February 2019

The Best Foods for Man’s Best Friend

Author: Becca Edwards

When my gorgeous mutt Harlan was nearing the end of his life and had digestive issues, our veterinarian suggested we prepare a homemade dog food recipe of boiled chicken breasts and sweet potato and add it to his regular dry food. We enjoyed making it (because it feels good to feed a being that is in need). He loved it. And it bought us all enough time to say goodbye.

Ten months later we said goodbye to our other longtime friend, a lab named Lefty. He, too, needed something beyond regular dry food in the end, but this time it was prescription-grade wet dog food.

As a result, my family began to question what we were feeding our pets. We have all seen alerts over the years warning us about dog food recalls, added ingredients like fillers, and possible allergens. Did we unintentionally harm our pets? Would they have lived longer if we had given them more homemade food or specialized food?

This was all so new to me. I did not grow up making or buying homemade or specialized dog food. I spent my first few years of life on a dairy farm, then it was the ’80s in Nashville, and then the ’90s on Hilton Head Island. On the farm, in the city, and eventually here on the island, we consistently fed all our animals veterinarian-approved, and yet processed, dry food. Only after mealtime did the dogs get scraps and, as far as dog nutrition went, all we knew was to not feed them chocolate, grapes or raisins.

By my 20s, I adopted my own pets (Harlan and Lefty), and even though I worked as a health writer and advocate, I did not feel the need, or, perhaps more to the point, qualified to apply the same nutrition concepts to my dogs. I just went with my vet’s recommendation and the status quo, and I continued feeding them solely high-quality, dry dog food.

With Harlan’s and Lefty’s passings, I felt compelled to learn more about canine wellness, especially since we recently adopted a rescue named Goodman (aka Goody). We asked my long-time friend (who recently moved to the area) and internal medicine veterinarian, Dr. Heather Graham, of Collaboration Veterinary Consulting, LLC., “Is high-quality, veterinarian-recommended dry food enough?” Graham responded first with a list of pros and cons about homemade dog food.

Pros of Homemade Dog Food:
• You have control over your dog’s ingredients, both from a source (organic, antibiotic-free, etc.) and composition perspective.
• The food is void of additives and preservatives.
• You can customize the food to the dog, which means the food contains ingredients the pet enjoys, is not allergic to, and that address any specific needs.

Cons of Homemade Dog Food
• Without a veterinarian nutritionist’s oversight, you will have difficulty adequately balancing the dog’s diet-based needs which can vary based on medical condition and in-life stage, amongst other factors.
• Also, without a veterinarian nutritionist, the improper provision of adequate minerals can complicate a variety of problems including, but not limited to, skeletal defects, kidney damage, urinary stones, growth retardation, skin disorders, and neurological defects.
• Homemade food can be more time consuming and expensive.
Without seeming like a dog chasing its tail, when it comes to feeding Fido, consider combining homemade dog food and dry food—under the supervision of a veterinary professional. “There are a number of veterinary nutritionists who offer services where they formulate homemade diets based on owner preferences,” Graham said.

When it comes to dry food, Graham said, “Honestly, there are too many dog food brands to endorse one or another, but I use Hill’s and Purina, as well as Royal Canin, primarily because there is actual research behind their diets, including placebo-controlled trials and peer-reviewed claims. However, I’m using a lot of prescription diets for my patients, because I see a specific subset of the population that often needs precisely formulated nutrition for whatever chronic condition is being managed.”

Graham then referred me to an article on the website www.vetnutrition.tufts.edu. This article provided a wealth of tail-wagging insight. For those of us with puppy-like attention spans, here are two take aways from the piece:

When choosing a dry food, don’t fetch up the marketing ploys. The article reported, “Studies show that most owners base their pet food decisions on impulse and advertising, not facts.” People tend to ask themselves, “Does this sound like it tastes good?” or “Is it organic, or heritage, or wild?” Instead, check the label. Though current regulations do not require pet food companies to provide much factual information on their labels, you can decode the food label by looking for the “Nutritional Adequacy statement” or the “AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement.” These small print statements answer, “Does the diet contain all the essential nutrients that a pet needs?” “How was that determined?” and “For which age or stage is this diet appropriate?”

Do not judge a food by its brand, either. According to the article, “Just because a pet food company is large doesn’t mean it’s using substandard ingredients, or tricking people into buying too much food. And just because a company is small, or ‘artisanal,’ or ‘makes its food with love,’ doesn’t mean it necessarily manufactures more wholesome dog food.”

“The bottom line is, though, your dog’s primary nutrition should come from formulated, mainstream dog food, and when needed prescription dog food,” Graham said. “You can augment their diet with nutritious foods like sweet potatoes, rice, and lean ground beef or turkey, but make sure it only accounts for 10 percent of the dog’s caloric intake. My favorite recipe book is ‘Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative,’ by Dr. Donald R. Strombeck. This allows pet owners to feel more involved in their pet’s diet, add variety, and help dogs recovering from a surgery or with special needs.”

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).

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