I was at the gym recently, swimming laps. After my work-out, I was sitting by the side of the pool and a fellow swimmer and friend stopped to chat about dogs. He has never owned a dog, but his daughter has been pressuring him and he thinks she is finally old enough to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog (good dad!). So, I was anticipating a discussion about breeds, where to look, training, feeding, etc. That is not where this was going at all. Instead, he wanted to talk about poop:
Me: “So, does she have a breed or breed-type that she is considering?”
Him: “No…..not yet. What I really want to ask you about is……the poop thing.”
Him: “You know. I see all of the people in our neighborhood taking their dogs for a walk in the morning and they all carry these bags with them and then, ugh…..they all PICK UP THE POOP WITH THEIR HANDS!!!!”
Me: “Well, not exactly; there is a plastic baggie involved. But regardless, what is your point?”
Him: “I just find that so gross and disgusting. I don’t think I could do it.”
Him: “Ick. Yuck.” (Accompanied by a squeamish expression that I have never seen on the face of a grown man).
Me; “Okay, let me get this straight. You are a triathlete. You regularly beat the crap out of your body by swimming, running and cycling ridiculously long distances. You have backpacked and camped all over the country, with no “facilities’ and sometimes not bathing for days……and you squirm at picking up dog poop in a plastic baggie?”
Him: “Yeah, that about covers it.”
Me (laughing): “You gotta get over that dude. Take a class or something. All dog folks pick up poop. It’s no big deal.”
Him: “Hmmm…..” (not buying it).
It really is no big deal. Many dog owners are not only comfortable with poop scooping, we also regularly examine the quality of our dog’s leavings as a general barometer of their health and the quality of the food that we are feeding.
So, when I learned of a recent study that asked a group of dog owners to do some “poop scoopin’ for science” I was only surprised that there have not been more studies of this nature published in the past.
The Issue: Those of you who have read Dog Food Logic know that I personally advocate for increased transparency in the pet food industry and for the need to provide dog owners with information that is actually useful to us when selecting foods. Without question, one of the most important measures of a food’s quality is its digestibility – the proportion of the food that a dog’s gastrointestinal tract is able to actually break down (digest) and absorb into the body for use. Digestibility correlates well with both ingredient quality and proper food processing techniques, so this information would be very helpful for dog owners to have. However, the vast majority of companies do not provide it. The only (very rough) estimate of food digestibility that we have is that gleaned by regularly examining the quality and quantity of our dog’s feces. A behavior that, in addition to providing very little real information, lends itself to weird looks from neighbors such as my swimming friend. A crappy state of affairs, indeed.
Industry’s Position: When challenged, representatives of the pet food industry generally deflect criticism by maintaining that current AAFCO regulations do not require reporting of food digestibility. (The old “we don’t gotta so we ain’t gonna” defense). Further, not all pet food companies regularly measure digestibility because doing so requires them to conduct feeding trials with dogs which in turn requires access to research kennels and laboratories. Such studies are expensive and may be cost prohibitive for some of the smaller companies that do not maintain their own kennels or in-house analytical laboratories.
Fair enough. However, what about using dogs who live in homes? Why not enlist everyday Citizen Scientists who are dedicated to their dogs, feed commercial dog food, are concerned about quality, and who do not squirm at picking up dog poop? Not only would this lead to increased numbers of dogs enrolled in these trials (thus supporting improved accuracy of digestibility estimates), it would also allow needed comparisons among breeds, ages, life styles and activity levels of dogs, and could get information about food quality out to the consumers who need it. Another definite advantage of in-home studies is that they lead to reduced need for kenneled research dogs, a clear animal welfare benefit.
Happily for us, a group of researchers from two universities in The Netherlands were thinking the same thing (1).
The Study: The objective of their study was to develop a simple method of measuring dog food digestibility that could be used with privately owned dogs living in homes. They recruited a group of 40 adult, healthy dogs and asked their owners to feed a test food (and nothing else) for a period of 7 days. Amounts to feed each dog were pre-measured and the volume the dog consumed each day was recorded. In this study, the test diet was a commercial dry (extruded) food formulated for adult dogs. After seven days of feeding, the owners were asked to collect all of their dog’s feces for a period of 24-hours. The feces were frozen and submitted to the researchers for analysis.
Here is a flow-chart showing how a digestibility trial works. It is conducted in the same manner with kenneled dogs, although feeding and feces collection periods can vary:
Results: The owners recorded the amount of food that their dog consumed each day and collected all of their dog’s feces over the final 24-hours of the study. The researchers then analyzed the nutrient content in the food that was consumed and in the feces that were excreted. From these data, they calculated the proportion of the food that each dog digested, called a “digestibility coefficient” and average values for the entire sample of dogs. In this experiment, the food’s dry matter digestibility was 77.4 % and its protein digestibility was 77.7 %, values that reflect a food of “low to moderate” quality. The variability between dogs (as reflected by the standard errors), was found to be low. This suggests that the dogs in the trial showed consistency in their ability to digest the food and supports the in-home trial as a valid procedure. In addition, the study reported compliance in 39 out of 40 homes, demonstrating some pretty dedicated poop scooping.
Up on the ol’ Box: Another recent study evaluated a set of eight commercial dog foods using both nutrient analysis and a set of feeding trials like the one above, but with kenneled dogs (2). They found a very wide range in the overall (dry matter) digestibilities and protein digestibilities among the eight products and noted that these differences would not be reflected by information that was provided on the pet food labels. The authors went even further, stating: “…we have to note that there is no comprehensive list of information available to the consumer to evaluate the quality of commercial diets. A combination of laboratory analyses and estimation of digestibility coefficients is the only way to perform an accurate and complete evaluation of the quality of a commercial diet” And yet, not all pet food companies supply complete nutrient levels for their foods and no pet food companies regularly provides digestibility coefficients to dog owners.
The results of this pilot study tell us that in-home studies with owned dogs can provide needed information about dog food quality and can allow the study of factors that may influence how well dogs utilize different foods, such as age, breed, size, health status and activity levels. Compliance was very good; these owners were willing to do their part, scooping poop for science. Now all that we need is for pet food companies to step up and begin to conduct in-home studies and make the information that they provide available to the dog folks who care.
- Hagen-Plantinga EA, Bosch G, Hendriks WH. Practical approach to determine apparent digestibility of canine diets. Journal of Nutritional Science 2014;3;e31:1-4.
- Daumas C, Paragon BM, Thorin C, Martin L, Dumon H, Ninet S, Nguyen P. Evaluation of eight commercial dog diets. Journal of Nutritional Science 2014;3;e63:1-5.