Dog Food: What to Feed and Why

How to Read Pet Food Labels, Find the Best Dog Food, Recognize Marketing Gimmicks and Unhealthy Ingredients, Switch Foods Safely and More

Are you feeding your dog to build health and cure or prevent disease? Or are you feeding to fill your dog's stomach or buy his favor?

I'll help you read labels, select foods, recognize myths and switch from one food to another.

Note: We do not sell dog food.

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Read the Dog Food Myths chapter excerpt from Scared Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care  

Food Facts

Brands advertised on television do not deliver top nutrition. They deliver top sales. In fact, the cuter and more heartwarming the commercial, the less likely the food is to provide healthful nutrition. Ask yourself, why are they promoting emotion instead of quality?

Advertised brands, when they promote ingredients, more often than not promote ingredients that are not good for dogs or cats, like corn and wheat and meats of questionable origin.

You can't buy 50 pounds of food that will build health for $9.95. Or $12.95. Period.

Leaving kibble down all day is one of the easiest ways to cause obesity in animals. Obesity is one of the easiest ways to shorten life and damage joints.

According to Purina's 14-year study of 48 Labrador Retrievers, lean-fed dogs (fed 25% less food than their littermates) lived a median of 1.8 years longer than the control group:13.0 years vs 11.2 years for the control group.

Treatment for health conditions as they aged was begun at 12.0 years among lean-fed dogs and 9.9 years for the control group. The lean-fed dogs had fewer visible signs of "aging" like graying muzzles.

Top Rules for Choosing Commercial Foods
for Dogs and Cats

By Jan Rasmusen and Jean Hofve, DVM

1.   Read labels. Call the manufacturer's toll-free number posted on the label with any questions. Check out ingredients with this cool wizard developed by a pet food company to get definitions for ingredients. Find the exact legal definitions at the FDA website.

2.   Buy food that’s closest to fresh.  Frozen, freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are better than canned foods which are in turn better for your pet than dry kibble.

3.   The first ingredient should be one or more “named” animal proteins (like lamb, beef, chicken or venison).  “Meat” can mean anything. Important: manufacturers trick us by putting, say, lamb first followed by corn gluten, corn meal and brewer’s rice; the three carbs added together outweigh the lamb.

4.   Accept no by-products (like meat by-products).
Legally, they’re the non rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals, including but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. Icky sounding, but not completely horrible if a meat source is named (chicken by-products are far better than poultry by-products) and are better if canned (where they are canned fresh, not rendered or processed) than in dry food. However, this is a cheap product with inconsistent ingredients.

5.   Accept no meat-and-bone-meal and beef-and-bone-meal.  Because of “mad cow disease” scares, meat meals are banned in countries like Japan and France. These are the worst ingredients imaginable.

6.   Accept no "animal" products, such as "animal digest."  Digest is a flavor enhancer which can contain varying parts from animals of unknown origin.  Yum.

7.   Reject all corn products and gluten meals. Corn and gluten are common allergens. Wheat gluten was contaminated in the 2006 major pet food recall in a attempt to boost protein content with melamine.

8.   Reject chemical preservatives (like BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, ethoxyquin, propylene glycol).

9.    Avoid "light" or "senior" or "special needs" or "breed-specific" foods. These variations on regular pet food are mostly marketing gimmicks, sold at a premium, with little or no real benefit to your pet. "Natural" or "human grade" foods are terms generally seen on better-quality foods but have no legal definition.

10.  Feed several brands and flavors with different protein sources your dog or cat tolerates well, and rotate them frequently.

Here's an excellent article on pet food: What's Really in Pet Food?  Read another good article on Selecting a Good Commercial Pet Food by Dr. Hofve and her great article Dog and Cat Food Labels: Marketing Tricks That Cost You Money on my blog Truth4Dogs. On my Blog4Dogs blog, read Dog Food: 10 Scary Truths

Dr. Martin Goldstein on feeding pets.


Kibble and Grocery Store Foods 

The term "super premium kibble" may be an oxymoron, with few exceptions. Kibble, because of the way it is made, is overcooked. Vitamins and enzymes are destroyed and cheap vitamins are added back.  This can lead to dehydration and bloat.  It is too often polluted with toxins and can become contaminated. My preferences, established by extensive research are, in order of best to worst, fresh, frozen, freeze dried or dehydrated, canned, kibble.

4-D meats (from  dead, dying, diseased and disabled) are a mainstay of the pet industry. And, of course, antibiotics, steroids and hormones pollute even our own food. Clearly the worst go into kibble where they can be well-cooked and  the taste can be disguised with extruded fat. Yum! 

Calling the manufacturer in question can give you some sort of answer to the quality issue. I go organic for my dogs and myself. 

There is no upper limit for pesticide contamination levels for corn used in pet food.

Pet food marked "human quality" has quite different standards than food marked as "for pets only" or not marked at all. The USDA, which inspects food for human use, has strict standards about animal health. Unfortunately, the standards don't apply to antibiotic, steroid and hormone use. Only a label marked "organic" addresses those issues. Still, USDA inspected does mean something.

Weight Loss in Obese Dogs

If you switch your pet to "diet food," don't forget to switch back to a more complete diet once the weight falls off. Too often, a vet puts a dog on a highly-restricted short-term diet, but five years later the poor animal is still getting that same highly-processed, reduced nutrient food meal after meal. This presents dangerous vitamin, mineral and enzyme deficiencies.

It's far safer to replace high-cal processed foods with a lower calorie diet, adding lots of fresh, whole foods including plenty of cooked, fresh veggies. Counter-intuitively, one should add good fats (cod liver or olive oils) to aid health and curb appetite. Adding high fiber foods also helps to satiate the appetite, but forget about adding carbs.

When increasing exercise, take care to supplement with natural arthritis remedies (with glucosamine and other natural anti-inflammatory ingredients). Never use arthritis "drugs" without doing an on-line check for safety. Many have dangerous, even deadly, side effects that are not divulged by veterinarians selling them.

Re Slenderol, the new diet pill for dogs, one can only hope it will be safer and more effective than diet pills for people. Sadly, although diet pills and special diet foods for the human population have become increasingly available, the number of us who are overweight has also increased. One can't help asking: Isn't doing the same thing for animals while expecting different results the definition of insanity?

If you purchase food in a bag and transfer it to a canister, make certain that you keep information on the brand, product name, lot number and expiration date so you'll have all the information you need if the food is recalled.
Some label terms, meant to inform consumers, can mislead them.  According to the FDA: “…even a minor change in the wording of the name has a dramatic impact on the minimum amount of the named ingredient required..."  And here I thought they were protecting us, not colluding to confuse us.

Okay, the "95% rule" is pretty logical. In order to call a product, say, "Beef for Dogs" or "Lamb for Dogs," at least 95% of the product, less water for processing, must contain the named ingredient. Fine.

Here's where it starts to get confusing: "Dinner," as in "Beef Dinner for Dogs," means that the named ingredients comprise as little as 25% of the product, but not as much as 95%. (You can bet it's closer to the low end than the high. Read the label to get an idea about how much of the named product is in there.)  Just to keep you on your toes, there are other words that mean the same as "dinner": "platter," "entree," "nuggets" and "formula" are just a few examples.

Now it really gets crazy. "With," as in "Brand X with Beef," means as little as 3%, but less than 25%, of the named ingredient is in the product.

The "flavor" rule means that to call a product, say, "Beef Flavor Dinner," it "must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected." The term "digest," as in "meat digest," basically means flavor.

Common Myths, Lies and Misconceptions
that make feeding dogs and cats so difficult. Click the links to hear excerpts from the recordings from our How Not to Kill Your Dog or Cat audio series.

Lie #1: Vets are nutrition experts. Most veterinarians are general practitioners with only minimal nutrition education. Much of what they know comes directly or indirectly from the pet food industry. The majority sell processed food products and have little or no experience with homemade diets.

Lie #2: Kibble is safer than canned. 75% of past pet food recalls involved kibble. Dr. Hofve says: "Dry food is associated with many serious chronic health conditions and is not recommended as a regular diet." Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, kibble does NOT clean a pet's teeth. Canned beats dry, frozen and dehydrated beat canned, and fresh beats everything.

Lie #3: "People food" is bad for dogs and cats. If you eat a reasonably healthy diet yourself, with a little education you can feed a healthy diet to your cat or dog. In fact, just as is true for humans, fresh foods can provide much better nutrition for pets than highly processed "fast foods." Make no mistake: commericial pet foods are fast foods.

Lie #4: Natural = safe, and Human Grade = superior quality. Many people mistakenly believe that "natural" foods are "safe." Not true. Arsenic is natural, but nobody argues that it's safe to consume. And whereas food fit for human consumption is preferable to the leftovers and waste products in most pet food (especially grocery store foods), there is no legal or even practical definition for the term "human grade." This is strictly a marketing term and is often abused.

Lie #5: Foods not on any recall list are good for pets.  Brands show up on recall lists from time to time, often after problems have been known for some time. As long as there is little regulation of overseas suppliers, foods will always be suspect. Also, just because a food isn't contaminated, it isn't necessary good for your pet.

Lie #6: "Complete and balanced" foods are complete and balanced. Commercial foods lack many essential elements, often contain condemned ingredients, and most lack some or all of the four essentials that will keep your pet healthy: probiotics, digestive enzymes, green foods and essential fatty acids.

Lie #7: Raw food diets are dangerous. So-called BARF diets (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) resemble a dog or cat's natural diet and can be superior to all other diets for many animals when fed by an educated "chef." Raw foods, of course, must be fresh and properly handled. Also remember that "raw" is no guarantee of quality and any raw food may challenge an ill pet.

The above is excerpted from material written by Jan Rasmusen and Dr. Jean Hofve, veterinarian and former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. A practicing veterinarian and four-term President of the Rocky Mountain Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Hofve worked two years as a full-time animal advocate for the Animal Protection Institute where she was a liaison to AAFCO, the organization setting standards for the pet food industry.


Toxins and Other Poisons

Fertilizer and pesticide contamination: Products condemned for human use because of fertilizer or pesticide contamination can be used in pet food.

Genetically modified foods: The majority of soy and corn grown in the US are genetically modified and may be used in pet food.

Endotoxins: When an animal dies on a farm/ranch, it may take a while to get it to the rendering plant. It may become contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli which are theoretically killed during processing. However, endotoxins produced by bacteria can survive processing, causing sickness and disease. Pet food manufacturers do not test for bacterial endotoxins, nor do they test for drugs that were used to treat or euthanize the animal which linger in the carcass.

Mycotoxins: These are toxins produced by mold or fungi growing on wheat, corn and fish meal.

Aflatoxin and vomitoxin have caused several large pet food recalls and sickness and death in pets.

Foods to avoid: onions, grapes and raisins, chocolate (especially dark chocolate, but also white chocolate), sprouted or green potatoes, artificial sweeteners (especially Xylitol), cooked bones, too much dark meat turkey, cooked fat, and highly spiced foods.

Avoid kibble, in general, and particularly grocery store kibble loaded with corn.

I would never buy a product containing corn, wheat or soy: common allergens.

When Organic is Important

Fish Oil is famous for its anti-infammatory properties. It is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids and can help keep skin and coats healthy. If you can, use use organic fish oil.  Much oil is now produced from farmed fish, particularly farmed salmon. Farmed fish can contain far high levels of chemical contaminants, particularly PCBs. Nordic Naturals and Carlson are both good brands. I used lemon-flavored Cod Liver Oil for both myself and my dogs. Happily, it tastes nothing like cod liver oil.

Two other foods that should be organic are liver (which filters toxins in animal bodies) and peanut butter (which is often contaminated with pesticides).

Switching foods: Abruptly switching from one pet food to another often causes diarrhea. Ironically, the diarrhea is a sign that the diet is deficient and needs changing. Good bacteria in a mammal's intestines process food. Healthy intestines populated with good beneficial flora easily process all types of foods. Intestines of animals existing on a limited or poor diet have limited flora growth. Your dog should be able to have a different food every meal just as you do.

To help your dog switch to a new food, do it slowly over a period of 10 days to 2 weeks, adding a bit of the new food while holding back a bit of the old. Add digestive enzymes and probiotics (beneficial bacteria) to the food. Find these products at a small natural-food oriented pet store or your health food store. Most products made for humans base the dose on a 150 lb. person. Reduce the dose proportionately for your dog. (That is, a 50 lb. dog gets 1/3 the human dose.)

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Scared Poopless:
The Straight Scoop on Dog Care

by Jan Rasmusen & Chiclet T. Dog

All author royalties benefit animal causes.

Ben Franklin Award
Best Health Book of any kind

Best Animal/Pet Health Book

 Learn More About Our Book

 Nutrition Recordings for Dogs and Cats
Nutrition Recordings

Scared Poopless has two info-packed chapters on how to feed your dog, but people wanting to prevent or cure disease often want to learn even more. To fill this need, I teamed with Dr. Jean Hofve, one of the top pet food and pet nutrition experts in the country.

We produced three recordings:

#1: Truth, Lies & Pet Food (about selecting the safest commercial foods)
#2: Diet, Disease and Longevity (how to feed dogs and cats with health problems)
#3: From Mere Survival to Glowing Health (how to feed for optimum health)

Listen to excerpts from these recordings:

 Is "people food" bad for dogs?

Is kibble good for teeth?
What supplements should we give?
How does homemade food help?

Click to order these recordings now.

If you want to switch to more holistic health care methods for your animals, but your vet is resistant, here's the DVD for you!  Listen as countless nationally renowned vets discuss how and why they added integrative techniques and methods (like nutrition, reduced vaccination, acupuncture, energy medicine and more) to their practices. This poignant 35 minute film makes a terrific gift for animal lovers and veterinarians alike. 

Buy it here. All proceeds benefit the Center for Integrative Veterinary Health, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation working to educate the public and vets.

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Important Disclaimer: The information contained on this web site is provided for general information purposes. Any information provided is not veterinary advice and should not be substituted for a regular consultation with a veterinary professional. If you have any concerns about your dog's health, please contact your veterinarian's office immediately.  
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