Why Dog Food is the Perfect Diet
Yay! So, my husband, Kevin, and I started a podcast and last week we recorded our first episode. We kind of hate it and we definitely needed a beer afterward. Maybe next time we should drink the beer first. It’s very hard to listen to your own voice. We did a lot of cringing. With every episode, I plan on releasing an accompanying blog post for anyone that wants to retain the information that was discussed.
Episode 1 asks the question, what should my dog eat? The answer is: DOG FOOD! Dog food is the perfect diet, and here is why. First we need to spend some time discussing macros and micros.
Let’s talk about “macros” first. Macronutrients are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Every species has different, unique requirements for percentages of the macros (proteins, fats, carbs) that they require to have a balanced diet. Break this down further – now pick a species – and consider that now different life stages need different percentages of macros to be healthy. Best example of this is that a puppy needs a much higher percentage of protein in his diet than an adult. So my question to everyone that for whatever reason wants to forego dog food is — do you really want to be doing all that math to calculate the correct percentage of protein? Fat? Carbohydrates? Fiber is just one form of carbohydrates, and there are multiple types of fibers, too. Fibers are important, of course, but they become pivotal in many disease states. For example – obesity. Obesity is the most common disease afflicting pet dogs in the US. A certain fiber percentage is, arguably, my favorite treatment for obesity. I say this is arguable because I tend to treat obesity head on, the way it started, with the diet. Many other practitioners take different approaches, but I feel that a high fiber content is absolutely crucial for weight loss.
I can really go down a rabbit hole here, with fiber and weight loss, so let’s agree that we briefly discussed macro calculations and get back on track with micronutrients. Micronutrients are things like vitamins and minerals. These need to be carefully balanced to an incredibly precise degree. A lot of pet owners who prepare “home cooked diets” for their dogs really, severely, underestimate their capabilities to appropriately balance vitamins and minerals. I mean, thinking globally and exiting veterinary medicine, when we began to offer solid foods to, and wean our son, what did the pediatrician prescribe? Vitamins.
There was recently a whole tuss up on the internet over grain free dog foods. We will DEFINITELY be covering fad diets, and exhaustively. But let me summarize this by saying that there was a fad diet centered around the grain-free movement that unfortunately become way too widespread. Recently it was discovered that some dogs on grain free diets developed life-threatening taurine deficiencies. This isn’t a vitamin or mineral deficiency, but it is a micronutrient deficiency that, over time, chronically, causes fatal heart enlargement. This is an easily-made oversight when balancing a home made diet as well.
So, leave it up to the professionals, and just buy dog food that has been responsibly balanced by really smart board-certified nutritionists, in a lab, after decades of research and development.
My mom, Lisa, requested we address why it’s a bad idea to slip your dog table scraps. My TOP reason for this is actually not medical, it’s behavioral. Table scraps are a slippery slope. Once you start giving handouts, you get a dog that begs, that follows you around under your feet while you’re cooking, that forgets their manners. My medical reason for this is because protein can be a really tough thing for a lot of dogs. Proteins can be highly inflammatory to the skin, the small intestine, and to the pancreas. Even if responsibly prepared with no oils, seasonings, etc, you still may cause some subchronic inflammation similar to, but not exactly the same as, an allergic reaction. Food allergies in dogs cause ear infections and itchy skin, and most often allergic-type reactions are due to variable protein introductions such as chicken, pork, etc.
One of the things I wish I did a better job discussing during the podcast is the role of proteins and their effects on the immune system. The immune system is a complicated and surprising system. A lot of people don’t realize that the gastrointestinal tract is part of the immune system. The small intestine reacts to allergens the same way any other part of the immune system does. The larger and more complex or branched the allergen is, the more likely it is to incite a reaction. Proteins happen to be the largest molecules of all the macros and micros we discussed. Therefore, any introduction of a new source of protein is going to cause some level of reaction. These reactions can manifest as itchy or dry skin, a recurring ear infection you thought you finally resolved, diarrhea, or irritated anal glands. Does this sound familiar? Ear infections, anal gland impactions, and diarrhea are some of the most common reasons to present a dog to the vet’s office. Many people will rotate through dog foods pretty quickly. Some people say “Well I don’t want him to get bored of the same old food.” Some people just feel like they’ve never settled on a food that agrees with their dog. No matter what the case, every time you switch foods, ESPECIALLY if the primary protein source in the diet changes each time, you re-ignite an inflammatory reaction. Now, let’s say you have a dog that has a sensitive gastrointestinal tract to begin with, and you’re constantly changing foods, you’re adding insult to injury and creating a chronic, ongoing, inflammatory condition.
I understand at this point you may be overwhelmed thinking about your dog’s diet, wondering if you even know what the protein is (chicken or beef?), and thinking about how often he might have a little bit of this or that while you’re cooking. If you have questions about how to pick out the right dog food, PLEASE: ask you vet! I say this with such emphasis because despite what your local boutiquey pet store is telling you, or what your breeder is telling you, veterinarians, really, truly do have clinical nutritional training. Anyone who is trying to convince you that vets don’t know about nutrition is probably trying to sell you something. You know, like a food, or a supplement. Contrary to what they tell you, no, we don’t get kick backs from pet food companies. In fact, there are only two pet food companies that have tried to buy my recommendations, and before they even tried to buy me out, I already had a poor opinion of their food formulas. We discuss more details of my favorite brands of dog foods in the episode.
We also had a question submitted by our good friend Amy who lives just a few blocks away from us and has an adorable Wheaton named Penny. She asked my favorite question so far, which was how does a dog’s nutritional needs change as they get older?
This is an awesome question because it pulls together a few things we discussed. We previously talked about how nutritional needs change through various life stages such as puppyhood and adulthood. Other life stages that require nutritional adaptation are things like pregnancy, lactation, and seniorhood or geriatric status. As veterinary medicine continues to improve, our pets live longer and longer, and we need to figure out how to cater to that lifestage just the same as we have with puppies and preggos.
Just like in humans, their energy requirements decrease (they need less calories to maintain a good weight) as they age. To what degree calorie needs decline vary from breed to breed, between sex, and just as much as it does from person to person. Interestingly, cats have decreased caloric needs as they become seniors, but then calorie needs increase again as they advance from senior status to geriatric status. Let’s assume the aging dog we are discussing is overall healthy, with no diseases such as cancer or kidney disease that will have more complicated nutritional needs.
How else do their needs change? Skin becomes less elastic, hair less glossy, bones less dense, arthritis more prevalent. The immune system’s capability to fight off disease slowly declines as well. All of these things are a great argument for adding a robust and high quality omega fatty acid supplement to the diet to reduce overall inflammation and keep the skin and coat healthy, the joints happy and healthy. Speaking of the immune system, that’s another great excuse for me to continue my obsession with protein.
We already talked about proteins and their effect on the immune system, so we can make a connection here and say that as a dog ages and it’s immune system becomes less capable, it is a good idea to ensure that the diet’s protein source is both high quality and easily digestible. Digestibility refers to how easy it is for the gastrointestinal tract to break a food down into nutrients and then utilize those nutrients. Commercial dog foods can make proteins easier to digest and utilize with their processing techniques, so in reality proteins such as “chicken byproduct meal” are actually a valuable way to make sure an older dog gets more bang for their buck out of the chicken in their food. Yeah – you heard me – byproducts are not evil! I plan to spend a whole entire episode on byproducts and so-called “fillers,” so if you want to know more about this, stay tuned. Really, my point here is that you want to make sure that an aging dog is getting the most of the protein in their food without causing immune system issues.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to change a diet in a healthy aging dog who is doing just fine, simply because of their climbing age. However, any overweight animal should go on a diet. Amy also asked if a dog should be on an expensive diet, or if less expensive dog foods are just as good. I say that whatever has been working for you, if your dog likes it and they have no health issues, and the price point is good, than keep feeding that food. Don’t fix it if it aint’ broke. Your dog doesn’t need to be on a fancy food – just a food that’s appropriate for it’s life stage. However, looking back to our senior dogs, if you really want to be proactive about their health, that might be the one time when it would pay off to switch to a more high quality and expensive food as the dog ages to ensure optimal protein level and quality.
We went on a few tangents during the podcast but I hope overall this satisfies the broad question of what dogs should eat. We are going to tackle a lot of hot-button nutritional topics in subsequent episodes. Please be on the lookout for the podcast – we haven’t released the episode yet because we are trying to back log multiple episodes before we start releasing them. It’s tough to find time to record while a baby wreaking havoc in our office.