Canine Cuisine, Part Three: So, what should I feed my dog?

In Part 1 of the Canine Cuisine trilogy, Name that Food,  I talked about how the name of the pet food itself gave you clues as to its content. In Part 2: Name that Ingredient, I went into detail about some of those baffling ingredient names you see on the back. In the last installment, I answer the omnipresent question of, “What should I feed my dog?”

This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions I get asked as a veterinarian. I wish I could make it easy for you and just say, “Feed Brand XXX,” because that would make life a lot easier for all of us, but I can’t in good faith do it. Not until I get a sponsor*, at least. (kidding!)

If you want to see the dog world version of the breast milk versus formula debate throwdowns that seem to overrun most parenting forums, hit up a dog forum at some point and look up the food debate. It gets ugly. They duke it out like the Hatfields and the McCoys, blood and hair flying around, twisted limbs flying into the air over the seemingly innocent question of what one should put in the dog’s dish. In one corner, we have the BARF extremists- not that all BARFers are extremists, mind you- swearing that raw meaty bones and chicken necks cure all ailments from skin allergies to cancer, vets don’t know squat about nutrition, and all kibble feeding dog owners are morons. In the other corner, we have the old-school people who insist they have raised 15 generations of champion schnoodles on Ol’Roy, vets don’t know squat about nutrition, it is just as good as any other brand on the market and how dare you say they are a bad owner. The truth, I think (ok, I know), is probably somewhere in between.

So what should you feed your dog?

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Well, it depends. I’m sorry. I know you wanted a better answer. I know you know doctors who are unfailingly loyal in their black and white views of things and believe every question is answered “42”, but if you and I are going to have an understanding, you have to know I spend ridiculous amounts of time exploring corners and crannies and opinions and it is very hard for me to answer questions like that with a simple reply.

What are your dog’s specific needs? Are you asking what is the best food available, anywhere? Does it have to be one you can get at PetSmart? The grocery store? Are you asking what you should feed that is under X number of dollars a month? All of these factors come into play with varying degrees of importance. The correct context of the question is, “What brand should I pick that falls within these particular constraints.” Ask yourself, what matters most to you?

COST

If cost is your number one factor, you’re probably not investing a lot of time into researching ingredient lists to begin with, but you should. That being said, I always encourage people to remember how much LESS food you feed when you use a high quality, low filler food. If I were to feed Well Known Brand A, Emmett’s recommended amount is 5 1/2 – 6 3/4 cups a day. On his current food, Lesser Known and Less Filler, he gets 3 cups of food a day. Literally, half the amount. And you don’t need to grab the most expensive food on the shelf to make a good choice- there are many very good choices squarely within the middle price tier.

CONVENIENCE

If it’s convenience you are after, I’m heartened to find all sorts of stores more likely to carry high quality foods among their offerings that ever before. The selection at the grocery store isn’t so great, at least around here, but Petco has a really big selection of higher quality foods like Wellness, Evo, and the like. PetSmart has among its offerings, Blue Buffalo and Avoderm. And Wal-Mart, yes, Wal-Mart, carries a few selections from the Newman’s Organics line. Stuffed behind the Ol’ Roy, of course, but there if you look.

QUALITY

If it’s quality you want, the best of the best, you may be doing a little more driving. Smaller boutique stores do offer more of the “super-premium” brands, more now than ever after the whole melamine disaster. The less parent companies your dog food has, the better. Same goes for your own food, really. I know some people in rural areas use mail-order websites and find that to be a great convenience- those of you that do, do you have any websites to recommend? I’m always scared to look at the shipping costs.

BARF: Sinister bag of bony bacteria, or panacea?

Then there is the whole home-cooking/raw food angle to explore. I’m interested in learning more about it, but for now I know very little- so suffice it to say I am withholding any judgment whatsoever on it. I know some vets react to the idea as if you said, “Hey doc, I’m feeding my dog nuclear waste, what do you think?” but I prefer to keep a more open mind on the topic. To be honest, I, and 95% of the clients I meet, are just not able/willing to put in that level of time to do it and do it right, but if I were, I’d give it a shot. I did conduct a brief experiment with raw food with one of my cats, and it was a very positive experience. So there you go. Don’t tell my colleagues.

As to specific brands, you just have to try different ones, read labels, and figure it out as you go. For every person who loves Brand Q and thinks it cured some disease process, there is another person who claims Brand Q caused their dog to vomit/lose all his fur/keel over dead. There is no one size fits all brand and it can take some experimentation to arrive at the one that is best for you. Case in point: my own.

WHAT DR. V FEEDS (ie, this could take a while)

I had Emmett and Mulan, both Goldens, on Evo for a long time. They did very well, and their skin was the best it had ever looked. Emmett’s chronic ear infections resolved. Unfortunately, they also both gained about 15 pounds because I hadn’t figured out just how little of it they needed. I was feeding under the recommended amounts and this still happened.

Then Mulan started having kidney issues, which were compounded by the fact that she was eating a very high protein diet. I put her temporarily on a prescription kidney diet to see if her kidney values would normalize, which caused her to develop nasty hotspots within a week of starting it.

So then I had to find a low protein, low antigen, moderate calorie diet for an overweight food allergic renal failure dog. She ended up on a vegetarian kibble, which Emmett was miffed about, but he had to go along with it too. It took me a while to figure out how to manage that one, and good God, I think I’m pretty knowledgable on the topic to start with! And that was 100% having to read and deconstruct every label on every bag of dog food in multiple stores over a couple of months. Now that Mulan is gone Emmett is on a different, more palatable formula, but I do rotate a lot. I believe in rotating foods when it’s feasible. (ETA: After Emmett’s diagnosis of lymphoma, it changed again. He gets a combination of home cooked and Wellness Core.)

I don’t like recommending specific brands, because if a client doesn’t like that one brand for whatever reason, they tend to extrapolate that to every bit of advice I give in the future: “Well, she told me to feed that duck and potato food and Bob got the WORST gas, so she’s probably wrong about his luxating kneecaps too! Where’s the other guy?” Besides that, there are new products and brands popping up every week and I can’t memorize them all. So instead, I try to teach interested owners (the uninterested ones’ eyes gloss over) how to label read. To avoid corn. To look for named protein sources (ie, not “meat”). And then I throw out a couple brands for good measure.

*None of which, by the by, are the ones we vets are so often accused of pimping in return for trips all over the globe. I swear that is the number one vicious rumor I hear about veterinarians, and it drives me crazy. Not every practice works the same way, but I get zero kickback, points for trips, or anything other than the occasional free pen from a pet food maker to motivate me to recommend them. That, and the satisfaction of knowing I gave good advice, which is worth 10,000 trips to Europe. I can say that because no one will ever call my bluff by offering me those trips, but I am OK with that. Virtue is its own reward.

So tell me, because I always love to hear experiences- what are you feeding your dog? How do you like it?

Filed: Dogs, Health, Picks of the Litter, Reviews
  • Kim

    We use Hills Prescription Diet R/D. This was difficult for me – I was extremely mad at Hills during the whole recall madness (a sin by silence, in my opinion). Ally was an underweight puppy so she pretty much could eat whatever she wanted…and then she became overweight. We went to one vet (for a nail trim) who said she was obese while the other said that she was not obese but could stand to lose a few pounds (we think the first vet was seeing Ally as solely a chihuahua when she really is a mixed breed). Based on the original vet’s recommendations, we cut her food way down (Nutro) and the poor girl was always starving. We tried carrots and other veggies to fill her up and she would just vomit. It was pathetic. You know the movie 101 Dalmations? That was her. ”I’m so very hungry.”

    When we went back to our normal vet to see what they thought, they recommended Hills. She was able to eat more (not as much but more), she loved her food and she lost over 4 pounds. She has about 2 to go but now that winter is over, she should be able to be more active outdoors.

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    Wow Kim, good job! r/d is a very effective weight loss diet in my experience.

    Not a big Hills fan either, at least of the over the counter products, but they have some nice prescription diets (as do the other manufacturers.)

  • Jamie

    We played with so many foods when Chase was alive, for the majority of his life, and thankfully the last year and a half of his life we found EVO.

    Chase always had a hard time with allergies, which were thought to be seasonal at first, but then turned out to be seasonal AND food. Of course when he was a pup, we were all about Pedigree… we were very uneducated in the food department. He was my first REAL dog.. just mine, on my own, even though I had a bunch of dogs growing up… and well, my parents fed Ol’Roy anyway. *shudder* So he was on Pedigree for the first 4 years of his life until these allergies came to surface. After talk with the vet and lots of research on my own…we went to Nutro, then Hills prescription, and a few others inbetween, then finally found a store that sold EVO. After EVO, his allergies cleared up, his coat became shiny and soft… it was fantastic. We needed the no grain, no animal by-products for him, and EVO just seemed to be the one that did the job… finally! Even though he is gone, we have the other two dogs on EVO still. I am pretty pro-EVO and don’t plan on changing anytime soon!

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    Jamie, EVO did wonders for my dogs’ skin and allergies too. Good stuff!

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    I guess I would say I agree with you that the concept of home-cooking is what seems so appealing, as opposed to the *raw* aspect of it. One of the reasons I stopped with my cats was a concern about the kids being around the raw food and any chance of their getting contaminated. How did you figure out a recipe?

    Interesting about the Natura guidelines- good to know! They probably assume I exercise my dog a lot more than I do. (bad owner)

  • Jamie

    The Natura recommendations are more than I feed my dogs. The EVO bag says an adult dog in my dogs weight range should have 2 1/4 – 2 3/4 per day… and my dogs get one cup per feeding and there is always food left behind, especially in the morning, they are just not morning eaters. One of my dogs could even stand to lose 5 more pounds, so I know they aren’t starving! So I do agree that Natura says to feed your dog more than than need.

  • http://www.anewstartonlife.com Lisa

    Lol, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a dog food snob! Working with the rescue dogs that I do (puppy mill dogs), I personally feed Solid Gold. Our other foster homes feed a variety from Merrick Wilderness Blend, Natural Balance and home cooked foods with multiple supplements and additives. We often get adopters asking what foods are good foods. Without sounding like I’m giving a sermon, I tell them to look at the ingredient listing. If the first 5 ingredients are corn in any form, wheat or by-products, to put it back. I explain about corn and wheat being big allergy triggers, and that corn is used as a filler and the more filler in the food, the more you’re scooping in the yard. I do recommend the brands that I’ve mentioned, plus Nutro, Nutro Max, and Pro Plan. One of my lines to adopters if you’re paying $12 for 50 lbs of food, you’re paying for 50 lbs of crap. Surprisingly, the adopters are very open to using a good quality food.

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    Oh, and thank you for what you do!!!

  • http://www.anewstartonlife.com Lisa

    Oh, Dr. V, the praise goes to the dogs who overcome their fear, health problems and other baggage to become part of the families that adopt them. God bless the adoptive families too, for having the patience and not minding that they may come home to a mess because we just can’t get the house training down to 100%.

    I haven’t used Pro Plan personally but the people that I know who do use it have pretty healthy dogs. They haven’t mentioned having their dogs develop allergies to it, nor any digestive problems. But, the majority of them have sturdy mixed breed dogs. I’ve noticed more digestive problems with the pure bred dogs we get in.

    And speaking of pure breeds and digestive problems, we’re taking a 2 yr old Cairn with mega-e that is in California. We had a lh Doxie a few years ago that we had surgery done on. He’s doing ok now.

  • macula_densa

    Interesting…

    Strombeck was an associate of Sharon Center, who was one of the internal medicine gurus (specifically liver guru) at Cornell, and I know he was looked upon by many there as being a fantastic nutritionist. However, I’m reading on VIN that nutritional guidelines have been updated, so that recipe book is now out of date with what it recommends.

    I felt as though Isis had done really well with that diet, so it seemed like I did something right, but I’m wondering which guidelines have changed from what’s in the book? I guess I’ll have to research it some more.

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    What I don’t understand is, why it is clouded in such secrecy and confusion as to how to get a balanced diet. If AAFCO guidelines exist and manufacturers adhere to it, why couldn’t one figure out a home cooked diet that adheres to those same standards? Obviously this is talking about typical healthy dogs, not special needs types diets.

  • macula_densa

    p.s.

    Go to http://www.balanceit.com

    You have to make an account and all this jazz, but the ’healthy pet’ recipes are free, and they provide their own supplement (that doesn’t contain a bunch of crud like yeast). If you want to make a recipe for pets with medical conditions, they make you pay $20.

  • Braden

    We switched from Eukanuba to Canidae. I had never heard of Canidae but a small mom-and-pop pet food boutique opened up near our house and we happened to walk in and left with different food and a new appreciation for not buying our dogs slop. (http://www.canidae.com/) Our pit’s formally rough coat glistens now and his dry, flaking skin is long gone. He is lean and has rippling muscles and really is simply gorgeous. Our border collie is as beautiful as ever but actually kinda pudgy. Need to cut back his food, clearly!

    My oldest dog, Chan, is on k/d (Science Diet) because he’s in kidney failure (the slow, long-term kind). The pet store owners tried to convince me that Canidae is fine for dogs with renal issues, and actually putting Chan on raw food would be better–something about the water content?–but…I don’t know. I tend to trust the vet on this one. My beagle Chel was on k/d for years due to renal failure and she lived a good 4-5 years after diagnosis. Neither of them particularly like it–I imagine it’s quite tasteless, but oh well.

    Love the blog, learning a lot.

  • http://www.pawcurious.com/ Dr. V

    Braden- I’ve heard lots of good things about Canidae. I’m glad to hear that one is working out well for you!

    k/d (all the prescription low protein diets, actually) are not known to be particularly tasty. I am glad Chan is taking it well! It definitely makes a big difference in the long term. I had tried that with Mulan when she first developed kidney issues, but unfortunately that is one she was allergic to.