Pet food aisles are getting harder and harder to distinguish from the rest of the supermarket. It seems like every week there's another line of animal chow rebranded with human diet jargon like organic, grain-free, and gluten-free.
And now dog food companies are ramping things up even further by jumping on the wellness wagon. A few weeks ago a "clean eating guide" for dogs dropped in my inbox. Surely this is a sign the trend is out of control. Dogs are dirty by nature, after all.
Wellness has become a catch-all phrase to sum up our nation's obsession with all things pertaining to nutrition. It's made the Nutribullet the most popular appliance on wedding lists and seen the US gluten-free industry projected to reach sales of $23.9 billion by 2020.
Seeing as three-year-old dachshund Dexter doesn't have the opposable thumbs to scroll through Instagram, and his ears wouldn't register a twitch at the words "avocado on rye," he's lucky enough to be immune to the fad for wellness. It also makes him the perfect test subject to confirm whether doggie clean eating really is more than just fluff.
Here's what happened when I took receipt of two-week supply of Forthglade's 100% natural food, its accompanying clean eating manual, and diligently locked away Dexter's favourite artificial treats.
I read over the manual in bed while Dexter snores beside me—the gist is that my dog will be made "happier and healthier" on his new diet thanks to a combination of the "pure," nutritionally balanced meals and an improved attitude to eating achieved via "positive associations and good behaviour at mealtimes." Training your dog to have good manners and feeding it a healthy diet sounds more like standard owner-pet protocol than a clean lifestyle to me.
I rouse Dexter and we head to the kitchen for the first meal. I plump for the lamb flavoured food with brown rice and veg. It looks a lot like pâté and is kind of oily— that'd be the salmon oil. Like all the meals it contains "high-quality protein, healthy veggies and essential vitamins and minerals." It's not actually all that different in composition from my current pet food of choice.
Canine behaviorist Nick Jones has told me the best way to convert Dexter to a clean diet is to introduce the food slowly into his existing meals. I add a spoonful to his usual kibble to start.
Dexter sniffs it dubiously, eats a few bites of kibble and tootles back to his bed to sleep in. He's always been quite a fussy eater.
Dexter's already broken his diet. His weakness for street food (a discarded chicken bone) gets the better of him as he manages to snaffle one on the way home, ignoring my commands to drop it. This highlights one of my major reservations: weiner dogs are simply stunted four-legged cute machines with urges, not diet devotees.
Dexter sneaks off to eat his remaining food. I check the bowl and he's left some of the new wet food. Looks like convincing him to eat clean could be tough
I spoon out Dexter's food in the kitchen while he eyes me eagerly. I have continued to swap out some of Dexter's old food for the new "clean" food. Again he only takes a few bites before wandering off.
I ask Jones what results I should expect from putting Dexter on the diet. "Clean foods can help dogs become more relaxed, less anxious, and more able to carry out basic and more advanced training commands." As Dexter already spends three-quarters of the day sleeping, I am skeptical about the diet's impact on his stress levels.
It's raining heavily and Dexter is agitated after our walk is cut short. I'd normally give him some rawhide to chomp on, but seeing as it's laced with "nasty" artificial beef flavoring, it's off limits. Instead I'm going to attempt to bake up some "wholesome" oat treats recommended by the clean regime.
While I have the recipe up on my screen, I Google "clean eating for dogs." The top search is for homemade dog treats on a wellness site. "Fido wants to eat clean too. Make your own healthy dog treats and stop feeding your best friend chemicals and preservatives," it reads.
Seriously? I'm sure my dog "wants to eat clean" as much as he wants to dress up as a hot dog for Halloween. But it's the clearest sign yet of how pet businesses use the wellness tag to market their food.
"Treaties!" I holler and Dexter comes running. I'm testing whether—as promised—the diet will make Dexter more pliable to commands.
When he comes into the room I show him the treat, holding it up in exchange for a handshake. He obliges half-heartedly, but when I hand him the treat he licks it a little before trotting back to the living room to chase his tail. Thank god I didn't bother investing in a doggy spiralizer.
A week in and I've noticed no discernible change in Dexter. Today he's due his first full serving of the food. I switch things up with a new flavor—a grain-free duck flavored one. As ever, Dexter is lying in.
Dexter comes down and laps up half the food. While he's eating, I do some research on grain-free dog diets.
I discover that while bulking agents used in cheap foods can cause dodgy bowel movements, most dogs can tolerate wheat and other grains just fine. It's plausible that the brands shouting this phrase on their packaging could be cashing in on the popularity of Paleo and its demonization of grains.
This gets me thinking about gluten-free dog food too. I find out that gluten-induced enteropathy—as Celiac disease is known in the dog world— is relatively rare, although it's more common in certain breeds such as Irish setters.
It seems like gluten-free dog foods are more of a shrewd marketing tool for wellness fans rather than for the small number of pets cursed with bad GI function. And you would notice if your dog had gluten-induced enteropathy—one of its main symptoms is constant mild diarrhoea.
Dexter poops as soon as we're out of the house and, it looks pretty healthy—dark in colour and firmer than usual. This is the most positive side-effect I've seen of the diet so far. It's also the closest I've ever looked at a pile of dog shit in my life.
I'm out for dinner with a friend at an Italian place. Dexter is begging, but I ignore him. When I'm done eating my pasta, I let him sit on my lap. He goes straight for the bowl with his tongue outstretched for the salty, delicious Carbonara sauce.
If I was taking this whole clean eating thing more seriously, it could be easy to obsess over my dog's diet and his attempts to disobey it and stuff as much human food as possible down his tiny, adorable gullet. . But as any pet owner knows, dogs can pick up on your anxiety—so I remain relatively sanguine as Dexter does his best to huff my leftovers.
The past few days, I've been trying to implement some better meal manners as per the guide by offering Dexter his meals for limited windows. But it isn't encouraging him to approach his food more eagerly so I scrap it and leave his food out. My dog isn't the most compliant by any means, but I like his unruly nature— it's part of his charm. Nobody wants their pet to become the dog equivalent of a glassy-eyed, soulless wellness vlogger.
It's another cheat day for Dexter. We take a drive to the supermarket and while my back is turned he raids the boot and finds a KFC container. I clock his munching noises and confiscate it. He isn't in a great mood after being chastised for his misbehavior.
Obviously takeaways aren't appropriate for dogs, but they're a treat for me. I don't fear unhealthy foods, and I wouldn't want to project that on my dog either. The diet doesn't prohibit treats by any means—as long as they're healthy—but it does project pejorative language on anything containing additives, calling them "nasties.". All in moderation, I say.
It's the last meal. Afterwards I throw Dexter a bone to congratulate him. He goes crazy for it.
The regime is over and Dexter has been successfully, if reluctantly, weaned off delicious E numbers and artificial beef slop. But are either of us converted to the clean eating lifestyle for dogs?
Admittedly,Dexter's breath and bowel movements have improved. But what exactly is doggie wellness, if not a shrewd marketing stunt?
Equating human-led food trends conflicts with the basic reality of being a pet-owner in general. Dogs explore the world with their mouth and their noses—KFC bargain bucket and all—and they get dirty along the way.
And sometimes their shit stinks, too.