Part of a four part series on healthy canine eating by Stacey Waspe
Part Two: Commercial Dog Food: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
There seems a never-ending ocean of commercial dog food everywhere you turn: shelf after shelf of brightly colored packages, bags and cans. There's wet, dry and semi-moist food. There is food "specially formulated for puppies", or "easy to digest", food with "glucosamine for healthy joints". Kibble for small dogs and large dogs, all-natural or vegetarian. Is your canine a little plump? Never fear - there are even low-cal choices. But what does it all really mean?
For most of us, feeding our pooches, no matter how pampered, means finding a commercially prepared dog food that we can trust and feel good about. After all, Fifi's going to be eating her food twice per day for the rest of her life. It's got to be the best! In our second part on canine nutrition, we give you some tips on navigating your way through commercially prepared food, so that you can feed Fido good, nutritious food that will keep him energetic, healthy and the ideal exercise partner for years to come. (For an overview of the basics of canine nutrition, with information on proteins, fats and carbohydrates, refer to the part 1 of our series: The Basics.)
Tip #1: You Get What You Pay For
As a general rule, companies that produce quality food for your dog are going to charge more for their product than a brand that uses ingredients of a lesser quality. It goes without saying that good, quality, wholesome ingredients cost more. As dog food companies constantly improve formulas and processes, you will also pay for top-notch manufacturing.
That being said, you should carefully look into the company that's producing the food you're considering buying. (Pay attention to companies that bake their kibble rather than use extrusion; your pooch will get a higher level of nutrients because the high temperature of the extrusion process destroys a lot of micronutrients.) Ask your veterinarian for information and recommendations. Ask at your favorite pet supply shop. Most importantly, ask other pampered puppy moms and dads whose opinions you trust, especially if they have a pooch that's the same breed as your own. If it's one thing we dog owners love to talk about, it's what we're feeding (or not feeding) our canine pals!
Every year, Whole Dog Journal publishes their top-10 dry and top-10 canned foods, along with their ingredients and any comments by the editors. They look for premium products with superb ingredients, micronutrients, and no by-products (meal is OK) and they like manufacturers who disclose complete information in writing. You can buy each report from their website for around $10: www.whole-dog-journal.com
Tip #2: Read the Label
The quickest and best way for you to understand the contents of Fifi's food is to read the label and other information on the food package carefully. While you should take some of the "banner statements" on the front of the packaging with a grain (or two) of salt, manufacturers are required to list the ingredients that go into the final product in descending order according to dry weight. While you should read all the ingredients, pay particular attention to the first 10 ingredients on any label. Ask an expert to explain confusing terminology or to describe any ingredients that you don't recognize or contact the company directly. First of all, look for a food that meets AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines. A good dog food will have two quality animal protein sources in the first few ingredients. In addition, look for quality, whole grains and two different fat sources, which will provide Fifi with essential fatty acids (for a beautiful coat and soft skin) and energy (so that she can stay awake for all that pampering!)
We looked at a few premium brands at our most recent trip to our favorite local pet store. We looked for products that were natural, without preservatives, save tocopherals (vitamin E), rosemary and garlic, with antioxidants from fruits and vegetables (like cranberries, blueberries and sweet potato), with probiotics (like Lactobacillus Acidophilus). We loved Fromm's Four Star Nutritionals, with flavors like Chicken a la Veg, Whitefish and Potato and Duck and Sweet Potato. We really liked the line of products from Wellness, which includes human-grade ingredients like lamb free of hormones, deboned chicken, brown rice, oatmeal, flaxseed, whole apples, carrots and peas. We were also impressed by products from Holistic Blend and Wysong.
Judge for yourself whether the food your feeding Fifi is meeting her nutritional requirements. Does her dog coat shine? Are her eyes bright? Is she energetic (though sleeps well), with a happy disposition? These are some signs that her diet is working for her. While a dog's digestive system works faster than our own, what benefits us can sometimes benefit our canine companions as well. Read health food store publications to get the scoop on new supplements, so that when they start showing up in ingredient lists, they'll be familiar to you. With a little self-education, you'll really have something to talk about the next time you and Fido hit the park!
Tip #3: Watch out for Jargon
Also known as "What They Really Mean When They Say..." If you've been confused by the language used on dog food packaging, you're not alone. Here are a few terms you should recognize:
by-products: Often refers to non-human grade animal proteins which can vary greatly in nutritional value and digestibility; they can consist of parts of animals like necks, heads, undeveloped eggs, feet, intestines, lungs, spleen and liver.
meal: Mainly dry proteins left after meat or plant materials have been rendered (the fat/oils have been removed). If it's a meat meal, it contains clean animal tissues and cannot contain blood, hair, hoofs or intestinal contents. Look for meals that specify what animal source they're made from, like chicken meal or fish meal.
fish meal: Clean and dried fish. Great source of omega 3 fatty acids and Salmon meal is great for both omega 3 and 6.
premium, super premium, gourmet and natural: These terms are not governed by anyone, so manufacturers are free to use them if they wish.
dry food: Small pellets of food, normally containing less than 10% water, usually sold in bags.
semi-moist: Food which contains roughly 25 to 49% water, and generally offers little nutritional value; often contains dyes and non-essential ingredients which assist in the shaping of the food into eye-catching little bones or steak-shaped pieces. As most dogs (even the most pampered out there) don't care about the shape or the color, it's much better for your pooch if you concentrate on buying the best food you can for the money.
canned (or wet) food: contains 75 to 80% water. While canned food contains more protein than dry, it doesn't help Fido's teeth or gums. We think that a good, quality wet food is a nice supplement to feeding with regular kibble.
Tip #4: How You Feed is as Important as What you Feed
When you first become a pooch mom or dad, setting some ground rules is key. It's best to make a firm decision about table scraps and people food at the beginning and stick to it! Table scraps aren't great for Fifi's waistline: most have too high of a fat content and if she's getting two meals a day, she doesn't need the extra calories. And there are "people foods" that Fifi should never have. These include chocolate (will make Fifi really sick, possibly even die), bones, cat food, raw onions, and milk.
For most dogs, getting two meals per day is ideal. (Puppies and lactating females should get one extra meal per day.) Because dogs will often overeat, free feeding (leaving a full dish of chow out all day long) can lead to obesity, the number one nutritional problem for pooches today. Pick a time that you're going to feed Fifi and allow her access to her Burberry bowl for about half an hour or so. Unless she's in the middle of eating, remove the dish until her next feeding, whether or not she's finished.
Snacks should not account for more than 10 percent of total calories each day. (We hate to say it, but a little pampering can go a long way!) Some lower calorie snack options for Fifi include unbuttered, unsalted popcorn, cooked green beans, and carrots. There are lots of good commercially prepared treats on the market as well. (For more about snacks don't miss part four of our series in November: we have pampered puppies, so it's all about the treats!)
Tip #5: Adding to Dry Food
You can add "toppers" to Fifi's kibble for a number of reasons. Maybe you want to add a little extra vitamins and fiber, like those found in fruits and vegetables. Or you want to ensure that Fido is getting a little Lactobacillus Acidophilus, the healthy bacteria in yogurt. Or maybe Fifi needs to lose a little weight. Regardless of the reason why, variety is the spice of any pampered pooch's life, so here are some ideas to get you started.
Homemade bouillon not only provides additional vitamins and flavor, but also softens and plumps up kibble which can be useful when Fifi gets a bit bored, as she, being the princess she is, is wont to do from time to time. Plain yogurt or cottage cheese can add a little bit of protein, fat and carbohydrate as well as some healthy bacteria into Fido's gut, which can help with digestion and prevent bloating and gas after meals. Eggs are a good quality protein source and can provide amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids as well as flavor, whereas green beans, carrots and pumpkin add flavor, fibre, anti-oxidants and texture. Your pooch will love the fresh veggies even more if you puree them a little bit. Dogs can't really digest large amounts of plant material (they are carnivores, after all!), so using a juicer or a blender pre-digests the vegetables and ensure that Fido gets as much nutrition as possible from his greens.
Certain rules are no different for dogs than they are for humans - if you add somewhere, you need to take away from somewhere else. Adjust the amount of kibble you're feeding if you're topping it off with one of the suggestions above. Reduce the kibble by about 25-30% and add twice as much in fresh veggies. Obviously, eggs, yogurt and cottage cheese have more calories and fat than vegetables, so pay extra attention if you're trying these. If your pooch gains or loses weight and doesn't need to, adjust the calories he gets each day until he maintains a healthy weight. As always with any dietary changes, introduce these additions gradually and watch your pooch carefully: note any changes in Fifi's stool, her teeth, gums, weight and behavior. If there are changes your not happy with, return to your previous feeding regimen and talk with your vet.
A Few Final Words
Most vets will tell you that sudden changes in diet are a bad idea. If you decide to switch to a higher quality brand of food, make the change gradually by mixing in some of the new food into the old for a couple of weeks so that the new food doesn't upset Fido's digestive system. That being said, a lot of veterinary nutritionists suggest changing Fifi's dog food every three to six months. This can ensure that she gets the proper nutrients, since even the most premium food may have an undetectable deficiency. Switching her food can also reduce the possibility of Fifi developing allergies to any one ingredient.
Feeding our pets low quality food, even for a month is like feeding a human fast food for each meal twenty days in a row. Our canine friends age so quickly, so each meal Fifi eats is even more important to her health than one of your own is to yours. As Fifi's mom or dad, you are responsible for her well-being. The easiest way to keep her healthy, happy, energetic and pampered for years to come is to feed her good, quality, wholesome food with premium ingredients.