Your Dog's Nutrition
Good nutrition is an essential part of a dog's health and well-being. 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, fibre, 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 (examples of poor quality food);
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, 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.
These are the types of quality food I give to my dogs (when not feeding a raw meal);
compare ingredients to the above foods.
compare ingredients to the above foods.
Dry food/Kibble. The same applies as tinned food in regards to the quality of the ingredients, but please be aware dry food is essentially very processed food and can never be as good for your dog as wet food. A dog would never eat a dry biscuit food base unless a human gave it no other choice.
There is growing evidence that dry food is actually detrimental to our canine's health, especially when the food is created through the 'extrusion' technique. If you feed Bakers Complete, Pedigree Complete, James Wellbeloved dry, Royal Canin dry, Burns, Orijen (to name just a few) then maybe check out this link; CARCINOGEN RISK IN PROCESSED FOODS.
I don't feed my dogs dry food, and I don't ever recommend my clients do so either. But if you do feel comfortable feeding dry dry processed food at least use the guidance above as to the ingredients; ensure the first ingredient is simply a meat!
This is a summary from some research from the DogRisk team from the University of Helsinki. They study canine diet and physiology on a molecular level.
They summarised that not only did feeding hard food caused the dogs bodies to work more aggressively in an attempt to process the food, but it also appeared to cause increased disease markers in the blood stream.
Dry fed dogs were given a raw diet for 3 months which saw the disease markers in the blood stream reduce by 81%, where as raw fed dogs given a dry food diet for 3 months saw a 353% increase in disease markers in the blood stream. They are continuing to study this field.
Although through selective breeding and the development of 'pedigree' breeds have seen huge changes in the appearance and changes in potential behaviour of 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. 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 their teeth clean they have 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.
Commercial Raw Foods.
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 making this a great option for you and your dog.
One such company based in North Wales is 'Top K9 NOSH' who offer a fantastic range of pre-prepared raw food meals and treats;
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.