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Commercial Dog Food Basics

Updated on June 9, 2013

It is no surprise to many of you that the dog food industry has exploded over the last few years. There are literally thousands of diets available on line and in stores. The sheer volume and variety of diets can be overwhelming and confusing. To compound the confusion, there is a lot of information floating around (good and bad) citing concerns with various dog foods or ingredients within dog foods. This topic is very complex and varies greatly depending on your dog’s health and needs. This article is a quick review of the basics.

All dogs need a balanced diet---specific nutrients that allow the dog to have energy and thrive. A balanced diet, regardless of the brand, has similar properties: A balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, minerals and vitamins. An absence of any of these properties can create health problems and deficiencies that can affect a dog’s energy, coat condition and gastro-intestinal health. Dog food companies have made a huge business of offering a wide variety of diets, often employing clever marketing tactics that draw dog owners to their particular brand. They offer foods that are ‘formulated’ for specific breeds; they use novel protein sources such as ‘duck’ or ‘kangaroo’; They also create diets that use alternative carbohydrates such sweet potato---to encourage the often unfounded fear of commonly used carbohydrates such as corn and wheat. Most dog food brands have wheat and corn as the primary carbohydrate source. While there are dogs who have allergies to corn and wheat and similar food allergies, a majority of dogs readily tolerate these ingredients. Also, even if you feed a brand where the primary carbohydrate is rice, if you read the ingredients carefully, the formula will also have corn and/or wheat by products as well.

I have always recommended that you feed your dog a premium brand diet. The investment of a few extra dollars will make a huge difference in your dog’s long term health and vitality. Low quality diets—many of those brands available at your grocery store---have lower quality ingredients that create more volume of stool and lower amounts of oils and fat, creating dull, dry skin and coat condition. Higher quality diets provide excellent sources of oils, fats and other supplements that will help your dog thrive, regardless of their age. Look for quality diets in pet stores and feed stores. Once you choose a diet, I strongly recommend you stay consistent with feeding that diet long term. Unlike humans, dogs don’t do well with a varied diet. Switching diets often can cause unwanted health problems such as diarrhea, vomiting, flatulence or relieving issues. If you find a diet that you can get easily and works well for your dog, then stick with it!

There is no doubt, the biggest challenge I see in my business is dog obesity. Latest statistics cite that 54% of pet dogs are overweight. This is a truly tragic figure! What is the cause? Too much food and too many treats! Many commercial diets have very high calorie content per cup---over 500 kcal (calories) per cup in some cases! The calorie content of dog food varies greatly, often even within the types of food offered by one brand. For example, Natural Balance Lamb and Brown Rice formula has 478 kcal. /cup. While Natural Balance reduced calorie formula has 352 kcal/cup. It is very important that you are aware of the calorie content per cup that you are feeding your dog. I do not recommend you follow the feeding recommendations on dog food bags because they are often skewed to make you feed more food per day than is necessary to maintain the dog’s weight. It is often challenging to even find the calories per cup for a specific brand of food. If you are unsure, you should call the manufacturer to confirm. Dog food manufacturers also regularly change their formulas and the calorie content can increase or decrease without your knowledge, so check in regularly.

There is a specific mathematical formula that is used to determine how much daily calories should be given to a dog based on its size and level of exercise. The formula is rather complex, but in general, most large dogs are fed between 2-4 cups per day. In many cases 4 cups per day is significantly more calorie intake than is needed, particularly if you are not giving your dog a lot of daily exercise. It is a fallacy that larger dogs need more food. Energy level, metabolism and daily exercise are more important indicators of needing more calorie intake. In general, older dogs burn less calories and so need less calories per day to maintain proper weight. Working and very active dogs require more food because they burn a lot more energy than a dog who is laying around at home most of the day. It is a smart strategy to adjust your dog’s daily ration if you don’t get out for purposeful exercise. Another common complaint I hear from clients is “My dog is starving! I can’t cut his food!” I have news for you….many breeds of dogs are ALWAYS starving, whether they are fed 2 cups or 30 cups. They are hardwired to be hungry. For the health and longevity of your dog, please be consistent and not give in to their endless plea for food. It is possible that switching to a lower calorie formula may allow you to feed your dog slightly more food and maintain proper weight. Also, please don’t cut your dog’s kibble ration to be able to give more treats. Treats have empty calories that hold no nutritional value for the dog. This is a very unhealthy practice.

Prescription diets are available only through a veterinarian and are indicated when a dog has a chronic health issue which requires a special diet outside of the norm. Prescription diets are very expensive and while I recognize the need for some dogs to be on prescription diets, I am pleased that there are many quality commercial diets available that may be suitable alternatives to prescription diets, depending on the health issue. Please speak to your vet regarding any questions about dog foods that may be right for your dog.

In short, I know you want your dog to be healthy and happy and able to live a long and healthy life. Extra weight and poor diet will shorten your dog’s life. Help them to be the best they can be! Help them thrive!


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