Choosing a Dog Food

By Dr. Kathy Boehme

This is not a fast or easy answer. I will give you guidelines for choosing first then I will tell you what I do because I have found that it works best for one of my dogs. I am still trying to figure out the puppy. Keep in mind, there is much we do not know about nutrition. Billions of dollars are spent on human nutritional research every year and that is still changing and confusing. Dogs get only a fraction of that money and most is funded by pet food companies. I’m not saying that is ideal but at least somebody is putting money into it and as such, we learn more each year.

I know many people just want a veterinarian to pick the food to feed to their dog. That is impossible unless we are doing a diagnostic diet trial or your pet needs a therapeutic diet because of a health condition. For a normal, happy puppy, adult or senior…it depends. Just like us, they are all individuals with different energy and exercise levels, different stressors, different breed predispositions, different gut biomes. More than likely the diets will need to change as age and metabolism changes. It is rare to see a dog do well on the same diet its whole life, but it does happen on occasion. Basically, what you feed is what works best in your dog’s body and it may take a bunch of tries before you figure that out. If your dog has a lot of gas, vomits, has loose stool frequently, has a dull dry or flaky hair coat or anal gland issues then you haven’t found it yet. Having said that, there are some general things to look for and things to avoid. What you put in your dogs body is one of the single most important factors affecting their health. Just like what you put in your body affects your health. You will need to put some work into it.

What "Work" Do I Need to Put In When Choosing A Dog Food?

Here is the work I mean:

  • Look for diets that have been tested in feeding trials. All diets need an AAFCO statement for adequacy (note that does not mean optimal) but not all do feeding trials. Feeding trials are expensive. They rarely go over 6 months so they won’t show long term deficiencies or excesses but they will show more acute issues and palatability. You want to feed a dog food from a company willing to invest in this.
  • Look for contact information on the label so you can get help if problems crop up or if you have questions. You can call and ask them if a specific food has been tested through feeding trials. If they don’t have contact info readily available, forget it.
  • Look for brands that employ veterinary nutritionists. You cannot tell from reading an ingredient list or sending your veterinarian an ingredient list if it is a good diet or not. You need an expert to know that. At least the companies that employ and consult with veterinary experts are willing to put money into making sure they get their formulations as correct as we currently know how to do it.
  • Look for companies that have been around for a while; whose formulations have been on the market for years.
  • Avoid exotic ingredients. Basically stick to chicken, beef, fish, lamb or turkey. Avoid duck, bison, pork, rabbit. If your dog develops a food allergy or sensitivity we need to turn to these type proteins. It can be difficult finding a diet if they have already been exposed to everything.
  • Finally, how processed do you want your pet’s food to be? There are lots of options available for pet owners now. Options other than kibble include canned food diets, home cooked diets, frozen raw and dehydrated raw diets. There truly are differences in the nutrient profiles depending on how a diet is processed but no one knows for sure how this translates into long term health. The studies comparing this simply haven’t been done.
  • Note about raw food: I have seen dogs thrive on raw food diets and dogs become very ill because of them. It is another…it just depends. If you have chosen to feed your pet a raw food diet, use a brand made for dogs using the same criteria as above. Do not try to formulate it yourself from a book. Do not use human food. Meat from the supermarket, packaged for human consumption, is meant to be cooked and is highly contaminated. Reputable raw pet food manufacturers do not want recalls and thus take pains to do post-processing surveillance. Raw food diets should not be used if your dog is immunosuppressed, on allergy medication that surpresses the immune system, is weak and debilitated or if there are people in the house that are immunosuppressed. Food bowls should be thoroughly cleaned after each use.

What Do You Feed Your Dog?

 I feed a combination of kibble, which comprises about 1/3 of her calories, and home cooked which comprises 2/3 of her calories. The home cooked portion is balanced through a supplement call BalanceIT purchased through www.balanceit.com.

The ingredients in her home cooked portion are varied but always balanced using BalanceIt’s autobalancer where I choose the ingredients that I want to use from their drop down list. I follow the recipe religiously. These recipes sometimes have grains and sometimes they don’t. I cook about every 2 weeks and freeze the food in 5 day portions. I need a huge pot and it takes a lot of time but it makes me feel good to feed whole nutritious food and my dog loves it.  Now home cooked food is also available premade, frozen and delivered to your door through multiple companies including a local one called Just Food for Dogs. The kibbled portion of her diet is rotated using different companies and different proteins quarterly. Rotating foods is controversial. There are boarded veterinary nutritionists that love the idea and others that feel it is unnecessary. The main thing is to use the above criteria, they need to be good, reputable foods and companies. I don’t feed food from companies I’ve never heard of even if someone tells me it’s great, although I may go to their website and have a look.

Here are my reasons for food rotation:

  • You will find out, usually pretty quickly, what works and what doesn’t work for your individual dog. No veterinarian can do this. Dogs are different. If you have more than one you know this. Look for hair coat changes, body weight and condition, energy level, look at nails and foot pads, eye discharge. Document it so you remember and then rotate through brands that your dog looks and feels great on. If it only looks and feels great on one, then only feed that one.
  • I just don't think any food or company is perfect. Rotating foods, in theory, distributes the risks of nutrient deficiencies and excesses with feeding one diet long term. Luckily life threatening mistakes in food formulations are rare but they occur.

I do not “transition” my dog between diets as this is never a problem for her. If she developed diarrhea, vomiting or poor appetite then I either wouldn’t rotate at all or I would transition over 5-10 days.

Lastly, I always feed my dogs a WIDE range of fresh fruits and veggies as treats. You cannot feed grapes, raisins or onions. Kibbled diets do not give dogs the phytonutrients found in these foods and I believe they do good things for their bodies. Not every dog will eat them, not every dog can digest them but the VAST majority will and should in my opinion. The dose is ¼ cup per 10 pounds per day. They should be varied, different colors, feed the rainbow. Cook dense veggies. Veggies high in water, like cucumbers, spinach, zucchini, do not need to be cooked.  Anything you see in the stool is not being absorbed so chop it or cook it.

I totally get how cooking is not an option for many people and it wasn’t for me for a long time, but at least try to add some veggies. There is no reason to add more carbohydrates to a kibbled diet unless they need to pick up weight. You are only adding calories. There is not much reason to add protein unless they won’t eat their food without it. There is good reason to add plants in the form of fruits and vegetables.

If you have any questions or need assistance in selecting a diet that suits your dog's needs, you can schedule your pet's appointment here or contact us.

Additional Resources:

U.S. Food & Drug Administration Pet Food Recall List: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/safety-health/recalls-withdrawals

The Drake Center for Veterinary Care is an AAHA-accredited animal hospital located in Encinitas, CA. The Drake Center loves being a source of information for all pet owners across the country however if you have any questions regarding pet care and do not live in Encinitas, CA or surrounding cities, we encourage you to contact your local veterinarian.

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