Most pet parents know just how hard it can be to resist the pleading look of a puppy who’s begging for a taste of his human family’s dinner. Now, new research suggests that giving in to those irresistible puppy-dog eyes may actually help protect young dogs against stomach issues in adulthood.
Puppies that ate table scraps—as well as human meal leftovers and raw foods—experienced fewer gastrointestinal issues later in life compared to those that ate dry dog food, according to a new study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports. In addition to kibble, the findings also linked rawhides—or dog chews made from dried animal skins—with stomach issues.
“Commercial dog foods are presented as providing a complete and balanced diet—they give the impression that it’s very difficult for an owner to prepare something that would be as good,” says study co-author Anna Hielm-Björkman, a veterinarian at the University of Helsinki in Finland, to the London Times’ Rhys Blakely. “But what we show is that variety is important. Nobody would give 12 years of the same food to a child—why should a dog be different?”
Veterinarians have long been perplexed by a dog health issue known as chronic enteropathy, or gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, vomiting, gas, decreased appetite, nausea or and weight loss that lasts for at least three weeks. Changing up a dog’s diet can sometimes help address these stomach ailments, so researchers wondered if what dogs ate in puppyhood and adolescence had a connection to their gut health as adults.
To unravel this question, they analyzed survey data from more than 7,000 dog owners in Finland between 2009 and 2019. The survey, known as the DogRisk food frequency questionnaire, asked pet owners to share what they fed their dogs, as well as any gastrointestinal symptoms they observed.
Overall, 22 percent of puppy parents and 18 percent of adolescent dog owners reported gastrointestinal symptoms in their pets, with an average onset age of around a year and a half.
The data suggest puppies that ate a non-processed meat-based diet—including raw red meat, organs, fish, eggs, tripe, bones, cartilage, vegetables and berries—were 22 percent less likely to develop gastrointestinal issues later in life compared to those that ate mostly dry kibble. Similarly, puppies that ate human food leftovers were 23 percent less likely to develop chronic enteropathy as adults.
The researchers also looked at the link between individual foods and gut health. Puppies that chewed on rawhide were 117 percent more likely to develop stomach problems in adulthood, whereas puppies that ate berries were 29 percent less likely. And puppies that chowed down on cartilage and raw bones were 33 percent less likely to develop gut issues.
The findings are only correlations—they do not indicate that a puppy’s diet causes good or bad gut health later in life. And researchers aren’t exactly sure why there seems to be a relationship between processed dog food and stomach problems. One possible reason is that dog food is high in carbohydrates.
“It might have the same effect that eating plain sugar has on humans—it causes low-grade inflammation,” says Hielm-Björkman to New Scientist’s Jason Arunn Murugesu.
But pet parents should proceed with caution before totally switching up their puppy’s diet. Consulting with a veterinarian first is a good idea—both to ensure that any table scraps constitute a balanced diet and because eating raw meat can sometimes make puppies sick.
“Modern dog breeds are more sensitive and are predisposed to bacterial diseases if fed uncooked food, especially puppies because their immune system is not yet well developed,” says Athena Gaffud, a veterinarian with Veterinarians.org who was not involved in the study, to USA Today’s Mike Snider.
Based on this and other research, Hielm-Björkman recommends a ratio of 20 percent raw food and 80 percent dry dog food. She also suggests introducing new foods slowly, as it can take roughly three weeks for a puppy’s gut microbiota to adapt.