A recent article in The New York Times titled, “The Dog Park is Bad, Actually” questions the safety of dog parks for our favorite animals. It suggests that they are not a good place to socialize your dog and are rife with bullies and diseases. While that sentiment might be argued, it’s interesting because it makes us question popular notions of what we believe is good for our pets. Instead of just accepting that certain practices are beneficial, we need to take more responsibility and think harder about the daily interactions and experiences we subject our animals to. And one of the most basic of these considerations is what kind of dog food we feed them.
I have to admit that I have not thought about it all that much. And this is coming from someone who works at Petswelcome and has been around dogs his whole life. And maybe that’s the problem. Since dogs were such an intimate part of my upbringing, I just accepted that what my parents fed them was fine. Somewhere along the line, as I started owning dogs myself, I decided that I could do better than a can of Rival, which is what my childhood dogs were fed, and upped the game to buying dog food that had the word “Pro” in it, as though that was a guarantee of premium nutrition. Guess what? It isn’t
What Should Be in Your Dog’s Food
There are certain nutrients that should be included in a healthy all-round diet for your dog. These include water, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.
Water helps dissolve and transport nutrients throughout the body, as well as assist in regulating body temperature and flushing waste from the body. Obviously, beyond the water content in the food, a bowl of clean, fresh water should always be provided as an absolute necessity for a healthy dog.
Proteins are made of amino acids and supply energy. They are critical in hormone production, as well as antibodies and enzymes that maintain the body’s health and equilibrium. Proteins are supplied by meat (especially muscle meats, including kidneys, beef liver, and turkey heart). Before dogs were domesticated, it was the alpha dog in the pack that had first shot at the prey and the critical organs that supplied the most protein. It makes sense, then, to ensure that your dog also has access to the same high protein sources. Other protein suppliers include fish, eggs and, on the plant-based side, lentils and beans.
Vitamins are organic compounds needed to sustain life. They play an important role in maintaining healthy coats as well as strong teeth and bones by regulating calcium, phosphorus and performing other vital functions such as blood clotting and boosting the immune system. Vitamins can also be found in organ/muscle meat as well as plant-based foods.
Fat is important because it contains fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own, including critical omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are the most concentrated sources of energy. They help store that energy, form healthy cell membranes, protect organs, and help absorb proteins. Fish (especially salmon, tuna, and sardines, or other fatty cold-water species), nuts and seeds (flaxseed, hempseed, and chiaseeds), and plant oils (canola and soybean oils) are all good sources of fatty acids.
Minerals cannot be made by the body so they must be included in a dog’s diet. These minerals include calcium, sodium, potassium, iron, and iodine among others. They are critical for the formation and maintenance of bones, cartilage and teeth, muscle and nerve function, hormone production, blood coagulation and carrying oxygen to cells. Dietary sources for minerals included meats, fish, whole grains, and beans, among others.
Carbohydrates are important because they are a critical source for glucose, which is the energy that keeps the body fueled. They provide important nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants that help dogs stay healthy. Carbohydrates can be found in legumes, gluten-free grains, as well as pet-friendly vegetables and fruits.
What Shouldn’t Be in Your Dog’s Food
It is also important to understand what shouldn’t be in your dog’s food. This includes, preservatives, fillers, and some meat by-products. While not all “fillers” are bad, ones that should be avoided are corn and wheat glutens, as well as meat and grain meals. Other bad ingredients include BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), Ethoxyquin, Propylene Glycol and certain food dyes.
How To Read Dog Food Labels
Dog food labels can be a bit overwhelming. However, there is a method to the madness because all labels basically follow the same format. They include the following:
- Product and brand name
- Quantity, identified by weight, liquid measure, or count.
- Guaranteed Analysis. This details the name and amount of specific nutrients, including the minimum amount of protein and fat and the maximum amount of fiber and moisture as percentages of the product.
- All ingredients must be individually listed in descending order by weight. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) offers a list of ingredients by their common names and explains what they contain.
- For products labeled “complete and balanced” there will be a Nutritional Adequacy Statement that says the food provides a specific level of nutrients that has been confirmed by testing. There are two ways of determining nutritional adequacy. The highest standard states, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [Product Name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs.” The second lesser standard says that, instead of actual testing, the ingredients “are formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO…”. If the label does not have either one of these nutritional adequacy statements, it must state that the “product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”
- Feeding directions
- Calorie statement
You can also learn a lot about dog food by its name. If the word “lamb” is used alone in its name, for example, it requires that lamb make up at least 95 percent of the total weight of the product, not counting the water. Or, taking into consideration the water, it must make up 70 percent of the weight of the product. However, just adding another word/qualifier to “lamb” such as “lamb dinner” and the percentage of weight required drops to 10 percent. If the name says “with lamb” the requirement drops to 3 percent.
Best Way to Choose the Right Dog Food
When dogs are young, their general behavior may not necessarily reflect the overall quality of their diet unless something is definitely wrong, such as an adverse reaction due to an allergy. In general, though, if you feed them a trusted brand, there are usually few problems. This, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for the best diet at the earliest age. And, since diets are often age dependent, you should be well informed about your dog’s needs because they will probably change as s/he gets older.
With regard to my own dogs, now that they hitting the 7-9 years age range, I’ve noticed that they seem more sensitive to what they consume. It might be that they are less tolerant to specific ingredients that previously were not an issue. Or, on the other hand, that they are not getting the correct level of specific nutrients that are now more critical. If you’ve noticed similar intolerance, it might be time to adjust.
Figuring out the right mix requires becoming more knowledgable about the topics we’ve discussed here. It also necessitates separating fact from fiction with regard to popular fads and diets or differences of opinion, whether it’s grain-free vs grain, raw vs. cooked, homemade vs. store bought, etc. The list goes on and on.
The best thing to do, obviously, is consult with your veterinarian. While it’s important for you to get a better general understanding of canines’ nutritional needs based on their origins and current way of life—as well your own dog’s specific needs—there is no replacing the advice of an informed professional. Striking out on your own could be detrimental to your dog’s health. Once you and your vet settle on a course, there should be a gradual and systematic transition to the new diet and a constant monitoring of the benefits and/or detriments of the new regime. Hopefully, with the right strategy, your dog will be stronger, healthier and live to a happy and advanced age.
Along with plenty of love and exercise, there is no more important factor to a dog’s health than his diet. You are what you eat, a smart person once said. That applies to our best friends as well.