Healthy Food For Dogs – Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
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I am not a canine nutritionist, nor am I an expert in nutrition or medicine. But, even so, after having dogs for over 25 years, and working with many dogs and a wide variety of dog owners, you learn a few things about what to feed a dog. So, the following are my beliefs, philosophy and recommendations concerning dog nutrition. Before you attempt to follow my advice, do your research and run it past your veterinarian for approval. If you are an expert in dog nutrition, I welcome your feedback and thoughts on this article.

The Problem: I am of the firm opinion that most store bought commercial dog foods are NOT nutritionally complete or balanced. This opinion has come over a long period of time, but now I know this is true. I used to be too rigid in only feeding commercial, national brand, pet store dog foods. I now know this was a mistake. In an ideal world, you could buy fresh dog food from the grocery store, just like you purchase your own food. The only problem with buying real food and making it up for your dog is you have to be a dog nutritionist to get the right mix of nutrients. If you malnourish your dog, you’ll cause long term illnesses in your dog. I think a lot of dog owners are kidding themselves, and harming their dogs, by making up their own diets for their dogs. On the other hand, as I mentioned, I believe commercial dog foods are not healthy either.

What I Feed: So here is what I’m doing with all my dogs:

95% (by weight of the food) of the diet will be made up of a high quality commercial dog food, specialty brand food. There are some very high grade foods on the market, usually from specialty suppliers. Working dogs, meaning dogs that are involved in regular, exhausting, long duration and high intensity physical exercise, will need more calories in the form of proteins and fats, and more anti-oxidants. A good way to supplement the diet of adult working dogs (meaning dogs that are engaging in regular, strenuous work) would be to switch to either a puppy food or one of the diets made specifically for working dogs.

5% (by weight of the food) of the diet will be made up of fresh food; primarily consisting of (measured by weight analysis) of a blend of organ meats mixed with some kind of plant material. I’m NOT referring to “table scraps”, such as scraping what is on your plate on top of the dog’s food.

The organ meats (liver, heart, green tripe, etc.) should come from a variety of animal sources; I would also add some cooked grain (oatmeal, rice, bread) or cooked vegetable (potato, carrot), and a dog multivitamin to the diet a couple times per week; this figures as a component part of the 5 to 10% of the fresh food. Examine the types of grains and vegetables the commercial dog food manufacturers use to help identify which ones are digestible by dogs;

NO added, off-the-shelf high potency supplements; however, if certain breed related diseases can be addressed, prevented or delayed nutritionally, I will add supplements that have solid scientific research recommendations from major universities (see example below); I do believe in giving a dog a multi-vitamin once or twice per week.

I do believe the commercial, high end, specialty dog food manufacturers are on the right track in blending dog foods. They have been studying canine nutrition for many years. However, I think most of the big brand commercial food manufacturers are so concerned with having a scientifically studied diet, and in making money, they lose perspective concerning what a real animal in the real world needs to survive and be healthy. I think it is time they started looking at how wild animals eat in the wild, and we shouldn’t try to just feed our dogs the equivalent of a commercial “fast food” diet. Commercial, big pet store diets aren’t ideally suited to dogs, and we should trend away from them. I guess the best diet would be whole, fresh animals, but I think that would be difficult to implement for the average person

Wild canines are carnivorous, meaning they seek to primarily eat animals. Wild canines eat a variety of living creatures, from fish to insects to rodents to ungulates to birds. They also eat bird eggs. They also eat the animals whole. When a wolf kills a deer and eats it, the wolf consumes almost all of the deer, except consuming the largest bones. They eat hair, muscles, skin, organ meats, intestines, stomach and intestinal contents (predigested plant food), and the bone marrow. The most dominant wolves eat first, so they tend to eat the best of the animal, going for the prime midsection/ soft parts. The lower ranked wolves get the rest, which might leave them with the less desirable and nutritious parts. Wolves also graze and eat plant materials, but it isn’t a significant part of their diets, which is why they are categorized as being carnivores. The amounts and types of plants a wild dog eats depends upom the canine species, where they live, and the scarcity of animal types of food available at different times of the year. Wild canines are adapted to the diets they find where they live. Where the diets are insufficient, you could expect them to move on or die out. Where the diets are sufficient and healthy, you should expect to find thriving, healthy packs and individuals. The main thing to notice is that they don’t just eat the muscle meat of the animal. They eat the whole animal, focusing on the softer and better body parts. If they only ate the muscle meats, such as that found on the legs, back and neck, they wouldn’t get sufficient nutrients to survive. The internal organs make up the best part of their diet. In addition, the predigested food in the stomach of the prey is also highly nutritious, and is necessary for the survival of the predator. I remember when my dog, Dillon, was having digestive problems as a puppy. He would get diarrhea, regardless of what I fed him. My friend, and master trainer, Armin Winkler, recommended that I feed him some green tripe. Green tripe is the stomach of a deer or cow, but still contains the foods that the animal was eating at the time it was slaughtered. At the time, Armin Winkler lived in a rural area of British Columbia (he is now located in Virginia). He sometimes hunted deer. So, he gave me some frozen green deer tripe to feed Dillon. It was his recommendation that the intestinal flora and enzymes in the green tripe would help Dillon’s digestive system, in the same way eating yogurt helps the human digestive system. Try studying green tripe. It would be a good idea to include it in your dogs diet. I have found that it can improve a dog’s digestion, as evidenced by better stools.

Commercial, mass market dog food is typically a blend of one kind of meat and one or two types of grain, supplemented with some vitamins and minerals. The foods we feed our dogs require the dog food manufacturer to add vitamins because the blends they are creating are starting out unbalanced. Wolves, jackals and African wild dogs don’t need vitamin supplements. They get all they need from the food they eat. Since dogs are carnivores, commercial diets present a variety of feeding difficulties. By nature, dogs are body consumers, yet we feed them types of foods that their bodies were never programmed to eat. Thus, the foods we are feeding our dogs cannot be good for them. Their digestive systems are programmed for a carnivorous diet, yet we are feeding them an omnivorous diet. What we are doing to our dogs is like feeding a human the same diet as a cow. Our bodies are simply not designed to process the kinds of foods a cow can eat, and it will make us sickly if we try to eat what cows eat. And likewise, you can’t feed a dog (a carnivore) the same diet as a cow (herbivore).

I think it is unreasonable to expect the food manufacturers are including every nutrient a dog needs. They are trying to SIMULATE a natural diet. But what they produce is an artificial diet. And I firmly believe these diets are lacking nutritionally. Even when we eat food, we don’t eat a diet as restricted as what we are feeding our dogs. We can also tell when a food isn’t settling with us, or not making us feel our best, so we change what we eat from meal to meal, and from day to day. We know if we eat all “fast food”, or prepared foods, we don’t feel as well as if we eat fresh meats, vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits. Why would we expect our dogs would feel well, and stay healthy, eating highly restricted, prepared diets? (As a side note, I will no longer feed lamb and rice commercial dog food. Studies indicate that these diets are not well digested and can result in serious malnutrition.)

Thus, I figure you will meet most of your dogs nutritional needs if you feed them no more than 95% commercial dog food. I think it is a good idea to piggyback off of the research the food scientists have conducted, and apply that knowledge, in the form of prepared commercial dog food.

Anti-Oxidants: Yet, on the other hand, you can’t assume everything about nutrition (dog or human) has been tested and proven in a laboratory. Every day, we learn something new about nutrition, right?. One of the latest discoveries is the value of Omega 3 Fatty acids (found in fish oils) and antioxidants (such as green tea and red wine). Who knows what new thing we will learn next year?

The problem is dog food is always prepared by manufacturers using yesterday’s proven knowledge, and designed in such a way to earn them a profit. You can’t wait for some scientist to discover they made a mistake, and instead, you should have been feeding something extra to your dog for the past 5 years. By the time they learn their dog food was nutritionally lacking, your dog could have developed a serious medical problem. Similarly, you have to figure that most people wouldn’t pay more to feed their dogs, so even if the manufacturers provided a better food, the people would opt for the one with the cheapest price.

Here’s a real life example. A couple years ago, it was discovered cats fed commercially prepared cat foods were dying in abnormally large numbers from Cardiomyopathy (a fatal condition resulting from an enlarged heart). Researchers discovered cat food was missing an important ingredient: taurine. The lack of taurine was causing Cardiomyopathy and killing pet cats all over the world. Today, taurine is found in all cat foods. Thus, the commercial pet food manufacturers were directly responsible for killing a huge number of cats, just a few years ago, by selling nutritionally deficient cat foods. Now the research is turning to dogs. Researchers are asking: Are dog foods deficient in taurine, too, causing dogs to die of Cardiomyopathy? Try doing a simple search on the internet concerning the relationship between canine Cardiomyopathy and deficiencies in taurine, l-carnitine, Coenzyme Q-10, and Omega 3 Fatty acids. It is likely imbalanced canine diets are causing Cardiomyopathy in many dogs. Cardiomyopathy is a fatal condition which kills most afflicted dogs by 5 years of age. It is also worth studying Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and aging. Studies indicate that you can restore cognitive functioning in older dogs by supplementing their diets with ALA. In fact, if you look into the ingredients used in the prescription diets for senile dogs, they include ALA as an ingredient. Two studies, one with rats and the other with dogs, indicated senile dogs acting young again after being given ALA! (I take all these supplements myself twice daily: taurine, ALA, l-carnitine, coenzyme Q10, and Omega 3 fatty acids from fish oils… and I give them to my dog, too. It is interesting to note that the anti-oxidants I’ve been taking have eliminated the inflammation I have in my wrist from an injury I sustained last year in my martial arts class… the anti-oxidants have worked better than Aleve, aspirin, etc. and have no known side effects or dangers. I am now recommending to a friend that she try them on her old dog, who has some serious back pain from an injury as a young dog. We’ll see if, in 90 days or so, she can get her dog off the opiates she is now giving him.) You should research the typical health problems of your breed of dog. Then study to see if there are scientific studies linking nutritional problems to that disease. You might be able to prevent or delay the onset of these diseases by changing your dogs diet. A good resource for current research papers is The National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org You can verify all I’m saying here about nutritional deficiencies. Go look at the science for yourself.

Look At Prescription Diet Foods: I do find it troubling the prescription foods sold by veterinarians for dogs with heart disease are supplemented with taurine and L-carnitine. These manufacturers know these nutrients are necessary for dogs after they have been diagnosed with heart problems, but they aren’t supplementing their regular foods with these nutrients to prevent or delay Cardiomyopathy from developing in the first place. It would add several dollars to a bag of dry dog food if they added the taurine, l-carnitine, coenzyme q10, and omega 3’s. You have to wonder if the manufacturers make a profit decision to trade off nutrition for profits, and let some marginal dogs get sick. The studies on the heart conditions seem to indicate that the manufacturers know something is going on… especially when their prescription diets, which cost a fortune, have those nutrients in them. I do lay the blame for these diseases on two causes: inbreeding and diet. I wonder how these health related conditions crop up in these breeds. Have we been “pure breeding” for too many decades, and these maladies are the inevitable result? Should we start out crossing all these breeds to revive their immune systems? Do we tip some of these susceptible breeds over into these conditions by poor nutrition, bringing this on earlier? I do know that mixed bred dogs have a much lower incidence of Cardiomyopathy. Maybe what people have said over the years is really true: “I’ve had fewer health problems with the mutts I’ve owned than with the purebred dogs I’ve owned”. So, I wouldn’t put all the blame on the food manufacturers. Probably 90% of these problems are the result of unscientific breeding practices. I’m sure it is time to open up the stud books, and allowing the breed clubs to use proper genetic practices to bring in fresh genes, and to selectively breed out these weaknesses.

Organ Meats: Oh, and by the way, you will find many of the missing nutrients your dog needs will be found in the organ meats, such as liver, green tripe and heart. That is why I recommend feeding some cooked (baked) organ meats to your dog every day. I figure dogs should get liver about once per week, and other organ meats on the remaining days. Since liver is extremely high in some nutrients, you have to limit how much you give your dog. Thus, I wouldn’t feed more than a half teaspoon of liver to a small dog, a tablespoon or two to midsize dogs, and two or more tablespoons to large dogs, per week. With respect to the other organ meats, I’d probably double these amounts and feed them daily. I would also vary the types of organ meats I used. One week it would be chicken, the next beef, and so on. It is prudent, if you are going to feed organ meats, to research the species you are using to make sure there aren’t warnings about feeding that meat type to your dog. I would be fearful of feeding fish, shellfish, or bear organs to dogs without knowing if they were toxic. I am sure you’d be safe with beef and chicken, and probably deer would be ok. For one meal/ snack a day, I usually cook up organ meats for my dog. I chop it up, bake it, roll it in oatmeal (to add some phosphorus and potassium) or some kind of cooked vegetable, and crumble in a commercial dog vitamin tablet (if I had a miniature breed, I’d use about a quarter vitamin). Yes, I know, I’m feeding plant materials to my dog, just like I’m criticizing the commercial manufacturers of doing. The solution is to sometimes mix in some green tripe, which you can find via the internet.

Limited Table Scraps: I also believe in giving dogs table scraps, assuming you feed a healthy diet, and assuming you are doing some good research on what is and isn’t safe for a dog to eat. Table scraps are your leftovers. I just wouldn’t feed my dog anything very salty, no chocolate (it is poison to dogs), no onions, no grapes or raisins, nothing with hops in it, nothing I wouldn’t eat, nothing stale or spoiled, nothing with a sugary topping (sugar doesn’t settle with most dogs), nothing spicy hot, nothing I see upsets their stomach or causes diarrhea, and no big globs of fat (it is dangerous, for example, to give a dog a whole turkey skin, say at Thanksgiving… that much fat can kill a dog in one sitting). Meats, cheeses, breads, pancakes, flour tortillas, cooked grains such as oatmeal or barley, stew… you name it, can be fed to your dog. But, I’d focus on feeding cooked muscle meats, organ meats, things that resemble pre-digested plant materials, and fats, to simulate what the wolf would eat when it consumed the carcass of a deer. The more digestible the diet, the better your dog will look and feel, and the healthier your dog will be. For example, some dogs are lactose intolerant, so they can’t be given milk. On the other hand, many dogs are not lactose intolerant and can digest fresh milk. Do some research on each type of food ingredient you are going to give to your dog before you add it to your dog’s diet. Make sure it isn’t toxic to dogs. Dogs can eat many people foods safely, and it will be good for them. Test a small amount on your dog at first, and see if it settles with the dog. If so, you can gradually increase that type of food, so long as it is digestible. I don’t add salt to any food I feed my dog. They will get enough from the commercial food you are feeding them. If I am sharing my food with the dog, then I use very little salt or none at all, and add salt while eating my food. That way, I can give the table scraps to my dog and not give them excessive salt.

Puppies: Puppies have different nutritional needs than adult dogs. The food a puppy eats results in the body it will have to live in until it dies. The idea is to feed a balanced, nutritionally complete diet. An imbalanced diet can cause a variety of diseases. If you are seriously interested in canine dietary needs, contact a veterinary college and purchase a couple of textbooks on canine dietary requirements.

Puppy food is different than adult dog food. Take a look at the packages of most puppy foods. They have different blends of nutrients than the adult dog foods. Generally puppies should remain on puppy food until their skeletal growth is complete. The way to determine when to take your pup off puppy food is to measure your dog’s height at the withers (the distance between the ground and the top of the shoulders while the dog is standing still). When your dog stops growing up vertically, keep your pup on puppy food for 2 additional months, and then switch to an adult dog diet.

Adults: Adult dogs should be fed adult dog food. I believe in buying foods that are as “natural” as you can find, meaning with the best ingredients. I generally believe the best foods can be determined by reading the ingredients listed on the package. You can usually find the best foods at specialty, small pet food stores. However, the major brands will sell premium quality dog foods I am sure are of good quality. Start reading the packages and ingredient lists. The ingredients should look healthy.

Old Dogs: Older dogs need special attention. I strongly believe in weighing your dog each year to see if they are maintaining a healthy weight. When dogs start getting elderly, starting at about 7 years of age, they can start to waste away, as their hearts and internal organs start to weaken and fail (be sure to start reading your dog First Aid book to learn about how to treat sick dogs, long before your dog gets to this point). These dogs should especially be monitored regarding diet. First, have the condition verified by your veterinarian. Then get to work and start studying the medical condition affecting your dog and look for ways to minimize the impacts through changes in diet. I have found that older dogs, in their latter years, will benefit by a change in diet. At some point, you might even have to “spike” their food with tasty bits in order to get them to consume enough calories to survive. I have used pasta, pancakes, ground beef, ground organ meats, yogurt, frequent changes in blends (chicken this week, beef the next, etc.) to keep them interested in eating (don’t use salt on any foods for elderly dogs… most likely you are dealing with a dog with an old heart). At some point, you are just feeding them whatever they will eat to keep them alive. There will be a day when you might have to put your dog down, and you will know when that time comes, but there is no reason to give up on your dog when you can use diet tricks to keep them eating and feeling relatively well. I still remember the day when my dog, Kate, a Bouvier, at almost 12 years of age, wouldn’t eat anymore. She had an old heart, which just couldn’t sustain her body and digestion at the same time. I had gotten to the point of having to force feed her by stuffing moist food down her throat. I took her outside to defecate… she just stood there and defecated orange diarrhea all down the backside of her legs… she just looked at me, and I knew she couldn’t go on like this any longer. As a healthy adult, she was 90 lbs of solid muscle. When I carried her into the veterinarian’s office that night, she weighed only 65 lbs. Yes, I cried as they put the needle in her forearm to put her down (I believe they deserve the dignity of having their masters, whom they have served and loved so faithfully all those years with them, regardless of how hard it is for you). I will never take a dog this far again. I should have put her down once it got to the point that I couldn’t get her to eat normally again. (Knowing what I now know about supplements, I could have probably prolonged her life another year or so, with a better quality of life… but at some point, I still would have had to put her down) I do think the way to approach the old dog dilemma is to first force feed a dog, if necessary, to bring them back to normal health. I have used a syringe with liquid dog food (a prescription liquid diet you can get from your veterinarian) to nurse a sick dog back to health. I have also force fed moist prescription diet dog food down a sick dog’s throat (open the mouth, shove a spoonful of moist food to the very back of the throat, and the dog’s swallowing reflex will cause the food to go down. Start with the supplements, if necessary and indicated, at the very start, to help the dog recover. If the dog is getting better, the dog will start showing some interest in eating solid foods, such as small amounts of chopped up organ meats (…be sure to include some liver… it is good for many sick and recovering dogs). Then, you can start trying to add the chopped up organ meats into puppy food (has more calories… figure the dog has lost weight, so the extra calories will help recovery). Finally, you can get them back to a normal diet (as I have recommended above). Just because your dog won’t eat, doesn’t mean your dog should be put down. Ask your veterinarian if there are any foods that your dog should NOT eat, so you don’t do something to make their condition worse. With some extra care, and close observation, you can often nurse a dog back to full appetite and normal health. Make sure you have gone the extra mile before you conclude you should put your dog down.

Cheap Dog Food: Cheap dog foods produce larger stools than higher quality, more digestible dog foods. I believe House training and clean up will go easier if your dog doesn’t have to defecate as frequently. Cheap dog foods produce more stools, requiring the pup to eat more food to get the same amount of nutrients, and results in more frequent, and larger volume, stools. Cheap dog food also results in a shabby looking dog. The coat will be dry, thinner, brittle and dull. The energy level of your dog will be off. And your dog won’t be in good condition. Good foods are more dense, nutritionally. They produce fewer stools, and give your dog more nutrients with less food volume.

Digestibility: You can generally figure out how digestible a dog food is by the following rules of thumb. First, the volume of the stools should be less than the volume of the food you feed the dog. Ideally, I want a dog food that produces half or less the amount of stool volume than the amount of food I fed the dog. Second, when you examine the stools, you shouldn’t find a large volume of remnants of the dog food you fed. If the food going in the dog looks exactly like the stools coming out of the dog, then the food isn’t very digestible. You examine a stool by breaking it up with a stick and looking at the components of the stool. The food should be digested. You shouldn’t find undigested food parts in the stools. Third, your dog shouldn’t be flatulent (pass digestive gases), cause your dog to vomit or cause diarrhea. When your dog has gas, it is an indication the food your dog is being fed isn’t settling with your dog. Find out what ingredient is causing the gas, and don’t feed that again to your dog. You might have to switch blends. Just remember, when you switch dog foods, you have to do it over a 7 to 10 day time frame. Gradually reduce the amount of the old food each day, as you blend in the required calories with the new food. So, the first day, you might be feeding 90% of the old food with 10% of the new food. By the tenth day, you’ll be now feeding 10% of the old food with 90% of the new food. Then on the eleventh day, your dog is completely off the old food eating the new food. This reduces the probability of diarrhea.

Taste: You don’t want to confuse palatability with quality. Just because your dog finds a dog food tasty doesn’t mean the food is good for the dog. On the other hand, you don’t want to feed a diet your dog finds distasteful. I have generally found that dogs like good foods. Food preferences are acquired early on. I believe if you feed a dog a variety of different types of food as a puppy, they are more likely to have an interest in a wide variety of foods as an adult. This can be quite important when trying to use food treats for training, and possibly when you have to make a sick dog eat.

Freshness: Food should be as fresh as possible. When I buy a dry dog food, I examine the package to see it is still intact and not punctured. I also sniff the food to see if it smells fresh. I then pour the dry dog food up into a large plastic container and seal it shut. Dry dog food goes stale in an opened bag. With canned or packaged food, I look for un-dented cans and un-punctured packages. Some dog foods will have expiration dates on them. I will try to get the freshest bag or can or container I can find. Even though I am using manufactured commercial dog food, fresh food is better for your dog than either canned wet or dry packaged dog food.

No High Potency Supplements: Don’t add high potency supplements! I believe these products are probably harmful to your dog. You usually find them being sold next to the pet foods. They come in small pouches or cans. I am of the firm belief these types of supplements can cause some types of diseases in puppies, such as Osteochondrosis Dissecans, a form of bone joint defect that results in the crumbling of cartilage in the hocks, elbows and knees, which results in lameness because of painful arthritis. You can cause Osteochondrosis Dissecans in large breed dogs by over supplementation. That is why large breed puppy foods have been specifically blended to be low in calcium. However, if certain breed related diseases can be addressed, prevented or delayed nutritionally, I will add supplements that have solid scientific research recommendations from major universities. When I do research, I usually limit my internet searches to *.pdf files from .org web site domains. That way, I screen out most of the supplement peddlers, and mostly get research papers from reputable scientists.

Treats: I also only use treats for training, not affection. Obese dogs die young and will cost you in higher medical bills. You should feed the bare minimum number of calories your dog needs to be lean and energetic. There are several studies indicating restricted calorie diets in puppyhood will result in fewer health problems later in life. I put the bowl down for 30 minutes, and the dog either eats what is there, or not. If not, I pick up the food and put it away. Young, growing puppies need more food than sedentary adult dogs. Active working dogs need more protein and fat in their diets,Twhich you might need to add to what you are already giving them. Be sure to monitor your dogs health, and don’t be lax in observing your dogs condition.

Medical Diets: With respect to older dogs, you need to evaluate their health. At 5 years of age, and every year thereafter, bring a urine and stool sample to your veterinarian for examination. Older dogs can sometimes benefit from specialized medical diets. If your dog develops a special medical condition that requires a specialized diet, learn all you can about the disease. You might have to buy a prescription diet from your veterinarian for your dog. But again, you can’t assume the prescription diets are nutritionally complete. Do some research into the disease, going to reputable sources (such as veterinary medical school web pages), and seeing what the latest research is saying about diet. You might need to supplement your dog’s diet to keep your dog alive. I know this from personal experience. I am convinced even the prescription diets are nutritionally deficient.

Toxic Foods: There are human foods that are toxic to dogs, such as grapes, raisins, chocolate, etc. Always read the ingredients of the food you are giving your dog to screen for such toxic foods. For example, cranberry is used to help with urinary tract infections, and you can find cranberries in some specialty dog foods. However, there are cranberry FLAVORED raisins on the market, which would taste like cranberries but be toxic to your dog. And that “100% Juice” label doesn’t mean you are drinking 100% cranberry juice… oftentimes there is grape juice, sugars, etc. added to the blend. Very deceptive. The grape juice would be toxic, and the sugars could make the urinary tract infection worse. In addition, iron can be toxic to dogs, which is why a human vitamin can kill a dog, so read the package before you add any human food to your dog’s diet. Human breakfast cereals, for example, can have lots of extra iron added, and are probably dangerous to feed a dog. Always do your homework thoroughly before feeding your dog any human food.