Dog Nutrition… Again!

I am re-posting this article for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that we continue to get questions every day from clients about feeding their dogs. Their is a great deal of misinformation out there and it is very easy to get confused. ALWAYS consider the source of the information! There are very, very few people out there who are even remotely qualified to give you an educated opinion about what to feed your dog. Basically, veterinarians are it folks…

The first thing that dog owners need to understand about their dog is that DOGS ARE NOT CARNIVORES!! The favourite misleading thing that advertisers and salesmen like to tell dog owners is that dogs need meat in their diet because they are carnivores (anybody remember the old “Mighty Dog” commercials from the 70’s and 80’s?). Dogs are OMNIVORES just like we are. Cats, on the other hand are true carnivores, and as such they need diets which are very high in meat content. Dogs require diets that are similar to a good healthy diet for humans; moderate protein levels, lower fat levels and a wide variety of ingredients.

Dogs’ nutritional requirements are surprisingly close to those for humans, with a couple of very important exceptions. The biggest of these exceptions is fat. Humans have evolved in a fashion that allows them to ingest a great deal of fat in their diet and come to no harm. Dogs descended from creatures that existed on diets which were very low in fat. Pack hunting animals, like the ancestors of dogs, hunted by working as a group and basically running their larger prey to the point of exhaustion. By this time the prey animal had burned most of its body fat to fuel the desperate bid to escape. The meat of these prey animals was therefor incredibly lean. The ancestors of today’s dog were also consummate scavengers and as such would eat most anything edible that crossed their path; roots, berries and less pleasant substances like the stomach content of their prey. This is one of the reasons why these creatures were so easily domesticated in the first place, they could survive on a wide variety of foods much like the humans that they followed around.

As a good general rule a healthy diet for a mature dog would contain between 20% and 25% protein and 12% to 15% fat, and preferably contain a wide variety of ingredients. On the bag that you purchase these values should be followed by the word “maximum” not “minimum”. Only puppy foods should contain values higher than these. Diets that contain levels of protein that approach or exceed 30% protein or 16% fat are NOT HEALTHY choices for a full grown dog. These diets will create metabolic imbalances in the dog that can lead to serious disease over time (diabetes, pancreatitis, and kidney failure to name a few).

Classically the organs most affected by these excessive levels are the kidneys, which have to deal with the waste products created by excess protein levels in the diet. We see this too often today when we run routine blood panels on dogs who are being fed high protein diets and find elevated levels of a substance called urea. Urea is created when the liver takes 2 ammonia molecules (created when the body metabolizes protein) and sticks them together. Urea is then eliminated from the body by the kidneys in the urine. High urea levels have a number of unpleasant effects in the body. The earliest of these is the tendency to cause gastritis (stomach inflammation or irritation) and eventually stomach ulceration. Over time or at very high levels, urea will create ulcers in the mucous membranes of the mouth and cause kidney damage leading to kidney failure. Many people are familiar with the effects of the popular “Atkins Diet” on people who remain on the diet for long periods of time. Think of these foods as the dog equivalent of the “Atkins Diet”, the only difference is that unlike us, the dog can’t take himself off the diet…

Diets which are high in fat can also cause serious disease. The most common condition created by these diets is a disease called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis results when the pancreas is forced to create excessive levels of the digestive enzymes lipase and amylase (used to digest fat and protein respectively). These excessive levels exceed the ability of the pancreas to store these enzymes which then “leak” into the tissue of the pancreas. These enzymes then proceed to attempt to digest the pancreatic tissue causing very painful inflammation. The result of this condition, if the dog is lucky, is just a painful abdomen, vomiting and a veterinary visit. If the dog is unlucky, pancreatitis can develop into a life-threatening condition. In the long run even mild, chronic pancreatitis conditions will often lead to diabetes.

Believe it or not, with the abundance of good foods on the market nowadays my single biggest concern about dog food is not what it is made out of. It is quality control. Always remember that good dog food is basically the same food that we eat, prepared in such a fashion that it will keep and remain nutritious in a bag for a very long time. No, they don’t accomplish this by adding a bunch of nasty chemicals to the foods, most foods nowadays are preserved with good old Vitamin E believe it or not. Food that is not very carefully prepared and packaged stands more of a chance of spoiling before your dog can eat it. That is where quality control comes in. The larger pet food companies generally make their own foods. They do not hire outside mills (food manufacturers) to make their products, unlike many of the smaller companies. This allows them to maintain very strict quality controls throughout the manufacturing process. Our clients are well aware of which companies we are fond of recommending and this is one of the major reasons why we make those recommendations.

Most high quality diets available on the market today do meet all of your dogs nutritional requirements. They don’t need “people food” to make up for any perceived lack in their diets, so please refrain from feeding them unhealthy snacks. The single biggest health threat that our patients face today is exactly the same one that people face… obesity. The factor that contributes to that more than any other is the excessive feeding of high calorie “treats” or high calorie “people food”. If you really want (or need?!) to feed your dog anything “human”, use fresh vegetables and fruit. They are a wonderful source of high quality fibre, contain lots of healthy vitamins and minerals and have no significant fat or protein levels to cause problems! So do your dog a favour, cut the snacks back folks.

Lately there have been a lot of ads on television and we have been hearing a lot of babble from “miseducated” people about the ingredient corn. Corn is the single most nutritious grain on the planet. Its list of benefits to any omnivore (like dogs) would be so long you would get tired of reading before I could run out of good things to say about it. That beautiful yellow colour you see in corn oil? That is a concoction of anti-oxidants and vitamins in corn that would put a multi-vitamin to shame! Anyone who tells you that there is a problem with corn as an ingredient in dog food is either sadly misinformed, or outright lying to you. Please, don’t believe their nonsense. As stated previously, we also like to see diets that have a large number of ingredients in them including a variety of grains, different sources of meat protein and a long list of vitamins and things most people can’t pronounce. Those things are there for a good reason folks, they provide sources of minerals and vitamins to balance the diet. They are not “scarey stuff”.

There are two things to beware of out there. Beware of ads or salespeople or brands that make a big thing about not containing any “fillers”. “Fillers” is a catch word that erupted sometime over the last couple of decades and has absolutely no meaning that anyone is aware of. I have yet to find any ingredient in a dog food that could be regarded as a “filler”, and I doubt if I ever will. Also, beware of any foods that “make dogs sound like predators or meat-eaters” is one of my favourite rules. These foods will generally fall into the category of foods that have excessively high protein and fat levels in them. Should you have questions about the food that you are feeding your dog presently please remember… It is our job to answer those type of questions! Give us a call or bring in the bag of the food that you are feeding and we will be glad to answer any questions you may have about it and give you our opinion of the food.

As a general rule, like everything else in life, you “get what you pay for” when you buy dog food. The more expensive foods generally use higher quality ingredients which cost more, that is why they are more expensive. Better quality ingredients are more easily digested and are more nutritious, creating less waste (and most of us have more than enough poop in our lives already!). Higher quality oils and meat sources in them tend to contribute to healthier looking coats in dogs as well. Keep this in mind when you are shopping. However there are many foods available in many price ranges that may suit your dog. More expensive does not always translate into better. A large part of our job is ensuring that the food that you are feeding your dog will meet his or her needs. One of the first questions we ask during an exam is “what are you feeding your dog”, we will advise you from there if we are uncomfortable with your answer.

Dr. Mike Steen
Hillcrest Animal Hospital