I have always had dogs in my life. My dad and I started out with Samoyeds and then switched to a few different types of small dogs. When I got married, my husband had a toy poodle. We also adopted an aging silky terrier. You’d think with all this experience, I would consider myself a dog food expert. However, in researching this article, I realized I had a lot to learn. To a certain extent, except when dealing with medical issues, the diet need of dogs are relatively simple. Food can be categorized as wet, dry, raw, treats, and scraps. Even so, there are issues to be aware of, and what follows is an exploration of those.
What are the most important ingredients in dog food? Some say it’s the first five ingredients. Some say it’s the first seven. The Dog Food Project says it’s the ingredients up to and including the first source of fat.
Whatever guideline you use to determine the most important ingredients, Healthy Pets recommends looking for the following among them:
- High in high-quality protein
- Moderate levels of animal fat
- High levels of EPA/DHA
- High moisture content
Why protein? Proteins are the building blocks in animal nutrition. They’re necessary for all aspects of growth and development, as well as being important in structural make-up and the immune system. In addition, they’re burned as calories and can be converted to and stored as fat. Pet health experts agree that protein is needed.
What type is needed, however, is what causes debate. Pet Education explains that for hundreds of years, the only problem canines had with protein was getting enough of it. Around the time of World War II, when commercial dog foods became more available, traditional meat began to get replaced with cheaper forms of leftover meat. As every protein source contains different levels of essential amino acids, each protein is different in its ability to be broken down into amino acids. In other words, not all proteins are created equal.
Many pet health experts list the egg as having the highest biological value, to the point that it sets the standard by which the protein quality of other foods are judged. Pet Education gives the egg a biological value of 100. Fish meal and milk are close behind with a value of 92. Beef is 78 and soybean meal is 67. “Meat and bone meal” and wheat are around 50 and corn is 45.
Why animal fat? Dog Time states that dietary fat is the most concentrated source of energy for dogs. It also provides essential fatty acids and aids in nutrient utilization and transportation. Fat is involved in cell integrity and metabolic regulation. All factors combined, fat is important to your dog’s overall health. Unfortunately, too much fat can put a strain on organs such as your dog’s liver and pancreas. That’s why animal fat should be provided in moderation. One should avoid cooked fats and poor quality products.
What is EPA/DHA? According to PetSci, there has been a rise in the number of premium pet food products containing EPA and DHA or omega-3 fatty acids. The importance of EPA and DHA in our own diets has been the subject of much research, with evidence suggesting that these fatty acids are indeed beneficial, and so it was only a matter of time before we began to see dog products containing EPA and DHA.
PetSci lists the following benefits of EPA/DHA:
- Reduce inflammation caused by inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis or inflammatory bowel disease
- Improve cognitive function
- Reduce dermatitis and allergies, improving coat health.
- Reduce cholesterol and triglycerides levels in the blood, which can promote a healthy cardiovascular system
- Slow cancer growth and improve response to treatment
Why high-moisture content? Pet health experts tend to agree that water is perhaps the most neglected nutrient. In fact, water is so important that no dog could survive without it. Yet water is continuously lost by dogs through their urine and feces. Although dogs don’t sweat and so don’t lose moisture in any obvious way, they do lose moisture as they breathe and pant to control body temperature. For all of the above reasons, dogs need constant access to water. A benefit of wet food over dry food is that wet food contains a lot of water.
Although pet health experts might disagree on the amounts and types of the four above ingredients, they all do seem to at least agree on their necessity. I found less consensus on other items recommended by Dog Advisor. For example, Dog Food Advisor contends that because dogs don’t have a biologic requirement for grain, their diet should be free of it. In particular, they noted that corn is a cheap filler ingredient and a known allergenic. Ask a Vet disagrees, however, and suggests that there are health benefits to corn:
- Corn is highly digestible
- Corn contains essential fatty acids
- Corn contains some great nutrients such as carotene (which is converted to Vitamin A in the body), vitamin E, and lutein
- Corn is a quality protein
Dog Food Advisor also contends that one should avoid formulas containing by-products. By-products not specified as a certain kind of meat could contain parts of beaks, feathers, feet, hooves, hair and even tumors that have been ground into the mix during processing. Although some by-products may provide some nutrition, because they’re all lumped together there’s no way to know which by-products a particular dog food contains, and so Dog Food Advisor recommend avoiding them. Ask a Vet again disagrees, stating:
When defined on a pet food label, chicken meal and chicken are exactly the same thing! The difference is in how the product came to the supplier. If the pet food company received the product as wet meat then they can call the ingredient chicken. They then go on to process it into a dry form so that it can be made into kibble. However, if they received the product already processed then it must be called chicken meal.
I didn’t start paying attention to these debates until we adopted a dog with a finicky appetite. In researching tempting foods that were also nutritionally sound, I began to realize that some ingredients are less desirable than others. For example, although I’m not so particular that I discriminate between different types of meats, I’ve begun to pay more attention to whether or not meat is listed at the start. If any ingredient other than meat is listed first, I won’t feed it to our dogs.
The bottom line is that pet health experts all seem to agree that pet owners should check labels and look for a nutritional adequacy statement from AAFCO–the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This will insure the formula at least meets minimal nutritional requirements.
What ingredients do you consider most important?
What ingredients do you try to always avoid?
DRY VS WET VS RAW
Now that you know what ingredients to look for in dog food, the next issue is whether that food should be dry, wet or raw. If you read enough articles by experts, you’ll discover that everyone has a different opinion on the issue. As a compromise, some dog owners elect to provide a mix of at least dry and wet.
Dry food has many clear advantages. For starters, it’s convenient. It can be left out for a dog to eat at its own pace without fear of spoilage. Also it can be easily stored; for example, a large plastic bin with a tight lid is usually enough to keep dry food fresh and safe from insects and rodents.
When feeding multiple pets, dry food also has benefits. It can be accurately and easily portioned to keep diets consistent. Dry food is also more economical, a factor that becomes more important the more dogs you own.
Some dry food is even specially formulated and shaped to clean the teeth as the animal chews it. Even those that aren’t can still be used as an effective training treat and as a dental health supplement. Since some dog breeds tend toward tooth and gum problems, dry food may help stave off such conditions.
However, dry food does have drawbacks. For example, to make kibble keep its shape, many dry foods have a reduced amount of fat content and an increased carbohydrate content. If your dog is very active, they may require higher fat than a dry dog food can provide. Some dog breeds may have a hard time breaking up kibble due to their facial and jaw structure. Finally, dry food doesn’t provide as much moisture as wet food, something that becomes more important as a dog ages or becomes ill.
Wet food has many advantages too. Number one is that it can be a good source of hydration. This is an important factor to consider, because not all dogs drink as much water as they should. The added moisture can also be of great benefit to dogs with urinary tract conditions.
Wet foods often have a higher protein content than dry foods. Active and younger dogs may require this boost in protein to keep them energetic and active and to help build muscle.
There are other health considerations that can make wet foods a practical choice. Older animals with a decreased sense of smell may be more inclined to eat a food that has a richer scent and flavor, which is typically the case with wet foods. This is also a good alternative for when a pet is ill and cannot smell as well or is lacking in appetite. This will assure that they are getting the proteins, vitamins, and minerals they need to maintain their health. Wet foods are also a good option for dogs with missing teeth, poorly aligned jaws, or smaller mouths. Finally, if you have a dog who needs to lose weight, the added moisture will help fill your dog’s stomach and temporarily help him feel satiated without actually consuming more calories.
However, wet food does have drawbacks. It tends to be more expensive, available in smaller quantities, and messier for dogs to eat. Once opened, wet food also loses any shelf life it had. It needs to be covered and refrigerated and used quickly before it can spoil. The higher moisture, protein, and fat content in wet food can sometimes cause upset stomachs. Wet food won’t clean your dog’s teeth or massage their gums as they eat, which may lead to more plaque build-up and eventually to tooth decay.
Supporters of raw food diets point out that the wild cousins of dogs thrive on raw food. They attribute modern pet health problems to today’s highly processed, grain-based commercial pet foods. Pets Matter quoted one expert as saying that raw food diets can be fed safely and effectively as long as owners are correctly counseled on the preparation and handling of raw food.
Even so, several major veterinary and human health organizations warn against raw diets. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) points to studies that have found that 30 to 50 percent of commercial and homemade raw protein diets are contaminated with pathogenic organisms, and up to 30 percent of the dogs that are fed such diets may shed pathogenic organisms in their stool.
My husband and I prefer wet and dry foods for our dogs. The main reason for this is convenience. Often we start with dry, and when the dog begins to turn his nose up at it we switch to wet. The bottom line is always check with a vet, who might even recommend specialized diets for dogs with health issues.
Where do you stand on the debate between dry, wet, and raw food?
Show of hands, who feeds their dog table scraps? Show of hands, who views this as wrong? If you fall into the latter camp, you might be surprised by an article from Modern Dog Magazine. It contends that moderation, not abstinence, is the key to table scraps. Well, there is also the matter of what type of scraps to feed, how you give them, and other factors.
For example, Modern Dog Magazine suggests that lean meat is an excellent table treat. Lean chicken, turkey, fish, or beef are great sources of protein. In other words, saving a few small pieces of leftover meat to share with your dog is acceptable. Other excellent treats are fresh fruits and vegetables. However, fresh fruit is high in water and fiber, and so to avoid gastrointestinal upset you don’t want to share large amounts. In addition, dried fruit can be a good treat, but it tends to be sweeter than fresh fruit because the sugar is more concentrated; it’s easy for dogs to binge on dried fruit and end up with severe diarrhea. For dogs that are picky drinkers, including fruit in their diet can be a good way to increase their water intake.
Now just because it might be okay to feed your dog table scraps, does not give you freedom to simply dump your leftovers into your dog’s bowl. Giving your dog large amounts of table scraps can lead to an upset stomach or bowels and other problems. For that reason, Modern Dog Magazine advises dog owners to start with foods that are similar to what is in their dog’s kibble and proceed from there. Also, keep the amount of table scraps small and be aware of exactly what you’re giving your dog. Noting the specifics will help you balance extras from meal to meal and to understand what happened if your dog should get sick.
Of course, feeding your dog directly from the table can result in bad manners. To avoid this, share scraps away from the table and not at meal times. You may even ask your dog to do his favorite trick before you give him a treat. If your dog tends to be a finicky eater, Modern Dog Magazine cautions that you should make sure he has eaten his regular food before you share any extras.
When I was growing up, my family always gave table scraps to our dogs. When my husband got his first puppy, he initially resisted table scraps. Now though, he’s just as guilty of feeding human food to our dogs. What has been your experience?
When it comes to picking the best treats, guess what? You should start with the ingredients list! According to Dog Journal, there are also ingredients to avoid:
- Artificial preservatives
- Artificial colors
- Chemical humectants (which keep treats soft and chewy)
Another item to look for on the label is the expiration date. Just like human food, dog treats can go bad. If package has been around for a long time, smell them occasionally to ensure they haven’t gone rancid. My husband will sometimes even taste them. 😉
While some pet health experts encourage responsible dog owners to provide the highest nutritional value to their dogs, even in their treats, others are less adamant. They view treats as the human equivalent of candy bars and potato chips. In other words, treats aren’t intended to be healthy, and dog owners simply need to ensure that they’re given in moderation.
Finally, there is the issue of bones. Many dogs love to chew on them, but the FDA warns that this time-honored tradition could be dangerous. Also, in my online research, I couldn’t find any articles that encouraged owners to give bones. Instead I found quotes such as one by a veterinarian in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine:
Bones are unsafe no matter what their size. Giving your dog a bone may make your pet a candidate for a trip to your veterinarian’s office later, possible emergency surgery, or even death.
However, Healthy Pets does suggest that some bones are safe – those being edible bones and recreational bones. To read more, check out:
Our dogs have always received treats as rewards for good behavior and performing tricks. As for bones, when I grew up, my dad and I used to give ones to our big dogs but avoided bones that we thought could splinter. As far as we can remember, our small dogs never received bones. Given the information now available about the dangers of bones, we probably wouldn’t even give them now to bigger dogs.
How do you evaluate what treats to give?
As you can see in the photos I’ve used with this article, our toy poodle has special needs at feeding time: his long beautiful ears must be tied back in order to keep them clean. He has also progressed through other needs in regards to the food itself. When he was young, my husband fed him dry food exclusively because he thought doing so would be best for his teeth. But when Barnaby eventually lost interest in dry food, my husband switched to canned, which my husband mixed with green beans to satisfy his ravenous boy’s hunger without making him fat. Now eleven, Barnaby’s appetite has waned, and Andy has replaced the green beans with a little lunch meat to tempt his now-finicky dog. He also feeds Barnaby the more expensive canned foods because he wants Barnaby to stay healthy for as long as possible. Finding the right foods for our dogs is an ongoing journey.