Good Nutrition for Dogs
There are all sorts of myths surrounding the best foods for dogs. Some people swear by raw food, others by home cooked, others by commercial foods. It can all get very confusing!
We will try to have a balanced approach to nutrition advice here, following best practice guidelines and evidence-based research.
Myths about dog food and dog nutrition
All ingredients in dog food are there for a nutritional purpose. Nothing is there to simply 'bulk out' the diet.
Dogs are perfectly able to digest starchy foods (see next point) and get nutritional value from this.
Grains help to increase a dog's sense of satisfaction with their food, reducing the risk of them overeating.
Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not actually descended from wolves, rather, they share a common ancestor but their evolution split around 32,000 years ago.
This means that dogs are actually genetically very distinct from wolves. Evolving alongside humans as they started farming and leaving waste food around, dogs evolved genes which are important in digesting grains and starch.
These starchy foods can therefore provide our pet dogs with a good source of nutrition. In fact, dogs are best described as omnivores, rather than carnivores. It is even possible for a dog to be fed on a purely vegetarian diet and live a healthy life.
Commercial dog food varies widely from high quality to lower quality. It is important to check the label of foods to determine whether they are 'complete' - i.e. have all the nutrients needed to keep your pet healthy, or 'complementary' and designed to be fed alongside something else to provide the nutrients that are missing.
Using a commercial diet is the best way to ensure that your dog is receiving all the nutrients they need. Homemade diets are almost always deficient in vital nutrients.
This is totally false! All meat products going into the pet food chain come from animals which have been authorised as fit for human consumption.
In fact, most food allergies in dogs are related to the protein portion of the diet, not the carbohydrate source.
There are a very few specific incidences of grain allergy in dogs but these are extremely uncommon.
In fact, some grain-free diets have recently been implicated in heart disease in dogs, so for the vast majority of dogs, a grain-free diet is not necessary, and could even be detrimental.
To some extent, this is true, but it doesn't mean what you probably think! All meat in dog food comes from animals which have been passed as fit for human consumption. The bits of the carcass that we like to eat (the steaks and chops) will go into the human food chain. The offal, which has a very high nutritional value but is considered unpalatable to most of us in the UK, is turned into pet food, otherwise it would be discarded in an extremely wasteful fashion.
The bits that do not get turned into pet food include inedible parts such as hooves and feathers.
It can be confusing, because one of the nutritional aspects listed on the side of every bag of dog food is the ash content.
Don't worry, this doesn't mean that your pet is eating sweepings off a fire! It is merely the technical measure of the mineral content of the diet. Basically, if the dog food itself was burnt, this is what would be left behind in the form of ash.
Actually, home cooked diets are almost always deficient in one, or more often several, vital nutrients. While short-term feeding of a home cooked diet (e.g. for a convalescing pet) is unlikely to cause any problems, long-term feeding could cause significant health issues, particularly in young dogs.
It is possible to formulate a balanced, home-cooked diet, but this would need to be done with the advice a specialist veterinary nutritionist and careful supplementation of some essential vitamins and minerals.
Using a good quality commercial diet is the best option for the vast majority of pets.
Raw feeding has a lot of very vocal advocates, but it carries significant risks to both your dog and your family.
Campylobacter and Salmonella are common food-poisoning bacteria which are destroyed by cooking, but they love raw meat! If you are feeding a non-frozen raw diet, parasites such as tapeworm can also be a risk.
If you do really want to feed your pet a raw diet, make sure that you choose a good-quality commercial diet which has been carefully formulated with a nutritionist. Ensure that it is properly frozen and safely defrosted. Maintain scrupulous hygiene when handling your dog's food and food bowl. Never let them lick your face. Be very careful when handling faeces. Do not allow your dog to have any direct contact with young children, pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone who is immunosuppressed, as raw-fed dogs are particularly dangerous to these vulnerable groups. Be aware that if your dog needs to be hospitalised, they may need to be kept in an isolation area to avoid transmission of bacteria to other sick dogs. This can dramatically increase the cost.
Avoid feeding bones as these can cause tooth fractures and obstruction or perforation of the stomach and intestines.