We’ve all noticed that ever-expanding line of dog foods at the pet store. There are hundreds of new diets and dietary supplements released every year—it’s overwhelming! Savvy dog owners don’t want to fall victim to promotional advertising, but simply comparing labels is no way to determine the quality of a food or whether it will have a health benefit for an individual dog.
For one thing, the list of ingredients is not the same as a nutrient panel. Nutrients are things like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Balance is everything, and best left to the experts! Dogs are facultative carnivores, and even the experts don’t claim to know everything about carnivore nutrition. That said, most foods made by major manufacturers keep most dogs healthy.
How do you know whether all those tasty ingredients on the label provide the right balance of nutrients? The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides a statement on foods found to be complete and balanced based on content analysis. Feeding trials are also performed to ensure that the diet is palatable and digestible. If you find the AAFCO statement on the label, the experts have weighed in (letting you off the hook). Once you find an AAFCO-approved diet that your dog likes, don’t add supplements without consulting your veterinarian because it”s too easy to throw the balance off.
Different life stages require different balances of nutrients. Avoid buying a food labeled for “all life stages.” What about different breeds? Certainly dogs with specific health issues could benefit from a customized diet. We don’t have all the answers, and it’s easy to understand why many dog owners are interested in alternative feeding options. More and more of my clients are considering homemade diets or raw diets.
Feeding a raw diet evokes the symbol of of the wild carnivore in the pet. While I do have some very healthy patients who have been on a raw diet for over 10 years, I warn all of my clients that we have some very valid concerns. Not all raw diets are properly balanced. You can have the diet analyzed by an outside source to ensure that it is complete. Of particular concern is the calcium and phosphorus ratio. When this is off, proper bone development can’t take place, and pathologic fractures can occur quite easily. Some raw diets contain whole bones which can cause intestinal obstruction or perforation. We also worry about pathogens in food that is not cooked, which can make your dog or the person handling the food sick. This is even more of a concern when pets or people are very old, very young, or immunocompromised. It is true that cooking food destroys some nutrients, but it does make the food safer and in some ways more digestible. Lastly, we can’t necessarily conclude that wild carnivores are actually “healthier” than domesticated ones.
With regard to home-cooked diets, balance is the primary issue. There are published diets which have been shown to be inadequate, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian if you want to cook for your dog! I recommend petdiets.com.
- AAFCO on the label
- Choose the right life stage
- Don’t supplement a balanced dog food
- Know the risks of raw diets- consult your veterinarian
- Avoid whole bones
- Use a trusted source for homemade diets—consult your veterinarian