By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you follow my health and wellness advice, you know I’m bullish on living with positive intention and reframing our setbacks as opportunities. But I’ll be honest. Every now and then, something really sets me off.
Most recently, it was news of the latest dog food recall.
I’m a HUGE dog lover, and the rash of recalls in past years has certainly made me wonder just what’s in a lot of our pet foods. But this one took the cake.
J.M. Smucker—maker of Gravy Train, Kibbles ‘N Bits, Skippy, and Ol’ Roy (the brands affected)—was pulling some of its wet dog foods out of stores due to contamination with pentobarbital, a euthanasia drug.
You heard me right, a euthanasia drug!
I can’t think of worse news for dog parents than finding out the food they give to their pets every day contains a drug that is literally used in end-of-life situations. (That being said, I commend J.M. Smucker for doing the right thing and initiating a voluntary recall.)
Is There Such a Thing as Safe, Healthy Dog Food?
If you own a dog, you’re probably wondering what, exactly, you can feed him or her that will deliver the nutrition your dog needs and minimize the possibility the next recall will affect you.
The good news is that there are a lot of high-quality options out there. Which one is best for you will depend on the time and resources you have available.
The first step in choosing a new diet for your dog is determining how well he or she is eating now.
Your dog’s appearance can often clue you in as to whether his or her food is a healthy, high-quality product. Is the hair dull (not good) or shiny (good)? Is the skin dry, flaky, or inflamed? If so, that may be a sign of inadequate nutrition.
Another indicator is mood. Just like with people, food can affect your dog’s behavior and disposition. If your pet is irritable, hyperactive, or nervous, a poor diet could be to blame.
Finally, as unpleasant as it may sound, take a close look at your dog’s poop. Anything less than formed, dark brown, firm stools may be a sign that your dog isn’t eating the healthiest food.
Options for Making Your Dog’s Food Healthier
Once you have a sense for how good your dog’s current diet is, you can decide what, if anything, you want to do to improve it. Options vary according to cost and time. Here are three you should consider:
Switch to Premium Dog Food
The easiest upgrade you can make is to keep feeding your dog store-bought kibble, but switch to premium products.
A sad truth about pet foods is that you usually get what you pay for. Typically, premium products contain fewer or no chemical additives, and their ingredients tend to be of higher quality. Budget products are more likely to contain fillers and questionable ingredients such as ground up beaks, feet, or even diseased tissue. Vets consider dog food companies who print the following statement on their food to be top tier foods (because they have bioavailability data to substantiate their claims): “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [name of dog food] provide complete and balanced nutrition for [adult, puppy, senior maintenance].” The food tests are often part of why premium products cost more.
Pay particular attention to the source of protein in your dog’s food, as well as the quantity. An excess of low-quality protein can tax your dog’s kidneys, liver, and immune system. Holistic vets tend to recommend that a dog’s diet contain just 18 percent protein for most ages other than puppies. Older dogs need even less.
Now, switching your dog from one food to another is often easier said than done. Believe it or not, animals can become addicted to a certain diet, making an overnight change difficult. To avoid the digestive upset that may come with a wholesale change, make your switch gradually over 1 to 2 weeks. Some veterinarians suggest mixing 10 percent new food with the old for a couple of days, then increasing gradually to 25, 50, 75, 90, and finally 100 percent.
If the new diet is working for your dog, you’ll notice better vitality, a healthier-looking coat, and fewer illnesses.
Add Quality Human Food: Vegetables and Meat
The next option—sharing wholesome table scraps and adding meat and vegetables in addition to a regular kibble diet—is a powerful upgrade without a big sacrifice of time or money.
The approach is simple. Use the best-quality kibble you can afford as the base, then add broth, meat, fresh vegetables, and fruit (stay away from grapes or raisins, though), oatmeal, ground chicken, and egg yolks. See what your dog likes. Canines often go for broccoli, grated carrots, and string beans. Some people also add raw meat from their fridge into to the mix, but I’d steer clear of that. There’s too much risk of bacterial illness, for both your pet and for you and your family.
Try not to go overboard with non-dog food: a safe limit is 10 percent of daily calories. Also remember to mix up the menu – Variety provides a wider range of nutritional intake than giving your dog the same food every day (though too much variety can cause loose stools, so find the sweet spot).
Prepare Homemade Meals for Your Dog
The third option is both the most expensive and time consuming—and also the most controversial.
Making your own dog food is a great option as far as avoiding contamination goes, because you know exactly what goes into it. The downside is that it’s easy to short-change your dog nutritionally if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.
Dogs have very specific nutritional needs, and too much or too little of many nutrients can lead to health problems over time. If you want to make your own dog food, the best way to is to consult with a nutritionally-oriented veterinarian who can develop a customized “menu” that’s tailored to your dog’s specific health needs. I recommend finding a board-certified veterinary nutritionist; you can learn more about, and search a directory of, veterinary nutritionists through this Acvn.org page.
For more details on making a homemade diet, you may also find this article written by Jean Hofve, D.V.M. helpful – Hofve is a veterinarian with a special interest in nutrition.
Regardless of which option you choose, looking into the health and safety of your dog’s food is a smart idea. It will be well worth your time, effort, and potentially money to make sure best friend is getting only the best food in his or her bowl.
Lastly, to ensure your dog’s getting the full spectrum of nutrition needed for optimal health, I also recommend supplementing any diet – whether homemade or store-bought – with a multivitamin for dogs. It’s extra “insurance” against nutritional deficiencies.
This blog has been reviewed and approved by veterinarian, Emily Wilkinson, DVM.
References and resources:
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.
- Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Reading Labels. Aafco.org, accessed Feb. 28, 2018.
- American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Frequently Asked Questions. Acvn.org, accessed Feb 28, 2018.
- Hofve J. Homemade Diets for Cats and Dogs. Little Big Cat. Nov 18, 2010.
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