Nose to Tail Eating for Dogs and Cats
By Pet Nutritionist, Clare Kearney
The concept of “nose to tail” eating in Australia has experienced a resurgence in recent years, owing largely to shifts in more conscious approaches to consumption. While it may seem that the “cool” factor has overcome the “yuck” factor, there is much to be said for this approach to eating, both for humans and our animal companions alike. And while it may seem contemporary to some, anyone who has travelled and eaten beautiful street food, or been fortunate enough to experience the traditional cooking of an immigrant grandparent will almost certainly agree that this approach to food is far from modern; it is the way every culture on earth once ate, and how many still do. Our current approach of only eating a select handful of prime cuts from each animal is what’s new, and reviving the nose-to-tail ethos as a responsible and fashionable approach to consuming animals is really an exercise in giving old ways a modern rebrand.
So what is nose-to-tail?
Nose-to-tail is an approach to consuming animals that says if an animal sacrifices its life for our food chain, we should respect it enough to consume every part, and not allow any to be wasted. For humans, the motivations for adopting this practice tend to be this desire to reduce wastefulness, and as a tool to mediate the impact of unsustainable farming methods. For our pets, this style of feeding is often referred to as “whole prey” and it tends to be favoured by the more die-hard fresh feeding community. But this isn’t without good reason, because the benefits for our pets are even greater and include a number of additional perks, such as nutritional density and variety, a closer replication of the ancestral diet, and even enrichment opportunities.
So let’s break all of this down a bit and really unpack why a nose to tail approach may benefit you, your pets and the earth.
Dogs and cats are able to fairly easily obtain their energy and macronutrient needs from most animal protein sources because, for thousands of years (until pretty recently!), this has been their primary source of food. As we’ve learned more about the science of nutrition and the nutritional needs of our pets, we have learned that dogs and cats have requirements for most of the same vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids and trace minerals that we do. Supplying these nutrients is where a little more dietary nuance is required, and this is the main reason it is simply not sufficient to sustain our pets on steak and veg alone. Including a variety of different cuts and organs in your pet’s food is one of the single best ways to introduce nutritional diversity and robustness into the diet.
Take, for example, a skinless chicken breast, compared to, say, chicken gizzards (a small, muscle-like organ used for breaking down food similar to the way chewing does, because chickens don’t have teeth!). While the breast may have slightly more protein, vitamin E and most B vitamins, the gizzards have nearly four times as much zinc, three times as much copper, five times as much manganese, and almost six times as much vitamin B12 and iron. This is not to suggest that one is better than the other, but rather it highlights why it’s important that we make efforts to replicate the nutritional diversity of a prey diet, if we are to supply all of the nutrients our pets require from their food.
Similarly, beef liver is an extremely dense source of vitamin A, as well as phosphorous, copper, magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin D and the B group vitamins. Heart meat is known to be an excellent source of taurine, especially from small animals like poultry, and the kidneys are a good source of selenium. These examples are fairly palatable and it’s not too hard to get your hands on things like gizzards, liver, kidneys and heart these days, but there are plenty more wild and wooly options in the world of nose-to-tail foods, than just these vital organs.
Poultry feet are an excellent choice for stepping into the world of nose-to-tail feeding due to their high levels of collagen. Clinical trials have found that collagen supplementation shows extremely promising results when taken in support of osteoarthritis and management of joint pain, which is unfortunately a growing area of concern for our pets, especially those eating a high-carb, highly processed diet. Feet, along with goodies like trachea and most joint bones, contain loads of cartilage, which is a source of glucosamine and chondroitin. According to research, “glucosamine regulates the synthesis of collagen in cartilage and may provide mild anti-inflammatory effects” while chondroitin can help to preserve joint fluid and cartilage by inhibiting the destructive enzymes in them, meaning these animal parts that might be otherwise wasted, could very well hold the key to the maintaining the health of our pets’ joints.
If you’re lucky, you may even be able to include some nose-to-tail ingredients that are still in their “whole prey” form and have the fur attached. Fur is something that we perhaps don’t often think of as food, but in reality would have formed a key part of an ancestral diet for both cats and dogs. It is a rich source of manganese, but to be fair we don’t know that it would have been particularly bioavailable, so its nutritional benefit is more likely related to fibre. Fur, wool and feathers are all natural insoluble animal fibres, meaning they do not dissolve in water and do resist digestion, being excreted in the faeces largely unscathed. Insoluble dietary fibre usually refers to plants fibres, such as those from whole grains, root vegetables and legumes. Given that dogs and cats would not have consumed such foods pre-domestication, it is a fairly reasonable assumption that animal fibres would have played a similar function in the digestive system. These indigestible foods add bulk to stools and ensure passage through the GI tract is swift and consistent, avoiding constipation and limiting the opportunity for pathogens to take hold.
We tend to focus on the importance of physical health in our pets - which is of course essential - but not so much on their mental health. Not content just offering potential joint and digestive health benefits, foods like trachea, bones and fur can also be included in your pet’s diet and lifestyle as a source of this important mental stimulation. In addition to supplying the essential minerals calcium and phosphorous, bones offer enormous enrichment opportunities. The act of chewing actually releases pleasurable endorphins in our dog’s brains, so offering them a meaty bone doesn’t just seem to make them seem happy; the science agrees. Adding the different textures from things like fur, feathers and hooves adds a layer to this cognitive exercise and provides additional enrichment opportunities.
Chewing, ripping and gnawing are important actions for the health of the teeth and jaw, and the dental health benefits are well documented. But by also stimulating the brains of dogs and cats, these tasks can tire them out in a similar way to exercise, hopefully resulting in calm and content animals. Tracheas can be dehydrated and stuffed with soft foods and frozen for an interesting way to serve a meal or entertainment on a hot day (Big Dog is perfect for this!), and many healthy treats sellers now have dried, furry options, like kangaroo or lamb ears.
As people gravitate toward organic produce, slow foods and a more thoughtful approach to consumption in general—but especially of environmentally impactful products like meat—the nose to tail style of eating has become a crowd favourite. While humans have the choice to be ethical omnivores by eating less meat, selecting more sustainably farmed options, or refraining from eating meat altogether, the carnivorously-inclined animals we have selected for domestication do not have this choice. For pet owners, this can present a bit of an ethical conundrum, and they must grapple with the delicate balance of doing what is best for their pets, and what is best for mother nature. Utilising “waste” from the human supply chain is the single most effective way to do this, in my opinion.
As we have discussed already, organ meats—like livers, hearts and kidneys—are some on of the most nutrient dense options in a fresh, species appropriate diet for dogs and cats. Because we humans do not consume them at a rate relative to the abundance that we produce them in Australia, they are an ideal inclusion in our pet’s diet when it comes to reducing the impact of farming meat for food. Similarly, meaty bones that are consumed whole (or turned into Big Dog!) are also usually items that are left over from the human supply chain, such as necks and frames from ruminants, poultry and even from omega 3-rich oily fish. Recreational bones that are not fully consumed, just gnawed on, are almost always items that would otherwise go to waste, such as femurs, ribs and tails. The somewhat recent addition of furry, single ingredient treats to the world of pet food has taken this sustainability angle to a new level, utilising parts of animals that would certainly have been wasted, such as ears, skin and even faces!
While it may not be possible to feed exclusively nose-to-tail or a diet made entirely from human supply chain “waste,” we can make conscious efforts to include some of these items, or to select products that do so on our behalf. These small steps will improve the nutritional variety and robustness of our pet’s food, elevate their mental disposition through enrichment opportunities and endorphins, promote good dental health, and ease even just a small burden on the planet we call home.
About the Author - Clare Kearney, Pet nutritionist.
Clare Kearney is a pet nutritionist and writer based in Byron Bay, where she lives with her two kelpies, Tex Perkins and Pip. Clare takes a practical but science-based approach to nutrition and has a passion for fresh, whole foods for pets. She has run her consulting business HUNDE since 2015, and through it provides education about pet nutrition and the pet food industry, assisting those who wish to improve their pets’ lives through species appropriate, unprocessed foods. Clare believes that nutrition fundamentally underpins our health and that without fresh, healthy foods we can’t possibly be at our most vibrant. She sees no distinction between us and our animal companions in this respect. Her mission is to empower pet owners with information, so they can make the best possible choices for their whole family, and live long, happy and healthy lives together.