Anywhere people live, you'll find dogs. Our species has made its way into nearly every nook and cranny in the world, and we've bred dogs to go with us. One of the main reasons why dogs are so remarkably adaptable is their ability to survive on a variety of foods. While cats need nutrients only found in a meat-based diet, a dog's digestive system can pull the nutrients out of just about anything that's edible. That's why dogs don't need as much protein in their diets as cats. Still, dogs are naturally meat eaters, so meat protein is still an important part of a dog's diet. An all-around balanced diet is a six-part story: protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.
Water of Life
Fresh, clean water is more important to your dog than any other nutrient. About 70 percent of a dog's body is made up of water, which is vital for cell function and tissue lubrication. Dogs can live for many days without food, but a lack of water will kill them quickly. When it's hot outside, or if your dog is sick, especially if he is vomiting or has diarrhea, water is even more important.
If you drink bottled or filtered water because of the quality of tap water in your area, you may want to safeguard your dog's health by also giving him bottled water or investing in a good-quality water filter for your tap.
If you're taking your dog on a trip, don't leave home without either bottled water or a gallon or two of the water your dog is used to drinking. A change in drinking water can bring on an upset stomach. Mix your dog's regular water with the new water for a few days until his digestive system adjusts.
If your dog is suddenly drinking a lot more water than usual -- and having to go out to urinate more often -- it could be a warning sign of several serious health problems, including diabetes and kidney disease. Take your dog to the vet right away for a checkup.
Buying Dog Food: Which Is Best?
You've always suspected dogs eat better than people, and it may well be true. Pet food manufacturers spend millions of dollars researching the nutritional needs of dogs and cooking up tasty foods dogs like (and people will buy). Choosing a dog food that offers complete and balanced nutrition is the first step on the road to your dog's good health, but there are four other factors to consider as well: taste, digestibility, calorie level, and price.
Whatever food you buy should be labeled "complete and balanced." This means the food has just the right amount of nutrients a dog needs to play hard and work hard. But how do you know a food is really okay for your dog to eat? Well, just like any other industry, pet-food makers have rules and regulations to follow. The Association of American Feed Control Officials tells pet-food makers the type of and amount of nutrients that should be in their foods. The manufacturers have to prove their foods meet these standards by conducting feeding trials or chemical analysis of their foods. Feeding trials are the best way to determine whether a diet truly meets a dog's nutritional needs. Look for the words "feeding tests," "AAFCO feeding test protocols," or "AAFCO feeding studies" to make sure the food was tested with feeding trials.
Companies that conduct feeding trials must certify they followed AAFCO guidelines and their nutrition claims are supported by test results.
Taste test. Whether or not your dog likes the food is obviously important, too. You could buy the best food on the market, but if your dog won't eat it then its nutritional value isn't worth a hill of beans. However, just because a food tastes good doesn't mean it is good for your dog. (Think of the foods you love to eat that aren't good for you.) Read labels carefully to ensure the food your dog likes is also good for him.
Look out, stomach. Digestibility means the amount of nutrients in a food that can actually be used by your dog's body. A food with poor digestibility often causes excessive gas, loose or large stools, and diarrhea. On the other hand, a highly digestible food provides the same level of nutrients in a smaller amount of food. This means less waste, resulting in smaller, firmer stools.
To determine digestibility, examine the label for high-quality sources of protein such as meat or poultry, cheese, and eggs. Labels don't contain digestibility information, but you can write or call the company for its figures. Look for foods with at least 75 to 80 percent dry-matter digestibility.
Counting calories. Growing puppies need food that is chock-full of calories and nutrients, but once they hit adulthood, this same diet will cause them to gain too much weight. Read labels carefully to see if a food is intended for puppies, adult dogs, or mature dogs. Some labels show the percentage of calories supplied by carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Money over matter. There's usually a direct relationship between a food's price and the quality of its ingredients. Like the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Although a premium food may have a high price tag, the high nutritional value it provides means you can feed less of it to your dog to meet his nutritional needs. You may even discover its cost per serving is comparable to generic foods. The good nutritional support this kind of food provides means your veterinary bills are also likely to be lower, providing an added savings.
There's an old saying among country folks: A man's most valuable possession is his reputation (well, that and a good hunting dog). The same is true for any business, and in particular, a company that makes pet food. So, the manufacturer's reputation is something else you should factor into the cost of food. A company that cares about its customers -- canine and human -- shows its concern by consistently producing a high-quality product, providing its address and phone number in easy-to-read lettering, and responding quickly and openly to questions about its food. It's easy to see how spending a little extra for a high-quality food can pay off in the long run.
Reading the Label
Ever try to read the ingredients on a package of dog food out loud? Some things are familiar enough, but eventually you run into some tongue-twisting 17-letter scientific words that only a research chemist understands. A good dog owner wants to know what's in his dog's food, but deciphering those labels can be pretty frustrating.
By law, manufacturers must label a food with a name, an ingredient list, a guaranteed analysis of the food's percentages of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture, and the food's nutritional adequacy. Here's a quick guide to understanding what's on a label.
• Ingredients are listed by weight, in decreasing order. For instance, if the first ingredient is lamb, followed by rice, you know the food's main source of protein comes from lamb. But keep an eye out for an ingredient -- wheat, for example -- listed several different ways, such as flour, flakes, middlings, or bran. By splitting the general category of wheat up into these four different forms, each will appear farther down the list than if they were combined and listed as a single ingredient. Of course, even if you buy the same brand all the time, the ingredients may change from batch to batch. Manufacturers change ingredients depending on their price and availability, so check labels from time to time to see if the formula has changed. A change in the formulation isn't necessarily a nutritional problem, but changes in diet are sometimes the cause of digestive trouble in dogs.
• The guaranteed analysis panel will tell you if the nutrients in the food fall between the minimum and maximum percentages of nutrients, but not exact amounts. A particular brand of food may contain much less than the maximum stated on a label or much more than the minimum.
• A nutritional adequacy statement tells whether a food is meant for growth, maintenance, or weight loss; provides complete and balanced nutrition; and whether feeding trials or formulation was used to test the food's nutritional value.
Dry Food vs. Canned Food
Canned dog food looks more like something we'd eat than those chunks of dry kibble. Canned dog food looks more like chopped meat or beef stew, and dogs certainly love to eat it. But is canned food better for dogs than dry food? Not necessarily.
Studies show both canned food and dry food can be nutritionally complete. However, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. As long as the food meets your dog's nutritional needs, just weigh the benefits and potential problems against your dog's age and health, your budget, and your dog's preferences.
Dry foods help prevent the buildup of tartar and plaque on the teeth. Dry dog food can be left out all day without spoiling, and it is generally lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates than canned food. If your dog tends to gain weight easily, a dry food may be the best choice for him.
On the other hand, you might worry your dog will be bored with a diet consisting solely of dry food. Canned food is tasty, and most dogs love it. If you brush your dog's teeth regularly to remove plaque and tartar, a diet of canned food can be just fine. Of course, you can also mix dry and canned foods so your dog will have the best of both worlds.
Feeding Table Scraps: Yes or No?
Any dog owner who tells you he never slipped his pooch a piece of hot dog or gave him the leftover scrambled eggs is pulling your leg. There's nothing wrong with giving your dog an occasional small taste of people food -- as long as it's really occasional. As a regular diet, it's not healthy at all. On the other hand, if you really enjoy cooking and would like to prepare your dog's food at home, here's a tasty recipe that will meet all his nutritional requirements.
Caution: Check with your veterinarian before giving your dog any homemade meals. This is a basic diet for dogs with no known food allergies. Adjust the serving amount depending on your dog's appetite, activity level, energy needs, and weight gain or loss. Switch your dog to this diet gradually to prevent an upset stomach.
Mix the following ingredients together in a large bowl:
11/2 pounds ground meat (chicken, turkey, lamb) browned and drained of most of the fat
1 medium potato, mashed and cooked
2 cups of cooked whole-grain brown rice
1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
1/2 cup cooked barley, mashed
1/2 cup grated raw carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped raw green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, green beans)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Store the homemade dog food in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed bowl, or divide it into daily servings and store it in the freezer, thawing a day or two at a time. You can keep the dog food up to seven days in the refrigerator.
Add the following when serving:
• Yogurt (a teaspoon for a toy dog, a tablespoon for a medium dog)
• A commercial dog multivitamin/mineral supplement
• Herbal supplement (depending on your dog's needs)
(Reprinted with permission from The Consumer's Guide to Dog Food by Liz Palika.)
Dogs love yogurt, and it's good for them, too. If your dog has had to take an antibiotic, giving him plain, unflavored yogurt will repopulate his digestive system with healthy bacterial flora. (Make sure the yogurt contains an active culture.) Adding a small amount of yogurt to the food of a dog with gas can also cut down on his distress.
Avoid Raw Foods
You'd think things like raw meat and eggs would be more "natural" for a dog's diet. After all, his cousins, the wolves and coyote, eat their food raw. But domestication has made our dogs' digestive systems a little more sensitive. Raw meat, poultry, and eggs may contain bacteria -- such as salmonella -- that can make your dog very sick, so it's best to always serve these foods cooked. In addition, raw egg whites interfere with the absorption of biotin, one of the B-vitamins. To prevent accidental illness from raw foods, keep a tight lid on the garbage, don't feed your dog tidbits of raw meat or poultry you're preparing, and forget about that fine old tradition of mixing a raw egg in a dog's food to help give his coat a healthy sheen. If you live on the Pacific Northwest coast, don't let your dog eat any fish he finds on the shore. A parasite common to salmon can cause a potentially fatal disease.
Signs of salmonella or other bacterial poisoning in dogs are much the same as they are in people: loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of energy, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. If your dog has any of these symptoms, take him to the vet immediately. Salmonella can be transmitted from dogs to people, so if your dog is infected, wash your hands carefully after handling him or anything he uses, such as food dishes or toys.