Archive DF :: Canine Diet : Food for Thought

Deciding the best diet for our dogs has only gotten more confusing as the types and varieties have proliferated. Commercial or homemade? Cooked or raw? Free feeding or discrete meals? Well, every dog is different, but chew on some of these ideas...

Deciphering Commercial Labeling

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a governing agency that promotes uniformity in feed regulations and labeling and substantiates whether a food is nutritionally adequate. A food deemed "complete and balanced" must prove adequacy in sustaining puppies ("growth"), adult dogs ("maintenance"), gestating or lactating females, or "all life stages" (all of the above).
   Substantiation can be achieved in one of three ways: through a series of feeding trials that last a specified amount of time, by meeting the AAFCO nutritional profiles for nutrient requirements and, finally, by approximating the nutritional profile of an already approved "family member". Each standard has its strengths and weaknesses, so your best bet is to read the ingredient list of each food to determine the quality of the ingredients it contains.

The Ingredient List on a Commercial Label

While there is a huge selection of foods out there, there are a few basic tenets which will help reduce the field substantially:

  • Look for foods that have a meat source (e.g. "beef") first in the ingredient list.
  • In dry food, a whole meat (e.g. "chicken") contains a lot of water, which means that it's ideal if the second or third ingredient in the list is a specific meat meal (e.g. "chicken meal"). If the only other animal protein is much later in the list, it does not actually contain much animal protein.
  • Canned foods need liquid for processing. It is better if this be the second item (not first) in the ingredient list, and it's usually tastier to pets if broth is used rather than water.
  • Animal proteins tend to be tastier and easier to digest than plant proteins.
  • Avoid foods that contain by-products (either specific or general) early in the ingredient list.
  • Look for foods with whole grains and vegetables; avoid fractions ("brown rice" is better than "wheat gluten").
  • Avoid corn at all costs! Corn is a simple sugar, which no dog needs. And some dogs fairly vibrate when there's corn in their diet.
  • Some animals have adverse reactions to grains. If your pup's stool tends to be loose or he has itchy skin, try a grain-free diet.
  • Avoid foods with artificial colors.

Red Flags when Assessing Your Dog's Diet

Sometimes it's difficult to assess what a symptom might indicate about a diet. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Fecal matter with a strong odor may indicate indigestible proteins in your dog's diet.
  • Carbohydrates are harder to digest than animal proteins, and high carb intake can manifest itself in flatulency or, worse, inflammation in the body.
  • Poor-quality foods with artificial colors and preservatives, hormones, and other chemicals can contribute to overall ill-health and create or increase allergic sensitivity.
  • Hyper, unfocused, out-of-control behavior may be due to an extremely high level of cereal foods such as wheat, corn or corn meal. As a test, soak the food in water for 15 minutes; if it swells in size and gets mushy, it's mostly cereal.
  • Dogs who are shy and stressed do not digest their food well and often suffer from intestinal complications such as diarrhea. Their coats are often extremely dry and shed heavily.
  • An EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) deficiency results in a dry, dull coat, hair loss, impaired wound healing, and the eventual development of skin lesions.

Some Facts when Considering a Home-Prepared Diet

While raw and home-prepared diets can have miraculous benefits in resolving a multitude of health problems, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Do your homework; do research on the internet and in the wealth of books available on the topic.
   The key to any homemade diet is variety. Variety will ensure that your dog receives all the nutrients he needs over a period of days and weeks. Each and every meal need not be balanced and complete; rather, balance over time must be achieved. There must be a variety of animal protein sources as well as a variety of animal parts (organs, muscle), dairy, vegetables, fruits, and grains. Note: It is just as important, by the way, that variety is exercised in any diet, as issues such as food allergies can develop if the same diet is fed over the course of months and years.
   Looking for some alternatives? If you're concerned about a choking hazard with raw bones (a rich calcium source), grind them up. Defrost only what you need for each meal for guaranteed freshness. If you worry about bacteria in raw meat, you can cook the food instead. But be aware that dogs, with their shorter intestinal track, can tolerate bacteria that would make us very sick.
   For the ultimate in ease and convenience, there are commercial raw diets now available, such as Nature's Variety and Home Made 4 Life. Still, if you're not ready to embrace a completely homemade diet, add fresh foods to the commercial diet you're already feeding.

"Ancestral" Foods: Are All Proteins Created Equal?

From the very beginning, dogs evolved by picking through the human waste heap. As dog breeds became specialized to assist humans with their disparate jobs, the canine meal derived from human leftovers diverged just as greatly. While herding dogs were bred to work sheep, goats, and cattle, coastal breeds assisted fishermen, and hunting dogs helped with hunting various game. It stands to reason, then, that the working canine would feast on whatever was most available to his keeper. So, when deciding upon the optimal protein source for your dog, consider the job for which he was bred. Sight hounds will thrive on rabbit and venison, northern breeds on fish and sweet potato, herding dogs on beef and lamb, retrievers on duck, and Asian breeds on chicken and fish.

The Finicky Eater

Little dogs are notoriously finicky eaters. Further, some dogs are just not big eaters and some breeds are lighter eaters than others. So a missed meal here or there should not be a great cause for alarm if your dog is acting healthy otherwise. But, if he was once a good eater and his behavior has suddenly changed, consult your vet.
   If your dog's a chronically picky eater, typically it's due to free-feeding. When there is always food available, the dog is never worried where his next meal is coming from, so he might adopt a "wait and see" attitude with the hopes that some better treats will be offered throughout the day. Soft-hearted owners that we are, we will worry that he's not eating enough and offer him enticing tidbits, just what he was hoping for. By feeding your dog discrete meals, putting the bowl down and then picking it up 15 minutes later, eaten or not, he may learn to eat it when it's available.
   Improving the quality of your dog's diet and including variety may spur a renewed interest in eating. Make sure that you are not overfeeding, as this might be a reason for skipped meals. Further, a sluggish diet may be the result of boredom. Increase your dog's exercise and play time, and include mental stimulation. More than a few dogs I know have shown greater interest in their food when it was put in a puzzle toy like the Kong or the Tricky Treat ball. As a last resort, try pouring warm water or broth over your dog's food to see if that entices him.

A Healthful Diet

Whatever your choice, whether you opt for the ease of a dry food or the ultimate in health with a raw diet, it's important to supplement the diet. Add yogurt or cottage cheese occasionally. Cook up some sweet potato or pumpkin or steam vegetables like broccoli and carrots and add it into the dish. And include an essential fatty acid (omega 3s from an animal source like salmon) supplement as well as a whole food vitamin supplement daily for optimum health.