Good nutrition is an essential part of a dog's health and wellbeing. It is one of the most important factors for your dog to gain and maintain good health. Canines need a balanced diet which includes the 8 aspects of full nutrition; Protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and water. Dogs are primarily carnivores with their teeth/jaws and digestive system designed to handle meat as a principal food source.
During consultations with difficult dogs the subject of diet and nutrition often arises. So here is a brief explanation as to how to understand food labels and what your dog actually requires.
Diet is fast becoming an important area of research in regards to canine behaviour. A high quality diet can make huge difference to your dog, but unfortunately the most common off the shelf commercial foods are nutritionally very poor!
Here is a brief guide on how to understand what is in commercial dog foods by reading the ingredients on the label.
First off, quick definitions for the terminology used in labelling;
Meal (chicken/beef/lamb/meat) - mammal tissue ground to small particles. Bone meal is ground up sterilised bone. The sort of meat which is ground up is generally the meat which cannot be sold on in any other form, it is processed and loses nutrition during this.
Meat derivatives - not necessarily meat, usually heads, feet, nails, blood, hair, ligaments, if fact it can be any part of the animal, so expect it to be the least nutritional (and least profitable) parts.
By products (chicken) - beaks, feet, neck, fetuses, intestines, organ meat and feathers. Obviously these are low in nutrition, except some organ meats.
By products (meat) - parts of the animal unfit for human consumption, heads, feet, lungs, bone, hair, tails, not good nutrition. Unfit for humans also means the meat that is diseased.
Cereals (corn, wheat etc etc) - dogs struggle to digest cereals and get little nutrition from them. Cereal do contain protein but aren't considered complete proteins as they don't contain all the amino acids a dog require (eggs, meat and fish are complete proteins). Corn and wheat are both known allergens and can contribute to allergic reactions in dogs. Cereal is generally used as cheap filler in pet foods.
On the label, food ingredients are listed by highest quantity first, so for an example of quality, here are the ingredients of 6 tinned foods off my local supermarket shelf;
Tesco chunks in gravy with pork and liver. Ingredients - Meat and Animal derivatives (min 4% pork, min 4% liver) cereals, vegetables, minerals & sugars.
Chappie original. Ingredients - cereals (4%), fish and fish derivatives (14% of this white fish), meat and animal derivatives (4% chicken), oils and fats, minerals, herbs.
Pedigree with chicken. Ingredients - meat and animal derivatives (44% including 4% chicken), cereals, derivatives of vegetable origin, oils, fats, minerals.
Gelert country choice with chicken. Ingredients - meat and animal derivatives (chicken min 4%), cereal, derivatives of vegetable origin, vitamins, minerals.
Butchers, Pro Vitality. Ingredients - meat & animal derivatives (min 42% of which 60% chicken, 10% fresh meat) vegetables, oils & fats, minerals, mannan-oligosaccharide, joint mobility ingredients.
Butchers, Superior. Ingredients - meat and animal derivatives (total 40%, of which beef 4% min, fresh chicken 4% min), vegetables, minerals.
Not one tin simply had a 'meat' listed as an ingredient, they all had derivatives of meat as their primary ingredient, except 'Chappie', which had cereal first and then derivatives. Also notice the low percentages of meat protein in the meals. 'Butchers' does have a much higher meat content, but that meat content is still only by-products. This is even before we consider the processing of dog food using high heat generally damages or denatures most of the nourishment, vitamins, minerals, amino acids etc, so artificial nutrients (and fats for flavour) are often included after processing. There is also the area of artificial preservatives, additives and colouring these companies add in to the foods which can harm health.
If a dog caught and ate a rabbit, (a fairly natural thing to do in the wild) I'm very sure the quantity of meat in that meal would be far higher than, say, 4% minimum. Also the quality of that meat would be much higher. (A scavenging dog seeks out the highest quality food it can, typically discarded human grade meat in bins.) So, compared to a natural diet of catching and eating prey animals, a cheap commercial diet offers very poor quality nutrition for the modern dog.
These are the types of quality food I give to my dogs; (compare ingredients to the above foods)
Canagan free-run chicken; Freshly prepared chicken (66% min), sweet potato (4%), carrot, peas, minerals, salmon oil, alfalfa, seaweed, glucosamine, chondroitin, yucca extract (22mg/kg), cranberry extract (22.2mg/kg), prebiotic mannan- Oligosaccharides (11.1mg/kg), apple, spinach, garlic, peppermint, parsley & cumin.
Simpson premium exotic Kangaroo; Fresh meat, Kangaroo (60%), organic potato, organic carrots, organic pumpkin, organic spinach, vitamins and minerals.
Nose2Tail Chicken; Chicken (65%), potato powder (5%), potato (2%), peas (3%), carrots (3%), herbs (phytoforce Active8 complete herbal tonic), broccoli, tomato, apple, fish oil, sunflower oil, seaweed glucosamine, chondroitin, cranberry, yucca extract, yeast extract and minerals.
Lily's Kitchen Venison & Wild Boar; Freshly prepared; Venison (30%), Wild boar (30%), organic potatoes, butternut squash, organic carrots, organic green beans, organic apples, vitamins & minerals, Hemp oil (source of Omega 3 & 6). Botanical Herbs; Golden rod, nettle, aniseed, rosehips, marigold petals, cleavers, kelp, alfalfa, milk thistle, dandelion root, burdock root, celery seeds.
Barking Heads 'Tender Loving Care' chicken; Freshly prepared deboned chicken (27%), Dried chicken (21%), Brown rice, oats, white rice, freshly prepared deboned trout (5%), Lucerne, chicken fat (3.5%), chicken stock (2.5%), sunflower oil, seaweed, dried carrot, dried tomato & hip and joint care (Glucosamine 350mg/kg, MSM 350mg/kg, Chondroitin 240mg/kg)
Symply Chicken & brown rice; Chicken (72%), Brown Rice (4%), Peas (3%), Carrots (1%), Salmon Oil (1%), Seaweed & Minerals.
Arden Grange Chicken & Rice; Fresh chicken (70%), Rice (5%), Minerals, Peas, Carrots, Beet pulp, Fish oil, Seaweed extract, Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Cranberry, Yucca extract, Yeast extract (high nucleotides).
Dry food/Kibble. The same applies as tinned food in regards to the quality of the ingredients.
I buy my local pet store's own brand dry food;
'PupsandPets' Grain Free Turkey, Sweet Potato & Cranberry; Turkey (50%) (including 28% freshly prepared turkey, 20% dried turkey & 2% turkey stock), Sweet Potato (26%), Peas, potato (6%), Beet Pulp, Linseed, Omega 3 Supplement, Vitamins & Minerals, Vegetable Stock,
Cranberry (equivalent to 7.5g per kg of product), FOS (92mg/kg), MOS (23mg/kg).
Although through selective breeding and the development of 'pedigree' breeds has seen huge changes in the appearance and lesser changes in potential behaviour in dogs, their digestive systems have remained the same throughout domestication. What this basically means is a dog is still designed primarily to eat prey animals, and scavenge vegetables, fruit and berries as a secondary food source. This has been so for tens of thousands (possible hundreds of thousands) of years. Mass manufactured (commercial) dry dog food has existed for around 50 years in Europe and was developed to make profit, not improve domestic dog health. It's rise in popularity over the last 50 years has also coincided with a dramatic rise in allergies in pet dogs.
I feed my own dogs a wide variety of food including; quality commercial prepared food, cooked meat, raw meat and raw or cooked vegetable based diet. I sometimes add dry food (hypoallergenic with no cereal content) principally to offer some cheap filler and different textures to her meals. To further increase nutrients I also sporadically add salmon oil and multivitamins (designed for pets not people) and maybe a mashed in banana or berries every couple of days. I also consider pro-biotics if she has been given antibiotics for any reason. The keep her teeth clean Mizzie has stag horns and bones to gnaw on.
The meat I use for meals are typically mainly muscle meat with some organ meat mixed in as this helps replicate the natural concept of eating caught prey. Muscle meat would be the majority of the meal with a lesser amount of rich organ meat.
Typical the meat includes, (but isn't limited to) beef, lamb, chicken, rabbit and fish (sometimes ham but it's salt and fat content is high), whilst the organ meat is usually heart, liver and kidney. I will offer my dogs any available meats for variety, such as tongue, tripe etc. I also buy meat on smaller bones, like chicken wings, chicken legs or ox tails to further vary the diet, but more on bones later.
A general guide for the amount to feed is around 3% of the dogs body weight per day. A tin of food is usually 400g.
So typical home made meals may include;
Around 400g of diced beef, mashed peas/carrots/green leaf veg, a raw egg & a sprinkle of multi vitamins.
Around 400g of minced lamb, a piece of chopped liver, or chopped lamb heart, sweet potatoes, finely chopped green beans & cucumber, and a small amount of salmon oil.
Around 400g of diced chicken, a scoop of commercial dry food.
In this clip I mince up beef, prawns and lamb together with carrots, lettuce, cucumber and green beans. The mince is then put into tubs weighing around 370g and 400g (meal size portions) then put it all in the freezer. Usually I would add some organ meat into the mince too.
Prepared raw food meals can be bought online or from pet shops in the form of frozen blocks or vacuum packs. This can be a good way to ensure a balanced meal is being provided. Prices are coming down all the time as demand for quality food rises, for instance NatureDiet, sells a 400g pack for around 90p.
I'm not 100% convinced bones are necessary in a domestic dogs diet from a nutritional point of view. Bones aren't highly digestible so it's difficult for the dog to get nutrients from them, although the middle of the bone, the marrow, is nutritious (fatty acids) and digestible. Bone fragments or sharp pieces pose a small risk to the digestive system. Although wolves, feral and stray dogs often consume the smaller to medium bones they don't have guaranteed regular meals so can't afford to waste any aspect of a meal. Also load bearing bones, such as thigh bones, are extremely hard and can damage dog's teeth. Cooked bones are generally more brittle and therefore carry a much higher risk of splintering and damaging the dog's stomach or intestines, cooked bones shouldn't be given to dogs.
The bones I do allow my dogs to eat are smaller ones like chicken legs, wings and ox tails. To begin with I'll supervise and make sure they understand these items need crushing and are not just wolfed down. They should systematically crush the chicken wing bone with their back teeth as they eat the meat off it. The ox tail is usually pre cut into 1 inch pieces and should also be crushed up too. I'll sometimes give bigger bones to chew on for fun as a treat. Bones are of great benefit when it comes to cleaning your dogs teeth.
I would never risk the swallowing a fish bone and therefore my dogs only eat filleted fish. Any tinned fish they have is in sunflower oil or fresh water, which I drain off, and not salty brine.
Switching diets or introducing new foods.
Changing your dog's diet should be done slowly. Digesting food is basically done via enzymes and bacteria in the stomach and intestine. If a new food type is introduced the body needs to develop the specific enzymes and bacteria in order to digest it. If a large amount of 'new' food is suddenly introduced this can cause trouble, usually diarrhoea, and the dog gets very little out of the meal. (People get exactly the same problem, when on holiday in different countries for instance).
Slowly increasing the amount of new food, and reducing the old food, over a week or so gives the digestive system time to adapt and thus gain the most from the new diet.
If the risk of bacteria is a concern; lightly cooking raw meat by searing the surface will kill any surface borne bacteria (the meats surface is where bacteria is typically found). Although not common, being aware of this is sensible. Bear in mind dogs digestive system is much more acidic than our own meaning they handle bacteria far better than we do. This isn't a great risk, but is worthy of note.
Handling raw meat of course requires high standards of cleanliness regarding storing, defrosting and the cleaning of equipment, surfaces and hands!
These foods shouldn't be fed to dogs;
Chocolate, caffeine, macadamia nuts, walnuts, fruit pips, seeds and stones, broccoli (in large amounts), tomato (mainly the leaves and stems), alcohol, grapes (raisins, seed extract) and onions. These are all toxic for dogs.
Pacific Salmon (can contain bacteria harmful to dogs)
With commercial food the phrase 'you get what you pay for' is very apt. Cheap food is at best worse than processed fast food for humans, it is food, but living on such low nutrition brings with it a much higher risk of poor health. Of course your dog can survive on cheap commercial foods, but will your dog thrive? Are you giving your dog the best chance at good health? There is a very strong argument for a quality diet improving health and vastly reducing vet visits and costs!
High quality ingredients and a good variety of foods is the best way to provide your pet pooch with a good healthy balanced diet. Even if you don't feel a raw food diet would be practical for your household, consideration should still be given as to how to improve your dog's nutrition. Cooking human grade meats from the supermarket (from the reduced section for the bargains!) and adding it to your dogs meal, is always a good simple option to boost the quality of your dogs nutrition.
There are many books and websites dedicated to domestic dog diets, so researching what you think would be best isn't a difficult process! For a raw food diet, search for; BARF (Bones And Raw Food) diet, RMB (Raw Meaty Bones) diet or Natural dog diets etc.
But, as always, look at contrasting evidence and read as widely as possible around the subject to enable yourself to make a well balanced decision about your dog's diet. Be aware anecdotal evidence isn't a very reliable source. Also, don't simply research articles, books and documents which support your beliefs, it is important to understand the opposite view point in order to gain a truly balanced view.