Improving Canine Nutrition: Real Food for Better Health

by Laura Weis

Almost 90 percent of dog owners feed their dog kibble, but what about other commercial options such as frozen raw food or canned diets? The optimal dog diet is the least processed and the closest to a wild canid diet, and with a little research it is possible to improve even the best commercial foods. 

The overwhelming choice to feed kibble results from its convenience and cost-effectiveness, but kibble comes with hidden price tags and health consequences. Prior to World War II, most dogs were fed scraps and some commercial dog food, and they foraged and hunted. The advent of food restrictions and the development of efficient production facilities combined to make kibble the most common and economical option. But just because pets can survive on commercial kibble doesn’t mean they can thrive.

The health benefits of the canine ancestral diet—high protein, moderate amounts of healthy fats, and small amounts of plant material—have been supported by nutritional research. This diet can be mimicked by feeding a balanced, raw diet or a home-prepared diet that includes cooked foods. Dehydrated foods are a convenient option for occasional or exclusive feeding, and these foods tend to be freeze-dried or dehydrated at low temperatures, which results in greater nutrient preservation. Canned foods may be somewhat healthier than kibble, as the food is less processed. Unfortunately, few commercial foods provide the nutrient profile that best serves our canine companions.

In his book Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet, canine nutrition expert Steve Brown compares the macronutrient profiles of typical dry, canned and raw foods to the diet eaten by early and wild canids. Brown goes on to say that the ancestors of dogs ate a primarily hunted meat diet that included bones, organs and fur in addition to scavenged carcasses, and occasional fruits and grasses. The protein level in this diet averaged about 50 percent, with fat comprising 44 percent and carbohydrates a mere 6 percent. Most dry kibble provides only half as much protein (often from poor-quality sources) and seven times the amount of carbohydrates. Typical raw food is better but usually has higher fat levels.

In addition to unbalanced macronutrient levels, dry kibble can contain a plethora of dangers. Once the container is opened, the fats in dry food start to go rancid, which negatively affects health. Dry foods are also subject to bacterial and fungal growth over time and can contain storage mites, which are highly antigenic to some dogs. According to study results published in the research paper Mutagenic Activity and Heterocyclic Amine Carcinogens in Commercial Pet Foods, dry food must be heated to very high temperatures, destroying most nutrients and often producing cancer-causing by-products called heterocyclic amines.

When choosing to feed kibble, dog owners should buy small quantities and keep it tightly sealed in the original packaging. The best practice is to keep kibble in the freezer and only remove enough servings for one or two days to minimize the problems associated with storage. A kibble diet can be supplemented with protein, healthy fats and fresh foods, including lean muscle meat; organs such as heart, liver and kidney; sardines; omega-3-rich oils and small amounts of chopped vegetables and berries. Other healthy additions to consider are probiotic-rich, fermented goat’s milk and kefir, fermented vegetables, chia seeds and hemp seeds.

According to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science, adding fresh whole foods to a pet’s diet can improve nutrient bioavailability and provide a better nutritional base for health. Specific benefits include better neurological development and cardiac functioning, better ocular health and a better chance of staying lean. Cancer risks are lower in a canine diet that includes fresh vegetables, and the inclusion of vegetables specifically lowers the liver cancer risk of eating aflatoxin-contaminated grains that can be found in dry kibble. Feeding fresh foods as part of a home-cooked diet or as a supplement to commercial food can decrease inflammation, resulting in fewer skin problems and allergies.

When choosing to supplement a commercial food or to prepare a home-cooked diet, dog owners should seek guidance from a knowledgeable and experienced veterinarian. Books such as Brown’s, as well as online resources, can offer information about the science behind the choices. Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats offers recipes and advice for those interested in plant-based diets for dogs, as well as general health information. Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats offers easy-to-follow recipes for both puppies and adult dogs.

Providing dogs a more natural diet can be as simple as including some wholesome and nutritious foods in addition to a high quality commercial diet.

Dr. Laura Weis and her husband, Dr. Ransome Weis, own and operate Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, in Doylestown. She focuses on homeopathy and nutrition counseling for her clients within the full-service veterinary practice. Call 215-345-6000 to request an appointment. July 2018

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