Why is Dog Nutrition So Important?
The right nutrition will ensure your dog grows healthy and strong, bestowing long-lasting health and well-being. A lack of nutrition for your dog will lead to health issues and illness. It’s not enough that we know if an animal is a carnivore (meat eater), a herbivore (plant eater) or omnivore (eats both).
For instance, both the European red fox and black bear are omnivores. However, if you were looking after both you’d do well to remember that the fox needs a diet of 75% animal protein while the black bear instead includes 75% plant material. Some carnivores eat ants all day. Cats prefer meat muscle. Some herbivores eat grass, others fruit, others a mix. And so on.
Animals have spent millions of years becoming finely tuned to their feeding niche. You can feed one like the other, and they’ll no doubt do fine, for certainly amount of time. However, over time issues will pop up in each animal as a result of the biologically inappropriate diet. This is the very basics of animal husbandry.
What Nutrition Does a Dog Need?
To better understand what it is that you need to feed your dog on a daily basis, you need to first understand what would they eat when left to their own devices? As we have shown in previous articles dogs are meat eaters. Everything about them, from tooth to tail, points to carnivory. They have a short, fast intestinal tract with undeveloped caecum. A highly elastic, acidic stomach. A bacterial community adapted to carnivory and ill-equipped for plant fibre digestion.
Dogs can even make their own carbohydrates (sugar) from protein and fat (a process called glycogenesis). This is something only carnivores can do. There are no omnivores (animals that tend to eat meat and plant protein) that can do this little trick.
Biology aside, the dog’s brother, the dingo, in Australia is a total meat eater (Fleming et al. 2001, Sillero-Zubiri 2004), and these were domestic dogs 2000 years ago. Some people mention that dogs have evolved to eat cereal from living with us, but there isn’t a single study to support this. We’ve done little since to change them internally. Rather than breeding for an ability to digest more plant material we prefer to select for floppy ears or mushed up faces.
So far, he sort of looks like he’s a meat eater. So what do the studies say?
Why is There so Much Confusion Over the Dog’s Nutritional Requirements?
Dogs Can be Made to eat Anything…
There are a number of reasons we’re all a bit confused. The first is, the dog can be a little tricky to understand. For example, an behaviour experiment by Dr. Kuo (1967) divided 100 chow chow pups into three groups. To one group he fed all vegetables. To another all meat. To the third a mix of both. He found that those puppies reared on veg would only eat veg when older.
The puppies fed meat would not touch veg and those fed both would eat anything. This process actually begins in the womb with pups tasting what their mother eats through the amniotic fluid. You can actually spray apple in the air of a pregnant bitch and the pups will fight over the apple-tainted nipples.
Thus dogs can be switched on to certain food groups (with different levels of canine nutrition) from a young age, and the dogs will continue to recognise the same food as “safe for consumption” thereafter. This is why when people say “oh, my dog loves veg”, it’s nearly an irrelevant statement, in terms of suitable nutrition. I mean, we eat brightly coloured super-sour chewy bars. As a large comparative study of dogs fed predominantly vegetable matter versus those fed predominantly meat, sadly, does not exist, we can’t say anymore.
More importantly, this peculiar trait of dogs means diet and nutritional studies, including levels of vitamins and minerals, are prone to many issues and interpretations. Most importantly, are the differences between studies of truly feral dogs (very rare) and free roaming village dogs (most common), whereby the latter return home to their families to be fed the scraps from the table. This will greatly interfere with the results. Free roaming village dogs generally exist in poor countries where dog laws are most lax. Table scraps in these countries are largely plant-based items such as porridge and plant remains, meat being a more valuable commodity in poorer regions.
Studies of village dogs in these regions, for example, Zimbabwe (Butler and du Toit 2004) and India (Vanak and Gompper 2009), show diets containing as much as 50% plant material. Butler and du Toit (2004) do note however that when dogs are “left to their own devices” they follow a diet of “97% animal matter”, likely in an effort to “top up failing protein levels”.
This is why, when left to their own devices, village dogs are shown to largely pursuing a diet consisting of almost solely meat material, from small animals including rodents, birds, rabbits, insects, lizards, frogs, as well as smaller ungulates such as sheep, whitetail deer and gazelle kids should they be readily and easily available (Scott and Causey 1973, Lowry and McArthur 1978, Gipson 1983, Miller and Leopold 1992, Boitani and Ciucci 1995, Bouvier and Arthur 1995, Pierce and Sporle 1997, Butler and du Toit 2002, Butler and du Toit 2004, Manor and Saltz 2004, Galetti and Sazima 2006, Campos et al. 2007, Gingold et al. 2009, Young et al. 2011). The rest of the time they spend scavenging carcass and faeces.
Indeed some studies show that faeces can account for 20% of a dogs diet in Zimbabwe (Butler and du Toit 2004), which would be a symptom of their protein deficient diet, the authors note.
Dogs are thus tough to pin to a single mode of feeding. They are so adaptive and opportunistic, that they are best described as scavenging carnviores rather than true hunters (MacDonald and Carr 1995), happily switching between prey when abundance makes it easy.
Dogs are Notorious Self-Medicators…
Other reasons for the confusion over a dog’s nutritional requirements include the fact that dogs are notorious self-medicators, for instance, they will eat grass for many reasons (to help digestion, to help them vomit or perhaps to defecate and perhaps nutrition, we don’t really know) but so do cats, and would people claim that cats are omnivorous because of it? Many animals act out of character like this for many reasons. My dog eating the occasional sock does not make him a sockivore!
But there is another, more insidious reason for the confusion and that is in the infiltration of our veterinary sector by the dry food companies themselves.
Why Doesn’t my Vet Agree?
It should come as no surprise that most independent canine nutritionists are in agreement, fresh meat and bone is dog food. Fresh meat (and organ and bone) contain all the amino acids, vitamins and minerals, all the linoleic acid, DHA, selenium, boron and other nutritional value your dog needs to achieve optimum health. This is why you won’t find a single canine nutrition book written in the last 20 years that concludes a cereal based dry food diet is a suitable food source for your dog. You have only heard this from your vet.
Sadly, through the use of generous cash donations, the veterinary industry is now owned by the dry food companies. Their vet manual is now produced by Colgate-Palmolive, the dry dog food maker. To convince what are some of the most bright minds we have, that dogs are in fact omnivores and not should not only be fed any meat but any fresh ingredients whatsoever, the industry uses a huge amount of in-house study (not published in peer-reviewed journals) as well as being less than the liberal with the facts, when delivering their dog nutrition message.
Take the diet studies above, you could take the study from India and show it to some young minds as proof the dog includes plant material in its diet. Then there in the twisting of good studies. For example, Axelsson et al. 2013 found that dogs have a tiny handful of genes that might aid in plant carbohydrate digestion, of the thousands and thousands that would be necessary to do the job wholly and completely.Axelsson et al. tentatively suggest that we could be witnessing the beginning of an adaptation towards some plant consumption. This is interesting. Sadly, vested interests seized on this study and used it in support of why they’ve been using 60% cheap cereal in their kibble all these years. Ignoring the fact that prior to the Axelsson study they had literally no reason to do such a thing, this is akin to suggesting that just because I can digest rum and cookies they should be 60% of my diet.
In this way our vets today remain the only scientists outside of the pet food industry who believe not only that the dog is an omnivore but that they do better on dry, heavily processed, cereal-based pelleted food with token meat meal addition, produced long ago in a land far away than they would on more biologically appropriate fresh ingredients. All without the benefit of a single study in support. I mean, can you believe dry food manufacturers have never, ever been asked for a study to prove their products are better than a group of dog’s fed a fresh, biologically appropriate diet? Can you believe that?! Well, perhaps you can. We had it in the 80’s with the breast milk debate where Nestlé were trying to tell mothers that their powdered formula was better, without a single study of any merit in support. It took many dedicated people many years to prove it wasn’t. But the onus was on us to prove them wrong. It’s the very same now with dry dog food.
The Affects of Poor Nutrition on Your dog…
Once it is accepted that fresh meat is what a dog actually needs, a natural question that follows will be how come so many millions are doing so well on dry, processed, cereal based dry food. The answer would be “who said they were healthy?”. They’re alive. But as living and thriving are two very different things. Others might say “my dog was dry fed all his life, lived until he was 16 years old”. I would say yes, they happens. But my chain smoking, alcoholic granny is 94. What does that tell you about excessive drinking and cigarettes? Nothing at all. The truth only comes to light when you actually compare a large group of smokers to a large group of non-smokers. Unfortunately, the dry food companies have never, ever been asked to compare their products to a group of fresh fed dogs, so we don’t have that exact information, yet.
Another myth is that dogs are living longer thanks to their new dry diet. But this akin to suggesting that Americans are living longer thanks to their diet but of course that’s not the case. They are living longer despite their diet (better medical practices for one). In fact, unsurprisingly, in terms of longevity alone, it seems that feeding your dog a processed diet actually reduces his time on the planet. In a piece for the Prince Laurent Foundation (a Belgian NGO set up in 1996 for the advancement of welfare in domestic and wild animals) Lippert and Sapy (2003) collected information on 522 dogs over a period of five consecutive years. Their aim was to study what factors mattered most to their longevity. They assessed the affect of sex, breed and size but also housing environment, neutered state, how they were protected from diseases and what food they ate. Their study revealed that animals fed a homemade food based on similar food as the family reached an average age of 13.1yrs, while the animals fed processed dog had an average age of death of 10.4yrs. Almost a three-year difference. When the two foods were mixed dogs averaged 11.4yrs.
Giving it home made food is a gurantee for better protection, well being and longer life expectancy
Lippert and Sapy (2003)
In fact the evidence is building that dry food is implicated in a great number of very common maladies affecting dogs today, including:
- Allergies resulting in recurring skin, gut and ear conditions (wheat gluten, processed meat proteins, chemicals, dust mites)
- Anal Glands (whereby poorly digested food results soft stools and gland impaction)
- Poor Joints (fresh food contains poor quality protein, old fats, high salt, no fresh cartilage which contains joint-building glucosamine and chondroitin, high-dose carbs grow them at maximal rates and increase obesity etc)
- Gum Disease (9/10 dogs are dry fed. 9/10 have gum disease by three years of age. It’s not a coincidence)
- Obesity (you try maintain a waistline on 60% bread!!!)
- Kidney Disease (antigenic food stuff, undigested food stuff, high salt)
- Pancreatitis (the sustained pressure of a high carbohydrate, poor quality protein diet)
The Best Food for Your dog is…
Many people, certainly those coming off the back of feeding “highly scientific” dry food, want to know exactly how to formulate the ideal dog diet. Questions arise such as how much calcium should I give him? How will I know he will get enough protein?! My answer is always the same – what’s your RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of protein and how much did you eat yesterday?! How much calcium did you give the kids?!! Of course you don’t know. It’s not that those things are not important in some situations but it’s information that is not relevant to our normal, day-to-day feeding.
None of us eats a complete meal each and every day. There’s no such thing as a complete meal for humans for that reason, it’s practically impossible. Asides our nutritional needs change daily, the aim is not exactly right each meal but more a balanced diet over time. It takes the pressure off.
Below is an idea of what the best dog food looks like, where the red numbers denote the proportions each group should comprise in the diet…
Exactly how much of each group is needed are a matter of debate. There are two lines of thought, one includes some vegetable matter, the other doesn’t.
5:1:1 (5 parts meat with bone, 1 part organ meat, 1 part plant matter)
Proponents of this diet (including the author) recommend dogs to be fed a diet consisting largely of fresh meat with some bone in it. These can be bought from dog food suppliers or from the local butcher. The ideal bone content is 10%. Or simply feed meat on the bone such as chicken legs and drumsticks etc. Organ additions include liver, spleen, kidney, eyes, brains, heart. These are the sexy bits nutritionally for a dog and these must be included over the course of the week if “balance” is to be achieved. The last part is a small veg addition, largely for fibre but also for some of the phytonutrients therein. While dogs strictly do not need veg in their diet, if it’s presented to them correctly (lightly steamed / cooked) then they can digest it fine. Unlike the meat additions, the plant material should be cooked. It allows the dog access to the vitamins and minerals inside. More on how to make raw dog food here.
8:1:1 (8 parts meat, 1 part bone, 1 part organ meat)
Proponents of this dog diet use no vegetables, believing the dog to be an out and out carnivore. This diet includes a lot more meat muscle. It can be a lot more costly than the above but it’s probably the best way.
What is the Best Pre-Made Raw Dog Food Out There?!
Remember, these ratios are only important if you’re making the food yourself though. You can always start off with any raw dog food product until you get a better understanding of what your dog needs nutritionally. Key points to remember when choosing a prepared raw dog food is first, what are the main ingredients? You want lots of meat, around 10-15% organ meats (liver, heart, kidney, spleen etc) and around 10% bone. Some use a little veg, others do not. Also, I like to be able to see what I’m buying, so I don’t buy any homogenous meat minces (like paté). I don’t trust them.Years in the raw dog food industry has taught me that you can’t trust anyone, just like the dry food industry. Remember, ground up chicken carcass looks like chicken mince to you. They mix is with some veg and call it “complete” raw dog food, but it’s far from it. More on how to choose the best raw dog food here.
What is the Best Dry Dog Food?
Now that you understand your dog is a meat eater, you can understand that the best dry dog foods are those based on meat, with a tiny bit of veg. I absolutely do not recommend feeding cereal based dry dog foods to dogs or cats. You are wasting your money and their health. Top tips when shopping for dry dog food include:
- avoid all wheat and cereal as a whole (this rules out almost all vet-recommended dry foods)
- avoid high carb dry foods (some dry foods say “cereal free” but instead they use peas or sweet potato. It’s just another form of filler. Carbs are carbs guys, it’s all sugar to your pet and they don’t need it).
- aim for high meat content
- avoid all meat-meal (this is the poorest form of “meat” a food can contain, arriving as grey flour to the pet food plant, it is a byproduct of a rendering plant, a result of stewing up God knows what from God knows where!)
- avoid all coloured dry food (all dry food is brown, know why? Because without carotene it would be grey. Yum!).
- meat based dry foods are expensive but some do more marketing than others. Some only sell online and will therefore be cheaper. Some big companies make their own.
More on the best dry dog food here.
Things you can and Can’t Include in Their Food Anytime, Regardless of Your Feeding Method…
It doesn’t matter if your dog is dry or raw fed, every animal on the planet will beneft from the addition of a few fresh ingredients now and again. Things like
- a raw egg (great quality protein)
- some sardines (protein and omega 3)
- a cod liver oil tablet (omega 3)
- a fresh meaty bone (clean teeth and excellent nutrition), are all excellent additions to any dog’s diet, any time.
- table scraps (contrary to what you may hear, you can throw pretty much anythnig you like into their bowl, as long as their base diet is right. They are scavengers. They eat leftovers. If it was good enough for your family it’s going to more than OK for your dog)
The only things you don’t feed them are:
- cooked bones
- grapes and raisins
Some people are concerned about mixing table scraps or fresh ingredients with dry food but there’s nothing to worry about here. More on mixing dry and fresh dog food here.
Others are cash-strapped so they thin out their pre-made raw dog food with some filler of their own. Dogs do not need this stuff but when you think about it, dry food is 60% cereal filler, so you including 10-20% porridge or brown rice into his food each day isn’t the end of the world, and it slashes your food cost. More ways to save money while feeding an excellent quality meal here.
How Much Dog Food Should I Feed?
You have to feed more fresh food than dry dog food as it contains water. All fresh food does (around 70-90% water, depending on the item). The average figure for an adult dog is 2.5-3% of their body weight. So if you have a 10kg cocker, he will probably need 100gx3=300g per day! It’s different for pups. We have a handy raw dog food calculator here which will make working out how much they need a cinch! More info here: How Much Raw Dog Food Should I Feed?
If you’re feeding dry dog food you will need to feed your dog significantly less, as it has the water extracted. For exactly how much that is you need to check the back of the packet as each food will vary depending on how much cereal or meat they use in their formulation.
How Often Should I Feed my dog?
Unlike big cats that historically feed “now and again”, dogs are scavengers. They have evolved to pick and find things all day. Hence, like us, dogs would like more meals, not just one. All dogs should be fed morning and night, keeps the hunger at bay. Every other day he could have a snack in the middle of the day too, and there’s no better snack than a nice, fresh, meaty bone. More on how to safely feed bones to dogs here.
Why Wouldn’t You Try it for a Week and see for Yourself?!
The benefits of raw feeding are often apparent in most dogs almost immediately. Everything will be better. First of all, as it’s the difference between fillet steak and salty porridge, your dog will actually be excited by their dinner. Much more of your dogs nutritional requirements will be satisfied and within days their coats will start to shine. Over time all the fresh protein will feed a lush coat and sleek muscle tone (think of a guy going to gym on a diet of meat and veg versus the same guy eating 50-60% bread, muscle needs protein to grow).
Your dogs dental hygiene will improve. Their behaviour will improve. Their organ function will improve and you won’t be wasting money anymore. Furthermore, you guys out there will no longer be paying €3 / €4 per kilo for what is effectively cereal with some gravy granules. Now you’re going to shop smarter, get some value for money.
Try it for a week, you have literally nothing to lose and they have everything to gain. And you’ll never go back.
Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M.L., Maqbool, K., Webster, M.T., Perloski, M., Liberg, O., Arnemo, J.M., Hedhammar, A. & Lindblad-Toh, K. (2013). The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature, 495: 360–364
Kuo, Z. Y. (1967). The dynamics of behaviour development: An epigenetic view. New York: Random House