Good nutrition is an essential part of a dog’s health and well-being. Dog nutrition is one of 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 now established 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!
Reading the labels
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, in 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, foetuses, 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.) – 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 dogs require (eggs, meat and fish are complete proteins). Corn and wheat are both known to carry allergens and can contribute to allergic reactions in dogs. Cereal is generally used as cheap filler in pet foods.
Poor Dog Nutrition
On the label, food ingredients are listed by highest quantity first, so for an example of quality, here are the ingredients of 5 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.
If a dog caught and ate a rabbit, (a fairly natural thing to do in the wild) I’m very sure the quantity of meat in that meal would be far higher than, say, 4% minimum. Also the quality of that meat would be much higher. (A scavenging dog seeks out the highest quality food it can, typically discarded human grade meat in bins.)
So, compared to a natural diet of catching and eating prey animals, a cheap commercial diet offers very poor quality nutrition for the modern dog.
Quality commercial Dog Foods
These are the types of quality food I give to my dogs (when not feeding a raw meal) Compare ingredients to the above foods:
- Naturediet Lamb: Lamb (60%), carrot (3.5%), potato (3.5%), parsnip (3%), dried egg, natural ground bone & seaweed meal.
- Forthglade, just lamb: Lamb (90%) & minerals.
- Canagan free-run chicken: Freshly prepared chicken (66% min), sweet potato (4%), carrot, peas, minerals, salmon oil, alfalfa, seaweed, glucosamine, chondroitin, yucca extract (22mg/kg), cranberry extract (22.2mg/kg), prebiotic mannan- Oligosaccharides (11.1mg/kg), apple, spinach, garlic, peppermint, parsley & cumin.
- Simpson premium exotic Kangaroo: Fresh meat, Kangaroo (60%), organic potato, organic carrots, organic pumpkin, organic spinach, vitamins and minerals.
- Forthglade Turkey with sweet potato & vegatables: Turkey (75%), sweet potato (4%), carrots (2%), peas (2%), minerals, linseed oil (0.5%), seaweed (0.5%), Prebiotic – fructooligosaccharide, yucca, glucosamine, chondroitin, camomile, parsley, rosemary & nettle.
- Nose2Tail Chicken: Chicken (65%), potato powder (5%), potato (2%), peas (3%), carrots (3%), herbs (phytoforce Active8 complete herbal tonic), broccoli, tomato, apple, fish oil, sunflower oil, seaweed glucosamine, chondroitin, cranberry, yucca extract, yeast extract and minerals.
- Lily’s Kitchen Venison & Wild Boar: Freshly prepared; Venison (30%), Wild boar (30%), organic potatoes, butternut squash, organic carrots, organic green beans, organic apples, vitamins & minerals, Hemp oil (source of Omega 3 & 6). Botanical Herbs; Golden rod, nettle, aniseed, rosehips, marigold petals, cleavers, kelp, alfalfa, milk thistle, dandelion root, burdock root, celery seeds.
- Barking Heads ‘Tender Loving Care’ chicken; Freshly prepared deboned chicken (27%), Dried chicken (21%), Brown rice, oats, white rice, freshly prepared deboned trout (5%), Lucerne, chicken fat (3.5%), chicken stock (2.5%), sunflower oil, seaweed, dried carrot, dried tomato & hip and joint care (Glucosamine 350mg/kg, MSM 350mg/kg, Chondroitin 240mg/kg)
- Symply Chicken & brown rice: Chicken (72%), Brown Rice (4%), Peas (3%), Carrots (1%), Salmon Oil (1%), Seaweed & Minerals.
- Arden Grange Chicken & Rice: Fresh chicken (70%), Rice (5%), Minerals, Peas, Carrots, Beet pulp, Fish oil, Seaweed extract, Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Cranberry, Yucca extract, Yeast extract (high nucleotides).
- 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. Personally, as soon as I started to study canine nutrition I stopped feeding any sort of commercial dry food/kibble.
There is growing evidence that dry food is actually detrimental to our canines’ 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 video about the possible carcinogen risk in processed foods
Consider what we actually fed our companion dogs before dry food was invented in the 1930s!
I’m guessing it was table scraps (organic meat and veg) or off-cuts bought from the butchers (meat).
I never feed my dogs dry food, and I don’t ever recommend my clients do so either. But if you do feel comfortable feeding dry processed unnatural 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 cause 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 since the 30s in Europe and was developed to make profit, not improve domestic dog health. It’s rise in popularity has also coincided with a dramatic rise in allergies in pet dogs.
What I feed my own dogs
I feed my own dogs a wide variety of food including; quality commercial prepared food, cooked meat, raw meat, tinned fish (not in brine) and raw or cooked vegetable based diet. To further increase nutrients I also sporadically add salmon oil, various supplements (designed for dogs not people) and maybe a mashed in banana or berries, whole raw egg, every few days. I also consider pro-biotics if they have been given antibiotics for any reason. To keep their teeth clean they have stag horns and bones to gnaw on.
The meats 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.
Typically the meat includes, (but isn’t limited to) beef, lamb, chicken, rabbit and fish (sometimes ham but its 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.
Feeding raw food is by far the most biologically appropriate diet for your dog.
The domestic dog food industry has for a long time overshadowed the raw feeding concept with sustained advertising campaigns and varied promotional tactics. All the profit was in processed foods making it hard for raw food companies to compete. Nowadays dog owners are becoming much more aware and educated in regard to their companion’s health and nutrition.
There is now a wealth of published information available on the subject (books, not just google!).
Here is quick guide:
Raw feeding is often called BARF, Biologically Appropriate Raw Feeding, or sometimes, Bones And Raw Food, it is essentially based on the natural diet of the modern dog’s predecessor, the Wolf.
At it’s most basic this can be broken down to the commonly used 80:10:10 ratio; 80% meat, 10% organ meat, 10% bones. This represents the basic construct of eating a prey animal.
80% meat – this should be a variety of the muscle and flesh meat found in an animal including muscular organs like the heart.
10% organs – this is usually split into 5% liver and 5% secreting organs like kidneys.
10% bones – soft raw edible bones, like chicken wings, provide essential calcium, phosphorous along with other essential nutrients.
Vegetables are also an important aspect of a raw diet, but ideally their nutrients should be made more available by pulverising, pureeing, steaming or mashing them first. Omnivores such as humans have grinding teeth and chew vegetation with enzymes in our saliva to break them down first.
Dogs don’t do this but naturally prey on animals which do this for them. Small amounts of fruit can be added too but these are high in sugar and not strictly necessary in a raw food diet. It’s quite common for people to substitute 5% of the meat portion for vegetables. Good options for the veg are; spinach, kale, beets, broccoli, celery, carrot, peas and red pepper.
Choosing what bones to give your dog is important, not all bone is the same! Some bones are much more edible than others; wings, necks, ribs, feet, tails are all easily consumable and not too dense for most dogs. Where as weight bearing bones (like thigh bones) from large animals, cows, deer etc. are extremely strong and can damage a dogs teeth, especially if they are an enthusiastic chewer!
A good rule to consider is; would my dog be able to hunt and catch this animal naturally? So almost all dogs can have chicken wings, only much bigger stronger dogs should be given a sow’s trotter for instance.
The bones I allow my dogs to eat are smaller ones like chicken legs, wings, necks and ox tails. To begin with I’ll supervise and make sure they understand these items need crushing and are not just swallowed 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 (ribs, knuckles) 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 small fish (sprats size) or filleted fish. Any tinned fish they have is in sunflower oil or fresh water, which I mostly drain off, and never salty brine.
For much more in-depth information this website is a good place to start – https://perfectlyrawsome.com/
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.
Here are a few raw food providers I use;
Pups, Pets and Ponies, Deeside – https://pupsandpets.co.uk/
Dolittles Dinners at Meadowview doggie day care, Northop – http://www.meadowviewdogs.co.uk/
Sam’s Raw Pet Food, Ellesmere Port – https://samstickling9.wixsite.com/samsrawpetfood
Top K9 Nosh, Conwy – https://www.facebook.com/TopK9Nosh/
Sirius Raw Food, Holywell – https://www.siriusrawfeed.co.uk/
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 (gut biome) 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 meat’s surface is where bacteria is typically found). Although not common, being aware of this is sensible. Bear in mind a dog’s 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
- Macadamia nuts,
- Fruit pips,
- Seeds and stones,
- Broccoli (in large amounts),
- Tomato (mainly the leaves and stems),
- 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.