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Feeding Your Dog

By Dr. Patty Lechten

One of the most common questions that I am asked as a veterinarian is, “What should I feed my dog?” There are so many choices – dry vs. canned, raw vs. home-cooked vs. commercial. And the number of pet food companies is positively baffling.

Feed the highest quality food you can afford. 

The best advice I can give about feeding your dog is to feed the highest quality food you can afford. 

The tooth structure and intestinal tract of dogs have become adapted to an omnivorous diet. This means that, under normal circumstances, dogs can meet their nutritional needs by eating a combination of plant and animal foods. The ideal food for the average dog would be fresh whole prey, eaten raw, and supplemented with whatever fresh grasses, fruits, and berries are in season. However, this would be socially unacceptable and impractical. 

The source of the proteins and fats in a dog’s diet is less important than the quality and digestibility of these essential components. Dogs can do well on a properly balanced vegetarian diet; however, an all-meat diet would be unbalanced and not provide the proper nutrients. A well-balanced diet must include an appropriate amount of minerals, vitamins, certain essential amino acids (from proteins), and specific essential fatty acids (from fats). To meet their energy needs, dogs have evolved to use proteins and fats as their primary energy sources but they can also use carbohydrates for energy; however, complex carbohydrates such as grains are more digestible when they are cooked.

It is generally best to select a low-calorie diet. Most adult, indoor, spayed or neutered dogs have low energy requirements. Your dog’s diet should contain a relatively small amount of calories per cup – ideally less than 350 calories. Feeding a high-calorie diet means that you must often feed a small amount, which can be very unsatisfying for the dog. 

Feeding a commercial diet is certainly most convenient and most likely to prevent nutritional deficiencies. In terms of nutrition and digestibility, there are no differences between dry and canned dog food. For dogs that need to consume more water or have certain special dietary needs, canned foods may be a better choice. Otherwise, most dogs will do fine on dry kibble. Some dry kibble has been specially formulated as dental diets and can mechanically help remove plaque. 

Dogs have varying nutritional needs during different stages of their lives and feeding a diet that is formulated for all life stages is not necessarily appropriate. An ‘all-purpose’ dog food may not provide enough nutrients to meet the needs of a growing puppy or a pregnant or nursing mother. The same all-purpose diet may provide excessive nutrients to a senior or inactive dog. If you have a large or giant-breed puppy that is at risk for hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia or other growth abnormalities, you should feed a puppy food specially formulated for large-breed puppies. These diets are formulated to contain the optimal ratio of proteins and calcium to moderate rapid bone growth that can lead to joint disorders. Older dogs will benefit from diets lower in calories, higher in protein, lower in sodium, and with fewer carbohydrates. 

Many owners are concerned about the use of preservatives in commercial dog foods.  Preservatives are not necessarily bad and are important to prevent food from spoiling.  Owners also tend to mention their concern regarding the use of meat by-products in commercial pet foods; however, it is important to realize that by regulatory definition, meat by-products are not hooves and hair but organ meats, which are perfectly nutritious and eaten by many humans.

A home-cooked diet does not mean just sharing from your plate 

Many owners feel that their pet will benefit from a home-cooked diet. It is important to remember that feeding a home-cooked diet does not mean just sharing from your plate. If you want to feed a home-cooked diet, it is important to follow diet recipes that have been formulated by animal nutritionists or have been shown to meet basic nutritional requirements.

The benefits of homemade diets include confidence in the freshness and wholesomeness of the ingredients and the potential inclusion of non-essential or synergistic components in the diet. The risk of homemade diets is that your pet could end up not just undernourished but actually malnourished. This risk can be minimized by using recipes that have been analyzed for nutritional adequacy and by adhering strictly to the recipes when preparing the food. Problems may occur if diets are either under- or over-supplemented with certain vitamins and minerals.

Some people are proponents of feeding grain-free (carbohydrate-free) diets, raw meat diets or bone and raw food diets. Some animals do very well on these diets and others do poorly. Raw food diets are available commercially or can be prepared at home. If feeding a raw diet, it is very important to make sure that it is nutritionally balanced. 

Raw meat and poultry are commonly contaminated with bacteria, some of which may be harmful. Cooking will kill bacteria, although it may not necessarily destroy toxins that were produced by the bacteria. Freezing does not kill bacteria and improper food storage allows them to multiply. Advocates of raw meat diets maintain that healthy animals are resistant to the bacterial pathogens found on commercially available raw meat sources.  Critics of raw meat diets maintain that bacterial pathogens could represent a health risk to animals or their owners. To minimize these risks, it is necessary to ensure that the ingredients are stored properly, good food preparation practices are followed, and strict attention is paid to hygiene including hand washing after food preparation, sanitation of food bowls and feeding areas, and immediate cleanup of feces. 

Cooked bones must NEVER be fed since they are brittle and prone to splintering.

Raw bones are not without some risk. They may cause fecal impaction or bowel perforation. Raw bones may also cause dental problems such as fractured teeth. Cooked bones must NEVER be fed since they are brittle and prone to splintering and can cause both obstructions and perforations of the intestinal tract.

It is important to remember that dogs may be allergic to any component of their diet. In dogs, it is usually the skin that suffers if there is a food allergy. Food allergies are one of the itchiest conditions that dogs may develop. It may take months to years for a food allergy to develop, so a dog may become allergic to a diet that they have been on for a long time. The most common food allergies in dogs are beef, dairy, and wheat. Unfortunately for food allergic pets, most pet foods contain some mixture of beef, dairy, wheat, lamb, fish, and chicken. This means that simply changing foods is bound to lead to exposure to the same allergens. There are two ways to address food allergy ~ feeding a diet based on a truly novel protein source (this usually means an exotic diet like venison, duck, kangaroo, rabbit or even alligator) or feeding a diet where the protein has been pre-digested into units too small to interest the immune system. 

The main point to remember about choosing a dog food is to make sure to consult your veterinarian or animal nutritionist to make sure that you are feeding a nutritionally balanced diet. Proper diet is an important element in providing our beloved family members with the long, healthy life they deserve.