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.
The history of pet food: How it all began
“Let them eat cake.” That’s the phrase that James Spratt, an American lightning rod salesman in 1860s London, used to describe his idea for feeding dogs. Spratt wasn’t referring to a gooey confection beloved by sweet-toothed humanoids, but a baked, biscuit-type food for dogs. A blend of wheat meals, vegetables, beet root, and meat, Spratt’s “dog cake” became the world’s first commercially produced dog food. Legend claims this burst of inspiration occurred when Spratt was offered inedible, discarded ship biscuits, aka hardtack military rations, for his beloved canine friend.
“Today hundreds of companies produce pet food from coast to coast, with the 20 largest manufacturers producing well over 90 percent of the products on the market,” notes Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute.
Some six decades after Spratt introduced his dog cake, Ken-L-Ration brought canned pet food to market in 1922. Three years later, Gaines Food Company began producing a dry meal formula food for dogs. It was another 32 years before the next innovation came along — extruded pet food, the coated kibble now familiar to today’s consumer, which was launched in 1957 by the Ralston Purina Company.
Meanwhile, during the 1930s, veterinarian Mark Morris Sr. began forging a new path for pet food when he proved that particular ingredients and nutritional choices could help manage the effects of kidney disease in dogs. Morris took his knowledge to the Hill Packing Company, and as a result, in 1948 Hill’s Prescription Diet k/d Canine became the first commercially produced therapeutic formula.
“Most early pet foods were more trial and error,” Ekedahl says. “Today’s pet foods are carefully formulated to meet the complex nutritional needs of cats and dogs, and are the result of decades of nutritional research.”
Nutrition 101: 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.
- Carbohydrates, composed 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.
Dry versus canned
Dry dog food is more economical and a bit easier to feed than canned, says veterinary nutritionist Rebecca Remillard. However, dry food is a complex product, whereas the canned version of the same usually contains different ingredients. If dry food is causing a stomach problem, the canned version may be an option.
Canned food contains few or no preservatives because the canning process preserves the food. It is usually more palatable, and contains significantly more water, which can be good for a pet who needs more hydration. However, canned foods can start to spoil after sitting out for more than 30 minutes and are more costly for the nutritional value.
Myth-buster: Recent research has shown there is no difference between the effects of dry or canned food on oral health or the degree of plaque and calculus accumulation, says veterinary nutritionist Iveta Becvarova. Dental diets work because of the ingredients they contain and how the kibbles are formulated, not because they are dry, she explains.
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. Estimates. 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 grade
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, what kind of healthcare he gets — rather than the specific dietary attributes of a pet food.”
Food Formulas: Choices abound
Dog food is not a one-size-fits-all sort of recipe, as nutrient requirements vary according to an individual dog’s stage in life and activity level, Syverson explains. AAFCO mandates two nutrient profiles as the basis of a complete, balanced diet: One for adult (maintenance) dogs, and one for growth and reproduction. The percentage range of protein, fat, etc., for any AAFCO-labeled pet food must fall within one of those two profiles.
But after nutritionists identified other life-stage demands, dog food manufacturers created and refined formulas to address specific lifestyles (active, senior, etc.). Ditto for therapeutic (veterinary) diets, developed to ease clinical signs of and sometimes slow or halt progression of disease, and nonprescription special-needs diets, which contain increased or added nutrients that could aid specific conditions. “Regulations define any product intended to cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent a disease or condition as a drug product, therefore prescription-type diets are only available through a veterinarian,” Syverson notes.
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 homecooking, always measure your ingredients, follow the recipes exactly, don’t substitute ingredients, and cook and store prepared food properly, Lauten advises.
Into the wild
Our dogs’ undomesticated cousins, such as wolves and foxes, along with their ancient ancestors, lived off raw meat, bones, carrion, etc. They survived, but did they thrive?
“They were considered biologically successful if they lived for 18 months and reproduced themselves,” Remillard says. “The dietary demands on those animals were quite minimal. They were probably dead before the age of 3 years; 5 years would be old in the wild.”
Contrast that with today’s expectations of our dogs living healthy lives for 10 or 15 years. “That difference raises the demand on the diet to meet the needs of all biological systems at all times,” Remillard says. Although ancient dogs didn’t eat what we feed our dogs today, it doesn’t mean they are incapable of digesting their modern diets, she says. “Digestibility studies clearly demonstrate dogs can digest 85 to 95 percent of a commercial food.”
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, additional supplementation is unnecessary, Remillard says.
But for dogs with health issues, a nutritional supplement could be helpful. “We have learned that antioxidants and phytonutrients [nutrients from plants] are beneficial for aging dogs,” Lauten says. “Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for skin and joints, while glucosamine, chondroitin, and other compounds seem to 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.
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 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 nay?
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 whom 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 microflora. 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.
Meet the experts
Iveta Becvarova, DVM, is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist who treats patients at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va.
Duane Ekedahl is the president of the Pet Food Institute, which represents the manufacturers of 98 percent of all dog and cat food produced in the United States and supports advancements in the quality of pet food and in pet nutrition research.
Lisa Freeman, DVM, Ph.D., is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass.
Susan Lauten, Ph.D., is a clinical instructor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.
Edward Moser, VMD, Ph.D., is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves as consulting veterinary nutritionist to Wellness Natural Pet Food and on the USDA panel, National Organic Program’s Pet Food Task Force, which is defining organic standards for pet food.
Carol Osborne, DVM, is a veterinarian in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and the creator of PAAWS: Pet Anti-Aging Wellness System. She has a special interest in longevity research and is the author of Dr. Carol’s Naturally Healthy Dogs.
Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.
David Syverson is a regulatory feed consultant and chairman of the American Association of Feed Control Officials Pet Food Committee. AAFCO develops laws, policies, and standards for regulating animal feeds.
Marcia King is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Toledo, Ohio.