Let’s talk canine nutrition. Because there is a lot of confusion, misinformation, and now… mistrust amongst dog owners.
It is scary how much conflicting information is out there… and maybe you feel like you cannot trust your vet when it comes to nutrition or diet recommendations.
Maybe you are a skeptic of the pet food companies… do they really care about your dog? Or only about their profit margin?
Or maybe you are just plain confused, since there is so much conflicting information out there on the interwebs.
And I am going to muddy the waters even more…
There is a lot of emotion tied into what we feed our dogs, and this further complicates our perspective on nutrition. It is our way of showing love and it is the active, hands on, direct part we get to play in their health, and on a daily basis. Two to three times a day, in fact!
And I think we can all agree that we just want to do AND FEED what is the very best for our dogs!!! If you are reading this right now… I likely don’t even know you, but I know this, about you, to be true.
Please hear me out when I say that, I GET IT!
I do not get food for free or at a discount as I am a practicing independent contractor veterinarian.
I, like you, have to go to the pet store to purchase food.
And I walk down the aisles and aisles and aisles of dog food brands and bags and packaging that looks like the throw up of millions of dollars invested into the marketing and sales department of every pet food company.
It is overwhelming. It is confusing.
And I am here to tell you, it’s okay to be a skeptic and ask questions. In fact it’s your job as you advocate for your dog’s health.
BUT… some more tough love. Are you ready?
The people we should be asking about canine nutrition…. Are NOT the people the majority of dog owners are currently asking.
NO ONE knows EVERYTHING about canine nutrition. There is simply SO MUCH that we do not know. And that is the unfortunate truth in most every scientifically based field.
This is a very important point.
But while we don’t know everything, we should be asking the people that know THE MOST about optimal canine nutrition.
And it is not me. It is NOT FACEBOOK. It is not Google, it isn’t the blogger with a PhD in nutrition, even!
It is the board-certified veterinary nutritionists. The people with “DVM, DAVCN” behind their names.
They know the most. That is their specialty. They understand balanced and complete diets. They balance and formulate diets for a living. Most do not practice acupuncture and holistic medicine on the side (although there might be a few over achievers that do…) They are likely not the ones that are going to be giving your dog a rabies vaccine or talking about the pros and cons of spaying and neutering etc. All they do is nutrition.
So now I am going to get off my soap box and share with you my very simple approach to this very confusing subject.
And as you know… the final decision is yours. As it should be! Because no one knows your dog better… not me not your vet and not a nutritionist.
I am going to give you four criteria to look for, so over time you can tell if a diet is working for your dog or not.
It is your job as your pup’s person to watch for these four criteria I am going to cover and either stay the course or make a correction with their diet…
And the ultimate goal is to cut some confusion and enable you to make an objective, non-emotional decision when it comes to what you feed your dog.
Before we get to the individual criteria to look for in your dog, we need to establish two very important ground rules that remain a constant…
Remember these two rules when evaluating what you are currently feeding or choosing a new diet:
- Your dog is an individual- while your dog might thrive on a particular type of diet another might do poorly. So cut the comparison-itis!
- When choosing a commercial diet, ensure the AAFCO has deemed the diet nutritionally complete and balanced and matches the life stage of your individual pup. -OR- A home prepared diet that has been balanced via consultation and under the direct supervision of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
The four criteria:
When choosing a diet for your particular dog, close attention should be paid to the following criteria over the course of several weeks. Any time you change a diet it is strongly recommended to do so gradually over the course of 1-2 weeks.
The four criteria should be met when you feed your dog a complete and balanced diet:
- The food is palatable for your dog
- Your dog has appropriate stool consistency and volume with minimal to no flatulence
- Your dog has a healthy coat and skin
- Your dog is at an appropriate body condition score
If your dog cannot check all four of the boxes, consider taking a look at your dog’s diet. No matter if the four criteria are met or not, the two ground rules above should always be remembered.
Now, let me address a few common concerns:
Should I feed wet? Or dry?
When it comes to the type of food- wet vs dry, I am okay with either as long as your dog checks out on the four criteria listed above. Sometimes I see clients who supplement wet food with the dry kibble they feed, and these pets are often overweight. So close attention should be paid to the body condition score if you supplement wet food.
What about ingredients and quality?
When it comes to ingredients and quality, I am more concerned with the balance of the macronutrients than the individual ingredients in the food (especially true if my dog is meeting the above criteria)
This however, ties directly into perceived quality of the ingredients. Therefore, I recommend choosing a reputable brand.
When I consider a brand “reputable” I am generally referring to the larger brand dog foods who have the funds and bandwidth to conduct food trials and research AND have a board-certified veterinary nutritionist on staff – full time.
Currently, the dog food companies that have a veterinary nutritionist on staff full time are: Purina (I recommend the Pro Plan line), Science Diet, Royal Canin, and Nature’s Variety*.
At this time all other dog food brands likely use nutritionists, but as independent contractors or on a part time basis.
Is this an absolute must or a deal breaker?? Probably not. This is just my personal and professional preference.
What about grain free?
With the link between diet related dilated cardiomyopathy and grain free diets I do not recommend these diets for dogs. Plus, aside from the very rare corn or wheat allergy there is no evidence to show that dogs benefit from a grain free food, in fact in my clinical experience I have noticed quite a few dogs gain weight on grain free foods, experience flatulence, and tend to have oily and foul smelling stool. Therefore they do not meet the four criteria we discussed above.
Also, if a dog has any food allergy, I do not recommend purchasing over the counter food, as the risk of cross contamination is too high.
A colleague of mine has a great analogy for this- that is, if you have a peanut allergy you cannot eat plain M&Ms, even though the plain variety lacks peanuts.
Both peanut and plain M&Ms are processed in the same plants. Prescription diets formulated for food allergies are manufactured separately from the bulk nonprescription foods to avoid the risk of cross contamination.
And finally, what about feeding RAW or home cooked diets?
I want to explain something here in great detail. I am only stating this here, so you are aware of the risks.
This is a topic of huge confusion and it is currently very popular. Meaning, currently, a lot of dogs could potentially be at risk. Take this information and do what you want with it, ultimately the choice is yours. However, the dog health and wellness advocate in me just has to explain this in detail so I can get a full night’s sleep.
It is IMPERATIVE that you understand that if you are feeding your dog a home cooked or RAW diet without a veterinary nutritionist consult, that the diet could be nutritionally imbalanced or incomplete.
This is especially confusing because based on your INDIVIDUAL dog, he or she could have a deficiency or excess in one nutrient and remain asymptomatic for quite some time.
Therefore, the ability for you - to be able to know if your dog has a deficiency or excess of a singular (or multiple) micronutrient is going to be highly variable depending on your dog, his genetics, the severity of the excess or deficiency, and the role that micronutrient plays in your dog’s metabolism, physiology, and overall health.
The role that micronutrient plays will determine whether or not you observe a symptom… and some can come with severe consequences.
So while ONE particular dog could go his whole life with a deficiency or an excess in one micro nutrient and never suffer any ill effects…. another dog with a different genetic makeup could suffer very severe side effects from that particular nutrient deficiency or excess.
Does that make sense? So essentially it is a gamble. And it is a tricky gamble because it takes time and sometimes expensive diagnostics to know exactly what system could be affected and to what degree.
For example, I read about a kennel of sled dogs who ended up having too much vitamin A in their diet. Some dogs in the kennel were symptomatic- the handler noted that they weren’t thriving, losing weight, “seemed to have a headache”, while other dogs in the kennel didn’t seem to have any symptoms. However, one bitch had a litter of puppies and multiple puppies within the litter had deformities. The majority ended up and passing after birth. This is a very experienced kennel that takes very very good care of their dogs. This is just one example showing the complexity of feeding a complete and balanced diet.
That being said… I do feel a home cooked diet can be incredible beneficial for dogs. And if ingredient quality is a concern, or if you have a very picky eater who doesn’t find kibble palatable- then home cooked might be the best recommendation.
The caveat to that? It can be expensive to do it correctly, since it’s recommended to first consult with a veterinary nutritionist and allow them to formulate and balance the home cooked diet for you.
And the majority of the American public cannot swing that for both financial and logistical reasons.
There is no way in hell I could have driven the Mojave road with Walt on a home cooked diet! We simply did not have the room!
And finally, the other concern I have with the RAW diet…
That is the risk of food borne illnesses, especially in households with children or immunocompromised individuals. Considering the consequences can be fatal, this has to be talked about and risks have to be weighed.
Whether it be bacterial contamination or parasitic contamination, it is a risk. And it is a risk that cannot be eliminated by quality control or purchasing raw ingredients from a reputable source alone.
Ultimately however, the choice is yours! I have no judgement on your decisions as long as you are informed and aware.
I do, however, encourage everyone- no matter what side you are on- to educate yourself on both sides of the matter in the RAW or home cooked diet vs kibble debate.
And finally, the last question I often get that I wanted to address here is:
What do you feed Walter?
I feed Walter Purina Pro Plan Shredded Blends, the beef flavor. Walter’s BCS, skin, and stools seem to thrive on most all high-quality kibble. We had palatability issues in the past when he was on other brands of kibble.
And I have to say… he is excited to eat again now that we switched to the shredded blends.
I do occasionally add wet food in when we are hiking a lot, which is Science Diet I/D gastrointestinal formula. He just really likes it so sometimes I treat him with it when we are really active, and he is running lean.
In conclusion, we simply do not know everything about optimal canine nutrition. There is so much research yet to be done. And if you come across an online source who makes claims that they do, please proceed with caution.
Millions of pets live long, happy, and healthy lives on a commercial diet of high-quality kibble… heck, here's some anecdotal evidence for you: my parent’s dog will celebrate his 17th birthday this spring and spent the majority of his life on Beneful! ...(and I don't even consider that line of food by Purina "high quality" !)
With medicine there is always more to be learned. So sometimes I think it comes down to managing expectations and emotions.
Right now, there is not one “perfect” diet out there. And that is a tough pill to swallow, because as dog owners we want to do what is best for our dogs. And if you follow the criteria and rules listed above it will give you the best chance for success.
While it likely won’t be perfect, it will be “very good,” and it might take some time and some experimentation.
Information is always changing but based on what we know now right now, this is the most practical advice I can give you at this time.
So, while we do not know everything, and likely never will, we do know enough to allow our pets to live happy, healthy, and long lives on a complete and balanced diet.
And thankfully we have advocates on both sides of the debate over canine nutrition who are constantly raising the bar.
What do you guys think? I am always open to discussion and alternate points of view. Feel free to comment below or email me, as I am always happy and open to discuss these topics further!
Until next time,
Libbie Fort, DVM
*Nature’s variety is the first line of RAW commercial dog food on the market to meet the AAFCO standards of a diet that is complete and balanced. As mentioned above, they do have a board-certified veterinary nutritionist on staff. Based on our veterinary forums, some veterinarians report that dogs placed on this diet do very well, others report that they noted flatulence, poor stool quality and weight gain. Again… this drives home the important point that every dog is an individual.