I didn't actually know there really was a debate until today, when we brought Oscar to the vet for his check-up. I thought corn was no good, full stop, and that was pretty widely accepted. Tonight, we saw a vet that we had not seen before. As part of Oscar's check-up, the vet asked what food he was on. I told her that he was on Blue Buffalo. She said that she wasn't that fond of Blue Buffalo, that she had heard of dogs who had problems on Blue Buffalo, and that there had been a recall of Blue Buffalo last year, which made her a bit wary about it. She then said that miniature schnauzers are prone to health issues like pancreatitis, diabetes, and bladder stones. She recommended that we put him on a low-fat diet, as high fat levels can contribute to problems like pancreatitis and diabetes (though not the bladder stones).
She recommended a few brands: Light Science Diet, Royal Canin, or Purina Pro Plan (but not normal Purina, which she didn't recommend). I asked her more about this, because I said I had looked into Science Diet and Royal Canin and remembered at least one of them having corn as the first ingredient, which I didn't think was very good. The vet said that corn and by-products have gotten a bad rap, and that they are not actually as bad as people say they are. She said corn has some protein in it, which is good. She also said that good quality by-products can be better than bad quality meats, so dog foods with these ingredients can be trusted, if they are good quality brands. (I feel like that's not good logic - doesn't quality depend on the ingredients themselves?)
Now, I am not a vet. The extent of my scientific training is a couple of biology and chemistry classes in undergrad (biology was fun, chemistry was blech, and so I switched into Arts), and the extent of my work with dogs is restricted to my experience with Oscar. However, I have done a lot of reading about dog food. Everything I had read said that corn was not good for dogs, that is is cheap filler, and that it can cause allergies and digestion problems. I have also read about by-products in dog food, and read that by-products should be avoided. It made sense to me - by-product meal is essentially made up of parts of the carcass (besides the meat) which are ground up. Could this be wrong? Can corn and by-product meals be good for dogs, as long as they are high quality?
I did some reading, and tried to stay away from forums where average Joes like me would congregate to talk about food, since most of those places have people who are very vocal about how terrible corn and by-products are for dogs, but most of those people probably don't have any more training or experience than me. I couldn't find much, but before I gave up clicking through random Google results, I found a couple of articles by vets here and here (or at least people who claim to be vets - after all, it is the Internet and I suppose I can't be 100% sure). The argument for corn is that there is apparently not much proof that corn is linked to allergies, that it is highly digestible, and that it contains proteins and other things that are good for dogs.
It seems that there is a bit of a debate, though I think it's safe to say the pro-corn side is losing. So what am I supposed to do with this? On one hand, I've done a ton of reading, looked at a lot of ingredient lists, and picked a food that is high in protein and grain-free. Oscar hasn't had any trouble whatsoever with Blue Buffalo, either on his puppy formula or the salmon recipe adult food he's on now. However, I also recognize that I have no training in animal care, and our vet told us tonight that she was not crazy about Blue Buffalo and that we should switch him to one of the three brands she recommended. So should I listen to her, or chalk this all up to an economic conspiracy? I couldn't help but notice the Science Diet and Royal Canin on the vet's shelves, though I suppose the food could be on the shelf not because the food companies sponsor it or provide it cheaply or something, but because the vets there truly believe the food is good for dogs. I figured I should at least take another look at these foods, so I checked out the ingredient lists. Here are the first ten ingredients for Science Diet and Royal Canin, for the type that I would buy for Oscar. Purina Pro Plan didn't have their ingredient lists online, which makes me a bit grumpy - isn't that the most important information about dog food?
Science Diet Adult Small & Toy Breed Light: Whole Grain Corn, Soybean Mill Run, Chicken By-Product Meal, Powdered Cellulose, Corn Gluten Meal, Soybean Meal, Chicken Liver Flavor, Soybean Oil, Lactic Acid, vitamins (L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement).
Royal Canin Miniature Schnauzer 25: Chicken, brown rice, rice, chicken meal, oatmeal, corn gluten meal, chicken fat, barley, natural chicken flavor, wheat gluten meal.
The top-ten (if you will) list for Blue Buffalo Wilderness Salmon Recipe is: Deboned Salmon, Menhaden Fish Meal (natural source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids), Chicken Meal, Potato Starch, Peas, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid), Potatoes, Tomato Pomace (source of Lycopene), Natural Chicken Flavor, Flaxseed.
I have to say, no matter what the vet tells me, I don't think there's any way I can in good conscience feed Oscar Science Diet. There is only one meat ingredient in the top ten, and it's chicken by-product meal. I don't care how "good quality" the by-product meal is, it's still by-product meal. If you asked me if I'd rather have chicken meat, or ground up chicken parts not including the meat, I don't think you could persuade me to take the chicken parts over the meat, even if they were "good quality" parts. Their second ingredient is "soybean mill run." I didn't even know what that was, and had to look it up. The definition I found was basically that soybean mill run consists of soybean hulls, and whatever soybean "meat" remains on the hulls after the soybeans are milled. Seriously? Soybean hulls, not even the bean itself? I'd be feeding my dog a bowl of corn, soybean hulls, and chicken parts (but not the meat). I don't think so. The Royal Canin doesn't look nearly as bad, but there sure is a lot of grain in the top ten, which I'm not crazy about.
Maybe I've been brainwashed by the big corn and by-product "conspiracy," but I feel like the commonsense conclusion in all this is: the more natural the food is, the better it would be for my dog. I also ask myself, out of these ingredients, what is a dog more likely to eat in the wild? Also, what would I myself be more inclined to eat? I have to say, the Blue Buffalo, with the three meat ingredients in the top five and no weird stuff like soybean hulls, sounds better to me. Even though I don't know what "natural chicken flavor" is, it sounds like something that I'd find in my canned food or something, and I definitely find it less off-putting than "powdered cellulose." (Update: I looked closer at the ingredient list on Blue Buffalo's site, and they actually define each of their ingredients. Natural chicken flavor is liquefied or dried chicken tissue that is used as a flavor enhancer. Not too delicious-sounding, but at least it's actually chicken, and not some weird chemical.)
Given my remaining (and strong) doubts about corn and other grains and by-product meals, I don't think I'll be switching to the brands the vet recommended. Blue Buffalo does have a Wilderness Healthy Weight Chicken Recipe. Since it's a Wilderness recipe, it's still high in protein and grain-free, but it's a recipe targeted to help dogs stay at a healthy weight. The top ten list is: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Turkey Meal, Potato Starch, Potatoes, Peas, Flaxseed (source of Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids), Tomato Pomace (source of Lycopene), Natural Chicken Flavor, Alfalfa Meal.
The list looks decent - the first three ingredients are meat. I think I'll stop by PetSmart and see if they carry it in-store, and maybe when Oscar makes a dent in the giant bag of food we bought him, we'll consider switching him over. Part of me doesn't want to switch him if he's doing well on the food he's on now, but since I know that weight issues can be problematic for schnauzers, I don't want to wait until something is wrong to do something about it.
Please don't get me wrong - I'm not unquestioningly pro-Blue Buffalo. There are certain foods by the line that I'm not a big fan of, which is why I switched Oscar to a Wilderness food as opposed to one of their Life Protection Formula adult foods (he was on a Life Protection Formula puppy food). There are adult foods in the Life Protection Formula line with oatmeal or barley high in list of the first five ingredients. Even if a meat is listed first (meaning that it is the single biggest ingredient), the next two ingredients combined could make up a bigger proportion of the food in total than the first ingredient. That means if the first ingredient is a meat, but the next two are grains, it could mean that there is more grain in the food than meat. I would therefore rather get a food that clearly has more meat than grain (like one with meat as the first three ingredients) rather than one that is more questionable (like one with meat as only one of the first three ingredients, and another meat later down in the line after a bunch of grain ingredients). For me, it's not the brand that makes or breaks a food - it's the ingredient list.
Whether we decide to switch Oscar to the Blue Buffalo weight-control food or not, I just don't buy the other side of this debate and will not switch him to the other brands. I don't think I'll be feeding my dog corn or by-products if I can help it. What about you? Where do you fall in this debate?