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It’s relatively easy for humans. If we’re trying to determine what constitutes a balanced, nutritional diet for ourselves, we consult our food pyramids, log onto ChooseMyPlate.gov, or look up any number of certified healthy eating specialists across multiple mediums.
Then we ignore it all and eat what we like. You can get your 50 pack of 1-ounce bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on Amazon here.
For our dogs, however, it’s not so simple. They’re completely beholden to us, the humans, when it comes to ensuring that the food entering their bodies is enough to sustain them without making them obese. And, boy, are there a ton of sources offering conflicting information about what sort of food is good and bad for our dogs.
If we can barely keep ourselves on track, what chance does Spot stand?
“The great news is that all pet owners want to do the very best for their pets,” says Julie Churchill, associate clinical professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. “There are so many mixed messages, so many different ways of advising to feed pets and buy and purchase different pet foods and ranking systems that that’s the biggest point of confusion, as well as fear, for pet owners.”
Grain-free dog foods seemed like all the rage—until the Food and Drug Administration started investigating a potential link between such diets and heart disease. A raw diet seemed like a healthy, natural alternative to processed products—until an FDA study found that raw pet food is teeming with bacteria.
Chewing on a rawhide bone is a fun, enjoyable way for your dog to pass the time. That is, until a little hunk of it breaks off and lodges in his esophagus.
How are you supposed to wade through the sea of recommendations and do best by your pet? We asked the experts.
“If there’s a question, it’s probably best to seek out the input of a specialist, at the very least a veterinarian, rather than the plethora of people online or in pet food stores who are promoting themselves as experts, and they may or may not actually be knowledgeable in the area,” says Valerie Parker, associate clinical professor at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Look for the advanced degrees.
Parker points her clients toward a list of questions to ask any food company from which they are considering buying food. Chief among them: Who’s in your lab?
“We want the company to have at least one full-time veterinary nutritionist on the staff,” Parker says. “Unfortunately, that term is grossly overused. I mean either a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or someone who is a veterinarian and has received specialty training and is board-certified as a nutritionist, or at least someone who has a PhD in animal nutrition.”
The “board” she’s referring to is either the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN). The more alphabet soup you ingest as you’re researching a food company’s scientific team, the better you should feel about your choice.
Purina, for instance, says it involves more than 400 scientists—including veterinarians and nutritionists—in the nutrition research that goes into making its Pro Plan line of products. You can find the whole suite of Pro Plan products on Amazon here.
Churchill also recommends brands that are made in America, since the country has fairly stringent pet food recommendations, and Parker says she prefers companies that don’t share manufacturing facilities with anyone else.
That way, they know exactly what’s going through their plant at all times.
Don’t be fooled by hyperbole.
“Premium” isn’t a word that means all that much in the dog food world. “Ultra-premium,” even less.
If a pet food company is making claims that seem too good to be true—“My dog had kidney issues, he ate Food Brand X for six months, and now he’s cured!”—that should be a huge red flag, according to the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, which runs the site PetFoodology.org.
And the brands that add adjectives also tend to hike up their prices.
“There is a perception, and it’s largely marketing-driven, that paying more equals better food,” Churchill says. “My starting point is trying to help people pick a food that is affordable for them, that their pet likes, and that matches their pet’s life stage.”
Much like humans, dog diets should be catered to aspects such as age, size, and breed. Puppies generally need more amino acids, minerals, protein, and fat in their chow than adult dogs.
You can get Nature’s Recipe dry puppy food, which packs in the protein through lamb meal and includes omega fatty acids for a healthy coat, for around $20 on Amazon here.
Older dogs tend to need more fiber and fewer calories in their diets, while still maintaining a healthy level of proteins and fats. Iams’ Proactive Health senior dog food includes fiber and prebiotics that aid in digestion, and a seven-ounce bag comes in at around $10. You can get it on Amazon here.
Ingredients are overrated.
Dog owners tend to have an aversion to “processed” food, Churchill says, because it’s a bad word when it comes to humans. It usually means sugar, fat, salt.
Not so in the dog world.
“Processing for pet food is to produce a product that’s complete and balanced, so those products can be the complete meal,” Churchill says. “It’s this anthropomorphism that gears people to look at ingredient list. They don’t understand those foods are actually formulated so that they meet all of the dog and cat needs.”
Parker would add “byproduct” to that list. Owners who get turned off by those three syllables also tend to rush toward more natural-sounding ingredients like heart, liver, or lung.
News flash: It’s all the same.
“Byproducts are not a lesser-quality product in any way,” Parker says. “There is a legal definition, too, for what a byproduct is and is not. Basically, it’s just another way of saying ‘organ meat.’ For companies who are specifically trying to avoid the word ‘byproduct,’ they just separate it out: beef liver, beef heart, beef lung.”
As long as the byproducts hit the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards, there is nothing wrong with them. Purina makes a point to highlight this on its site.
To Grain or Not to Grain
The dog food industry has an interesting history with grain-free products.
They first rose to prominence as an alternative for the supposed dangers that grain products caused in some wheat-sensitive breeds. Those dangers, Parker says, were overstated.
Now, there is significant concern that grain-free diets lead to a higher risk of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), or heart disease. That phenomenon, Parker says, is a bit overblow as well.
“It’s way too simple to say grain-free is good or bad,” Parker says. “There’s nothing wrong with corn, rice, or wheat for a majority of dogs and cats, so it was always a little ridiculous when companies were marketing food as better for being grain-free. And now it’s too simplistic to say that all grain-free is bad, as well. Certain grain-free diets have been associated with heart disease, but it’s a very small percentage of dogs eating these diets.”
Again, Parker says, it comes down to the reputation of the company and the needs of your specific dog breed. You can get Taste of the Wild grain-free, high-protein food—made in the U.S.A. and exhaustively tested for quality assurance—on Amazon here.
Dogs breeds who are predisposed to a deficiency of taurine—an amino acid that aids in the metabolism of fats—appear to be more likely inheritors of canine DCM. We’re talking cocker spaniels and some of the mega breeds, like the Newfoundland dog.
The FDA study showed a comorbidity in grain-free diets between taurine deficiency and DCM. If you want to play it safe, supplements could be good for your pup—just check with your vet first. You can get a cardio support supplement for dogs on Amazon here.
A raw deal?
Parker has a simple bit of advice for dog owners looking to transition their pets to an all-raw diet, especially when it involves the owners making at home.
Don’t. Just don’t.
“There are no proven benefits, and there are plenty of proven risks,” Parker says. “My biggest concern with raw, home-cooked, or any diet that an owner is doing on his or her own is nutritional inadequacy. Not being complete and balanced, not giving all the nutrition a pet needs, potentially leading to things like taurine or other nutrient deficiencies, especially in young, growing animals. They’re at the highest risk of having issues with an unconventional diet.”
That’s one risk. Another is outright foodborne illness.
An FDA study, conducted on more than 1,000 samples of pet food from 2010 to 2012, found that 15 of 196 raw pet food samples tested positive for salmonella and 32 tested positive for listeria. None of the other classes of food—dry, semi-moist, jerky-type treats—had more than one positive test.
Oh, and it could infect you as well.
“If you’re going to handle raw foods, you need to pay particular attention to good hygienic practices,” William J. Burkholder, veterinary medical officer in the FDA’s Division of Animal Feeds said in an FDA release. “Wash your hands and anything else that comes into contact with the product with hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. …Even if the dog or cat doesn’t get sick, they can become carriers of salmonella and transfer the bacteria to their surroundings, and then people can get the disease from contact with the infected environment.”
Some owners swear by raw food for their pets because they point to supposed benefits more natural ingredients can have for the dog’s coats, skin, and teeth. Plus, they say, it gives dogs more energy and makes their … er … leavings less unruly.
If you’re wedded to a raw diet for your dog, at least go the professional route. Some companies offer raw food that is frozen or freeze-dried but prepared under safe and sanitary circumstances. For example, you can get freeze-dried dog food products on Amazon here.
There are also other ways for your dogs to reap some of the purported benefits of a raw diet without having to consume one. Companies make supplements with blends of fish oil, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other vitamins that aim to keep your pet’s coat glossy and skin healthy.
Always check with your vet first before giving your pet supplements, but if you think your pup’s coat could be glossier and softer, you can get Makondo Pets Skin and Coat Supplements on Amazon here.
Watch those empty calories.
Here’s another way in which our four-legged friends aren’t so different from you and me: Pet dogs have major struggles with obesity. In fact, a 2017 study by Banfield Pet Hospital showed that one in three pet cats and dogs in the U.S. are overweight, and those numbers had grown by more than 150 percent in both species over the past decade.
Just like in humans, overweight pets face a plethora of health issues: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension.
“It’s not just about picking the right food. It’s feeding the food right, or appropriately, so they maintain a healthy weight throughout life,” Churchill says. “As little as 15 percent above what weight a pet needs can reduce their lifespan up to two years and increase the number of chronic diseases.”
If your dog is already tipping the scales, there are reduced-fat “diet” food options out there. These tend to include less fatty meats—such as poultry or fish—while still providing the protein and other needed nutrients. You can get reduced-fat dry dog food on Amazon here.
But, as Churchill said, it’s also a matter of moderation. That means you might have to cut back on feeding Fido those treats he loves so much.
Yes, even if he gives you that look.
“I’ve heard it all. Little rawhide sticks where an owner will give up to 20 a day because their dogs really love them,” Churchill says. “I’m not going to suck the fun out of dogs’ and cats’ lives, but they should be the tip of the pyramid. Really sparing.”
You could also try to go the health food route on your treats with ones that are high in natural ingredients and lean protein and low on carbohydrates. Try Rocco & Roxie gourmet jerky dog treats, which you can get on Amazon here.
Speaking of empty calories, they’re a hidden danger of that pig ear your dog is currently sitting over in the corner chomping away on.
Rawhide bones, pig ears, deer antlers, and things that dogs can really sink their teeth into end up increasing their caloric intake. But that’s not the only issue.
The real peril comes when these “treats” splinter and cause disruptions in a dog’s esophagus or gastrointestinal tract.
“I’ve seen plenty of foreign bodies or stuck pieces of rawhide or bones in dogs’ esophaguses that can ultimately be life-threatening,” Parker says. “Then, with certain treats, they can promote tooth breakage.”
If you want to give your dog something to chew on, get him a toy. But beware of the ones with a lot of plush surfaces, stuffing, or squeakers—anything the dog can rip apart and possibly ingest. You’re looking for durable rubber that won’t be easy to tear apart—we recommend this bone-shaped dog toy from West Paw that’s versatile and durable.
Churchill says she recommends ways to make snack time an exercise for dogs, both physically and mentally. That way, they’re getting the treats they love, shedding calories, and staying engaged.
“Food can be fun and a treat,” Churchill says. “Ideally, we would pick a product that we can use in a food toy or puzzle, so they’re still getting great nutrition, but it’s in a treat fashion or it’s in the way of keeping their minds healthy and active, so environmental enrichment.”
Puzzles such as the Trixie Flip Board, which you can get on Amazon for only $9.19, give dogs a challenging array of knobs, levers, and disks to navigate, leading to treats in different compartments.
Or, if you’re more the “go and fetch” type, try the Kong line of toys, which are made of durable rubber and have places where you can stuff treats. You can get a Kong extreme dog toy in various sizes on Amazon. The size for large dogs is $13.99.
Don’t get overwhelmed.
Yes, there is an entire universe of dos and don’ts, and trying to navigate them all can be confusing and overwhelming, especially with different sources conflicting each other.
The good news is that there are plenty of resources out there with reliable information vetted by veterinarians, pet nutritionists, and other highly specialized experts.
The FDA has an entire section of its webpage dedicated to animal and veterinary matters, the American College of Veterinary Nutrition page is a treasure trove of information, and nationally renowned colleges of veterinary medicine such as Cornell routinely publish research on the latest trends.
If you have questions, there are plenty of reputable places that have your back.