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?
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?
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.
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.
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?