Dog Training Blog

How to choose a good dog food

Dear Dr. Renee,

We just adopted a wonderful mix-breed dog, Mystery, from the shelter and are very confused about what to feed her. The shelter was feeding one kind of food, the pet store recommended a different food, and my friends say the one they feed their dog is the best. There are so many choices of dog foods on the shelves! What do you recommend feeding a healthy, young adult dog?
Mystery’s new family

Dear Mystery’s family,

Congratulations on the new family member, and thank you for adopting a shelter dog!
I know you will have many wonderful years together.

I really appreciate you asking about the best nutrition for Mystery. You know, it has always seemed funny to me. For the most part, clients take to heart advice given by their veterinarian- medications when needed, preventive dental care, exercise, even those silly cones of shame (e-collars) around their heads to prevent pets from chewing out sutures or licking wounds preventing them from healing. But when it comes to discussions about what to feed pets, I often fight an uphill battle.

I suppose it is the impression that as a hospital owner I am making a profit by selling a recommended diet. This is rarely the case if I am recommending a maintenance or regular day-to-day diet for a healthy animal. We just don’t carry them at our hospital, choosing to stock only prescription foods that we utilize as we do other medications-for a specific disease state or chronic condition. Even then, the mark up or profit on food is very small; it costs a lot to have food for rare diseases sit on our shelf waiting for that one pet that might need it in the future. We carry prescription foods because I really believe in their importance as a treatment for certain conditions and having them here is a convenience for our clients.

As you have found with Mystery, new pet owners often get advice for what to feed their pets from EVERYONE, and yet those new owners still have doubts about trusting their veterinarian’s advice. They might listen politely to recommendations given by their doctor or nurse at the first puppy visit, even take the sample bag of food offered-then go to the pet store and buy something completely different. Information from pet or feed store employees (with no more training in nutrition than other high school kids) is often viewed as unbiased when the opposite is often true. Food companies offer incentives to stores to sell their brands or to display their bags or cans in prominent places. Contests, gift cards, even trips have been earned by eager sales people.

Of course people will also listen to friends and family members when seeking nutritional information for animals. If one particular brand worked wonders for Aunt Emma’s prize Golden Retrievers for generations, how can you go wrong? These days, “Dr. Google” is getting a lot of credence, complete strangers “met” in chat rooms or on Facebook always have advice and are eager to share experiences. There is no guarantee of veterinary nutritional training at all. People like to tell about the “evils” of ingredients such as “preservatives.” If a food is not preserved, it will go rancid very quickly. More natural preservatives are available, but a food HAS to be preserved. The internet is full of these kinds of stories, and some are down right dangerous. I met a cat once that had been fed according to one online “expert.” She became a vegetarian just like her owners. Cats are obligate carnivores-they require animal protein sources in their diets for at least one essential amino acid, taurine, which is responsible for heart health and eyesight. This poor cat became completely blind-so tragic. And so preventable-this diet preference could have just been discussed with their veterinarian before hand and maybe supplements could have been given to prevent this tragedy.

Breeders are also the source of irrefutable information in the eyes of many pet owners. Veterinarians try to use the argument that a breeder’s purpose is to get you to buy a single animal (often at pretty high prices!) while a veterinarian’s purpose is to work with you to keep all of your pets healthy for a lifetime. Which one do you think is more likely to have your best interest in mind? I know that there are exceptions and that there are unethical veterinarians out there, too. (I hope they are few and far between.) But the following is my simple guideline for how to pick a healthy food for your pet-and no food company is paying me to tell you this!

First, a food line should have different formulas for the various life stages of a pet’s life as well as sizes. We know the nutritional needs of feeding a Great Dane puppy are vastly different from feeding a geriatric or senior Chihuahua, for example. A puppy, kitten, or “growth” food, adult or “maintenance” diet, and a senior or older pet formula are basic. I also require “large breed” vs. “small breed” differentiations for dog foods, particularly in the growth or puppy stages. “Light” or lower calorie diets are very useful; “indoor cat” formulas are essentially light foods.

Second, foods should have been tested by animals to ensure their adequacy for the life stage recommended. There really is no enforceable regulatory agency for pet foods as there is with human foods (FDA.) The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement is printed on each bag of food, stating that the food has met certain minimum requirements. But I believe that only the companies that actually feed their foods to animals and then test those animals for any side effects or metabolic problems are actually proving that they are good foods. These companies spend a great deal of money doing these feeding trials, and the animals have the best jobs” ever-eating food! It isn’t like putting mascara in a rabbit’s eye for Pete’s sake. You will see the specific AAFCO statement that includes “Animal feeding trials substantiate….” when a company makes this commitment to your pet’s food.

Finally, the food should be well-tolerated by your individual pet. Does your pet thrive while on it? Does he or she have solid, regular stools? Are they excessively gassy? Is the hair coat slick and shiny or do they shed excessively? Do they eat ravenously but still lose weight? These are all signs to help you asses that particular food. Remember, each pet is an individual and just because ALL other dogs of your breed (of course I am exaggerating…) do well on one type of food doesn’t necessarily mean yours will, too.

Now, what do I feed MY pets?

Alvy is a bouncy, happy and relatively healthy puppy after having had knee surgery earlier this year. I want to keep that knee (and all of her joints) healthy, so she gets j/d, a prescription diet appropriate for joint health that decreases the need for me to give a bunch of supplements. My cat Spartacus recently lost quite a lot of weight (not an easy thing to do for a cat-I am very proud of him!) so we are maintaining his weight with a light maintenance food. Stella, my Maine Coon Cat, used to vomit quite often; she eats a food prescribed to control the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and thus reduces the amount of vomiting she does-she and my carpets are much happier!
One other thing: We often see owners giving supplements when the pets are already on balanced diets. This negates the job done by the nutritionists and actually unbalances the important ratios of some of the minerals and vitamins. I particularly see a problem with this during the all important growing phase in young large breed dogs. Ratios of calcium and phosphorous, for example, not the actual quantities of them, have been found to be most important for proper bone and tendon growth. This is also important for expectant or nursing mothers. What could be harmful about giving anti-oxidants, the ever-popular fish oils and the like-to your pet? Well, when Verbal was being treated for cancer, I was told by the veterinary oncologist that these would negate the effects of the radiation to some degree. We actually WANT to oxidize the bad cancer cells during this process, so anti-oxidants are a bad idea in this case. Whether or not to give a supplement, no matter how benign or seemingly beneficial, should be discussed with your veterinarian.

There are a lot of sites available that I do trust for good information on diets for pets. This page lists a lot of good ones. Nutrition Sites Some you need to register for, others are fee for service. Many are run through schools of veterinary medicine. Regardless, these are sites that have science behind them; you can trust the information supplied here.

There is so much more to nutrition than what we have talked about today. Treats, feeding “human food,” diets for specific diseases, feeding raw diets, formulating your own foods for your pets, food allergies and sensitivities-the topics are seemingly endless. All this talk about food has made me hungry. I think I’ll go have a snack.

Dr. Renee Gray
Lake Stevens Animal Hospital
(425) 377-8620
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