Is My Dog Eating the Best Diet?
Back when I was working in a pet store, one of the most common questions I received was “what is the best food I can feed my dog?” Every pet owner just wants to do the best they can for their dog but what’s best for one dog may not work at all for the next. Just as every human cannot thrive on the same exact diet, neither can dogs. Now, this is not going to be a post where I say that all dogs should be on a homemade diet because that’s just not realistic. While I obviously do promote feeding fresh food diets, they take a lot of work, time and money and it’s not feasible for every owner to have those capabilities. I am writing this more as a way for owners to decide if the food they are choosing to feed is the best option for their dog based on how the dog responds. This also is not meant to get you to switch from kibble to a raw food diet if the questions lead you to believe your dog may need a diet switch. You may just decide to switch to a different kibble, and that is totally okay too.
If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, it may be time to consider switching to a new diet. Remember to feed the dog in front of you. What is considered to be the ”best diet” means nothing if your dog shows adverse reactions to it.
*Disclaimer: If you have any concerns regarding your dogs’ health, you should always consult with your veterinarian.*
Is the diet complete and balanced for the correct life stage?
The first step to ensuring you are feeding an appropriate diet is to make sure that it is formulated to be meeting their nutritional needs at their given life stage. Feeding a puppy a diet that is not formulated for growth can lead to growth deformities. Additionally, feeding an adult a puppy formula can lead to weight gain as they are often much higher in calories.
For commercial diets: Look at the back of the package for a nutritional adequacy statement. There are 3 different options that you may see
- “X food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for Y lifestage”
- “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that X food provides complete and balanced nutrition for Y lifestage.”
- “X food provides complete and balanced nutrition for Y lifestage and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests”
The different life stages are you will see in the adequacy statements are:
- Growth (including/ except the growth of large breed dogs)
- All life stages ((including/ except the growth of large breed dogs)
If you have a puppy, you will want to be sure that the food you are feeding is balanced for either all life stages (ALS) or growth. Furthermore, if you have a dog that you expect to be over 70lbs when they are full grown, you will want to be sure that the food is balanced for large breed growth.
This can be a bit trickier but in order to know if the diet is balanced, you will need to look into how the diet was formulated. If it uses ratios or percentages, it is likely not nutritionally balanced and can cause significant health problems down the line. For puppies, nutritional deficiencies or excesses can cause growth problems and even irreversible health problems.
Can your dog maintain a healthy weight by eating within the feeding guidelines?
On the back of the bag, there will be a feeding chart that lays out how much food to feed for different weights of dogs. Contrary to popular belief, these guidelines were set for a reason, and that reason is not to get pet owners to feed excess food and therefore buy more. Rather, companies have set these amounts to ensure that nutrient requirements are being met. Feeding under the recommended amount can cause nutrient deficiencies and feeding over can cause excesses. Therefore, if you are unable to feed within the guidelines you will want to switch to a food that will allow you to do so.
Before deciding on a food to switch to, you’ll want to do some math.
- Calculate how many calories your dog is currently eating.
- Somewhere on the bag you will find a heading called energy density. There you should find the kcal/cup. Once you find that, multiply that number by the number of cups of food your dog is eating per day. This will give you the amount of calories that is being consumed each day
- Evaluate your dog’s current body condition score(BCS)- or even better would be to have your vet evaluate. Ideally, you should aim for a BCS of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-9.
- If your dog is in the healthy range, you will want to find a lower calorie food that allows you to feed within the recommended guidelines while feeding the same amount of calories.
- If your dog is slightly underweight, you will want to find a food that provides more calories but allows you to feed within the recommended guidelines.
- If your dog is overweight, you will want to find a lower calorie food that allows you to feed within the recommended guidelines while providing slightly less calories
- Asking your vet for recommendations on how many calories the dog should be consuming daily is oftentimes helpful. Restricting calories too much can be counterintuitive.
When looking at options for food, come prepared with these numbers and a calculator so that you can do the math. For each bag of food you look at, do the following:
- Determine the amount of calories the recommended feeding would provide by multiplying the kcal/cup by both the lower end and higher end of the range.
- Compare these numbers to the current amount of calories
- Decide if this feeding amount would accomplish your goal of either feeding the same calories, less calories or more calories.
If your dog has trouble maintaining a healthy weight, start by monitoring how many calories they are consuming daily. Nutrient content will need to be adjusted as you’re adjusting calorie intake.
Are your dogs skin and coat in good condition?
There are many indications of unhealthy skin and coat conditions in dogs. Some signs that your dog’s coat isn’t in the best shape that it could be are if the fur is brittle, dull or dry. Additionally, the skin should be smooth and supple. Signs of unhealthy skin include excessive itching, dandruff, redness, bumps and bald patches.
Nutrition plays a huge role in skin and coat health, so making sure that you are feeding a balanced diet for your dog’s life stage and feeding within the guidelines are both very important factors to start with. If both of these conditions are being met already, there are other factors to be considered such as a food intolerance. It is important to note that there are many non-diet related factors that impact skin and coat such as environmental allergies, autoimmune diseases, improper grooming, and parasites such as fleas and demodex mites. If you suspect any of these, please consult with your veterinarian regarding treatment.
Adding a fish oil supplement can aid in skin and coat health by increasing preformed omega 3 fatty acids. Many commercial diets include plant sources of omega 3 such as flaxseed and coconut oil which provide alpha- linoleic acid (ALA). ALA has a very low conversion rate to the preformed fatty acids EPA and DHA that dogs require so it can be very beneficial to provide these in the form of a supplement. Keep in mind that if there is an underlying disease or a food intolerance, adding fish oils may just mask the problem rather than eliminate it.
Does your dog have healthy bowel movements?
There are several factors to consider when determining if your dog has healthy bowel movements. How are they formed? Do they have a regular schedule? What color are they? What about the smell? How often do they go each day? It is important to note that not all poop issues are related to diet and can be a sign of underlying disease so you should always talk to your vet if you are concerned.
First, we’ll talk about how they are formed. Using the Bristol Stool Chart is incredibly beneficial to know if your dog’s poop is too hard or too soft. Normal stool falls between type 3 and 4- if your dog regularly has bowel movements that fall outside of those types, you will want to consider altering the diet after taking a trip to the vet. Stools that are too soft can indicate inflammation in the GI tract and/or a lack in fiber. It can also be caused by a food intolerance or nutrient deficiency. Raw feeders that use ratios may see loose stools from feeding 5% liver- which would need to be corrected nutritionally. On the other end of the spectrum, hard stools can also be caused by incorrect levels of fiber. For raw feeders, this can also be caused by the large amounts of bone typically fed in ratio style diets.
Now we’ll talk about frequency as I get a lot of questions from owners asking if their dog is pooping too often or not enough. It’s not uncommon for some dogs to have bowel movements several times per day while others only go once. How often they go is dependent on many factors including age, how much they eat, how frequently they eat and the fiber makeup of their diet. One thing that is often touted as a reason to switch to a raw diet is that dogs will have smaller, less frequent poops. However, this is typically simply because the raw diet has far less carbohydrates and therefore fiber, than kibble diets. More information on the benefits of carbohydrates and fiber in canine diets can be found here. Whether they go once or 3 times a day, as long as they are having well formed stools it is likely not a cause of concern.
Raw feeders often like to say that a benefit of raw feeding is that there will be no more smelly poops. While the goal is to reduce the smell of the dogs bowel movements, raw diets alone may not solve that problem. Furthermore, kibble fed dogs don’t always have smelly poops and it shouldn’t be something that is considered normal. Overly smelly bowel movements and even gas can be a sign that there is digestive upset- something that can happen no matter what type of diet is being fed.
Are your dogs ears and eyes clean?
If your dog frequently has itchy ears that result in ear infections or goopy eyes, they *may* have a food intolerance- emphasis on the “may.” These are also very common symptoms of environmental allergies and should be discussed with a vet. If the symptoms only started after the addition of a new food, topper, treat etc., it would be a pretty good guess to say that something food related is causing the issues.
Does your dog ever vomit after eating?
This one may be pretty self explanatory but if your dog is frequently vomiting after they eat, something is not right. There are many things that could cause this and as stated above, not all are diet related. If the dog is vomiting right after meal time, I would take a look at how fast they are eating. Perhaps try a slow feeder if you believe they are eating too fast. If they are vomiting bile several hours after eating it is likely bilious vomiting (aka hunger pukes). A way to try to prevent this would be to spread out meal times.
For raw feeders, feeding too much fat can often lead to acid reflux symptoms. Commercial raw diets are often extremely high in fat. The low zinc content common in ratio diets can also lead to deficiencies for which acid reflux is a symptom.
Before switching foods due to vomiting, it is important to see a vet to rule out any health conditions such as pancreatitis.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means but it is a good place to start. With so many food options out there, it is important to know whether the food you are feeding is working well with your dog. If you have any questions or want recommendations on where to start, don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com