What To Feed Your Dog
Ensuring that you are feeding your dog a nutritious and wholesome diet is one of the most important measures you can take for your dog’s overall wellness. While you should discuss your individual dog’s dietary needs with your veterinarian, here are some food and nutrition basics. Broadly speaking, the first choice you need to make is whether to feed your dog a homemade diet or a commercially prepared diet.
Homemade diets are meals you prepare at home for your dog that usually include meat, grains, vegetables and supplements such as bone meal, minerals and vitamins. With homemade diets, you have more complete control over each of the ingredients that you feed your dog than you would if you were feeding your dog commercially prepared food. In addition, the ingredients in the homemade diet will likely be fresher and have undergone less processing. Many dog owners also feel that preparing food for their dog is a bonding experience that helps them feel closer to their dogs. Advocates of homemade diets claim that homemade diets make dogs more energetic and promote healthier teeth, skin and coats.
There are also some drawbacks to preparing homemade diets. First, and most importantly, creating a healthful and balanced homemade diet is not that simple. You must educate yourself and consult with a veterinarian or nutritionist to make sure that you are giving your dog meals that include all essential nutrients in the proper amounts. Both undersupplying or oversupplying certain key nutrition building blocks can have adverse consequences for your dog. Second, preparing a homemade diet requires a consistent time commitment to prepare meals for your dog. It also makes traveling with your dog more difficult as you will have to prepare many meals in advance and make sure that the meals are kept fresh during the journey.
Commercially Prepared Diets
Commercially prepared diets generally fall into three categories: kibble (dry food), semi-moist food and wet food. The most common method for producing kibble is to grind up and mix the ingredients and then put them through an extrusion process in which the ingredients are mixed with liquid (usually fat or water) and then the moistened ingredients are pushed through a cylinder that self-generates friction and heat to further mix and bake the kibble. At the end of the cylinder is a mold that gives the kibble its shape. Upon completion of the extrusion process, the kibble is cooled and dried and then often coated in flavor enhancers. The flavor enhancers usually include vitamins and minerals that may have been destroyed in the cooking process. Semi-moist food is also produced by putting the raw ingredients through an extrusion process. However, the extrusion process is done at a cooler temperature and, once completed, the food is mixed with water and moisturizing agents. Canned foods are made by grinding up the ingredients, mixing them together while simultaneously cooking the ingredients, canning the product and sterilizing.
Many veterinarians will generally recommend giving your dog kibble as crunching the kibble helps to keep your dog’s teeth clean and in shape. However, for dogs that have oral pain associated with disease, sometimes a semi-moist or canned food will be best. In addition, many picky eaters prefer semi-moist or canned food. There is also nothing wrong with mixing kibble and semi-moist or canned food.
Whether kibble, semi-moist or canned, commercially prepared diets are federally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine which requires that dog food manufacturers post certain information on their labels, and also by state laws which impose additional regulations. Another important force in commercial food regulation is the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO). The AAFCO is a non-governmental organization that establishes standards for pet food and pet food labeling.
Reading Commercial Dog Food Labels
On many dog food labels you will find one of the following AAFCO statements: “___ brand dog food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [specific stage of dog’s life];” "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ____ brand dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for [specific stage of dog’s life];" or "___ dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for [specific stage of dog’s life]; and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests." The first statement indicates that your dog’s food has passed the AAFCO’s laboratory analysis to verify that the food meets the AAFCO’s established minimum nutritional values. The second statement means that the food has been tested by the laboratory analysis and has been given to dogs as part as AAFCO feeding trial in which a minimum number of dogs are tested for a period time during which they are evaluated by veterinarians and body weight changes are assessed and blood work is performed. The third statement means that laboratory analysis of the food has been judged against the nutritional adequacy of a similar dog food given to dogs in an AAFCO food trial.
You should carefully read the list of ingredients in your dog’s food. Dog food nutrition is very important for your dog’s health. Manufacturers are required by law to list ingredients by weight. However, watch out for these two little tricks. First, the weight of each ingredient includes the moisture in each ingredient. Second, manufacturers can break up each less “desirable” ingredient such as rice into its component parts (rice, ground rice etc.) so each component part can be positioned further down on the ingredient list even though the ingredient should, by overall weight, be at the top of the list. In general, items that you prefer not to see on the list of ingredients include artificial colors, artificial flavor, artificial preservatives and by-products. Meat by-products are the clean parts of slaughtered animals not including meat. Meat by-products do not contain hair, horns, teeth or hooves. Poultry by-products are the clean parts of slaughtered poultry including organs, heads and feet. Poultry by-products do not include feathers. Instead of by-products, you should ideally look for animal proteins that are also listed as from a single source such as chicken instead of poultry or lamb instead of beef.
You should also understand what the guaranteed analysis listed on your dog food signifies. The guaranteed analysis is a table with the percentages of important nutrition building blocks such as carbohydrates, fats and protein. Like with the ingredient list, the guaranteed analysis does not take into account the amount of moisture contained. This makes it impossible to use the guaranteed analysis to compare different brands to each other, or to compare dry food to canned or semi-moist food as dry food contains less moisture than canned or semi-moist food. In addition, the guaranteed analysis does not differentiate between the different digestibility levels of ingredients. For example, commercial food A could have a higher level of protein than commercial food B, but commercial food B’s protein source may be more readily digestible and thus more useful to your dog.
If your head isn’t spinning already, you should at least be aware of where your dog’s food is manufactured. Companies often outsource the food manufacturing process, and often many different companies will employ the same outsourcer. Outsourcing the manufacturing process is neither a drawback nor a benefit in itself. However, if a company uses its own manufacturing plant, it will often have greater control and oversight over the production process.
Finally, it is worth mentioning raw diets. Raw diets, though the ingredients vary, all contain raw meat or raw, meaty bones. Raw diets can be prepared from scratch, or you can now buy commercial raw diets that are fresh frozen and then packaged. Proponents of raw diets claim that raw meat provides the optimum and most easily useable source of important nutrients for dogs, and most closely replicates the ideal diet dogs lived on for generations in the wild. Critics of the raw diet believe that the raw diet can be potentially harmful to your dog and to you because of various parasites within the muscle meat along with bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli that are present in raw meat. There is no doubt that bacteria does exist in raw meat and, although some people claim dogs have the ability to safely ingest the bacteria, especially if your dog is geriatric or weakened by another condition, feeding a raw diet is generally not a good idea. If you do decide to use a raw food diet for your dog, you must keep the food frozen until it is ready to eat, throw out any food not eaten after each meal and clean your dog’s food and water bowl in hot, soapy water after each meal. You will also need to take precautions to make sure you and other household members do not accidentally come into contact with the bacteria. Washing your hands and any surfaces or objects that come into contact with raw meat with hot, soapy water is essential. Do not allow young children or weakened or sick household members to touch the raw meat or any objects or surfaces that have come into contact with the raw meat prior to cleaning.