It’s A Fact; Healthy Dogs Live Longer!
A wholesome, well-balanced diet is one of the most important components of your pet’s healthcare. The best diet for your pet is very similar to the best diet for you – a variety of whole, natural foods enhanced with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and supplements to promote optimal health, prevent disease and/or address specific health issues. However, there isn’t any one “right” way to feed your dog. They’re individuals and what works best for one dog may not work as well for another. Commercially prepared kibble has become the standard for most of our pets. It’s relatively cheap, convenient to buy, and easy to serve. However, many owners – and vets – are becoming increasingly more aware of the true nutritional needs of our furry companions and are taking a proactive approach to nutrition by choosing brands that focus on quality ingredients and carefully controlled preparation over cost and convenience.
Whatever food you ultimately decide to provide, putting some thought into your decision now can produce huge rewards over your pet’s lifetime and very possibly help him avoid serious and costly illnesses that link directly to poor nutrition and feeding practices.
Important Factors to Remember When Considering Your Options
Freshness – The fresher, the better! As with human food, pet foods loose valuable nutrients when cooked and processed. Because of this, there’s a huge movement these days towards raw food diets which may be sold as raw, raw-frozen, air-dried, dehydrated, or freeze-dried. There are many excellent choices available both on-line and from local retailers. Fresh homemade diets are another alternative, but they can be very time-consuming, especially while gathering the necessary information in the beginning. If you choose to go this route, please be aware that while fresh foods are healthier than processed foods, an ultra-premium commercial diet is better than a poorly designed homemade diet. Do your research carefully! The Whole Dog Journal is a great place to start!
Meat – Dogs and cats are natural carnivores, so it’s important that the main source of protein in their diet is meat (see the AAFCO definitions below). It’s also important that the specific animal source is clearly identified; the generic terms “meat,” “poultry,” and “animal” usually indicates a desire to conceal something that’s less than kosher. In addition, high-quality, costly ingredients help insure better overall handling practices such as proper refrigeration.
Grains – Two important points to be aware of. First, grains are an inferior source of protein. Second, cats (especially!) and dogs do not need grains in their diets. They’re harder to digest than animal proteins and can lead to general inflammation in the body as well as weight gain, allergic reactions, gluten intolerance, and other potential health problems. In contrast, diets that have few or no grains are higher in protein and easier to digest which may improve your dog’s digestive tract and keep his immune system from becoming over-reactive. Grains such as corn and wheat are usually among the first ingredients listed on dry dog and cat food labels, signaling a lower-quality product.
Fruits and Vegetables – Both contain beneficial vitamins and antioxidants and should be included in your dog’s diet, in limited quantities. However, cats are almost exclusively carnivores, so this portion should be even smaller for them.
Variety – Feeding your pet the same food all the time would be like you eating the same meals day in and day out – not only boring, but limited. We all need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals for proper nutrition. Every meal doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced; feeding a variety of healthy foods will create balance over the course of the week.
Variety also means using lots of different sources, such as beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, eggs, and dairy, as well as different parts like muscle meat, hearts, livers, and kidneys. Different types and cuts all have different nutritional profiles; the wider the nutritional range, the better the quality. Vegetables, fruits, and grains may also be used, but in limited quantities.
Food allergies are much more common in animals that are fed the same food all the time. Variety is particularly important for puppies since puppyhood is when the immune system learns which foods are normal and which are likely to cause a reaction. As for the “exotic” proteins, it’s best to reserve at least some of them in case your dog does develop a problem and a novel protein is needed to test for, or treat, a food allergy in the future.
It’s best to find at least two or three different brands, using different protein sources, and rotate between them, anywhere from daily to monthly. Feeding different “flavors” from the same company won’t provide enough variety since they tend to use the same vitamin/mineral mix in all of their foods.
Supplements – Most quality pet foods contain additional ingredients to add vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, enzymes, and other beneficial nutrients. It’s always a good idea to add some fish oil to your pet’s food (an excellent source of essential fatty acids) and a multivitamin supplement (much like your daily vitamins, only more important since a pet’s diet tends to be less fresh and varied than yours). Proper supplementation can make a great diet even healthier.
The Bottom Line
Now that you’re ready to seriously consider a change, where do you find these ultra-premium foods? As an on-line shopper, my favorite sites for pet food are Chewy.com, Pet360.com, and OnlyNaturalPet.com. You can also check out the small pet boutiques and doggie day-cares in your area. However, this is a very personal decision that each puppy-parent should make for themselves. This is why it’s important that you learn to read labels. Most people don’t realize that the pet food industry is a poor cousin to the human food and agriculture industries; pet food manufacturers provide a built-in market for left overs such as slaughterhouse offal, grains considered unfit for human consumption, and similar waste products just waiting to be turned into profit.
The hallmarks of a high-quality food, be it wet or dry, include fresh meats or single-source meat meal as one of the first two ingredients listed, or even better, two or three meat sources in the top five ingredients, and other whole foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, apples, peas, squash of any kind, cranberries, or blueberries close behind. Grains, if any, should be whole and unprocessed, and preferably not corn, wheat or soy.
While this level of quality does cost more up front, you’ll find that you actually save money in the long run. Right from the beginning, you’ll be able to reduce the amount that you feed your dog and you’ll notice that he uses what he eats instead of just pooping it out all over your yard! What he does eliminate will be firmer, dryer and greatly reduced in size because of the high-quality digestible ingredients – a huge plus if your dog isn’t housebroken! Most importantly, healthy diets produce healthy dogs so theoretically your vet bills should be reduced, especially as your dog ages.
The hallmarks of a poor-quality food are by-products (other than livers, kidneys and hearts) and/or digest from any source, grain fragments such as brewer’s rice and rice- or wheat-bran, artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT or Ethoxyquin, propylene glycol (a rather nasty chemical added to some moist foods to make them “chewy”), sweeteners such as corn syrup and sucrose, and artificial flavors and colors.
Most of the brands that are available in markets and large-chain pet supply stores are considered junk food and often produce the same behaviors that a day of hot-dogs, cotton-candy and soda pop create in your children (yikes!). There have been many times that I’ve been able to solve a problem behavior such as excessive barking, chewing, jumping, or digging by simply changing the dog to a top quality food.
AAFCO Pet Food Ingredient Definitions
Meat (e.g., lamb, beef, chicken) – “Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without that accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels…”
Poultry – “Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails…”
Meat meal (e.g., lamb meal, beef meal) – “Meat Meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices…”
Poultry meal – “Poultry Meal is the dry rendered product derived from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails…”
Meat and bone meal – “A product of the rendering industry. It is primarily used in the formulation of animal feed to improve the amino acid profile of the feed. In most parts of the world, it is no longer allowed in feed for ruminant animals. However, in some areas, including the US, it is widely used as a low-cost meat in dog food and cat food. In Europe, some is used in petfood but the vast majority is now used as a fossil-fuel replacement for renewable energy generation, as a fuel in cement kilns, landfilling or incineration.”
Meat by-products – “The non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs.”
Poultry by-products – “Poultry By-Products must consist of non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera…”
Poultry by-products meal – “It is made from grinding clean, rendered parts of poultry carcasses and can contain bones, offal and undeveloped eggs, but only contains feathers that are unavoidable in the processing of the poultry parts. Poultry by-product meal quality and composition can change from one batch to another.”
Animal by-product meal – “Animal By-Product Meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents…This ingredient definition is intended to cover those individual rendered animal tissue products that cannot meet the criteria as set forth elsewhere in the section…”
Animal digest – “A cooked-down broth made from specified or unspecified parts of animals (depending on the type of digest used). If the source is unspecified (e.g. “Animal” or “Poultry”, the animals used can be obtained from any source, so there’s absolutely no control over quality or contamination. Any kind of animal can be included: “4-D animals” (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter), goats, pigs, horses, restaurant and supermarket refuse and so on.”
Finally, it’s best to feed your dog two times per day rather than “free-feeding” or leaving the food available all day long. Allow your pup a 10-15 minute window for each meal and then remove his bowl. There are several reasons for this recommendation. First, it’s a great way to tell if you’re over-feeding him; if there’s food left over each time, start cutting back! Second, loss of appetite is one of the first indicators that your dog may be sick. Controlled-feeding will help you notice that something is wrong much sooner than free-feeding. Third, by controlling this “valuable asset,” you’ll be setting yourself up as your dog’s leader in a loving, benevolent way. And forth, by reducing the intake at each meal you’ll be reducing your dog’s chances of developing bloat.