The right dog food will give your pet all the nutrients she needs for a happy and healthy life. But how do you know which food is best? Tim Falk reports.
Of all the decisions facing new dog owners, from finding a vet to picking out a collar, choosing a dog food is probably the most confusing. There are foods for different ages and different breeds, foods with a variety of ingredients and flavours, products endorsed by your favourite TV vet, wet foods and dry foods, and even a battle between home-cooked and commercial diets.
The amount of choice available is simply staggering, so how can any first-time dog owner be expected to make an informed decision on the right food for their dog?
To help make it easier to choose the right dog food, we spoke to three vets for their advice on canine nutrition: Dr Eloise Bright from lovethatpet.com, Dr Karen Flexner from My Vet Animal Hospital in Waterloo (myvetanimalhospital.com.au) and Dr Renee O’ Duhring, holistic veterinary expert from The Natural Vets on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast (thenaturalvets.com.au).
You are what you eat
Proper nutrition is one of the most important factors in your dog’s health. “We ask every single client what their dog eats because so many health problems come down to improper nutrition, from obesity and arthritis to heart disease and ear infections,” Dr Karen says.
“Even dogs that are already on a high-quality diet sometimes develop problems because it’s not the right diet for that particular dog. We work with clients and their pets to choose the right diet for each individual animal in order to manage health and diseases to ensure excellent performance and longevity in our pets.”
Dr Renee says eating the correct diet is one of the most important steps anyone can take to contribute to health and wellbeing. This applies to humans, dogs and every other animal. “The food we eat literally becomes our cells and this is the same for our dogs. So if you are feeding lots of inappropriate foods that are difficult to digest, then the dog’s cells become overloaded, sluggish and diseased. Whereas if you feed foods that provide the right building blocks for health, then your dog will thrive,” she explains.
Food for thought
The importance of proper nutrition for our dogs is beyond debate, but how much do we know about what constitutes the ideal diet?
“The right diet is not necessarily the same for all dogs and there is much less reliable nutritional information for dogs compared to humans,” Dr Eloise says.
“Dogs need good biologically available protein, ideally from meat sources, fibre, good fats and some carbohydrates. Dogs are omnivores and opportunistic scavengers, not true carnivores, so they do need fibre and carbohydrates, not just a pure meat diet. Like us, they need vitamins and minerals and the balance of these is subject to research by pet food manufacturers, but is not entirely known.”
It’s important to remember that dogs’ nutritional requirements vary depending on their age, health status and lifestyle. While a lot of people think dogs should only eat raw meat because that’s what they eat in the wild, they also require carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, calcium and phosphorus, as well as dozens of other micronutrients. “All of these nutrients interact with each other in complex ways but, in general, protein helps keep good lean muscle tone, calcium and phosphorus build and maintain strong bones, fats help store and use vitamins and carbohydrates provide lots of energy,” Dr Karen explains.
The micronutrients your dog needs include vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, phytochemicals, antioxidants and basically all the things that ensure perfect function on a microscopic level. They’re essential for optimal health and function, but Dr Renee says that many micronutrients are often overlooked.
“For example manganese — this is a mineral that is needed for healthy, strong connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons,” the vet explains. “A dog’s manganese requirements are high and in their ancestral diet, on which they evolved, manganese was provided by the animal parts none of us feed these days including the hair, feathers and wool of their prey. The minimum manganese requirements required to meet pet food legislation are much lower than that provided by the dog’s ancestral diet, and many dogs eating commercial pet foods are therefore manganese deficient.”
Reading the label
So which food should you choose for your dog? This decision is complex and confusing, and the wealth of information contained on pet food labels can make things even trickier.
Dr Eloise says it’s best to avoid cheaper supermarket foods and “fresh” meats that contain sulphur preservatives. Instead, she says “a diet that is high in meat protein, from a reputable manufacturer is best”.
High-quality commercial pet foods are backed by scientific research into the nutrients each dog needs to maintain their overall health and wellbeing. “Our favourite dog food makers are the ones who employ veterinary nutrition specialists and conduct clinical trials to make sure the dogs that eat their food are as happy and healthy as can be. They look at things such as musculoskeletal and metabolic health, energy and coat quality,” Dr Karen says.
In the case of prescription foods for dogs that have certain diseases, they study how well the disease is managed with food. They also test various flavours to see which ones dogs like best.
A good-quality dog food should contain the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) adequacy statement:
“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage(s)].”
Keep an eye out for this statement when perusing different dog food options. It’s also worth remembering that as a general rule, you get what you pay for. But while premium foods might cost more in the short-term, their health benefits could help you save big on vet bills in the long run.
Wet vs dry
One of the common debates dog owners have with themselves is whether to feed wet or dry food to their pooch. Some owners fall on either side of the fence, while others decide to keep a foot in both camps and feed a combination of wet and dry food.
However, unless your pet has dental or urinary issues, Dr Eloise says this is often down to personal choice. “There is no real need to feed wet food, bones or meat to dogs if they are getting a good-quality dry food — one from a vet or pet shop, not the supermarket,” she says. “Some dogs actually get pretty fussy with their food if given too much choice…”
Variety is often best given in the form of treats for training, safe chews and KONGS stuffed with cooked pumpkin and liver treats (or any number of other options).
However, if your dog needs to lose weight or if he needs to increase his water intake, such as if he suffers from kidney disease, wet food can be beneficial.
Raw food diets
Another hot topic of debate in the world of dog food is the rise of raw food diets. It’s this type of cuisine that Dr Renee recommends feeding to your dog.
“Choose a diet that is as close to what nature intended for a dog — a raw, natural diet, based on ingredients they would choose to eat themselves in the wild,” she says.
“When recommending a diet for an animal, I look to what the anatomy and physiology of that animal requires, and how to provide what this dictates. Dogs have evolved as facultative carnivores, which means they will hunt prey when it is available but can also subsist quite happily on other available foods they scavenge when prey is scarce. This means dogs do best when we include prey animals in their diets, but can also eat a variety of other things.”
Dr Renee says commercial pet foods generally include too much starch or other indigestible components for a dog. While some dogs can digest starch such as cooked sweet potato or pumpkin quite well when fed on its own, when combined with animal proteins and then cooked at high temperatures and pressures to produce cooked kibble, the daily influx of high levels of starch impedes the ability of the body to digest protein. This, she says, alters the pH of their stomach acid so that protein digestion is impaired.
“Raw diets are also higher in moisture content than dry kibble and water is one of the most important macronutrients. Dogs will never make up the water deficit when eating a dry food diet, and so over time you will see diseases associated with chronic dehydration such as recurrent bladder infections, kidney disease and arthritis,” Dr Renee explains.
However, there are risks associated with feeding raw food. “We see many problems in practice from raw feeding, including salmonella, E.coli and stomach upsets from not enough fibre,” Dr Eloise says. “Mince or chicken should never be fed raw, as they contain high levels of bacteria.”
If you do want to feed a raw food diet to your pet, don’t simply guess the balance of nutrients your dog needs. “Some dogs with food allergies will respond well to a limited-ingredient diet, but this is best formulated with a nutritionist, as long-term use of just a few ingredients will lead to deficiencies,” Dr Eloise explains.
There are a number of balanced raw-food diets available, so check them out if you’re keen on taking the raw-food route.
In the end, we all want to give our dogs the food they need for a happy and healthy life, but it’s easy to get confused by the sheer amount of information and products available. So if you’re ever in doubt about what’s best for your dog, ask a vet you trust for their advice.
“Look for a brand that conducts scientific testing and a food that matches the age, size and lifestyle of your dog,” Dr Karen says. “And remember not to let him eat too much of it — feeding the right amount of a healthy diet will improve the quality of his life as well as possibly increase his longevity, giving you and your pet more wonderful years together.”
Different foods for different dogs
Why are there foods specially designed for dogs at certain life stages or of different sizes? Food for different life stages is based on what your dog is doing during those life stages. “Puppies are growing and running around like crazy, so they get a high-calorie, high-fat diet with carefully balanced nutrients to ensure their bones grow appropriately,” Dr Karen explains. “Senior dogs tend to have slower metabolisms, so their food is lower in calories and higher in ingredients that support joint health.”
Different breeds also have tendencies towards problems such as obesity or arthritis, so their food is aimed at preventing those conditions. “A diet for Pugs is even shaped in a way that makes it easy for a dog with a brachycephalic (short) nose to pick it up,” Dr Karen says.
Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory