Article © 2000 Darlene Arden. First published in AKC Gazette, March 2000.

Finding the Right Diet

With so many choices --- commercial foods, homemade meals and raw diets --- available to owners today, many fanciers are having a tough time figuring out what to feed. Darlene Arden helps you select the appropriate diet for your dog.

German Shepherds, Grace and Favour, await dinner.  Photo by Brenda Ferner

Dog owners are in the middle of a muddle. They want to do what's nutritionally right for their dogs, but the more choices, the more difficult the decision. We have been taught to feed a complete and balanced diet, from a reputable company, meeting the American Association of Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) requirements. A great deal of money and many years have been spent discovering which nutrients are needed for various stages of life, which formulas work best, and what is palatable. Now, along comes a group of people telling owners that they should be cooking for their dogs, and yet another advocating feeding a raw food diet. How can you decide what's right?

Commercial Dog Foods
The Pet Food Institute, representing most of the commercial dog food manufacturers, states their concern that homemade diets may not provide the nutrition required by the average dog, as has been validated by AAFCO feeding trials or by meeting AAFCO nutrient profiles. Manufacturers of commercially prepared pet foods spend millions of dollars testing their foods to make sure that they will provide appropriate nutrition for pets.

Individuals who rely on homemade diets for their dogs spend a lot of time and love in the process, but have no way to ensure that the ingredients they use are the same from week to week or meal to meal. Also homemade diets cannot guarantee that the nutritional balance of vitamins, mineral, and other nutrients will be present on a consistent basis.

"With the manufactured diets, you fairly well know what the ingredients are," says Raymond Russo, DVM, MS, AAVN, president of Kingston Animal Hospital in Kingston, Mass. "On the other hand, what is included in the 'byproduct' designation can be open to question --- too many indigestible and undesirable components are permissible under that category."

Vitamins, minerals and amino acids may be lost in the manufacturer's cooking process, which can occur if cooking temperatures are kept too high and for too long, resulting in a product of lesser value, and loss of vitamin, mineral and amino acid values. "It can also occur when there is concern about bacterial or endotoxin presence," says Russo.

Archie and Quincy, twice as sweet!   Photo By Una Valanski

It behooves every dog owner to learn to read and understand the labels. Is a corn product mentioned twice? Add those percentages and compare the total to the percentage of chicken or beef to ascertain if you are really buying more corn than meat. Perhaps you will want to seek out one of the companies using human-food grade ingredients. And learn what levels of protein and fat are correct for your dog; too much of either can cause problems.

What about preservatives? Without preservatives the food will become rancid. If you prefer an all-natural preservative, check the expiration date. Some companies have been adding nutraceuticals (products that appear to have beneficial physiological effects beyond their basic nutritional function), as a marketing strategy. This past November, the Fifth Workshop in Pet Food Labeling and Regulations, in St. Louis, found those in the industry addressing the concern of making labels more easily understood.










"In general, I feel that the pet food producers are doing a reasonably good job of improving their product," says Russo. "The competition is so intense between the best-known producers that they are constantly scrutinizing and imitating their products, so that there is very little prospect of one leaping substantially ahead of the others. So much so that one of the drawbacks of the manufactured 'premium' brands is that they may have become too high-powered --- too proteinized, too caloric, too fatty, too stimulating."

Whether you choose commercial or homemade depends on the manufacturer and your degree of commitment, says canine behaviorist Jill Connor, Ph.D., president of Canine Behavior Consultants in Huntington, NY, and host of the weekly radio program Bite Back. Poor-quality dry dog food, she says, is "totally unacceptable."

"Poorly manufactured food containing additives and filler often does produce behavior problems," says Connor. "Allergy to the additives and endotoxins, which low-quality manufactured dog food is not tested for, is the most common cause. These problems can manifest as excessive scratching, self-mutilation, high anxiety, lack of attention, seizures, housebreaking failures and aggression. to name a few. Whenever a dog suddenly presents unusual behavioral issues, I suggest changing the food along with a thorough veterinary checkup."

Although Connor doesn't like canned food, dogs that are not getting enough water may be better off with a canned food to help prevent formation of stones and crystals. No one said that the choices would be easy. "The truth is that we're still a generation away from the availability of really good pet foods," says Russo. "We --- veterinarians, nutritionists, pet food producers and the pet food-buying public --- are still learning more and more about what we should be providing our pets; but we're not there yet. The plain fact is that producers are too concerned with bottom line and market share considerations; and cost and competition pressures to have the highest quality product."

Russo believes the need to satisfy the public becomes a critical issue; owners are most concerned with palatability and acceptance, convenience and speed of usage to be always aware of the uppermost need to provide a complete and balanced diet. If the dog enjoys the product. and appears to do relatively well on it, it is assumed to be a good product.

"In general, most dog food companies are doing a better job of delivering desirable pet food products to the public than before," says Russo. "The consuming public is much more aware, discerning and concerned than earlier; and pet food companies are under stronger scrutiny by more sophisticated buyers and civilian watchdog organizations."

Homemade and Raw Diets
Jean Hofve, DVM a holistic veterinarian and companion animal program coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute, says the problem with commercial food is that most of the data has been extrapolated from research in other species. She recommends a homemade diet, knowing you are buying good-quality ingredients. "The only thing that you don't control is 100 percent of what goes into a multi-vitamin supplement." says Hofve, "but you have a good idea that you're buying from a reputable company.

Bygodde Samalamadingdong ("Sam") and Ch. Westwood Bygodde Chymnbigben
CGC ("Ben") relax after eating the proper diet. Photograph by John Eggleston.







Russo thinks homemade diets are promising but it is too early to tell. "We're beginning to see and hear of good results using these methodologies, but there haven't been enough long-term, in-depth studies that are very verifiable, to permit early, blanket judgments to be made."

Both Russo and Hofve agree the homemade diet will have to be balanced consistently. It is dangerous if not balanced: "If you're going to commit to make a homemade diet, commit to do it right, because I have had animals come in that were very sick from unbalanced diets," says Hofve. Raw diets are generally uncooked except for things like rice or pasta, and utilize raw vegetables, raw meat or chicken, preferably organically raised from animals raised on organic food that are free of hormones and chemicals. They have a limited shelf life. Some raw-diet disciples use the BARF (Bone And Raw Food) diet.

"Raw diets are potentially hazardous to the dog and the human feeding it; e coli is deadly to humans," says Connor. "Dogs are omnivores, and do not do well on raw meat alone. Even if the dog's owner were to struggle to maintain proper nutrition by adding vitamin powder, fresh vegetables, et cetera --- a full time job! --- this diet cannot possibly match a high premium dry dog food in terms of meeting the nutritional needs of the dog. Behavior problems will most likely result from the lack of nutrition and subsequent breakdown of the immune system, rather than allergy."

Hofve feeds her own pets raw meat and cooked vegetables but states there are many cases where you would not want to do that. Since a healthy, or at least competent immune system is required, neither chemotherapy nor cancer patients, nor transplant recipients, should handle raw meat. Nor should it be given to animals with severe gastrointestinal disease or auto-immune disease --- "disease where the immune system is clearly not functioning properly," Hofve emphasizes. Animals that are past the point of no return, as well as very young animals, probably should not be fed raw diets. "Depending on the functionality of the immune system, you want to be really careful."

Hofve advocates organic meats because the bacteria loads in ground beef are often higher than the average dog is designed to be exposed to. She advises against ground meat because after mixing, the contaminated outside portion is in the middle, spreading the contamination. She recommends chunk meat that can be rinsed off, blanched quickly, or dunked in some type of cleansing solution. "Some adherents even insist on meat products being frozen for 48 hours to help reduce bacterial presence" says Russo. He adds that raw foods are as safe as the preparer "Such food preparation is highly subjective and personal. If the food is prepared cleanly and with care, the results can be very gratifying." He cautions that people be especially careful about prevention of bacterial infection being introduced. Russo has not yet had any difficulties with this approach. "Being relatively new, most clients do not know of' this narrow approach to feeding, and it becomes doubly important to be constantly aware of content and sanitation.

Young Vizslas, well-fed, curious and happy. Photograph by Mary Rathbun
"With the raw or all-natural diets, there may be great variation in ingredient content if the diets are homemade, from one preparer to another," Russo points out. "How wholesome and of what quality will the ingredients be'? One would suspect that someone going to all that trouble would be desirous of preparing a high-quality mixture, but then there might be the possibility of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink rather than being balanced and complete."

Hofve and Russo agree that both homemade and raw diets "absolutely" need supplementation. "Ian Billinghurst's raw meaty bones diet has vegetables and other things in there," says Hofve. "You can't isolate one food group and just eat that. Raw meaty bones are great. they do wonders for their teeth, they do wonders for their coat, but it's not a complete meal. The trace elements can't be duplicated just by eating meaty bones. People get into this and they get carried away," says Hofve.

"Most holistic vets will tell you that raw bones of an appropriate size to the dog will not hurt them," says Hofve. "I have heard of cases where dogs have split the bone and had sharp pieces go down and perforate the intestines." She also tells of one person who said her dog cracked a bone, swallowed it, and passed the knife-like sharp piece of bone with no problem. "I think the mistake people make is twofold: one is they give a bone that's too big for the dog, and they let them sit out too long; it will get really dried out and hard and then it will splinter, and it will crack teeth and it'll punch holes in tummies. You have to be careful."

Some raw diet proponents point to the wolf as a comparison. Others disagree. "The domestic dog and the wolf are separated by several millennia, and cannot truly be compared. The wolf is actually an omnivore, feeding on vegetation and berries, not only meat," says Connor. "I do know of one case where the owner insisted on a raw diet and her two Maltese died as a result."

"I feed my animals raw food; I recommend it with reservations because I don't want to be responsible for other people taking my word for it and having a bad outcome, says Hofve. "People need to be responsible for themselves and take appropriate precautionary steps and use common sense." Although Hofve feeds homemade and raw, she doesn't do that as a sole diet, "It's like diving off the high board to switch your animal to 100 percent homemade."

You Are What You Eat

Vizsla puppies. Photo by Mary Rathbun
"The term 'you are what you eat' is quickly being proven true, 'says Connor. "Improper diet and sedentary lifestyle have proven to be catalysts in a majority of serious illnesses in the human population. Dogs are no different. In fact, because owners often don't do enough research, dogs are more likely to be fed inadequate diets than are humans in the same home. For every dollar you spend on high-quality dry food, you save $100 in veterinary bills as the dog ages.

As a practitioner, Russo finds that he must initiate a nutrition discussion with his clients. He ascertains the age and life stage of' the dog as well as the owner's ability to absorb cost. If someone can't afford an expensive food, Russo asks which food they have had success with in the past. So many new foods have come onto the marketplace that it is assumed there is something wrong with the older foods. This isn't true. Russo suggests, in this case, getting something that has "held up to the test of time." Many people may not have the time to prepare a homemade diet that is consistently complete and balanced. Another factor: The dog may have special health concerns. Often there are middle of the line products that are quite acceptable.

"For most people with time constraints, I suggest that they use a respected 'name brand that is accepted by the dog, stay with it for two months and evaluate," says Russo. "If the dog remains healthy, retains weight and has a lustrous coat, remain with your selection. It is well to avoid switching brands since variety is not needed. I often will recommend using both dry and canned food to satisfy tastes and balance. I avoid generic [no brand] foods because this is one instance where you indeed get what you pay for."

Hofve says that her own animals do better on certain types of commercial foods than on others. "You see it first in the coat, you see a dry, or a greasy-looking coat and dandruff. Any diet is going to be dangerous if it's not balanced properly," says Hofve. "With a raw diet you have the balance problem plus the bacterial contamination problem. With a cooked homemade diet you have a balance problem. In a commercial diet you may also have a balance problem because they are designed to be not optimal but adequate for the majority of dogs." She thinks more dogs are falling outside that majority. "We're finding that they need special supplementation.

"They all have their good points, they all have their bad points," says Hofve candidly. "Find out what works for you and what works with your dogs. If your dog is doing well on his current brand of food, leave him on it. The thing to remember is: Find out what works for your animal."

Both Connor and Hofve are equally enthusiastic about the condition of their dogs. Connor is feeding a high-quality commercial product. Hofve is feeding raw some days, commercial the other, and claims to see great improvement since she began to add raw foods to the diet. There are also those who add fresh vegetables and/or meat to their dog's commercial food. And there are those who say that this unbalances the balanced diet you're paying for.

Lewis the Shih Tzu tries a new treat.
Photo by Ronnie Warren Ashcroft

"At present, there is frustration and confusion in the ranks, even among the experts,' "says Russo. "There is no acknowledged 'best' dog food --- what seems best for one dog or one owner may not be best for another. There is no universal answer; certainly, there is no 'one size fits all. There are generalizations we can live with --- recognized premium foods are clearly superior to the generic brands --- economics dictates that. Also, there are new concepts that offer real promise."