A Guide to the Optimal Canine Diet

Debates about what constitute healthy dog food rage among veterinarians, pet food manufacturers, the AAFCO, and independent animal advocates. Many groups have a bias not based on the best interest of dogs. This blog offers common sense rules for giving your dog not just a diet meeting minimal health requirements, but a truly optimal one.


One Size Does Not Fit All

It’s important to first understand your dog’s unique nutritional requirements based on age, breed, size, activity level and overall health. This will determine a number of things, including the appropriate protein-to-fat ratio, meal size, etc.

A word about meal size. Most people overfeed their dogs. In fact, according to a 2016 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 53.9 percent of dogs were classified as clinically overweight by their veterinarian.

Pay close attention to the recommended daily feeding guide on the label, but also take into account your dog’s activity level. You may need to feed less as a result. Many websites offer dog food calculators, but also be sure to consult with your vet to determine the appropriate meal size based on your dog’s unique needs.

Frequency of feeding is also important. Puppies under five months should be fed three to four times a day. Adults should be fed twice a day.


Poor-Quality Ingredients: What to Avoid

Cheap dog food means cheap ingredients. The following are ingredients to avoid:

  • Poor quality sources of protein, such as by-product meal, corn and soy
  • Poor quality sources of fat, such as lard and tallow
  • Poor quality sources of carbohydrates, such as white flour, white rice, wheat and corn
  • Artificial preservatives, chemicals and additives, such as BHA and BHT, ethoxyquin, propylene glycol, carrageenan and food dyes

Poor quality ingredients, combined with high-heat processing used to make most kibble, can have serious health implications for your dog. These range from allergies, periodontal disease and obesity, to bloat, diabetes, kidney failure and cancer. Aside from the agony this causes your dog, treating these conditions is expensive.


High-Quality Ingredients: What to Look For

So how do you select a high-quality dog food? The following are ingredients to look for:

  • A named, single-source meat as the first ingredient (e.g. “beef” or “chicken” not “meat” or “animal”)
  • Human-grade, not feed-grade meat
  • Non-GMO
  • Preferably a USDA organically certified food
  • Grain-free (with caveats; read this in-depth article about grain-free dog food)
  • High quality fats, such as fish oils (herring, salmon, etc.), flaxseed, canola oil, chicken fat, safflower oil and sunflower oil
  • Natural preservatives, such as vitamins C and E


Ratio of Protein, Fat and Carbs

While quality of food is critical, so are the correct amounts and ratios of protein, fat and carbs. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets minimal requirements for protein at 18 percent and fat at 5.5 percent. However, if we’re talking about an optimal diet, our canine friends would do better with ratios that more accurately reflect their ancestral diet. Without getting into exact ratios, which will vary based on dry versus wet food and dog-specific needs, the rule of thumb is to choose foods that are higher in protein, higher in fats and lower in carbs than the minimal AAFCO standards suggest. Note that dog food labels won’t show the amount of carbs, but many pet websites publish formulas for calculating carb percent.

Of course, always check with your vet to ensure you’ve considered all factors when evaluating protein, fat and carb amounts and ratios.


Dry? Canned? Dehydrated? Freeze-Dried? Raw? Oh my!

Across the board we now have many more healthy options whatever type of dog food you choose. Having said that, in general, the order of most healthy to least is as follows:

  1. Raw frozen (or fresh homemade if precautions are taken)
  2. Freeze-dried
  3. Dehydrated
  4. Canned
  5. Dry (kibble)

The reason for the above order is the degree of processing each type of food requires. Each type, however, can be a viable option if it contains those high-quality ingredients mentioned earlier and the right nutritional ratios. Even kibble, by far the least healthy, has improved with some manufacturers now air drying their food to preserve more of the nutrients.


The Moral?

An investment in high-quality dog food, along with tailoring your dog’s diet to his unique nutritional needs, will result in a happier and healthier companion, and very likely more money in your pocket in the long run.

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