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Plant vs. Animal Protein: Are We Creating A Risk For Deficiencies And Disease?

Updated: Mar 15

Plant versus animal protein and the creation of disease and deficiencies in pets

Lets first talk about BIO-AVAILABILITY.

When it comes to food, there are a few terms I want pet owners to know, one of which is bio-availability.

Bio-availability is the degree or rate of which a substance can be absorbed by the system.

Take for instance a drug that is given.

Or in this case, food that is eaten.

It is the capacity to which the body is able to digest and utilize what it takes in...

This includes having good GUT HEALTH.

So today, I'm going to talk about protein.

While many edible materials contain what's called protein... It does not mean that they are digestible by the body.

Such as peas, sawdust and leather.

When looking at a pet food label, we may look at not only guaranteed analysis, but also the ingredient list.


Where is The Protein Coming From?

Many companies may get your attention by labeling or advertising that meat is the first ingredient in their pet food. As it should be!!

This is where you must put your sleuthing gear on... Companies are NOT required to disclose this information. But, some may say things like "30% animal protein." AAFCO, while they regulate ingredient definitions, does not regulate the quality of sourcing of ingredients. To them, protein is protein.

Fact: protein comes from both plants, and animal products. Though, animal protein is considered 'complete' with a full amino acid profile, most plants on the other hand are not.

Ingredients on nutrition labels are always listed by greatest to least in terms of weight.

And unfortunately, a lot of companies are doing what is called 'ingredient splitting.'

I often see ingredient labels with meat first, and then it usually goes something like:

  • Pea flour

  • Chickpea

  • Peas

  • Chickpea flour

  • Pea protein

If we are feeding a plant-based diet to a carnivore, let's say corn to a cat... or wheat to a dog... Biologically, they are not able to fully digest and utilize this food.

They just weren't designed that way.

High carbohydrate diets are bad for anyone, but especially the animals who are meant to eat only meat. In the wild, cats and dogs would be exposed to about 3-6% carbs with a primordial diet. While most commercial kibble is about 30-60% carbohydrate!

This can cause a multitude of issues, which I'll explain more in a minute.

Here's where things get even more tricky.. Peas are high in lectins.

Lectins are considered an 'anti-nutrient' and attack the intestinal wall to inhibit absorption of nutrients, and cause inflammation, that can lead to leaky gut.

Plant-based diets can also create deficiencies in cats and dogs.

Have you heard of the DCM and Grain Free Diet craziness?

Well, here it is. When the ratios are off, so is the amount of nutrients your pet can absorb and deficiencies may occur.


Why Do Companies Use Grains?

Why do pet food companies use grains to create a food for carnivores? Surely it's because dogs and cats 'need' grains, right? Our veterinarians say this all the time!

The truth is: dogs and cat don't 'need' grains.

Grain usage in the pet food industry has quite the history...

Prior to WWII, pets were mainly fed canned food and even home-cooked meals.

After the war, metal and meat were scarce, and grains were cheap.

So, in the 1950's, one company started experimenting with a process called extruding.. A technique to create shelf stable, dry food...


Can you guess which company fast-tracked the kibble industry? ..... That's right, it was Purina!


What Types of Grains Are Used in Pet Food? Are They All Bad?

Common grains used in pet food:

  • Corn

  • Wheat

  • Rice

  • Oats

  • Barley

  • Spelt

Pseudo-grains (you might see the term ancestral or ancient grains on a label):

  • Buckwheat

  • Amaranth

  • Quinoa

The we have legumes that companies use in pet food, such as:

  • Potato

  • Soy

  • Peas

Using wheat, corn, rice and peas are used in pet food because it's convenient and cheap... And it can 'artificially' inflate the guaranteed analysis of protein content, but it heavily inflates the carbohydrate content of the food as well.

Nutrient Analysis Facts:

  • Wheat actually contains 75-80% of the plant protein in the form of gluten.

  • Corn gluten meal is 60% protein.

  • Soybean meal is 50% protein.

In some cases, companies often do what is called Ingredient Splitting.

Since AAFCO doesn't regulate where nutrients comes from, companies get away with this trick very easily.

So while a food may say high protein, if it is plant based, and fed to a carnivorous animal, it is pretty useless. As they do not have the capability to ferment, digest, and utilize it.

Nor are they receiving all the essential amino acids that they need to thrive.

I will add; amino acids are CRUCIAL to promoting proper muscle mass, organ function and allowing the liver to detox.

So when companies 'skimp out' we now we have a low protein, high carbohydrate diet.

This can cause many issues ranging from simple bloating, to diabetes, and obesity.

*Please know that not all grains are bad. Some grains can actually be beneficial to certain animals during particular lifestages and to manage certain diseases. If a pet owner wants to feed a grain-inclusive diet, I usually recommend sticking with grains like oats, rice, or even quinoa, as opposed to wheat and corn.


Plant vs. Animal Protein

Certain deficiencies can develop to carnivores who eat a plant-based diet.

Any creature who is fed an inappropriate or inadequate diet, is at risk for deficiencies and subsequent health issues.

Amino acids come in abundance from animal protein and are present in nearly every single cell in the body. They are a staple for metabolism, hormone production, energy, and tissue growth and repair.

They also promote the health of ligaments, hair, nail and collagen formation, intestinal integrity and ultimately immune system functionality.

Lesser amounts of amino acids are found in plants.

When cats and dogs are fed a heavy grain or plant based diet, they are at risk for amino acid and protein deficiencies.

We may begin to see problems such as:

...and so much more!

One specific amino acid I want to touch on briefly is Taurine.

Taurine is abundant in animal meat and is absolutely essential for cats.

Deficiency causes many problems such as:

  • Retinal degeneration and blindness

  • Weakening of muscles

  • Dilated cardiomyopathy

  • Death, if not corrected

Cats that do not receive sufficient taurine in their diet will die.

This is interesting since the entire grain-free/ DCM hype revolves around grains being a huge source of taurine, when in all actuality, it is proven that rains, fruits and veggies contain little to no taurine. It comes from meat!

There are many different amino acids, but I won't get into those now.


The Autoimmune Disease and Allergy Epidemic

Sometimes I'm a little dumbfounded by the information I find on this topic.

Especially on very high ranking educational websites such as the American College Of Veterinary Nutrition.

  • Do they know the differences between plant protein and animal protein?

  • Are they aware of the vast differences in amino acid content?

  • Do they know cats and dogs are carnivores by design?

What cats are raiding a wheat field for dinner?!

Cats cannot even sufficiently produce the digestive enzyme Amylase to break down carbohydrates.

So why are we being told this?!

Not to mention plants lack heme-iron, DHA and Vitamin D.

Which are crucial in immune support, and fighting inflammation!

You will see this on websites across the board: MANY companies stating that protein is protein, it doesn't matter where it comes from... Even AAFCO!

And they claim it is complete, healthy, and nutritional for your pet.

Let's read a quote from the above one more time:

"Proteins such as wheat gluten are more highly digestible than animal-based proteins such as chicken."

That's odd, because I'm pretty sure carnivorous stomachs are HIGHLY acidic and can break down meat just fine.

In fact, a raw fed pet has a stomach pH of about 2, and a kibble fed pet can have a stomach pH over 5! Lack of proper stomach acidity is very dangerous, as it can promote bacteria overgrowth, and not break down nutrients properly.

Carnivores also do not have 4 stomachs to ferment grains, and fully digest them.

To be quite honest, even cattle can experience digestive distress from excess of grains! and they DO have 4 stomach to digest it!

It even has been shown to completely change their microbiome!

Studies have been done specifically linking gluten to damaging the intestinal lining (aka leaky gut), causing chronic inflammation, and triggering autoimmune disease. Pretty compelling not to feed grains. To anyone!

Not only that, but grains and legumes are heavily sprayed and contaminated with dangerous herbicides like glyphosate, aka Roundup. Glyphosate has been linked to cancer, endocrine disorders, birth defects, and other chronic health issues.

It not only harms us and our pets, but it is also affecting the environment and the wildlife around us.

"Glyphosate herbicides have been classified as a “probablehuman carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cancer is often caused by endocrine disruption. Cancerous, life-threatening tumors have been found in alarming numbers on turtles, deer, fish, and numerous species."

With all that being said, we can see why protein is so important.

Not only that, but the quality, source and bio availability of the protein is extremely important as well.

Choosing a chemical laden grain-based diet for our carnivores is just cruel. We can do better! We should know better!

*Test your dog for glyphosate, heavy metals, and nutritional imbalances here.


Dogs and Cats Are Carnivores

Not all plant material is bad, don't get me wrong!

Carnivores are also considered secondary consumers, meaning they get some vegetation and plant material from the prey they eat, which will be pre-digested for them.

Some grains CAN be beneficial for certain life stages and/or disease process...

That being said, this does not mean grains and produce should be the main stay of their diet.

Let's circle back around to gut health.

Kibble with grains at the utmost top of the ingredient list, can pose quite a problem and lead to issues down the road, including poor gut health.

Animals (and humans) can develop dysbiosis (imbalanced gut bacteria) from chronic exposure to harsh, processed foods. Carbohydrate heavy foods also increase gut pH, and do not allow for optimal nutrient absorption.

Feeding meat-based diets to carnivores provides proper acidity in the stomach, and allows the body to fully utilize the nutrients that it takes it.

A quick look at protein content in various foods:

On the far left- the first ingredient is corn and the next few ingredients tell me this is a plant based food.

Ironically, the package label for this food reads "High Protein."

Hmmm, moving down the line we get into better quality ingredients, with more biological value, as well as a higher protein content.

Keep in mind, companies that add "pea protein" can increase this value in the guaranteed analysis.

Next is a biologically appropriate food, with an array of named meat sources, organs, bone, and some produce.


How do we know where the nutrients are coming from?

The ingredient label of course!

But the ingredient label doesn't tell all. Slaughterhouse waste, and diseased animals that are used in pet food greatly affect others down the food chain, i.e. our pet!

Companies do NOT have to disclose where they get their ingredients. Pretty sickening, huh?!

But that's not all. The FDA specifically states:

"....we do not believe that the use of diseased animals or animals that died otherwise than by slaughter to make animal food poses a safety concern…."

There are many reasons we need to fully investigate a food label, and investigate the company who makes the product know where the nutrients are coming from.

Although, the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, once again has a plethora of false information available to pet owners:

"The ingredient list was not ever intended to be a tool by which to “evaluate” a pet food."

This is only partially true, the ingredient label can actually tell us a lot, but indeed, not the entire story.

Reading a label carefully, can ensure we are feeding a biologically appropriate and wholesome diet, that minimizes the risk for deficiencies.

Many pet owners simply look for meat first, but how many read any further? As I mentioned, companies can split ingredients, and there can be a load of grains which outweigh the meat content. Plus, tons of other garbage like preservatives, colors, and flavors down the list.

***A Note For Senior Pets

"Reduced protein synthesis and increased turnover of proteins may contribute to the loss of lean body mass (LBM) in senior pets. Sarcopenia is the anticipated loss of LBM with age, with up to 33% loss in cats from 10 to 15 yr of age.30 Dogs tend to lose LBM and gain fat as seniors and incur overall weight loss with advanced age. Senior pets, particularly cats, may need up to 50% more protein to improve or slow muscle loss."

Be aware thatany senior pet foods are low protein! Since seniors are more susceptible to muscle wasting, their nutrition and physical well-being(BCS) must be evaluated regularly!

Let's Recap:

Just because the guaranteed analysis AAFCO label claims complete & balanced with all nutrients, doesn't mean the food is appropriate.

Know the food is complete and 'biologically' complete, by reading the ingredient list.

But, we must also research the company to know where they source their ingredients to avoid unhealthy, sick, and disease animals ending up in our pet's bellies!

This will ensure bio-available and digestible nutrients that are essential to overall health and vitality.

Please, do your best to provide a meat-based diet to your carnivores!


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