Story at-a-glance

  • There are some new products on the pet food market fashioned after the traditional bland diet designed for dogs with digestive issues
  • While these foods may be of excellent quality and convenient, I don’t recommend the classic ingredients used in most bland diets
  • The usual boiled chicken or hamburger and white rice bland diet is too high in fat and grain content
  • The best fiber for pets with tummy troubles is pumpkin, not rice or other grains
  • The best protein source is turkey because of its low fat content

By Dr. Becker

Recently I learned of a pet product company called Under the Weather, which at the moment appears to be offering only diets for sick dogs. Their product announcements in a veterinary industry journal caught my eye because they’re definitely not your typical processed, low-quality therapeutic or prescription pet food.

If we can believe the company’s package labels, ads and website, the formulas are made of 100 percent human-grade meat (chicken or bison), and all the ingredients are raised or grown in the U.S. These are definitely pluses.

According to the company, their freeze-dried diets are “… designed to soothe a dog’s digestive tract during times of upset, such as vomiting or diarrhea.”1 They also state the diets are “… only to be used until healthy digestion is restored and the stool is normal for [two to three] days.” These are intelligent feeding guidelines.

The Under the Weather diets are intended as a convenient way for pet parents to feed a bland diet to a dog with temporary tummy troubles. Instead of having to cook chicken or hamburger as part of the traditionally prescribed bland diet, pet parents can grab a packet of Under the Weather and just add water.

On the surface, these products seem like a wholesome and super easy way to offer your dog a bland diet. However, the biggest problem I have with them is that one formula contains rice, and the other contains oatmeal. In general, I’m not a fan of the traditional bland diet still prescribed by most veterinarians, which is what the Under the Weather formulas are based on. The standard bland diet is typically 3 parts white rice and 1 part boiled chicken or hamburger meat.

The bland diet I recommend uses ground turkey, which is a lower fat protein source (so it’s easier to process for pets with pancreatic inflammation), and more importantly, pumpkin, because it’s the perfect fiber for most pets with digestive issues. A basic knowledge of the different types of fiber is important in understanding what effect each type will have on an animal’s body.

Fiber: Dietary Versus Functional

Fiber, which is actually the tiny threadlike structures in fruits, vegetables and grains, has traditionally been defined as the remnants of plant cells that are resistant to digestion, which includes lignans, cellulose and the indigestible carbohydrates found in plants.2 However, by definition this omits indigestible carbs found in animal sources, such as chitin, as well as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and other digestible carbs that are resistant to digestive enzymes in the gut.

For this reason, in 2001 the Institute of Medicine developed definitions of fiber that distinguished between fiber that occurs naturally in foods (dietary fiber) and other isolated fibers that may be added to foods or dietary supplements (functional fiber). Examples of specific types of dietary fiber found in plants are cellulose, hemicellulose, lignins, beta-glucans and resistant starches (found in bananas and legumes). Examples of functional fiber are inulin, oligofructose, plant gums and pectins.

Fiber: Viscous Versus Nonviscous

Fiber can also be classified as viscous and nonviscous, based on its consistency when mixed with water. If the fiber gels in water, as pectins, beta-glucans, psyllium and some gums do, it’s considered viscous. Viscous fiber slows gastric emptying time, can delay the absorption of some nutrients (including sugars) in the small intestine and lowers cholesterol.3,4

Fiber: Soluble Versus Insoluble

Fiber is further classified as soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, such as beta-glucans, gums, most pectins and psyllium, disperses easily when stirred into water. Cellulose and lignins do not disperse in water, so they’re classified as insoluble fiber.

Research shows that a fiber’s solubility does not predict its effect on the body, as previously thought. Soluble fibers bind with fatty acids and slow digestion, which can have a stabilizing effect on an animal’s blood sugar levels. Soluble fiber has also been shown to help lower cholesterol in humans.5,6

Both insoluble and soluble fibers can be fermentable, and most whole plant fibers contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber provides roughage, which helps to bulk up the stool and move waste products through the intestine. Because of this, insoluble fiber prevents constipated and keeps pets regular.

In my experience, almost all pet parents and many veterinarians lump all fiber into this category, assuming all fiber creates the same laxative effect in the gut. However, some fiber, such as the pectins found in bananas, is actually binding and potentially constipating to mammals.

Banana pectins draw water out of the feces, putting it back into the body. When water leaves the colon, harder stools are the result. But in the case of diarrhea, adding a small amount of mashed banana to your dog’s bland diet (if he’ll eat it) can often help reduce the incidence of loose stools.

Fiber: Fermentable Versus Nonfermentable

In addition to solubility and viscosity, fiber is also classified as fermentable, partially fermentable and non-fermentable. Fermentable fiber sources, such as pectins, beta-glucans, guar gum, inulin and oligofructose, provide a food source for the billions of bacteria naturally found in your pet’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Some fiber sources, such as cellulose and lignin, are nonfermentable. In general, fruit and vegetable fibers are fermentable and grain fibers are nonfermentable.

Current fiber research is focused on the actions and influence of certain types of fermentable fiber in feeding beneficial bacteria in the GI tract. The GI tract is the largest immune organ in the body. GI lymph tissue, called Peyer’s patches, as well as Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT) is impacted by the balance and health of the microbial microenvironment (the gut microbiome).

Scientists are evaluating how foods can help heal or harm this critically important bacterial balance within your pet’s gut, and fermentable fiber can play a huge role in modulating your pet’s GI defenses for the better.

Why Pumpkin Is Better Than Rice in Your Pet’s Bland Diet

Canned pumpkin (100 percent pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) provides about 80 calories and 7 grams of soluble fiber per cup, compared to 1.2 grams of fiber in a cup of cooked white rice. Pumpkin is very rich in soluble fiber (the type that dissolves in water to form a viscous gel) that coats and soothes irritated bowels. Soluble fiber also delays gastric emptying, slowing down GI transit times, and therefore the number of episodes of diarrhea.

When your dog has diarrhea, she can lose important electrolytes, including potassium, which puts her at risk of dehydration. Hypokalemia, or low potassium levels, can result in cramping, fatigue, weakness and heart rate irregularities. Pumpkin happens to be an excellent source of potassium, with 505 milligrams per cup.

Pumpkin is also safer for diabetic pets. Unlike rice, which is a grain that ultimately breaks down into sugar, pumpkin extracts may actually restore beta cell function.7 Beta cells are the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas.

Rice is a bland source of fiber, but in my opinion, it isn’t the most species-appropriate choice for a recovery diet for carnivores, nor is oatmeal. Dogs have no nutritional requirement for grain, so feeding a pro-inflammatory food to treat GI upset makes no sense. Additionally, the FDA has issued a potential warning about arsenic loads in white rice.8

Over the years I’ve acquired many new clients who bring their still-sick pets to me after following their own vet’s bland diet recommendations. Often, the dog’s stools improved slightly on a diet of cooked rice and hamburger, but the rice tended to look much the same coming out as it did going in, which is a clear indicator very little of it was digested or useful as a nutrition source.

Why Ground Turkey Is Better Than Other Protein Sources

My reason for recommending turkey is simple — it’s lower in fat than hamburger and chicken (and bison meat). Fat can worsen GI upset and exacerbate pancreatitis. Rinsing boiled or baked meat removes surface fat, but it can’t remove the fat that remains in the flesh.

For this reason, I recommend fat-free meat for bland diets. You can easily find fat-free ground turkey or turkey breast in most grocery stores, along with 100 percent solid packed pumpkin in the baking aisle (make sure it’s not pumpkin pie filling). If you prefer organic and non-GMO foods, look for fresh organic pumpkin and turkey meat.

Alternatives for Allergic Pets

If your dog won’t eat pumpkin, I recommend using skinless, cooked, mashed sweet potatoes (my preference, but white will do in a pinch). If he seems to have trouble with turkey meat, you can substitute cooked chicken breast or codfish (though both are higher in fat than turkey).

If your dog’s diarrhea doesn’t resolve in 48 hours, he grows lethargic or is acting like he’s sick, it’s time to visit your veterinarian. If a bland diet resolves the diarrhea, you can transition him back to his regular food 24 hours after his stools have returned to a normal consistency. It’s important to remember that bland diets are for recovery only. They aren’t nutritionally balanced and shouldn’t be fed long term.