Food For Thought: The Complete Guide To Your Dog's Diet


by Marcia King, Dog Fancy Magazine

There’s much more to canine nutrition than Just kibble and canned food. We explore it all to give you a well-rounded perspective on your dog’s dietary needs.

Food and diet fascinate, perhaps even preoccupy us — what’s wholesome and what’snot, what keeps us trim, what plumps us up. Naturally, as dog owners, we’re equally interested in what we’re putting into our pets’ food bowls.

Questions abound:

  • Are homemade diets more nutritious than commercial formulas?
  • Should we strive to feed our dogs an “ancestral diet,” that is, a diet closer to the type of food wild dogs would have found in nature? Or, if commercial diets are the preferred choice, which is the best option: dry or canned?
  • Should we provide added vitamin or mineral supplements?
  • Should we switch diets every couple of months? And how the heck do you read that label?
  • Do terms such as “organic” or “holistic” really mean anything?
  • Are those serving size suggestions realistic? What’s the difference between a “low calorie” and “reduced calorie” formula?

Definitely food for thought. We’ll address those questions and more, so just dig in and make your selections from the following menu.

Nutrition What do dogs need?

 Protein, fat, carbohydrates, and key vitamins and minerals, all in the correct ratio, are the foundation for a complete and balanced diet, says David Syverson, chair of the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) Pet Food Committee.

 Protein provides mass, muscle, and bone strength, builds and repairs body tissues, helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function, and makes cells. Proteins form enzymes that metabolize food into energy and hormones that regulate various body functions such as salt and water balance.

 Fat provides concentrated energy, contributes to taste, is essential for healthy skin and coat, provides the body with essential fatty acids, and helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

 Carbohydratescomposed of sugar, starches, and dietary fiber (grains and vegetables), provide energy and help digestion.

 Vitamins and minerals are involved with various roles including metabolic functions, energy production, and electrolyte and fluid balance.

Making Sense of the Label

Deciphering a pet food label isn’t easy. Syverson explains that it can be confusing because labels  usually contain a mix of required information and voluntary marketing information — “the latter of which is usually emblazoned in far bolder font and style than the required information.” The label information that counts the most and that you should look for is:

  • Nutritional adequacy statement, which defines the purpose (i.e., adult, puppy, etc.) of the product.
  • Ingredient list, presented in descending order of weight. The first three to five ingredients comprise the majority of the contents of the food.
  • Guaranteed analysis, which indicates the minimum or maximum percentages of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in the product.
  • Feeding directions give you a starting point for how much to feed your dog.

Careful with Calories: Calories usually aren’t listed, but roughly, the more fat in a product, the more calories, although the amount of water and fiber in a formula skews that correlation. To compare caloric values between a canned and a dry food on a rough basis, multiply the value for the canned food by four. When Calories are listed, they must be listed as “kilocalories per kilogram,” Syverson says. (One kilocalorie or “kcal” equals one Calorie, and one “kilogram” equals 2.2 pounds.) However, manufacturers may also include Calories “per cup” or “per can.”

As for those weight control formulas: 

“Light,” “lite,” “low calorie,” and similarly designated products cannot exceed a certain number of calories.

“Lean” or “low fat” products cannot exceed certain fat percentages.

“Reduced calorie” or “reduced fat” products contain fewer calories or fat than a product of comparison, although not to the degree of being either “lite” or “lean.” 

The bottom line: If you want or need to know Calories, fat, etc., for a food before you try it,  call the company for detailed information.

Portion Control How much does he really need? Some dogs seem to pack on the pounds just by strolling by the pantry. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the suggested serving ranges on that dog food label are just that: Suggestions. Estimate a starting point. Not a strict, prescribed amount.

To determine the right portion size for your dog:

  • Rather than start with the largest portion in the range, begin with a portion size between the bottom and middle of the range, Remillard suggests. “After 30 days, weigh your dog. If he’s gained weight, feed him less.”
  • When trying a new formula, monitor your dog’s weight and body condition  every two to four weeks, adjusting portions as needed, advises Becvarova.
  • Use a standard measuring cup for consistent accuracy and to feed the correct amount.
  • Keep in mind that some breeds are more prone to obesity and require much smaller servings than other breeds.

Tasty Terminology Natural, organic, holistic, human gradeow much does he really need?

Many dog foods are promoted as being “natural,” “organic,” “holistic,” or having “human grade” ingredients. But what do these terms really mean and, crucially, are there standard criteria that make these terms meaningful? First things first: Yes, there is some regulation and accountability regarding the use of these terms. “The terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are regulated by AAFCO; ‘holistic’ and ‘human-grade’ are not specifically defined by AAFCO,” states veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, industry consultant to the USDA National Organic Program’s Pet Food Task Force. “All of these terms receive the same oversight from the Federal Trade Commission’s truth in advertising laws. Whatever the label or ad says must be the truth.” So what do they mean? Moser explains:

“A natural pet food cannot contain any chemically synthesized ingredients except for vitamins and minerals.”

“Until specific pet food organic labeling guidelines are adopted, right now AAFCO models enforcement on what the human regulations are, that is different levels depending on the percentage of organic ingredients. For example, ‘100 percent organic’ must have 100 percent organic ingredients. ‘Organic’ must have 95 percent organic ingredients. ‘Made with organic’ would mean a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients.”

“‘Human-grade’ has no AAFCO definition, although there is some talk about coming up with one. Right now the term is mainly an indication that the product contains ingredients from processing plants that supply ingredients for human consumption.”

“‘Holistic’ describes the entire management system of the animal — what the pet eats, where he eats it, where he sleeps, and what kind of healthcare he gets — rather than the specific dietary attributes of a pet food.”

Home Cookin: a good choice

Why do some dog owners bother with home-cooked doggie meals when there are convenient commercial alternatives?

For some folks, homemade meals are a lifestyle choice that celebrates natural foods. Forget about the boxes, cans, and bags. Nothing but fresh meats and produce for themselves — everything made from scratch. And that goes for the family dogs, too.

Some pet owners, concerned and scared about last year’s pet food recall, believe that home-prepared meals offer a reliably safer alternative to commercial formulas. Keep in mind, though, that human foods also get recalled due to contamination. “Our food is no safer than pet foods,” warns Susan Lauten, Ph.D.

Sometimes it’s what the doctor ordered. “In cases where the animal has more than one disease and there is no appropriate veterinary food product which addresses those conditions, I recommend home-prepared meals,” Remillard says. Also, if a dog is near death from illness and not eating, a homemade diet may encourage him to eat. Although home-prepared meals are generally more expensive and time-consuming, it’s not difficult to provide complete and balanced nutrition if you are careful, Remillard says. “It’s usually just proper portions of meat and grain, plus or minus vegetables, and a vitamin mineral supplement. However, you must know which supplements to add to the meal, so you should discuss your recipe with a nutritionist or veterinarian first.” For healthy home cooking, always measure your ingredients, follow the recipes exactly, don’t substitute ingredients, and cook and store prepared food properly, Lauten advises.

The  Raw Food Diet

Does raw food, being closer to the natural diets of wild animals, offer better nutrition for dogs? NO “There is no scientific evidence base that shows benefits for feeding raw food,” Becvarova says. “Conversely, multiple studies document that raw meats may contain harmful bacteria and parasites that may cause illness of pets.” YES “Benefits include overall health improvements, including relief from allergies and anal sac problems, better oral hygiene, and improved skin and hair coat,” says veterinarian Dr. Carol Osborne. “My seven years of research, backed by double-blind clinical trials, showed that pets respond very well to a balanced, wholesome, natural diet. Whether a pet responds best to a raw food or a cooked homemade diet depends on the specific pet.”

Switching Diets: Yea or Ney? Nutritionists are divided on the merits of periodically switching your dog’s food. Those in favor recommend switching to prevent possible deficiencies or excesses that could occur when feeding one diet for many years. “For healthy pets, some nutritionists recommend switching diets every few months, others  recommend never switching,” says veterinary nutritionist Lisa Freeman. “I’m somewhere in the middle: I think it’s reasonable to switch diets every one to three years, although not for animals  with health conditions for which consistent diets are very important.” Becvarova further explains. “Frequent changes to various foods on a daily or weekly basis may be detrimental to gastrointestinal health by altering gut micro flora. Dogs naturally prefer novel foods or flavors to well-known foods, which may lead to overeating at times when novel food is offered. Consequently, the dog’s reaction may be to correct that excessive food intake by refusing to eat for the next day or two. This behavior, in turn, may incorrectly be interpreted as being a finicky eater.” If you decide to change dog foods, minimize the risk of digestive upset by mixing the new food with the old in gradually increasing increments over a three- to seven-day period, Freeman advises. Transition finicky eaters with strong preferences in 10 percent increments over 10 to 14 days, Becvarova suggests. “Remove uneaten food after 15 to 20 minutes and don’t give treats or table foods between meals for the first few days of the transition period,” she adds.

Should you Supplement? Dog foods that meet AAFCO recommendations are deemed to contain adequate amounts of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. For dogs in normal health, and those with health issues, nutritional supplements can be helpful. Antioxidants and phytonutrients [nutrients from plants]  are beneficial for aging dogs, Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for skin  and joints, while glucosamine, Chondroitan, and other compounds ease the pain and stiffness of arthritis. But more isn’t necessarily better, as some vitamins and minerals can be toxic if given in excess. “For example, omega-3 fatty acids, if over-dosed, can contribute to blood-clotting problems,” Lauten warns. “Supplementing with vitamins and minerals in large- and giant-breed puppies during the period of rapid growth (3 to 6 months of age) can put the puppy at increased risk for developing orthopedic disease.”

Talk to your veterinarian or pharmacist before supplementing, Lauten advises. “Vitamins, herbals, and Nutraceuticals can interact with other medications, potentially enhancing or reversing the action of other medications.” If your veterinarian flatly denies the value of supplements, and you feel your dog might benefit from them, consider getting a second opinion from a holistic veterinarian.

 Marcia King is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Toledo, Ohio.