There are all sorts of very strongly held opinions and theories on feeding dogs, and not a lot of evidence.
Actually, there’s virtually no evidence. What evidence is there is anecdotal, vets watching trends appear one case at a time. It’s very frustrating if, like me, you want the best for your dogs, and want your dogs to live long, healthy lives. Here is the sad truth: no one has done studies on any of it. Believe me, I’ve looked. I’m hoping that will chance in the near future, but so far… nope. (If I’m wrong and someone else has found a study, please send it along!)
So while you’re reading, keep in mind that despite how strongly someone believes something, none of this has been proven. Someone might well present something as fact, but the trick is to keep the knowledge in the back of your mind that no one really knows. People come up with a theory, it works for them and their dog, and then they present it as fact. That person telling you about dog nutrition probably really has done their homework and really does believe what they’re saying, because they haven’t stopped to realize that the people THEY trust haven’t done studies (long-term or otherwise) either. And hey, the theory makes sense and is sound. It’s up to time to see if it’s right. Keeping that in mind, let’s talk about ways to feed your dog, the theories behind it, strengths and weaknesses of these theories, and what the vets are saying.
All that said, please keep in mind I’m a dog trainer and not a vet. If your vet has a better recommendation, give them a much stronger voice than me. I’ve done research and I have a much larger pool of dogs to notice results from than most, but new information is always coming up, and a vet is in a better position to find that than I am.
Grain free diets
The theory behind grain free diets is this: wolves don’t eat grain, and our dogs haven’t had time to evolve away from wolves, therefore they shouldn’t eat grain, either.
Strengths of this theory: Huskies and wolf hybrids are definitely more closely related to wolves, and they tend to do very well on grain-free diets in general. Dogs are descended from wolves.
Weaknesses: Dogs have had time to evolve into dramatically different sizes and temperaments. Dogs’ brains have changed: their social structure is different than wolf packs. With all these evolutionary changes, I imagine their guts have evolved, too. In addition, both dogs and wolves eat the grain out of their prey before they eat anything else, though it can be argued that they can only digest partially-digested grain. Finally, in the wild dogs are more scavengers than hunters, and have been for thousands of years. This means they’ve been eating what we eat — and we eat grain.
The theory behind this really doesn’t work out. That said, I’ve seen plenty of dogs who function much better on a grain-free diet. In the words of my vet, “You have to look at the dog and see what works best for them. Do that.” Cash did okay but not great on a grain-free diet. Lily became ravenous and starting eating every plant she could find. I put them back on a diet with grain, and Lily stopped being ravenous and Cash got more energy. On the other hand, my friend’s huskies do dramatically better on a grain-free diet. Regardless, I personally think that for safety’s sake it’s probably best if the grains in the diet have been broken down before your dog eats them. Finally, a fair number of vets are noting that some dogs on grain-free diets are coming in with liver and kidney damage from years spent working too hard.
Grain free versus grain? Well, depends on the dog.
Theory: dogs wouldn’t cook their food in the wild. When you cook vegetables and meat, it kills the enzymes that dogs can’t make that would normally help with digesting. It also breaks down the nutrients and vitamins they need.
Strengths: From the research I’ve done, this is all true. Plenty of dog food companies are now making raw dog foods that come pre-packaged and (hopefully) free of nastiness, too. Raw food diets tend to keep dogs’ teeth much cleaner, too.
Weaknesses: Weak dogs, young dogs, and old dogs are all more likely to get salmonella if you aren’t careful of the food source.
Raw diets actually make a lot of health sense to me. From a practical standpoint, they’re expensive and/or messy. Personally, given the size of my dogs and the frequency with which we travel, it’s not a workable solution. To combat the cost a lot of people will make the food themselves. If you’re of such a mind, here’s some tips: The concern on salmonella can be mostly solved with blanching whatever meat you’re using, while leaving the inside mostly raw. (The majority of bacteria are on the outside of the meat.) I do hear people being concerned about their dogs choking on bones, but uncooked bones are soft enough to swallow. Most often, I see dogs choke on kibble, so I don’t worry about the bones. If you want to be extra careful you can get a meat grinder that will turn the bones to powder. Now your dog doesn’t have the chance to strengthen his jaws or clean his teeth, but he definitely won’t choke, either. The big thing about making it yourself is doing the research so you include all the vitamins and minerals your dog needs, and in the correct quantities. Make sure you do the research. Finally, as above, a fair number of vets are noting that some dogs on grain-free/raw diets are coming in with liver and kidney damage from years spent working too hard. Add in veggies and maybe grain so your dog isn’t eating only protein.
One of the reasons people are pushing grain-free and raw diets so much is because of the number of dogs cropping up with allergies. Wheat and corn are the most common allergens in dog foods, so I try to avoid those. I’ve read in multiple places that dogs can’t absorb protein from plant sources, and wheat and soy are common plant sources used to up the protein levels in dog food, so I avoid soy as well.
Other than that, a dog can be allergic to almost anything (I know a dog allergic to chicken), so you have to take into account your personal dog. Most dogs, though, do just fine on most things.
So… what do you feed your dogs and why?
If I was going to look for the perfect dog food I would look for one where the first two ingredients listed were animal meat, where there was no soy, corn, or wheat, a food that had been cooked on a low temperature or freeze-dried or had vitamins sprayed on after the cooking process, and had a variety of recognizable ingredients. Shall I break that down? Okay!
the first two ingredients listed were animal meat
A brief note on by-products: sometimes they mean meat, organs, and bone, all of which are good for dogs in small quantities. Sometimes it means feet and feathers, which dogs can’t digest. Because it’s impossible to know which, I avoid them. If something says “meal” it typically also contain organs.
Because the ingredients list puts the greatest quantity first, I now have some assurance that there’s a fair amount of animal protein in it. Alternately, I might like for the first three out of five ingredients to be animal meat. I’m also going to keep an eye for something like, “Wheat,” and later, “gluten” and later, “wheat meal.” If I see something appear several times in different forms, there might just be too much of it.
where there was no soy, corn, or wheat
Soy and corn are also nutritionally worthless, corn moreso than soy. Dogs can’t digest corn. Heck, lots of animals can’t digest corn. They might do okay if it’s all ground up for them, but most “good” dog foods just avoid it altogether, so if it’s there, there’s probably a problem. Corn is a cheap, sweet, tasty filler.
Soy started getting used as a (useless) protein source when soy got so popular, so you will find it in “good” dog foods. Now that people are realizing it’s not so great, it’s becoming less prevalent. Given the links between breast cancer and soy… I’d rather avoid it entirely.
a food that had been cooked on a low temperature or freeze-dried or had vitamins sprayed on after the cooking process
All of these go back to the raw-food argument. If a food is cooked at low heat it doesn’t break down the vitamins and enzymes. In theory, same if it’s freeze-dried. If they spray the vitamins and enzymes on afterward, then they haven’t been broken down!
and had a variety of recognizable ingredients.
Because if I can recognize it, I can say, “Yes, that’s good!” and if there’s a variety, then there’s more vitamins and minerals. This is just my personal theory, but I like it! If I can’t recognize what’s in it that’s not always bad (sometimes companies will use the chemical names of vitamins, and I don’t know all of those), but I’d prefer to keep it to a minimum.
So… what DO you feed your dogs?
I feed them Kirkland brand dog food (yup, CostCo!). It gets very good ratings and fills almost all my requirements. It is cooked on high eat, and I don’t know if they spray it with vitamins and enzymes afterward, so I also buy a product called “AddLife” and sprinkle a little on top, to add back in the enzymes. I don’t worry about the vitamins as long as my dogs are healthy: give them too many, and you have liver and kidney problems again, so… I try not to go crazy, and hope I’m finding the right balance!
But on this my dogs have shiny, non-oily coats, bright eyes, energy, and they seem to be quite happy. Since that’s really the best measure I can get, I’ll take it!
If you want more information, I recommend the following dog food review/information sites: