If you’ve ever wondered if dogs can eat organ meats, then the answer is simple: yes, they can. Which is why today I want to talk about organ meats and their numerous health benefits for our dogs.
We'll be delving into why I think we need to be incorporating organ meats into our dog’s diets and what organ meats dogs can eat, as well as how organ meats benefit our canines.
We'll also discuss the specific nutrient profiles of the different organs and why you might at times choose one over the other, and we’ll likewise explore how organ meats can provide targeted support to different areas of the body, such as the immune system, kidney and pancreatic function, and overall vitality.
What do we mean by “organ meats”?
Before we dive in, let’s first clarify exactly what we mean when we say organ meats.
Organ meats are also known as offal or even by-products, and they include parts of an animal such as the liver, kidney, spleen, pancreas, heart, and the brain.
We can even break it down further into secreting and non-secreting organs.
Secreting and Non-Secreting Organs
Secreting organs are those that produce and secrete specific substances, such as enzymes or hormones, into the body or external environment.
For example, secreting organs include:
- Liver: produces bile, which helps digest fats
- Pancreas: produces enzymes that aid in digestion
- Kidneys: produce urine, which removes waste products from the body
- Adrenal glands: produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are involved in the body's stress response.
- Thyroid gland: produces thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism and growth.
- Testes: produce testosterone, which is involved in male reproductive development and sexual function.
- Ovaries: produce estrogen and progesterone, which are involved in female reproductive development and menstrual cycles.
Non-secreting organs, on the other hand, don’t secrete any specific substances.
For example, non-secreting organs:
All of these organs are considered highly nutritious and are rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, amino acids, and other compounds that are often lacking in muscle meats and other components of the diet. So if you want to know what organ meats dogs can eat, simply take note of the lists above.
And while some may consider them unappetising, organ meats have been prized for their health benefits and medicinal properties for centuries. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked as a valuable food source in modern Western diets and have fallen out of favour as people now prefer muscle meats.
Why should we add organs to our dogs’ diets?
A question some pet parents might have is why they should feed organ meats over other food sources.
To start with, we have to remember that from a nutritional perspective the food we’re consuming today is very different from what we were eating one hundred years ago.
The USDA nutrient database has highlighted a significant decline in the vitamin and mineral content of various foods over the decades. This is believed to be due to several factors, such as:
- Modern agricultural practices that prioritise high yields and fast growth over nutrient density
- The use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that disrupt soil health, and
- The transportation and storage of produce that can further deplete nutrient levels
As a result, it's becoming increasingly important to prioritise nutrient-dense foods like organ meats to ensure that both us and our pets are getting the essential vitamins and minerals we need for optimal health.
In addition, most dogs are consuming highly processed kibble diets that often only meet the minimum standards for nutrition. These diets may keep our dogs alive, but I don’t believe that they provide the optimal level of nutrients that our dogs need to thrive.
The challenge with commercial dog foods
We also have to remember that commercial foods – whether kibble, raw or cooked options – most often rely on synthetic vitamin and mineral premixes to make the food nutritionally complete and balanced.
Synthetic nutrients are artificially created and are not identical to the nutrients found in whole foods. While they may have a similar chemical structure, they lack the complex combination of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and other bioactive compounds that are present in whole foods.
In whole foods these nutrients work together synergistically, allowing for optimal absorption and utilisation by the body. In contrast, synthetic nutrients are often isolated and lack these synergistic benefits.
Additionally, synthetic nutrients have been shown in some cases to be less bioavailable, meaning they are not as easily absorbed and utilised by the body. This is why whole food sources of nutrients are generally considered to be superior to synthetic sources. And that’s why organ meats are commonly referred to as “nature’s multivitamin”.
Technically a dog can still get everything they need from a nutritional standpoint without organ meats. However, it’s not easy and someone really has to know what they’re doing to find suitable foods that contain enough of the various vitamins and minerals to adequately meet those requirements.
The benefits of different organs for dogs
Now, let’s look at a few of the key organs and how they might benefit our dogs.
Liver – which is so easy to access – is one of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet, and it is far more nutrient dense than the same amount of red muscle meat.
If we look at the health benefits of its main nutrients:
Liver is rich in vitamin A
- Essential for normal vision, immune function, reproduction and skin health.
- Plays a fundamental role in the production of immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody that plays a key role in the body's defense against external pathogens.
So if you’ve got a dog that’s prone to infections of any kind, adding a source of liver to their diet might be beneficial.
Liver is rich in B vitamins
- Particularly vitamin B2, B9 and B12.
- B vitamins are important for supporting the nervous system, brain function, red blood cell production, and DNA synthesis.
- They’re particularly important for dogs prone to stress and anxiety.
- Likewise, B12 is important for dogs with chronic gut issues, such as IBD.
Liver is rich in zinc
- A powerful antioxidant that helps fight oxidative stress in the body.
- Adequate levels of zinc are needed to support immune health, skin health and the nervous system, making it great for dogs with allergies, anxiety or other behavioural issues.
A lot of home-prepared diets can often contain suboptimal levels of zinc. And on top of that, diets that are high in corn, wheat, and/or soy (which is typical of many processed dog foods) contain anti-nutrients that bind to zinc making it less available to the body.
Liver is rich in iron
- The iron found in beef liver is in the form of heme iron, which is the most easily absorbed form of iron by the body compared to non-heme iron found in plant-based foods.
- Ensuring adequate iron intake is associated with better attention, concentration, and memory – so really important for obedience, sporting and working dogs.
Liver is rich in copper
- Copper acts like a key to activate a number of enzymes in the body, which then help regulate energy production, iron metabolism and brain function.
Most home-prepared diets that only rely on chicken liver would likely be deficient in copper. To give an example of how copper levels can vary between different liver sources, beef liver contains 9.8 mg Cu per 100 g versus chicken liver which only contains 0.5 mg Cu per 100 g.
Some issues that suboptimal copper intake can cause over time include:
- A range of skin and coat problems, including depigmentation, dry skin, hair loss, and a dull coat.
- Neurological symptoms such as seizures, ataxia (lack of coordination), and weakness.
- Immune system dysfunction and an increased risk of infections.
Copper is also needed for the formation of connective tissues such as cartilage. A copper deficiency can lead to joint problems and joint pain.
Liver is rich in vitamin K2
- Beef liver is one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin K2.
- Vitamin K2 has been shown to activate the protein osteocalcin and other complexes in the body that work to support bone and dental health and reduce age-related bone mineral density loss. We tend to accept that joint disease is just a normal part of aging, but there’s lots we can do to reduce the risk.
Liver is also believed to have stamina-boosting properties. So if you’ve got working or sporting dogs that need good endurance – liver might be worth adding into their regime.
Is liver safe for dogs?
Having spoken about all of the amazing health benefits of liver, there are two main cautions that tend to be raised when it comes to consuming liver:
- Toxins, and
- High levels of vitamin A
Toxins in liver
The liver is an important organ involved in the metabolism and elimination of toxins from the body. Via the phase I and phase II detoxification pathways, it works to break down toxins and then transforms them into safer compounds that can then be excreted from the body.
So, the liver does not generally store toxins for prolonged periods. Instead, once the liver processes and metabolises a toxin, it is either excreted via the bile or urine, or it gets stored in other organs or tissues, such as bones or adipose tissue.
However, having said that, studies have shown that the liver can accumulate heavy metals. For example, one study found that the liver, kidney and lean meat from farm animal tissues accumulated significant amounts of certain metals, particularly arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and lead.
That’s why it was so important to me in sourcing the organs for CanineCeuticals that they came from organic grass fed and finished cattle that are free of hormones and pesticides and which are non-GMO, to ensure that our dogs are receiving the best possible nutrition while avoiding potentially harmful toxins and contaminants.
Vitamin A in liver
As for concerns about vitamin A, mostly it’s moderate to high doses of vitamin A from supplements containing synthetic vitamin A that have been taken everyday for an extended period of time that has been shown to cause problems and contribute to birth defects. But natural vitamin A found in liver tends to only cause problems when consumed in extremely large amounts.
Hypervitaminosis A is a rare condition in dogs, however, mistakes can occur in the manufacturing of dog foods where too much of a synthetic nutrient is added.
The AAFCO upper limit of vitamin A for dogs is 62,500 IU per 1,000 kcal ME per day. If you follow the BARF ratios of raw feeding and assume you’re feeding 2.5% bodyweight and 5% liver, a 20 kg dogs needs about 25g of liver per day, which is providing around 4000-6000 IU of vitamin A, depending on the source of the data – so well below the upper limit.
Where you would need to be careful is if you were feeding a lot of raw liver, then also using dried liver every day for treats or training, and then adding a powder liver supplement on top of that.
Similar to liver, kidney is rich in many different vitamins and minerals, but its main point of difference is that it is an exceptionally excellent source of selenium – much higher than any of the other organs.
- A component of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase, which helps to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.
- Important for immune system function and can help to enhance the body's response to infections and diseases.
- Required for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland, which regulates metabolism and energy production.
- Essential for normal reproductive health in dogs, and a deficiency can lead to problems such as infertility and low sperm count.
- Important for maintaining healthy muscles, and a deficiency can lead to muscle weakness and atrophy.
Kidney also contains several bioactive compounds, such as enzymes and other cofactors that have been shown to support kidney and urinary tract health.
For example, kidney is a rich source of DAO (diamine oxidase) - an enzyme that breaks down histamine in the body. Histamine is a compound naturally found in some foods and is also produced by the body's immune system. In some dogs, an excessive amount of histamine in the body can contribute to allergy symptoms, such as red skin, itching and diarrhoea.
Beef spleen is an exceptionally rich source of highly bioavailable iron, containing five times as much total iron and nearly 30 times as much heme iron, as compared to beef liver.
When a dog is deficient in iron it can become lethargic, weak, and more prone to disease and illnesses.
Spleen tissue extracts may be of benefit in enhancing general immune function because of the many potent immune system-enhancing compounds secreted, such as the compounds tuftsin and splenopentin.
- Tuftsin stimulates macrophages (a type of white blood cell), which act as a first line of defence against invading pathogens. It also helps mobilise other white blood cells to fight against infection and cancer. A deficiency of tuftsin has been associated with frequent infections.
- Splenopentin, like tuftsin, has also demonstrated significant immune-enhancing effects by promoting the production of white blood cells. Splenopentin has also been shown to enhance the activity of natural killer cells. Natural killer cells destroy cells that have become cancerous or infected with viruses.
Traditionally, beef pancreas was taken to support those experiencing pancreatic insufficiencies, which may be characterised by impaired digestion, malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, and abdominal discomfort.
That’s because the pancreas is a source of pancreatic enzymes that are required to break down fats (lipase), proteins (proteases) and carbohydrates (amylase).
Consuming pancreas may also help to reduce allergy symptoms – and that’s because part of what triggers allergic reactions are large undigested food particles entering the bloodstream. However, I mainly recommend beef pancreas for dogs who have had pancreatitis.
The benefits of freeze-dried organs for dogs
Freeze-drying is a low temperature dehydration process that involves freezing the product and lowering pressure, and removing the ice by sublimation – which is the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas state, without passing through the liquid state.
This is in contrast to dehydration by most conventional methods that evaporate water using heat.
Since the water is removed from the product in a frozen state at low temperature, cell structure remains intact and the finished product bears close resemblance to its fresh counterpart. This also preserves nutrient content, flavour, and texture.
The great thing about freeze-drying is that…
- It allows for the organ meat to be stored at room temperature for an extended period, making it convenient for pet owners to feed their pets nutrient-dense food without worrying about spoilage.
- It eliminates the need for artificial preservatives or additives, making it a healthier option for pets.
- It’s convenient, as freeze-dried organ meats eliminate the need for handling raw organ meat, which can be messy and time-consuming or challenging for vegetarian or vegan pet parents to handle.
Another benefit is that some organ meats can be hard to find fresh. Freeze-drying allows for greater variety than might otherwise be the case. For example, finding fresh beef spleen or pancreas can often be difficult to source, so having a freeze-dried option can be helpful.
Additionally, many pet parents tend to stick with the same type of organ – for example chicken liver as the sole source of liver, because it’s so easy to find. And while chicken liver is certainly a nutritious option, it contains a lot less vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin D, choline, copper and zinc compared to beef liver or lamb liver.
So it's important to incorporate a variety of organ meats to provide a wider range of essential nutrients. By doing so, we can ensure that our dogs are receiving a complete and balanced diet that promotes their overall health and wellbeing.
Some simple solutions provided by CanineCeuticals include our very own:
- Organic Beef Liver and Organic Lamb Liver
- Organic Beef Pancreas
- Organic Beef Spleen
- Organic Beef Kidney
These oral powders are 100% Australian grass fed and finished, providing a natural source of essential nutrients to support whole body health for dogs.
If you're unsure as to which product will best suit your canine's needs, we also have our Organic Organ Blend. This option combines the above organs into a single product, providing your dog with myriad benefits in one accessible solution.
Freeze-dried organs aren’t just for raw food feeders
The final point I’d like to make is that using freeze-dried organ powders isn’t just for people who prepare their own raw or cooked meals at home. Even dogs on a standard kibble diet may benefit enormously from rotating through the organs as a healthy meal topper.
When used as a meal topper, the amount used would be slightly less, but we have to remember that most kibbles are just meeting the minimum nutrient standards, and the longer that bag of food sits on the shelf or in your cupboard, the more those nutrients are going to be degraded.
In short, organs are great for all dogs, whether on a home-prepared or commercial food option.
When thinking about how organ meats benefit dogs, they can aid with everything from vision to immune function, reproduction and skin health, as well as the nervous system, brain function, red blood cell production, energy, joint health, bone and dental health, metabolism, muscle health and digestion. They can also help with allergy symptoms too.
If handling or sourcing raw organ meats proves challenging for you, I would highly recommend adding in freeze-dried organ meats as a more readily available option.
A great way to think about organ meats is that we, as humans, eat a wide variety of different foods every day – but a lot of people will still take a multivitamin on top of that to fill any possible nutrient gaps and to take into account a higher demand for certain nutrients when we’re stressed or sick. So consider organ meats as your dog’s daily multivitamin!
Prefer to learn by listening? Then check out Narelle's podcast episode on The Health Benefits of Organ Meats here.
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