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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6 thoughts on “Are Canned Sardines Good for Dogs?”

  1. Hi Nora – I learned of you from your articles in Dogs Naturally, and I truly enjoy what you have to say. However, your articles often leave me frustrated bc you will include a sentence or two in each on something that really intrigues me, but do not elaborate much. 🙂

    In this article, I found this interesting, and would like to know more on the topic. “The only thing canned fish could possibly be good for replacing is fish oils, and that’s only because the latter is even more harmful.” Can you please point me in the direction of more quality information on this topic?


    1. Hi Sherri,
      Thanks for leaving your comments! Regarding your question about my statement about fish oils, I’m afraid there is a great dearth of information on the topic of how harmful it is to feed free oils to dogs. Almost everyone is on board with the idea that certain types of oil have health benefits, and I don’t know of anyone besides myself who’s even thinking critically on the subject. Dogs are only set up to digest fats in the normal context of their foods. There’s nothing in a dog’s biological history that would have allowed them to adapt the ability to digest something as stable (decomposition wise) and refined as oils, no matter what plant or critter they come from.

      In humans, oil consumption is seen as good for the skin because in people whose bodies are already overwhelmed with the job of eliminating wastes (almost everyone), fatty wastes come through the skin as a secondary avenue and disguise the symptoms of dry skin. When people stop eating the conventional diet and also stop consuming oils, the symptom of dry skin appears. The best way to approach it is not to cover it up, but to allow the body to heal itself and recover its ability to keep the skin normally and properly lubricated.

      If you have other questions about things I’ve written about, please feel free to post them.
      Best wishes,

  2. It’s agreed that certain types of fish are toxic to dogs in the same way chocolate is. I am not sure about sardines, however, it is recommended highly for humans to ingest to get those heart healthy omega 3s.

    If you are going to feed a dog canned sardines and you are cleared by your vet to do so but worried about salt content – All you have to do is soak them in water to dilute salts.

    It’s nothing but pure logic but PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE contact a veterinarian before giving RAW fish to any animals….It may cost them a painful death due to worms unless you are feeding them sushi grade seafood – and who can afford that?

    Bottom line for us purebred breeders is that dry food (in the bag) is the most recommended food by veterinarians simply because of the balance of proteins, roughage, vitamins, vital oils, carbs, etc. are formulated to completely satisfy a dog’s/cat’s requirements depending on age and needs. We usually add a cup of good canned dog food or equal amount of chicken to our dog bowls….just because it is a treat for dogs and does augment in protein for growing puppies as well as providing better immune system reliability.

    If you have any questions about training, feed, etc., you can contact George at: 360-421-8624 (49 yrs experience as a AKC Rottweiller breeder)

    1. I did not state that “certain types of fish are toxic to dogs in the same way that chocolate is”, or anything close to that. Please read the article again as you seem to have missed the point.

      In addition, for many reasons, canned sardines are not a healthy food for either dogs or humans. Raw sardines are healthy for dogs, but are biologically inappropriate for humans.

      The vet industry relies heavily on the belief that dogs can be fed any mish mash of leftover waste from the human food production industry and whatever diseases they suffer will be 1) unrelated to that; and 2) fixable. Unfortunately, it’s not true. If everyone knew the truth about commercial pet foods and started feeding their dogs properly, the vet industry as we know it would cease to exist. It is extremely naive to think that what is best for dogs plays any role in determining what goes into pet foods. What guides manufacturers to include certain foods and substances is primarily profit and expediency. The pet food industry is mainly used as the waste disposal arm of the human food industry. The foods that are cheap, plentiful and in need of disposal are the ones that are used in pet food, and anything that has value above what a bag of pet food will bring is reserved for the human market. Pet food companies’ first loyalty has to be to their bottom line and their stockholders, and this lies in direct conflict with what is best for dogs, because the foods that fulfill their nutritional needs are not cheap to produce.

      Proper home feeding can be done affordably, but caring dog owners don’t choose which foods to feed their dogs based strictly on cost. That’s basically the difference between appropriate and commercial feeding: dog owners care about their dogs, and the dog food industry doesn’t. Although commercial pet food may seem like a bargain, the costs increase exponentially when vet care is factored in. Those dog owners who are willing to think independently and feed their dogs properly are enjoying freedom from dependency on the sick dog industry.

      Thanks for commenting.

      1. Angelia Portune

        I am living now with a dog with multicentric lymphoma of about 3-1/2 months. Through my own research, I have found that carbs feed the cancer. Why my highly paid vet oncologist didn’t suggest dietary improvements is beyond me. I have not cured him, but he has been in regression and is living a good life on freeze dried raw food with protein and organ meat, flaxseed, sweet potatoes, etc.
        I feel that the dog food industry and veterinary oncologists must be working together to keep us humans in the dark.

        1. Hi Angie, Thanks for your comment. There’s actually no blatant conspiracy, but in effect there may as well be, because they feed on each other’s incompetence and ignorance. So you’re definitely on to something there. However, there is no truth to the unfortunate but popular idea that “sugar feeds cancer.” You might want to read by blog article entitled “Cancer Reversed with Raw Food” about my parents’ dog that had cancer at age 14. They fed him lots of plant foods. In fact by volume his diet was 2/3 fruit and vegetables, and he completely reversed his condition. He lived to be 19.5, and he was an Aussie — not a small dog.

          What causes cancer in domestic dogs, imo, at least in large part, is the inordinate quantity of fat in commercial dog food. It is roughly twice what is found in prey animals, while the protein is typically half. Bringing this fat consumption down is very important if you want to have success reversing your dog’s cancer. And that’s going to be very difficult if you’re feeding any commercially manufactured product, including “freeze dried raw.”

          I hope you’ll consider trying RMF to see what might be achievable healing-wise. Thanks again for your comment and best of luck.

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