From a dull, lifeless coat to a few extra layers of fat, the signs of poor nutrition are easy to identify. Tim Falk investigates how to give your pooch the best possible nutrition.
The old saying that you are what you eat is an apt one, not just for us but for our dogs as well. Giving your dog the right nutrition for his age, size and lifestyle are crucial to his health and wellbeing.
But how can you tell if your dog is not getting all the nutrients he needs? “Poor nutrition can be expressed in many different ways and does not always mean that the food being fed is of poor quality,” says Dr Melissa Meehan, a vet and TV/radio presenter who works at Melbourne’s Canterbury Veterinary Clinic. “The best quality diet, if not absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract properly, can still result in malnutrition.”
1. Body Condition Score (BCS): Vets judge an animal’s weight based on its body condition score. This is a value from one to nine, with one being emaciated and nine being grossly obese. Five is considered ideal. A dog with a BCS of five has palpable ribs without excess fat covering, a waist when viewed from above and a tucked-up abdomen when viewed from the side.
2. Dull coat, dermatitis, dandruff: “Skin is the largest organ in the body, so it goes without saying that a diet deficient in nutrients — particularly essential fatty acids such as those found in fish, evening primrose oil and flaxseed oil — will be reflected in the quality of the skin and fur,” Dr Meehan says.
3. Poor dental hygiene: “Dogs fed purely wet food will run into problems with plaque accumulation. Imagine not brushing your teeth for a year (or 12, as some of the older dogs I see) and expecting to not need some major dental work,” Dr Meehan says. A good-quality dry food designed specifically to clean teeth will help considerably in reducing plaque, as will chew sticks and dental treats. The gold standard, however, is daily brushing.
4. Poo problems: While excessive defecation and voluminous stools can be indicative of many other problems, the cause is often related to a poor-quality food. “Many poor-quality dog foods are bulked up with indigestible carbohydrates. This means that they aren’t absorbed by the dog’s digestive system and just pass through the other end,” Dr Meehan says. Diarrhoea and constipation, meanwhile, can also indicate that the current diet is not suited to your dog or the quality of its ingredients is varying between batches.
5. Poor growth: Puppies require more protein and fat, as well as other nutrients such as calcium to grow strong and healthy bodies. Different-sized breeds have different requirements. For this reason puppies should be fed premium-quality diets specifically designed for their breed or size. Puppy foods should not be fed into adulthood to avoid obesity. Speak to your vet about when to transition over to adult food to suit your dog’s growth rate.
6. Allergies and reduced immunity: “Dogs are no different to humans when it comes to the food they eat influencing their general health,” Dr Meehan says. “I have noticed first-hand in my patients that dogs on poor-quality diets often have more allergies and diseases associated with poor immunity than the dogs fed premium-quality diets.”
7. Lack of energy: Growing dogs, working dogs and very active dogs have higher calorie requirements compared to sedentary, elderly or low activity dogs. If a dog’s calorie requirements are not met through its diet then the dog will lose weight and show signs of lethargy. If the food is of low digestibility, the nutrients in the food cannot be absorbed, leading to a lack of energy and malnourishment.
What to do about it?
If your dog is showing one of the seven signs of poor nutrition, you need to take action — and the best way to do that is to make sure you’re feeding him the right food. “The best nutrition by far still comes from commercially available dog foods,” says Dr Margie Roser, a vet who hosts a weekly pet radio show on 2CC Canberra. “The best ones — the ‘super-premium’ brands — can be found at pet stores and vets. They are formulated to meet energy requirements during specific life stages and for specific lifestyles. There are even diets available that meet specific breed requirements such as healthy coats in Golden Retrievers or Poodles, healthy joints or strong muscles in Dachshunds.
While it is true that the better diets will cost you more, you also need to feed less of these as the products are more bioavailable and produce less waste products — in other words, your dog will do smaller, less smelly poos. “Animals on commercial diets have a longer life span than those on a home-cooked diet. This has to do with the correct balance of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as helping to maintain healthy teeth and gums,” Dr Roser says.
“It is nearly impossible to make a diet at home that provides the adequate energy balance as well as providing the correct amount of vitamins and minerals. Feeding uncooked raw meat is also a disease risk and can infect dogs and cats with parasites,” she explains.
If your dog has any particular nutrient requirements, there are many specially formulated diets that come under the umbrella of prescription diets you can get from your vet. Some of these diets are the treatment of choice for different diseases such as kidney disease, arthritis or canine cognitive dysfunction (dementia).
If you’re unsure about the best diet for your canine companion, the best person to speak to is your vet. And once you feed your dog a nutritionally complete diet that is suited to his life stage and activity levels, he’ll turn into a perfect advertisement for good nutrition.
What Rover needs
Dr Margie Roser outlines the causes of the signs of poor nutrition:
• Too few calories will cause weight loss, lethargy, bad breath and, over time, vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
• Not enough fat and fatty acids in the diet will lead to a poor coat, scaly skin and even increase allergies. Omega 3 and 6 fats can help reduce allergies in dogs.
• Vitamin A deficiency will cause blindness and skin infections. A good source of vitamin A is fish-liver oil.
• Vitamin D3 from fish-liver oil affects calcium absorption. Deficiency causes rickets (soft bones).
• Vitamin E is an important antioxidant. It fights infections and is found in green foods and cereals. Deficiency causes muscle breakdown and liver damage.
• B vitamins are important for metabolism. Deficiency causes poor growth, skin lesions and neurological signs.
• Vitamin C is an important antioxidant responsible for helping fight infection.
The weighting game
Though there seems to be plenty of focus on helping overweight pooches lose a few kilos, sometimes dogs need help to gain weight.
When Angie Matthews rescued her Labrador-cross named Pumpkin, the nervous and somewhat shy pooch was estimated to be three to four kilos underweight. “Pumpkin’s ribs showed quite prominently and her coat was a bit of a mess,” Matthews says. “Our vet put her on a prescription diet to help her get heavier and it wasn’t long before she started to get heavier and her overall condition started to improve.”
Dr Roser points out that there are many causes behind canine weight loss, from intestinal worms and food allergies through to problems like gastrointestinal disease and even cancer. If you notice any signs of weight loss, take your dog to see the vet.
“A visit to your veterinarian is an important step in ruling out underlying diseases that may be causing the observed weight loss,” Dr Meehan says. “Then, if your dog is found to be otherwise healthy, a high-quality diet appropriate for your dog’s nutrient and calorie requirements will be suggested by your vet. The daily calorie intake will need to be calculated to ensure that your dog is receiving the correct amount for its physical requirements.”