Dog Food Dilemma

Feeding the dog used to be so simple…

The market for pet foods is an absolute dog’s breakfast these days. Manufacturers are suing each other, ads bash competitors, corn has become toxic waste and pet owners are increasingly befuddled.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to change our shopping lists. The majority of dogs I see are doing fine on their existing diets whether or not corn is anywhere on the ingredient list. Just because there’s a lot of hype about “grain-free” or “mega-protein” foods doesn’t mean you have to buy into it.
If you do need to find a new dog food, the issues and choices can be mindboggling. Ingredient lists are confusing, perhaps deliberately so. Without a PhD and the tenacity of a Scottish Terrier, most of us can’t tell much about a food’s quality from the label. “By-products” – much maligned – can provide excellent nutrition. Despite what you read on the internet, they do not include hair, horns, teeth or hoofs.

Does your dog need “human-grade” food? What about the “holistic” kind? What does that even mean, to anyone outside the marketing department? Marketers are also behind the “grain-free” movement that has now reached cult-like proportions. Touted as natural diets for our pack of domesticated wolves, grain-free foods have captured people’s imaginations and wallets. Interestingly, the dry formulations of these diets contain carbohydrates in the form of potatoes or other starches to help keep the pieces together. Hopefully, veggies aren’t next to be demonized as unnatural.

Stepping from frying pan to fire – most of us recognize that dogs are not wolves, but are they even true carnivores and, more importantly, does what we call them matter to what we feed them? I predict the carnivore debate will not be resolved anytime soon, especially when there are healthy pooches out there living happily on all manner of diets including vegetarian. Did you know that panda bears are also classified as carnivores? Taxonomy is not a good predictor of natural diet. Just some food for thought…

To choose a diet for a healthy adult dog without help from the folks in marketing, find one that says on the label it at least adheres to the AAFCO guidelines which are minimum standards for nutrition. Pay as much as you can afford. Some cheap foods are good quality and some expensive ones are not, but in general better nutrition costs more. Buy Canadian or North American to reduce the risk of toxicity concerns. Most adult dogs need protein levels of 20 to 25 per cent. Higher amounts are just expensive calories and the meat content raises some environmental concerns, but health implications are rare.

Avoid raw or home-cooked unless you are prepared for the hard work involved in doing it right and safely. If you have a puppy, a senior or an adult with health issues, ask your veterinarian for advice.
Diet rotation is a simple way to provide balance. You just don’t feed the same thing all the time. Depending on how well your dog tolerates diet changes, that could mean alternating several different foods through the week or switching at the end of each bag, with a week or so of mixing old and new.
If you do want to tackle those ingredient labels, search canine nutrition at Veterinary Partner online or for a Q&A on the pet food dilemma, visit the Veterinary Information Network’s News Service.

Formerly a newspaper journalist, Dr. Fiona Gilchrist is a vet at Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Trenton ( and an executive member of the Quinte District Veterinary Association.