1. Protein in dog foods
There’s a lot to discuss about diet in dogs, especially considering all the changes that have taken place in the pet food industry over the past several years. One of the biggest changes has been the outrageous increase in the protein percentage in the dry dog foods being sold (an explanation of the difference between dry and canned foods will be forthcoming.) Part of the problem with the increase of this protein in dry dog foods is the public’s perception that high protein is a good thing. In actuality, protein can be extremely hard on a dog’s system if the percentages are too high (especially when a dog is older.) The fact is a dog can only use the amount of protein that it needs: any extra must be broken down and eliminated through the liver and kidneys.
Since protein (amino acids) can’t be stored or saved in the body, any overage is simply converted to glucose for energy or fat storage. When protein is broken down to glucose, nitrogen bi-products are produced and these nitrogen bi-products must first be transported to the liver where they are hooked into groups of three creating a compound called urea. From there, the urea is eliminated out the kidneys. That’s a lot of additional work for the body and can definitely put a strain on a dog’s liver and kidneys (especially in an older dog.)
In the past, the protein percentage in dry dog foods was always around 20%. Some of the newer dog foods have protein percentages as high as 30 to 40%. That’s simply too high as it’s certainly not needed and it makes a dog’s liver and kidneys work harder.
Pet owners will often say to me that their dog needs extra protein because the dog is a working dog. If a dog needs additional energy for a long day of hunting or herding cattle, the best food to feed is a complex carbohydrate. It’s the same mentality that’s used by athletes these days: they eat pasta instead of steak. Eating a high protein or a high fat diet before hard exercise requires extra work from the body because those foods must first be broken down to glucose before they can be utilized for energy. For that reason, it’s best to keep the protein in our dog’s dry dog food close to the 20% mark. And if we want to add an easily available source of energy to our working dog’s diet, we can add whole-grain noodles, potatoes, bread or oatmeal to our dog’s dry food.
2. Fat in dry dog foods
In the past 15 to 20 years the fat% in dry dog foods has gone up considerably. Traditionally, the fat% in a dry dog food would range between 6 to 12%. These days, it’s not unusual to find a fat% in a dry dog food that’s 15 to 20%. The problem with the higher fat% is that it can predispose a sensitive dog to gastrointestinal problems, especially with the pancreas. Pancreatitis has always been a common problem in dogs. In the past, pancreatitis would typically occur when an owner fed their dog fat from the table (i.e.-bacon, sausage, grease, drippings, liver, greasy red meats, chicken or turkey skins and bones.) In recent years, the frequency of pancreatitis has gone up partly due to the higher percentage of fat in so many dry dog foods. I tell owners that it’s best if they can find a dry dog food that has 6 to 12% fat.
3. Grain-free dry foods
I feel that the benefits of a grain-free diet have been greatly exaggerated by veterinarians and the pet food industry. There may be a very small number of dogs that have a true allergy to grain (where they tend to exhibit skin issues of one kind or another) but it’s not nearly as common as it’s portrayed. Just as is true for people, most skin problems in dogs are caused by environmental factors such fleas, grass, pollen and other outdoor allergens. That’s why we always see fewer skin problems in the winter no matter what a dog is eating. I have no problem with owners feeding a grain-free diet at all: just make sure the protein isn’t too high.
4. Grocery Store versus Pet Store Dry Foods (i.e.- cheap versus expensive)
As far as the various brands of dog and cat food are concerned, I honestly don’t believe that the brand of dog food we choose makes nearly as much of a difference as the pet companies want us to believe. I feel bad for pet owners when they’re made to feel like they’re uncaring pet owners if they don’t spend $80 on a bag of dog food. In my thirty-seven years of being a veterinarian, I’ve seen thousands of dogs do great on low-cost brands such as Kibbles and Bits or Pedigree.
Pet owners are always asking me what is the best food to feed their pet. I always say is that it’s hard to say because every dog is different. If we were to put fifty dogs on any brand of dog food (Pedigree, Taste of the Wild, etc.), what you’d find is that no one food suits every dog. What we want to find is a food that suits our particular dog such that they aren’t overly gassy or having soft stools or vomiting. If a particular food isn’t suiting a certain dog, an owner needs to look at the ingredients in that dry food and then seek out a dog food that has different ingredients or limited ingredients. Some dogs do better on turkey, some are better with chicken, etc. It’s always going to be a bit of a trial and error process (especially for a dog that has a sensitive gastrointestinal system.)
5. Table Food
I’m always surprised when veterinarians tell dog owners that table food is bad for their dogs. We eat it! The important thing that dog owners need to know about table food is that certain table foods are okay and certain table foods aren’t. It’s the same for us. Not surprisingly, the same foods that are good for us are typically good for our dogs and vice versa. It’s not necessary to feed table food (especially if we don’t want our dogs begging at the table all the time) but, if owners want to feed their dogs some table food, I want them to know what’s okay to feed and what’s not.
In general, the permissible table foods are: bread, plain noodles and rice (try to avoid the sauces), plain potatoes (i.e.-fries are fine), vegetables and fruits (though I’ve not seen a problem myself, the literature recommends avoiding onions and grapes), white chicken and turkey meat, cheese, cottage cheese, cereal, pancakes, eggs, milk, yogurt, low fat lunch meat and hot dogs, peanut butter and popcorn.
Table food that we should never feed our dogs is the same table food we shouldn’t eat (though it’s the table food that most dog owners tend to feed their dogs as it’s typically what’s left over): real bacon and sausage, greasy red meats, fat off red meats, liver, drippings, gravy, chicken and turkey skins and bones of any kind.
The difficulty with bones is not simply that they might splinter. The problem has to do with the fat that’s at the edges of bones and in the bone marrow. It’s the fat in the bones and the other forbidden foods that can cause a dog to come down with pancreatitis. The pancreas is the organ that secretes all the digestive enzymes and it can go crazy in certain dogs if they’re fed animal fat. Oddly, there’s a bit of a delayed reaction between the eating of the fat and the vomiting and diarrhea that comes afterwards. So, if a dog eats fat or bones on a Sunday night, it typically won’t start getting sick until Monday night or Tuesday. Whenever a dog gets an upset stomach or quits eating, I always tell owners to look back a day or two in order to discover what might have caused the upset.
6. Canned food versus dry food:
Canned food is often misleading: though we tend to think of it as meat, if we read the label, we’ll see that it contains 76-82% water! This is in contrast to 10% water in dry dog food. So, clearly the most nutritious food per bite is the dry food. As a result of the concentrated nutrition in dry dog food, it’s almost impossible to get a dog to lose weight when its eating dry food (especially with the amounts recommended on the dog bags.) Where canned food comes in handy is in three basic areas:
First of all, canned food can be used to make dry food more palatable when we’re trying to fatten up an overly thin dog. I happen to have a boxer who will simply not eat enough of the dry (even if I leave it out all the time) to keep her weight up. As a consequence, I have to yummy up her dry with a small amount of canned food twice a day to keep her looking good.
Secondly, canned food is good for older dogs that might be having kidney and liver problems as it’s low in protein. While dry dog food has 20% protein or more, canned food is always 10% protein or less. The lower protein is beneficial to dogs that are having issues with their liver or kidneys.
Thirdly, weight control or weight loss:
The best way to get a dog to lose weight is to reduce or completely eliminate the dry dog food in the dog’s diet. What I recommend that owners do to get a dog to lose weight is to put the dog on a small amount of canned food mixed with a lot of cut green beans. I tell owners to go to the grocery store and buy the large, cheap cans of green beans then wash them so they’re not salty (or buy salt-free) and finally add a small amount of canned food to make them yummy. The great thing about canned food is that it’s a balanced diet so, even though it’s mostly water, your dog will be getting all the nutrients that he needs. (If owners want to avoid having to feed canned food, they can choose to give their dog the green beans and simply reduce the amount of dry dog food that they feed by half.) Owners can also choose to fill their dogs up with carrots and green peas but most dogs seem to prefer the green beans.
As far as the quantity of green beans goes: for a dog under 10 pounds, an owner might feed a cup or even a bit more of the green beans with a couple of tablespoons of canned food mixed in twice a day. For a dog that’s 50 pounds, it might take 4 to 6 cups of green beans with half of a 13 oz. can of dog food twice a day to fill the dog up. The object is to fill your dog’s stomach up with enough green beans so that he’s content.
Once a dog reaches his ideal weight, then an owner can start adding a bit of dry food to the mix so that the dog doesn’t continue to lose weight.
***One important note about canned food:
I always recommend to owners that they stick with one brand and one flavor of canned food. Otherwise, if owners choose to vary the brands and flavors too much, it’s quite likely that they’re going to come across a certain flavor or brand that will cause their dog to get a loose stool (and none of us want that!) I also recommend that owner’s get the solid canned foods (instead of the chunks) because it mixes in with the green beans a lot easier than the chunks.