Don’t overfeed your dog. “look at the dog not the plate”
Pups who are lean in their first year will be less prone to a range of joint problems and adult dogs in condition score 2-3 are less likely to develop arthritis, diabetes or heart disease and will live on average 2 years longer than overweight dogs.
What to feed your dog?
I need to state my bias here – I am preoccupied with eating well. Our family avoid refined carbohydrate and don’t eat processed food. We probably eat more red meat than recommended but otherwise shop pretty closely to the “Mediterranean diet” guidelines – but we aren’t averse to the odd cake or biscuit when we go out. We are also now influenced by the research about the importance of health intestinal bacteria to good health, which has been summarized by Michael Mosely in his most recent book and web site.
Dogs chose to live with us so that they could eat our leftovers. They evolved from friendly wolves who didn’t run away or bite people and so gradually became an accepted part of human society. Guarding and waste disposal were probably their first value to us. Until very recently they were still living on our leftovers, as they have for probably 15,000 years at least.
First world domestic dogs live longer than they used to but are experiencing a rising incidence of obesity, allergies, autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel, diabetes …… sound familiar? In humans we are coming to realise that the “western diet” and in particular cheap, processed convenience foods are the culprit.
I’m not a purist. We try to feed our dog well but always have “dog food” on hand for the times when we don’t have real food available. I think it’s OK to feed ultra processed dry dog biscuits and canned dog food some of the time –but I didn’t raise my children on “infant formula” or perfectly nutritionally balanced meals in a jar and I discouraged my weight conscious teenage daughters from eating “meal replacement” shakes and bars for every meal (no matter how well researched they are). I don’t think that’s the best way to feed our dogs either.
“Dog food” in cans, rolls and dry pellets – are convenience foods – just as TV dinners and takeaway are convenience foods and, like human convenience foods, the more you pay for them the better they are likely to be for you – so if you choose to feed your dogs commercial food make sure it’s the expensive stuff! Your dog will survive perfectly happily, grow very well and probably live to 13 years if he never eats a mouthful that doesn’t come out of a bag (as long as it’s an expensive bag) – but he may live another year or so and will certainly enjoy his food more if he gets variety.
Our breeding dogs live on commercial rations supplemented only with brisket bones once a week, and special rations while they are pregnant and lactating, but research shows that kennel dogs are very active and get much more exercise than the average pet dog. The oldest dog in my kennel, Shelby, is now 16 and all the dogs are in great condition and very fit. Even so, if it was practicable, I would feed them all a “real food” based diet. When discussing how I feed ‘my dogs’ below I’m referring to our house pets.
About commercial products.
Canned food is hard to transport and contains a lot of water so tends to be more expensive to feed – but most do have the advantage of being less processed and they usually contain a greater proportion of fat – which makes it more palatable and filling and better in the long run for your dog.
The canning process means that they don’t need preservatives, which is a plus. Most canned food still has a significant amount of grain in those ersatz “meaty chunks”. I don’t use much canned food but if I did I would look for the more expensive cans with “real meat” that actually looks like meat
Canned food is no worse for your dogs teeth than most dry products – the dry biscuits turn to mush in your dogs mouth and don’t provide the abrasive chewing needed for healthy gums. Except perhaps for the “prescription diets” designed for dental health …. (Which begs the question – why not design all dog biscuits for “dental health”).
Dry food is easy to transport and store and contains minimal water so is cheaper by weight than canned food. It is ultraprocessed- this means it is made from raw materials reduced to their powdered components and then reconstituted in order to meet scientifically determined nutritional standards. Plant proteins are cheaper but less “balanced” proteins, so particular amino acids can be added to improve the “balance”. These plus vitamins, minerals, fats, (preservatives, flavor enhancers, etc etc ) and particular ingredients important for a particular target market are added to a base of protein powders and carbohydrate sources mixed in ratios suitable for that target market. They are then made into a paste and cooked into pellets of appealing shapes (and sometimes even different colours). A book worth reading on the manufacture of modern convenience food is “Swallow This – Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets” by Joanna Blythman.
The best products are highly researched and do much more than just meet minimum standards, and “prescription diets” have now been developed to “treat” particular disease problems such as arthritis, allergies, pancreatitis, kidney disease etc. There are also “life stages” diets for young dogs, middle aged dogs & old dogs and then there are diets for large breed young dogs, small breed old dogs, medium breed middle aged dogs etc etc etc….. it’s called “Product Differentiation” and is extremely profitable.
In health and longevity survey I carried out in early 2016 I found a link between dogs fed only dry food and the incidence of ear problems in the dogs. 61% of my dogs on dry food alone developed ear problems compared with 35% on a mixed diet and this result was significant at the 95% level (ie a 5% probability that this result occurred by chance) so I now do not recommend that you feed your dog dry dog food alone.
There are some dry products which are “Grain Free” and usually claim to be suitable for dogs of any age. They are becoming increasingly popular but have come under a cloud as evidence suggests a link with Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dobermans. I have ‘anecdotal evidence’ from owners and veterinary clients that changing to grain free diets can reduce skin irritation in scratchy dogs. I’m happy to recommend you feed your dog grain free dog food – as long as it is only part of their diet
When you look at the array of foods available at their pet stores and vet surgeries it is no wonder that it is hard to consider dealing with such a complicated subject or do anything so anything so unscientific as feeding your dogs “real food”.
OK enough proselytising – so how has your puppy been fed so far?
Your puppy has been raised on grain free puppy biscuits supplemented with egg, yoghurt, fish oil, linseed oil, and cod-liver oil until 6 weeks. In the last two weeks they are weaned on to dry biscuits alone to simplify the change over for you. They’ll happily eat dry food and in the first week, when they are coping with the stress of rehoming, they will be less likely to develop digestive upsets if you change them gradually over to the dry food of your choice – adding more of the new product with each meal. Diarrhoea in a puppy can interfere with toilet training which is why I prefer the puppies to be on a consistent diet for the first week.
Once the puppy is settled in you can start feeding him whatever you choose- you can continue with a premium dog food, introduce canned food or rolls or you can introduce real food by introducing a bit of this and that at each meal and decreasing the dry product accordingly.
Or you can take what I say with a grain of salt and do whatever you feel comfortable with! Experienced “raw food” dog owners usually ignore my advice – a quote here from one of my owners whose old cattledog was the shiniest 17 year old dog I’ve ever seen:
“My dogs diet consists of mostly meaty bones – chicken necks or wings, vegetables, offal sometimes, fish, baked beans, left overs – whatever. I don’t think that dogs need a “perfectly, scientifically balanced diet” anymore than we do. A balance over time will be fine. All my dogs start this type of feeding when they are 8 weeks old. I love to see a young pup ripping into a chicken wing, using all its teeth & muscles.”
So what do dogs need?
Preferably in vegetables – dogs can digest starch better than wolves, but high starch diets are known to be bad for people, and given that dogs are carnivores and diabetes is on the rise in dogs I prefer to err on the side of caution and keep starch (refined grains and potatoes) to a minimum. Remembering that up to 45% of the calories in commercial products are carbohydrates sourced from grains.
Barley is a low GI grain source and has been shown to be beneficial in allergy diets so is probably the best grain to use if you want to cook up stews for your dog.
A bit of canned food makes microwaved frozen peas and corn or frozen spinach palatable, if you haven’t got off cuts and left over fresh greens to add. Canned food is already relatively high in grain – so chuck an egg in as well – et voila– a meal in minutes.
Veges usually need to be cooked a bit to make them more palatable and digestible but some raw food enthusiasts will whizz their greens and pour them over the meal – I’d make a “green shake” in that case – with added egg and yoghurt. We rarely have left overs in our house so having some cheap veges in the freezer is a handy option.
Omega3 fatty acids – particularly DHA from fish oil – have been shown to improve puppies’ learning ability and there is good evidence supporting their wide use as supportive therapy in dogs with arthritis and skin problems.
Cheap canned sardines or salmon in water couple of times a week is a great way of ensuring your dog gets its omega 3- and both sardines and cheap canned salmon have bones through them so supply adequate calcium as well as protein and “good oils”.
Don’t use fish in oils (unless it’s olive oil and therefore much more expensive) because vegetable oils are high in Omega 6 fatty acids
Alternatively you can give him a fish oil capsule daily.
Calcium and protein.
Raw meaty bones are the basis of nearly all “natural” diets for dogs (except for vegan diets which are possible for your pet carnivore but I certainly don’t recommend them – my advice to vegans is that rabbits and guinea pigs can make wonderful pets)
Should be raw, soft, full of blood vessels and from young animals: the most commonly available at your supermarket are chicken wings, necks and frames, turkey necks, lamb and beef brisket or rib.
Larger bones such as beef brisket can provide an hour or so of happy chewing at breakfast time when you leave for work – then it will be nap time until you get home.
Bones also have cartilage attached and premium dry foods for old dogs usually include chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine for joint health …. usually derived from beef cartilage.
As a dairy farmers daughter I was raises on cows milk – everything you need to grow a calf (as my father would say). Adult dogs don’t handle lactose, and may get diarrhoea from milk, but you can use lactose free full cream milk in that case – or no milk – up to you. I occasionally resort to bread, egg and milk as a meal for my dogs when the cupboard is otherwise bare – perhaps not a perfect diet for the long term, but fine in an emergency.
Better still use fermented dairy products which are probably beneficial for gut health.
Cheese is great – I buy a kilo of cheap grated cheddar for my dogs and chuck a handful on to their dry food to improve the protein balance and add calcium.
Plain full fat yoghurt is low in lactose and high in protein fats and vitamins. A tablespoon a day regularly goes on to my dogs’ plates.
Vitamins A & D
Liver – if you can’t bear the thought of handling liver once a week use good quality liver treats regularly. Don’t buy cheap treats – they often don’t mention that they come from China where food standards are still lax – there have been many cases of poisoning in the US, and also Australia, from cheap treats. Dried liver with nothing else added is safe and a great way of adding iron and vitamins to your dog’s diet (we recommended “Vet’s Best Rewards”)
Egg yolk – Everything you need to grow a chicken! Egg yolks have all the necessary vitamins in an easily digestible form, lots of great fats and about 40% protein. I add an egg to my dogs’ plate every day
Muscle meat without any bone is high in phosphorous and dogs fed only meat will develop serious bone growth problems. The “calcium phosphorous balance” is the big concern which has led to the belief that you need a PhD in nutrition before you can feed your dog a healthy diet, also lumps of meat are very expensive.
Human mince is usually preferable to pet mince – which usually has undisclosed preservatives in it, but you can get fresh chicken mince from most butchers and chicken shops. Made from minced chicken carcasses – specifically for pets – this mince has the bone in so you don’t need to worry about calcium (But feeding the whole carcass (chicken frames) will take longer to eat and is more fun for your dog).
If you do make stews, remember that if you feed your dog the same thing all the time you might be missing essential nutrients – this is where the PhD in nutrition might start to come in handy.
Egg white is the best balanced and most digestible protein available. You can microwave egg whites for a couple of seconds if you’ve worried because you’ve read that avidin in raw egg white binds the B vitamin biotin. Egg yolks are full of biotin so I don’t bother with this.
Dogs don’t get atherosclerosis so there is no evidence that saturated fat is worse for them than other fats.
Extreme athletes such as the sled dogs of Alaska live on a diet of 50:50 fat and protein. Your dog is unlikely to be an extreme athlete and fat is very high in energy – so don’t feed too much fat.
Pigging out on a huge meal of fat can cause pancreatitis and this is a common and serious condition in middle aged dogs, particularly desexed dogs who are overweight, but farm dogs often get to gorge on lamb flaps (almost pure fat) and pancreatitis is very rare in these working animals. Keep your dog fit and trim and you shouldn’t have to worry about the odd chop tail at a barbeque.
We know that for humans the “bad fats” are the omega 6 and saturated fats (or maybe not the saturated fats – the debate continues and the tide may be turning – great news if, like me, you grew up on a dairy farm). In dogs’ evolutionary past omega 6 fats would only be sparingly available in their diet. We know in humans that the high omega 6: omega 3 ratio in our diet is undesirable – so it is wise to avoid too much vegetable oil – keeping this low isn’t hard – just don’t add any vegetable oil to your dog’s food.
Frequency of feeding:
Veterinarians know that dogs fed more than once daily are more likely to be overweight or obese than dogs fed twice or more. They will take in fewer calories but also the research regarding intermittent fasting benefits in humans and rodents suggests another mechanism. Gut health has been shown to be greatly improved in humans who fast intermittently. Once your dog is over 6 months of age I recommend once daily feeding.
Firstly, I assure you that I won’t think you are a bad person if you feed your dog commercial food! It’s easier, and the products are pretty good, so don’t feel pressured by all this.
Do spend up – use the most expensive products you can afford, use a mix of cans and rolls as well as dry and consider grain free products if you can afford them. If you really want to feed top quality convenience food, and price is no object, then Ian Billinghurst is a passionate raw food advocate and the BARF patties he developed are available in some outlets
Like Ian Billinghurst I have seen “anecdotal evidence” of the importance of a mixed healthy diet in my veterinary practice. But research is largely directed by dog food companies (the dreaded multinationals!) and usually compares different formulations rather than mixed diets with commercial diets.
If you avoid all commercial products you’ll need to think more about how you feed your dog – just as you have to think about how you feed your children. You can be a purist or use a mix as I do.
Feed your adult dog once a day and otherwise feeding your dog is like feeding your children – meat, fermented dairy, oily fish, good fats, fruit, low GI complex carbohydrates, lots of vegetables, hold the refined starchy or sugary food and lots of variety. Perhaps a bit more protein than you’d feed your children and bones and cartilage (not something you might normally feed your children but perhaps should).
Most importantly – don’t feed them too much.