Are Canned Sardines Good for Dogs?

Time for some critical thinking

An article by a “canine nutritionist” hailing the attributes of canned sardines was recently posted on a raw feeders’ list I belong to.  It was followed by lots of accolades from other members about how informative and interesting it was.  Considering this list is peopled with mostly veteran raw feeders, I thought a more objective critique was called for.

The article contains some interesting trivia, notably how sardines got their name and how to pick out fresh fish.  But it does a major disservice to dog owners seeking to learn how to properly feed their dogs, because, among other mistakes, it makes no effort to distinguish raw from cooked. For example, the writer says that “fresh is great” but never even mentions the word “raw”, which means people could easily understand this to mean that they should buy the fish fresh and then go home and cook it.

“Value” added?

If you’ve been to a Whole Foods lately, you may have noticed that the stores keep getting bigger as their produce departments get smaller. It’s not because people don’t care about produce. If people didn’t care about produce, it wouldn’t be sold in stores at all because stores do not make money from selling produce. No, it’s the “value added” products that make money, and 90% of what is sold in grocery stores these days falls into this category. Typically these products are made from foods that can be purchased quite cheaply on their own. The profit comes from buying this cheap food, processing it, adding stuff to it, packaging it, and selling it for a lot more than it costs to process and package it. Even with the very high costs of marketing thrown in, processors still come out way ahead.

That’s what sardines are – an affordable, wholesome product that has been made expensive and less digestible by the processing and adulteration it goes through, all for the sake of convenience and profit.

Lost in the Details

Typically, nutritionists like the writer of this article get so lost in analyzing the nutrients in food that they fail to make important observations, such as the damage that is done by processing.  It is common knowledge among raw feeders now that cooking bones makes them brittle and indigestible.  Cooked bones can cause blockages or perforations, because cooked bones do not dissolve in a dog’s stomach like raw bones do.  That’s because the minerals in bones are heat sensitive. Contrary to myth, they are not “lost” in cooking, they are still there. But they ARE structurally altered. Cooking returns them to their “inorganic” state, like the minerals found in rocks and soil. If it was possible for dogs to meet their mineral needs by eating cooked bones, they wouldn’t have to eat bones at all, they could just eat dirt. Bones must be RAW in order to be utilized by a dog’s body. Although sardine bones do not represent a choking or perforation hazard, the high heat they are subjected to in processing nevertheless renders them unusable by a dog’s body.

Similar damage is done to proteins and fats when they are cooked. Cooking does not improve the digestibility of meat for a species that is biologically adapted in every way to consume it in its raw natural state.

Highly recommended by kibble feeders

Although many raw feeders are jumping on the sardine bandwagon, most of the positive recommendations come from kibble feeders whose dogs often turn their nose up to the dried inedible refuse that they find in their bowls every day. Kibble feeders mix sardines in kibble or drizzle the juice over the top to make the meal more palatable and appealing to dogs. It’s hard to imagine how one could make kibble worse, so I’ll grant that it can only help. This still does not help us craft an argument for the feeding of sardines, however.

And sardines are definitely better than straight fish oils, so if a person has been caught up in the fish oil feeding frenzy, sardines would be an improvement. Even better would be to stop feeding oils altogether. Dogs are not adapted in any way to consume free oils, whether they come from plants or animals.  Oils are very taxing on the liver and only ‘help’ with dry skin because they are often eliminated through the skin where they disguise the effects of dry, unhealthy skin (which is largely caused by kibble-induced malnutrition or other feeding mistakes).

Feeding fish is not necessary at all

Raw fish is a fine dog food, but if owners can’t get fresh or frozen raw fish (sardines or smelt included), then they should not, and need not, feed fish at all.  Everything that a dog needs is available in raw food sources that do not contain the harmful and indigestible substances in canned fish.  Canned fish may not be as over processed as fish oils, but if skinning, de-heading, gutting, cooking, disguising (flavoring), oiling, canning, salting and/or otherwise rendering a food “shelf stable” doesn’t qualify as ‘overprocessing’, I don’t know what would.

There is no canned fish that is optimal food for dogs, but some types are less processed and adulterated than others.  Some retain the skin and heads and even internal organs; others have harmful spices and chemical preservatives that have no place in a dog’s body.  They all have extremely high levels of sodium, unless the consumer goes to the trouble and expense of buying no-salt versions.  This is particularly true of the types of canned fish mentioned in the article above, that are packed in tomato sauce or oil.

The high cost of convenience

Convenience seems to be the last remaining argument for the feeding of canned sardines, since there are no legitimate nutritional reasons for it. Many people make compromises in their own eating habits and lifestyles for the sake of convenience, so it follows they would do the same with their dogs. Nevertheless, it’s not a smart thing to do. It’s much easier to restructure your life to allow a bit more time for shopping and food preparation than it is to be sick or watch your dog suffer. If you factor in ALL the costs of convenience, the decision to do things the right way becomes much easier to make.





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