Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, veterinary nutritionist at Weeth Nutrition Services in Los Angeles. She helps develop diets for dogs with chronic medical conditions and to optimize the health of healthy dogs.
Pet owners are willing to pay a premium if they think they are giving their dogs the best food—more than $30 billion now is being spent on pet food in the US annually, and there has been a huge increase in the number of brands and formulations. Knowing what’s necessary and what’s simply fancy packaging can be a challenge—and you may be spending more than you need to. Here’s what you may not realize when figuring out what to feed your canine companion…
Low-cost dog foods can have high-quality ingredients. Don’t get fooled by expensive foods—they may simply be more steeply priced because people will pay more for their perceived value and not because the ingredients are higher quality or better for your dog. Marketers tout the benefits of their pricey, all-organic food, but the truth is, even the lower-priced dog foods will provide all the nutrients your dog needs without any unnecessary ingredients. The largest portion of a dog’s diet should be protein, but their food also needs whole grains, fruits and vegetables to provide necessary nutrients and fiber.
Rest assured that dog food is held to the same quality standards as human food. There are strict regulations from the Food and Drug Administration that govern what’s put into pet food. Lower-cost foods often just use less expensive versions of the ingredients. Example: Less expensive dog food might contain more organ meats such as liver and kidneys and less muscle meats, but organ meats still provide plenty of protein for your dog and are a good source of vitamins and minerals to boot. Note: Ingredients such as cranberries and carrots often are listed to make people feel good. In reality, the amounts are so low and they are cooked at such a high temperature that they’re typically not providing any nutrients.
For dogs that tend to get constipated, opt for wet food instead of dry. Canned foods have a higher fat profile that can make a dog’s stools a little bit softer than kibble-only diets. It’s also OK to feed your dog a mix of both wet and dry, but it’s not necessary. Wet food does not lead to tartar buildup on teeth, and dry food doesn’t help reduce it. That’s because dogs don’t really chew the kibble very much. Note: Fresh commercial pet foods may help reduce the size of your dog’s poop—they are more digestible and so more of the food gets into the animal.
Don’t feed dogs food containing onions or garlic. If you are going to cook for your dog or offer table scraps, you should know that many ingredients that are fine for humans can be dangerous for pets. Most pet owners already know about the dangers of chocolate, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and internal bleeding. But it may surprise you to hear that onions and garlic also are dangerous—they contain compounds that can damage your pet’s red blood cells and cause anemia if eaten more than once a week. And xylitol, an artificial sweetener common in chewing gum and sometimes in peanut butter and other foods, can be toxic in even small amounts. Other toxic foods include grapes and macadamia nuts. Also avoid fatty leftovers such as chicken skin, as they can increase risk for pancreatitis and diarrhea. Instead: Try broccoli, zucchini and skinless chicken breast.
Offer healthy dog treats. There are many treats on the market—from peanut butter popsicles to sweet potato jerky—but commercial treats can be calorie dense, and while they’re helpful for positive reinforcement and creating an emotional bond, they aren’t necessary. Healthy snacks are as close as your cupboard. Cheerios (original variety), plain popcorn and fruits and veggies can be just as delicious—and have fewer calories. Just like with humans, treats can sneak up on your pets, so don’t overdo—they can quickly become 20% to 50% of a dog’s diet.
Be careful about creating your own dog food. Some dog owners make their own food—but you’ll have to ensure that your recipe gives your dog adequate amounts of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and fiber. It’s important to work with someone who understands nutrition and can guide you in creating your homemade diet—ideally a veterinary nutritionist. Most homemade diets provide enough animal proteins and calories but are weak at balancing nutrients. Problems from deficiencies may take months or years to surface. Generally, things like a lack of zinc, vitamin E or fatty acids are noticeable from the outside, but a deficiency of calcium or vitamin D can brew under the surface until it is too late. Websites such as PetDiets.com could help you explore a homemade diet, but you also should get advice from your veterinarian.
Dogs don’t typically need foods tailored to a specific breed. Dog food marketed to specific breeds is a lot of hype, but there are some notable exceptions. Some longer-coated breeds might benefit from more fatty acids to keep their coats shiny and reduce shedding, while larger breeds may need more fiber in their diet than smaller dogs to keep their gastrointestinal tracts working well. And flat-faced dogs such as pugs may find it easier to eat specially shaped kibble (perhaps a cloverleaf shape) that makes it easier for them to grab it out of the bowl.
Skip the senior formula. Foods for older dogs are more of a marketing ploy than a real need—as evidenced by the fact that there’s little consistency in the formulations among the brands. Some reduce the calorie count. Others lower the phosphorus in expectation that a senior dog has kidney disease. Unless your veterinarian suggests a certain diet for health issues, a standard adult food will work fine. If your senior dog needs fewer calories because of a lower activity level, you might be able to bulk up the food with fruits and veggies. However, make sure your dog is still getting at least 80% of calories from a commercial diet to avoid an unbalanced diet that could lead to a nutritional deficiency. Note: Fish oil can be helpful for dogs with arthritis to help decrease inflammation—and the DHA may help senior dogs maintain their brain health.
Feeding guidelines are a good starting point but don’t need to be followed exactly. The suggested amounts for your dog’s size and weight may be pretty close for about 90% of the dog population, but depending on your individual dog’s activity level, you may need to go lower or higher to maintain a healthy weight for your dog. The easiest way to tell whether your dog is at a healthy weight is to gently run your palms along the sides of your dog’s chest just behind the should blades. If your dog is a healthy weight, you should be able to easily feel his ribs. If the dog is undernourished, you’ll be able to see the ribs and the spine…the dog is overfed if you can’t feel the ribs at all or only if you press hard enough.
Make diet changes gradually. Your dog’s digestive system adapts to a particular diet, so making dramatic changes can upset the dog’s stomach. Generally, switching flavors within the same brand or type of food won’t upset your dog’s digestive system, but if you’re making a big change—such as from kibble to a wet food or to a different brand of food—do it gradually by slowly adding more and more of the new food to the dog’s meals and less and less of the old food over the course of a week to 10 days. That will help minimize the chance that your dog will develop diarrhea or constipation.
Important: Take note if your dog becomes finicky or reluctant to eat or seems to be less perky and engaged than usual. That can be a sign that the diet is upsetting your dog’s digestion. If your dog seems itchier than usual…develops dry, flaky skin…or his coat loses its sheen, it also might be time to change up the diet. Consult your vet.