Can High-Fat Beef-Based Raw Diets Lead to Behavioral Issues in some Dogs?
More people are feeding their dogs homemade and commercial fresh meat-based or raw diets. It’s therefore increasingly important for veterinarians to be able to guide their clients on how to make meat-based diets that meet nutritional standards1 Nutrient analyses of high-fat beef diets reveal that they may contribute to potential health and especially behavioral problems in dogs. Lean meat diets correct these issues.
Good recipes start with good bases and build from there. The base is the primary meat used in the recipe and is often ground meat in ruminant recipes, and bone-in parts in poultry recipes.
Using fatty meats as a base can result in diets that fall short of minimum recommended amounts of protein for puppies; exceed safe upper limit recommendations for total fat; and have poorly balanced fats. More concerning is that a base of 70% lean beef does not provide even half of the minimum recommendations for the essential amino acid tryptophan, which some studies2 suggest may lead to aggressive behaviors.
High-fat meats are not part of the ancestral diet. As discussed in Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet, wild prey animals upon which the dog evolved were leaner, with different fat profiles than feedlot-fed or even pasture-raised animals.3
I firmly believe that well-formulated fresh meat-based diets, raw or lightly cooked, are by far the best way to feed most dogs most of the time, and are especially important for pregnant dogs and puppies. I also believe that poorly-formulated raw diets are less nutritious than recently-made, basic (without fish oils) kibble, with some sardines added weekly.
NOT ENOUGH PROTEIN IN A 100% BEEF DIET?
Many people present to me a scenario like this: “I got this great deal on ground beef. Can you help me build a complete and balanced food?” Sometimes the ground beef is 60% lean (that means 40% fat), and sometimes 70% or 80% lean. I am using 70% lean in this example (“Recipe” in the charts). A 70% lean ground beef diet provides 43 grams of protein per 1,000 kcal – recommended minimums are 56.3 grams for puppies and 45 grams for adults. The 70% lean beef provides 91 grams of fat per 1,000 kcal, exceeding the NRC safe upper limit of 82.5 grams (see chart 1). Even if one were to add 10% liver and 20% vegetables, the diet still would exceed standards for total fat, and would be well short of minimum protein recommendations for puppies.
DOES TOO MUCH FAT MAKE IT DIFFICULT FOR DOGS TO LEARN AND PAY ATTENTION?
“You are what you eat” applies to fat more than anything else. The reason for this is that the fats the dog eats become incorporated into the membranes of every cell in his body. Among their many vitally important functions, cell membranes let food into the cells and release waste products. Healthy cell membranes are the essence of good cellular health; unhealthy cell membranes decrease the overall efficiency of the cells, and therefore of the organs and entire body.
When consuming balanced fat diets, dogs learn faster and remember more, are better behaved, have stronger hearts, better skin and coats, and experience decreased chances of cancer and allergies. Many studies over decades have documented the benefits of balanced fat diets4,5,6
THE DATA SUGGESTS THAT HIGH-FAT BEEF-BASED DIETS MAY BE A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR TO BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS
Prolonged exposure to a high-fat diet is correlated with changes in the brain chemistry of mammals – and in particular, brain systems that regulate motivation and willingness to work for food7. Consumption of a high-fat diet as a fetus and in early growth stages appears to have long-lasting effects on learning and memory during adulthood.8
Even though this all-beef diet contains too much fat, it does not provide sufficient amounts of any of the essential fatty acids: LA, ALA, AA, EPA and DHA. If one rotates ruminant and poultry, there may not be a worry about LA. But if not rotating, a source of LA needs to be added. Lack of LA has been correlated with skin and coat problems. Lack of EPA has been linked to depression and sadness in mammals; and without DHA, the dog’s brain, eyes, hearing, thinking, and memory will not as good as it could be. It is difficult to add these essential fats to a diet that already has too much fat. One has to reduce the total amount of fat first, and then add the fish or fish oils.
HIGH-FAT BEEF DIETS LACK TRYPTOPHAN, A PRECURSOR TO SEROTONIN
It is also important to consider the amino acid profile of the diet. A diet of 70% lean ground beef provides only 0.22 grams/1,000 kcal of tryptophan. The AAFCO minimum recommended amount for puppies (growth) is 0.5 gram, and the European minimum is 0.58 grams (see Chart 2).
Several published, peer-reviewed studies suggest that lack of tryptophan in high protein9 diets can be linked with certain types of aggressive behaviors. Tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, may affect the incidence of aggression, selfmutilation and stress resistance.
Hopefully, not many people feed their dogs only 70% lean ground beef, but many people add fatty ground beef to their dogs’ dry food. If one feeds a cup of dry food and a cup of 70% lean ground beef, 60% to 70% of the calories will be from the ground beef, and the total amount of tryptophan will be in the range of 0.35 to 0.45 grams/1,000 kcal, well short of standards for puppies, and may not reach minimum recommendations for adult dogs (0.4 AAFCO, 0.43 European).
Long-term implications for aggression in dogs can result. Consider a breed with a genetic predisposition to aggression, for example. If the pregnant dam eats a dry food diet supplemented with very high-fat beef, but not with fish or fish oils, and then her puppies eat the same diet and are not well socialized with other dogs and people, the puppies could have an increased risk of being aggressive. If one of the puppies goes to new home where he is fed half dry kibble and half 70% lean ground beef with no added fish, and he does not get properly socialized and trained, severe aggression could result. The owners think they are helping the puppy’s health by adding ground beef, but could actually be putting him at risk.
START WITH 85% TO 90% LEAN GROUND BEEF, AND BUILD A GREAT BASE
You can build a superb diet by starting with a base of 85% lean ground beef for adults, and 88% lean for puppies. The total fat amounts are within all standards and the diet has ample tryptophan. It’s a good start and it now becomes easy to balance the fats and add the necessary minerals and vitamins. Rotating ruminant and poultry meats is best. As I show in my formulation seminars, one can rotate two relatively inexpensive meats – 80% lean ground beef (which on its own lacks tryptophan), and chicken necks with the skin and separable fat removed (on its own it has too much Ca and P), to produce an excellent base. Rotating these meats – one day beef, the next day chicken – helps balance the fats, minerals, and amino acids.
It’s important to be aware of the potential behavioral issues that may arise in dogs when their owners feed them a high-fat beef-based diet. It’s a good idea to ask each client, at every visit, what she is feeding her dogs, including treats. If your client is making her own foods or adding meat to dry foods, you need to estimate the total fat content. This is especially important when it comes to potentially aggressive dogs.
Other common mistakes made with homemade raw diets include using the wrong calcium and fat sources, and not supplementing with the proper trace minerals. I address these issues in Guidelines for Helping Clients Formulate Meat-Based Diets that Meet AAFCO, NRC and European Standards, which can be found on the IVC Journal website (ivcjournal.com).
1 American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), proposed revisions for 2014 Official Publications, The National Research Council of the Academies of Science (NRC) “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats” 2006, and The European Pet Food Industry Association “Nutritional Guidelines for Complete and Complementary Pet Food for Cats and Dogs”, July 2013.
2 DeNapoli JS, Dodman NH, Shuster L, Rand WM, Gross KL. “Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs.” J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Aug 15;217(4):504-8.
3Brown, Steve. Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet – Healthier Dog Food the ABC Way. Dogwise Publishing, 2009.
4 J. Schumann et al. “Treating canine atopic dermatitis with unsaturated fatty acids: the role of mast cells and potential mechanisms of action”. JAPAN online, March 2014. Doi: 10.1111/jpn.12181. Weaver et al. “Effect of dietary fatty acids on inflammatory gene expression in healthy humans”. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2009. Retrieved June 2, 2009 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090529183250.htm.
5 University of California – Los Angeles Scientists. “Learn How Food Affects The Brain: Omega 3 Especially Important.” 2008, July 11. Science Daily. Retrieved July 14, 2008 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080709161922.htm.
6 For complete references, I refer the reader to three recently published review articles that reference the hundreds of studies upon which these conclusions were built: Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando. “Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 9, 568–578, July 2008; McCann, Joyce and Ames, Bruce. “Is docosahexaenoic acid…required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioral tests in humans and animals”. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005; 82: 281–95; and Carlson, Susan “Early determinants of development: a lipid perspective”. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89(suppl): 1523S–9S.
7 Endocrine Society. “Adolescents’ high-fat diet impairs memory and learning”. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 18, 2013 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130617110813.htm.
8 Endocrine Society. “High-fat diet during pregnancy contributes to offspring’s increased weight”. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 18, 2013, from sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130617142033.htm.
9 Even though a 70% lean ground beef diet lacks sufficient protein for any dog, it may be considered a “high protein” diet because, on a dry matter basis, it is 32% protein. When compared to the protein content of most dog foods, 32% protein is higher than most. The high protein diets in the studies were 32% protein.