The most important part of my job is helping pet owners select dog food. Selecting a food for your dog can be overwhelming and confusing. So many shiny packages! Nutrition is the single most important decision you can make for your pet and it's also oftentimes the most confusing. Here are my top 5 advices for selecting the right food for your dog.
#1. Do not make any decision about pet food based on the front of the packaging. From the poorest quality brands to the best of the premium brands, what is on the front of the package is 100% marketing decided upon by marketing professionals (people who are paid to manipulate your opinion of a product through images and words). Not only is it woefully inadequate in terms of fully disclosing ingredients, in some cases, the packaging can be incredibly misleading. Use the ingredient panel and guaranteed analysis on the back to help you make your decision. Pet food companies are notorious for only disclosing part of the ingredient story on the front of the package. Part of this is determined by very complicated, yet terribly insufficient, labeling regulations. If you would like to learn more, I'd recommend reading this article on The Dog Food Project.
#2. When you are interested in changing your dog's diet, make small, incremental changes. Your dog's gut will thank you for taking improvements and changes in its nutrition at a steady pace instead of a sprint. For example, when customers are making the switch from grain-based to grain-free food, I generally recommend sticking with the same or similar protein sources and then experiment with different proteins once your dog is adjusted to a grain-free diet. This of course goes out the window when you are dealing with issues like food allergies where your goal is to get your dog on a diet that eliminates symptoms as quickly as possible.
#3: Avoid the following ingredients at all costs: By-products, artificial preservatives, corn, wheat, unnamed meat ingredients (poultry meal as an example). The reality of commercial pet food is that it originated from and continues to be dominated by companies producing pet food from the waste in the human food industry. That means the crap that's not fit for us to eat. This is not true of all pet foods but if the price is too good to be true, try checking the ingredient panel for one of my no-no ingredients above. That food likely has more than one offending ingredient in its top 5 ingredients. I highly recommend checking current or potential new foods on websites like The Dog Food Advisor for an independent analysis of a particular food.
#4: Evaluate your dog's energy level, coat & skin health and general health issues. Is there something you would like to see improved? Going grain-free (which also generally raises the amount of protein in the dog's kibble at the same time thus increasing Omegas) can do wonders for coat health and help promote a healthy weight. If your dog is lacking in energy, a higher protein diet may help fuel more energy. Likewise, an out of control high energy dog may be behaviorally harmed by placing them on a high protein (in excess of 32% protein is how I define high protein) diet full of potatoes. A diet with carbs that hit lower on the glycemic index than potatoes (chickpeas or yams would be an example) with a more moderate protein level (25-30%) may help fuel behavior improvements for an over-stimulated animal. Some dogs do better on grains and others do better on grain-free. The point is that you should know where your dog is and where you would like it to be. If you feel overwhelmed by all the choices, talk to an educated professional (your local independent pet store or a nutritionist) about your goals to receive relevant diet suggestions.
#5: I strongly believe that all dogs benefit from variety and fresh ingredients. There are extreme cases of allergies or chronic digestive diseases that may preclude the ability to add variety to your dog's diet but they are the extremes. Here are my general recommendations for adding variety to your dog's diet:
-Rotate your dog's kibble. This can be done by switching it up every 1, 2, 3...you get the point...bags. In our home, Sadie & Hurley never get the same kibble for more than 2 bags in a row. I generally rotate between formulas in one brand before moving on to the next brand. There is no wrong way to rotate, just what your dog does best with.
- There is no such thing as human food. Food is food, for all species on this earth. So let go of the nonsense big pet food has been shoving down your (and your vet's) throat for the last 75 years about people food vs pet food. Our dogs greatly benefit from sharing some of the items we put on our own plates. You just have to make sure that you understand what foods are not to be shared but fortunately that's a pretty short list (for the record, I disagree with the ASPCA's stance on raw meat, eggs, & bones but otherwise this is a good list). I boiled a chicken the other day to make both broth and shredded chicken for (my) dinners & lunches throughout the week. Hurley got the raw neck, Sadie got the raw heart & liver and they both received some of the shredded chicken on top of their kibble. Not only did they love it, but it was great for their health too. I share fruits & vegetables regularly with my crew and sometimes they surprise the heck out of me with what they like!
- Add probiotics to the diet. All three of my dogs receive great variety in their meals and sometimes a new food doesn't sit so well. Adding probiotics to their diet greatly reduced transitional digestive upset and also has virtually eliminated stinky doggie farts. Maggie almost never had any digestive issues but needs the probiotics to support her overall health because of her chronic, someday-I-will-blog-about-them health issues. Sadie can get the runs if I change too much on her too soon so the probiotics help to keep it all even keel down there and Hurley has the worst farts in the world when he isn't receiving probiotics. For three very different dogs, probiotics has been a great supplement to help keep their digestive juices flowing smoothly, if you know what I mean.
-If you are just starting to rotate your dog's kibble or add variety, go slow at first. Nowadays, I can add something new or switch up kibbles in a 2 day transition rather than the 3-5 days I normally recommend. But that's because my dogs are used to it. At the beginning, I had to take it very slow. I recommend proactively adding pumpkin to a dog's diet during transitions for a dog who is new to this whole variety thing (1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon is plenty).
-Kibble transitions tend to be the hardest for dogs, which I attribute to the highly processed concentrated form of nutrition they provide. When I am transitioning kibble, I keep the remainder of what my dogs are eating consistent. In other words, only make one major change at a time.
-Don't freak out at the first digestive incident. It is inevitable that something you feed your dog won't agree with them, just as not every food you put in your mouth agrees with you. Add pumpkin and take the transition slowly. Most dogs will adjust to a new food within 1 week and transitions will get easier the more they occur. If your dog still isn't doing well after a week, then return the food, go back on the old food until digestion is normalized and then try something different. Dogs who have been on the same food for years generally have a tougher time than dogs who are used to variety. This is not because those dogs are the ones who belong in that "you should never change your dog's food" category. Think about your gut. If you ate the same exact meal every day for years and then suddenly tried something new, what do you think would happen? Yup, the same type of digestive upset common in dogs who have eaten the same exact meal for years. Dogs are not less able to adjust to food changes, rather, we have failed to give them the variety they need to keep their gut constitution strong.
The bottom line is that there are many choices when it comes to how to feed your dog. Do the best you can. Feed the best that you can afford. If you can't afford the most expensive kibble or have the time to prepare every meal from scratch, don't worry about it. Regularly sharing healthy meats, fruits & vegetables from your own kitchen can often make up the difference.
This PSA has been brought to you by Maggie, Sadie & Hurley, who think they are the luckiest dogs in the world because their Mom always makes mealtime interesting, warming & fulfilling.