydrate is important. Dogs usually have a requirement of about 15% of the total calories come from carbohydrates. Downey’s studies have shown you need a certain level of carbohydrates to help maintain feedability, in other terms help form the stools. “The principle form of energy, especially long term running was fat, and they need to maintain the protein levels to maintain the red blood cells to burn that fat and to maintain muscle mass. Having said that, you need to maintain muscle glycogen because muscle glycogen is going to be burned first before the fat. That is why a product like GlycoCharge is so important to maintain muscle glycogen levels. You have a 2 hour window of opportunity to replenish muscle glycogen, after 2 hours, that window is closed. If you feed something like rice for glycogen replacement, by the time it is absorbed, it is too late.”Gilbertson notes that during high intensity work, muscles burn large amounts of glycogen, and the opposite occurs at low intensity work. “Whether you are training the dogs for speed or distance, the primary fuel is free fatty acids. You have to fuel that by having a high protein, high fat diet with a good source of carbohydrates, but not an overly large amount, and your dogs then become accustomed to burning free fatty acids. He adds that re-fueling is one way to control the fuel level, but controlling the exertion level of the dogs is important so they don’t hit the wall. “If you are gong to race, say the 3rd day of the Open North American, that is 30 miles, you probably don’t want them to go absolutely as fast as they can initially because they will hit the wall early, you need to control speed somewhat, either by training the dogs to run at the pace you want them to, or by slowing them down a little in the early stages until they can get into burning the free fatty acids. If the first 15 mins or 20 mins of exercise, is too fast, you deplete all the glycogen stored in the muscles. That is when you see dogs hit the wall or slowing down to a walk or stopping all together.While the sled dog world has not developed specific foods for the different disciplines, there have been large food companies developing breed-specific foods. While this has been seen a great marketing ploy to get the consumer to believe that their dog’s breed makes them very different to another breed, our experts suggest that barring the miniature and giant breeds, there is no difference. And, with the large and small breeds it is mainly the size of their digestive tract that poses, if any, difference. Faulkner adds “we have had many sport specific feeds for years now. Breed or sport specific feeds target deficiencies and particular needs that are not addressed in general purpose type dog foods. This is a great move for the pet industry.”Marketing ploys or not, there is a consumer market for puppy foods. “The puppy foods started about 50 or 60 years ago. The diets being made back then were generally corn and soybean, but were low in calcium. Once you bred the dog or tried to raise puppies there wasn’t enough calcium in the diet. Now what has happened, is we have balanced the diet, instead of corn and soybean, we are using chicken and other quality ingredients you don’t have to have a different diet for puppies versus other dogs,” says Downey.“We see a lot of specific puppy food diets marketed, and in general those diets are an attempt to upgrade the standard foods that companies sell. If you look at the very high end foods like our own and a few others that are higher in protein and fat and have a great vitamin and mineral content, if you were able to feed like we do, we feed our food straight to our dogs and race them, you have probably got a good puppy food,” says GilberstonFeeding the growing puppy can be an art. How many times a day to feed them varies by who you talk to, but more than once a day is echoed through our experts. “When a dog is at a growth phase there is really a high demand for the input of calories and nutrients. The food capacity of the puppy is really dependent on how much they can have in their belly. Because of that and the need of nutrients and calories at that point, you definitely have to go to 2 or 3 feedings a day with those pups,” says Dr. Tim. Care should be taken when feeding the pregnant female, Providing enough nutrition is important, so is making sure the females do not become overweight. “Overweight females have more trouble giving birth than correct weight females,” says Downey. Pregnant females are feeding more than one animal, so as the puppies develop inside the mother, their nutritional demands increase. After the puppies are born, then the nutritional demands become even greater because the puppies rely on the mother for nutrition. This is when a good quality food can be soaked in water and offered to the puppies. This will take the strain off the females, but again, be careful to feed the female appropriately and not let her get too fat.With all of the quality ingredients available, our manufacturers have noted that the pet food recall has not only raised awareness in the average pet owner, but has increased sales in the premium, small company, pet foods. All of our experts were proud to say that they single source their ingredients, and for the most part all of the ingredients are sourced from North America. The exception is Eagle, who use lamb meal from New Zealand, and duck meal from Germany. All companies understand that their sourcing of products within North America has increased their costs, they are much more willing to provide the highest quality foods from reputable sources, and to maintain the health and nutrition of the animals they supply to.The USDA website allows you to look at the guaranteed analysis of all approved ingredients. Type in chicken, chicken meal etc.


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