No grains, no by-products, no preservatives. No people food, unless it’s meat and some specific vegetables, but only certain meats, and watch out for bones.
It used to be that feeding the dog was as easy as bringing home a bag of food from the grocery store or tossing a bit of leftover hamburger into the dish. But just like people are getting wiser about what they’re putting in their mouths, we’re also learning that our treasured pets also live happier, longer lives when they’re eating a healthy diet.
But just what makes a healthy diet for a dog?
Major Dog Food Brands Contaminated with Fluoride
Though there is a lot of conflicting information out there, one thing we’ve learned is that just because it’s on the shelf doesn’t mean it’s good for our dogs.
In 2009, for instance, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found through independent laboratory testing that eight major nutritional brands of dog food contained high levels of fluoride, a contaminant that can put dogs’ health at risk. The amounts ranged between 1.6 and 2.5 times higher than that recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency as the maximum legal dose in drinking water.
Scientists don’t yet know how much fluoride is safe for dogs to consume, but they have found that excess fluoride in people can cause weakened bones and increase risk of fractures. The chemical is also linked with hormonal disruption and neurotoxicity, and potentially to bone cancer.
Diet Affects Behavior
Just as our food choices can affect our energy levels and mood, scientists have discovered that diet affects how our four-legged friends act, as well. Author and animal behaviorist Bill Campbell (author of Behavior Problems in Dogs) states that the high-carbohydrate ingredients found in many commercial dog foods (junk carbs, not complex carbs) are directly related to problems such as hyperactivity and hypersensitivity to normal stimuli in everyday life.
Liz Palika, certified dog trainer and animal behavior consultant, also believes that the wrong dog food can cause behavior problems in dogs. In the late 1990s, she and her associates noticed that about three puppies in each 10-12 puppy obedience class was overly active, hyper, and unable to sit still or concentrate. After much research, they found that all of these puppies were eating premium or super premium dog foods that were very high in cereal grain carbohydrates. These included ingredients like corn, wheat, rice, barley, oats, and millet.
Palika recommended higher animal protein foods with more complex carbohydrates from sweet potatoes, apples, bananas, and other foods, and noticed a notable change within two weeks in over 75 percent of the puppies.
Canine diet experts also note that the vitamins and minerals in grains have low bioavailability in the digestive tract of dogs, while containing components that can cause allergies, digestive problems, and even seizures. In fact, the most commonly reported canine allergies are to wheat, corn, and soy—primary ingredients in many commercial dog foods.
Going Back to the Beginning
When considering the evolution of the dog, the current theory is that they evolved directly from the wolf about 15,000 years ago. Wolves are meat-eating animals, with teeth and digestive systems built for a meat-based diet. Dogs have evolved to enjoy human food as well, but at their core, they are carnivores.
This means that dogs require a high amount of protein, but an “all-meat” diet is also not the answer. According to T.J. Dunn Jr., DVM, dogs can’t survive if fed 100 percent meat for extended periods.
The best bet, then, is a complete and balanced diet for good health and long life.
What is a Complete and Balanced Diet for Dogs?
What you feed your dog will depend on their age, condition, and breed, but here are the basics for making the best choices:
- Base it on meat: “Dog owners are finally understanding the need for meat and poultry products as a foundation for superior nutrition for dogs,” says Dr. Dunn. Read labels when looking for the best dog food—the first ingredient should be one or more “named” animal proteins like lamb, beef, chicken, or venison.
- Check the protein content: It should be at least 30 percent (many vets recommend 40-50 percent as optimal). Watch out for foods that are high in grains, as companies use the protein from both meat and grain to determine the total amount. Many key amino acids are available only from meat sources, so if your food contains not enough meat and too many grains, the dog may develop an amino acid deficiency. Other good sources of protein for dogs include eggs (easy to digest). Note also that many amino acids are destroyed in the manufacturing process (through heat), so supplementing with raw meat may be helpful.
- Be selective with grains: Though grains can cause allergies, all grains aren’t bad. They are a source of protein, vitamins and minerals, fiber and fat. Brown rice, oats, whole wheat, millet, and barley are whole grains that are the most easily digestible. Avoid corn, wheat gluten, and soy. If your dog is overweight, cut back even more on grains. (They should be further down the ingredient list.)
- Look for healthy carbohydrates: These include sweet potatoes, pumpkins, green vegetables, blueberries and cranberries—all good sources of fiber, healthy carbs, and nutrients.
- Look for healthy fats: Fat sources supply needed essentially fatty acids in a dog’s diet. Flax seed, safflower, wheat germ, olive, and avocado oils are all helpful for healthy skin and coat. Too little fat can lead to skin lesions and a dry coat.
- Avoid “meals”: Meat-and-bone-meal and beef-and-bone-meal are prepared from waste materials associated with slaughtering operations. These could include carcass trimmings, condemned carcasses, condemned livers, inedible lungs and bones, and even dead animals. In other words, who knows what you’re getting? In fact, Phenobarbital—the drug used to euthanize animals—was found in a number of dog foods awhile back, suggesting that the remains of euthanized animals were rendered into animal feed.
- Avoid by-products: Like meal, by-products are the parts other than meat derived from slaughtered mammals, including lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, fatty tissues, intestines. It’s a cheap product with inconsistent ingredients. Some dogs have trouble digesting them, and they can also be infested with worms or diseases.
- Avoid artificial flavorings and colorings: Your dog doesn’t need these, and they may increase risk of health problems down the road.
- Reject “animal” products: These include things like “animal digest” which is a flavor enhancer that may contain components from animals of unknown origin.
- Look for natural preservatives: Chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT, ehoxygquin, and propyl gallate help food last a long time on the shelf, but they can have damaging health effects. Look for natural preservatives like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol (vitamin E), rosemary oil and clove oil.
- Feed raw bones: Cooked bones can splinter and cause internal damage. Choose raw, meaty bones, and avoid thin, frail bones that are prone to chipping and breakage.
What About a Raw Diet?
Those who have tried a raw diet themselves and have experienced health benefits may wonder about doing the same thing for their dogs. Is a raw diet healthy for canines?
Many pet owners are believers in raw food for dogs. Though it can be significantly more expensive, pet owners believe it’s worth it because of the growing number of processed pet food recalls, as well as because of allergies and other illnesses related to commercial pet food diets.
The standard raw food diet for dogs consists of muscle meat, often still on the bone; organ meats such as liver and kidneys; raw eggs; vegetables like spinach and broccoli; apples or other fruit; bones, either whole or ground; and some dairy, such as yogurt.
The raw food diet is closer to the diet animals enjoyed in the wild, advocates say, and as more people turn to this type of diet for their pets, the industry has responded. The sale of raw pet foods has climbed 15 percent annually in the last three years and is expected to keep growing. Potential benefits include higher energy levels, smaller stools, shinier coats, healthier skin, and cleaner teeth.
“For most animals, it’s more beneficial than processed foods,” says Doug Knueven, DVM, of the Beaver Animal Clinic in Beaver, PA.
Some Concerns with the Raw Food Diet for Dogs
Some vets have raised concerns, however, stating that raw meat may be more likely than processed foods to expose dogs and their owners to pathogens. “Animals in nature eat raw food but don’t live very long,” says Louise Murray, vice president of the A.S.P.C.A.’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. “They tend to have parasites and succumb to infections and things like that. What is natural isn’t necessarily safe or better.”
In fact, according to a study in 2008, when 166 frozen raw food products were randomly tested, about 20 percent were positive for salmonella.
The other concern is that a raw food diet as fed by humans won’t meet the nutritional needs of the dog. In nature, the dog eats the whole animal, not just the muscle meat, which means all the guts and bones and the rest, which supplies their nutrient needs. A study of raw food diets published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association in 2001 found that of all the diets studied (three were homemade and two commercially available) had nutritional deficiencies and excesses that could cause serious health problems if continued long term.
For example, too little fat can contribute to a bad coat, but too much with too little protein can cause anemia. The balance of nutrients can present unique challenges to pet owners.
If you’re interested in trying the raw food diet, you can compensate by finding products that meet standardized nutritional needs. Many companies now grind organs, bones, and small amounts of organic fruits and veggies into their raw products, for example, and some send them off for testing to be sure they’re contaminant free. Check with your vet and regularly monitor your dog for health issues.
Mixing in Some Raw Food with a Quality Pet Food
Many pet owners are choosing take the middle ground—find a quality, balanced dog food and then add in some real meat, fish, and veggies. With all the choices out there, however, it can be confusing to decide just which is best for your dog. Older dogs, for example, that have liver or kidney problems may need a different diet than young, healthy puppies.
Work with your veterinarian, and do your best to feed your dog a healthy diet and provide him or her with regular exercise. Check the Whole Dog Journal for a list of recommended brands, beware of labels like “organic,” “holistic,” (there are no official guidelines for these terms yet), and realize that the term “natural” means only that the food contains no synthetic ingredients. In addition to reading labels, you can find out more about your chosen dog food brand at “Dog Food Analysis,” which provides additional information on the contents of over 1,500 dog foods, along with ratings and reviews.
Have you found the perfect diet for your dog? Please share your experiences.
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T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM, “The Best Food for Dogs,” petMD, http://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/evr_dg_the_best_food_for_dogs?page=2#.URFLq3bCMYY.
Anahad O’Connor, “The Raw Food Diet for Pets,” New York Times, May 23, 2012, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/the-raw-food-diet-for-pets/.
Elizabeth Lee, “Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concernst, Benefits, and Risks,” WebMD, http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/raw-dog-food-dietary-concerns-benefits-and-risks.