A-Z of dog wellbeing: Diet

Today our dogs are being diagnosed with a wide range of health problems that we consider to be ‘normal’ for our pets – skin problems, increased shedding, gassiness, chronically loose stools, intermittent vomiting, kidney problems, and even cancer.

It’s no coincidence that many of these issues have only become common since the introduction of processed, often grain-based, commercial pet foods, and yet we can often halt the march of these life-limiting diseases by simply feeding a more species-appropriate diet.

Why do we feed our dogs’ kibble?

Our canine companions have instinctively been eating a natural diet of meat and vegetables for thousands of years. An American electrician, James Spratt, concocted the first dog food after watching dogs around a shipyard eating scraps of discarded biscuits. Spratt’s company started to produce a biscuit (kibble) made from wheat, meat and vegetables and needed to increase their sales so they came up with the marketing idea that it was ‘bad’ to feed your dog table scraps (meat and vegetables) and encouraged dog owners to switch to their food instead because it was better for the dog, when in fact it was really just to increase sales.

The products were marketed as ‘complete’ foods, making the owner think it was all their dog needed, however this is a common misconception. In fact, processed ‘complete’ dog foods often contain the minimum requirements to maintain a basic level of health.

I really can’t shout that from the rooftops loud enough. Your pet food may only provide the minimum your dog needs not to be unwell. It may not help them be at their very best, or help their body stay in balance so that they can fight off illness and disease.

Sadly, today vets perpetuate this marketing trend, being paid commission by pet food manufacturers to sell their products to unwitting pet owners within their vet practice. I certainly fell for this when I was a new dog owner. I thought my vet new best about by dog’s dietary needs, so I bought the kibble they recommended and just happened to have on their shelves however, in my experience, vets have to-date received very little unbiased training on the nutritional requirements of dogs. They are brainwashed with ‘kibble is best’ propaganda from the three biggest pet food manufacturers:

  • Mars – Eukanuba, James Wellbeloved, Cesar, Iams, Pedigree & Royal Canin
  • Nestlé – Purina One/Pro Plan, Bakers, Friskies, Beneful
  • Colgate-Palmolive – Hills Science Plan/Prescription Diet

How do I know if my dog food is a quality one?

There are lots of fabulous dog foods on the market, include kibble – but you just need to know where to look and what to look for!

For far too long, pet food manufacturers have been able to get away with producing, frankly, awful foods for our pets. The companies best able to cut costs while maximising income reign supreme and while that might work in other industries, it is not good news for our pets and most consumers aren’t even aware that alternatives exist.
David Jackson, creator of AllAboutDogFood

I’d highly recommend you take a look at AllAboutDogFood.co.uk – an independent website that can help you review and understand how your pet food measures up. Simply search for your dog’s food in the ‘dog food directory’ and see how it scores out of five, with 0.1 being lowest and 5 being highest. (You may have to scroll down below the ads at the top) to see this:

Click on the title and you’ll get a lot more information. Here are three big brands you may recognise from the high street:

I was shocked at how low Pedigree Complete (made by Mars) scores (0.1/5), which reinforces they concept that just because a food has lots of marketing money thrown at it, that doesn’t make it any good!

For the quick  option, simply opt for a food that scores as close to 5/5 as possible. I’m not advocating any on this list – there are plenty of good, cheaper options – but using the search tool on the site, you can fill in your dog’s age and size, and rank the foods by highest rating to see the best options for your dog.  These are a good indicator of quality if you don’t want to delve into why each food scores what it does.  If you’re interested in the ‘why’ then read on!

What ingredients make a dog food good or bad?

Looking back at the AllAboutDogFood.co.uk results for Pedigree Puppy food as an example, take a look at the Nutrition section.  The site lists the ingredients and those they consider to be controversial, unclear or low-grade are highlighted in red, with especially contentious ingredients in bold red.

If the ingredients lists sounds more like a chemistry experiment than a menu then I’d give it a miss!  I’d choose dog foods that are made primarily from ingredients that you recognise and might be willing to eat yourself!  If it’s made to look like peas and carrots, but isn’t actually peas or carrots, then it’s likely to be of a lower quality.

As in human food labelling, the largest ingredient is listed first, with the smallest quantity last.  In dog foods we want the largest ingredient to be a quality (recognisable) protein source – meat, fish or egg – which it isn’t in this first example.  (See the important note below about ingredient splitting though.)

If you’d like to find out what ‘meat and animal derivatives’ means (or any of the other unexplained ingredients), click on that ingredient on the website and you’ll get a more detailed explanation.

Lots of these ingredients are designed to make a boring kibble more palatable to your dog, with marketing phrases like ‘tasty gravy’ or the use of attractive colours designed to entice you, the owner, not the dog.

In this second example, protein is well represented in the first three ingredients, and comprises 9 of the first 11 ingredients.  I’d much rather eat this – it sounds yummy!

How to spot the ‘tricks’ of the pet food industry

Commercial pet food manufacturers are always looking for ways to make their food cheaper to produce and they’ve come up with some clever ways of pulling the wool over our eyes:

  • Cereals are often used as fillers to bulk out the biscuit and make it cheaper to manufacture, but they rarely add any nutritional value and have been linked to dietary intolerances.
  • They may state the protein percentage of the food, but they may use cheap protein that’s not from an animal source. Soya beans, maize/corn, spelt, alfalfa, pea flour, pea protein, potato protein, vegetable protein extracts and quinoa are all examples of vegetable and cereal based protein sources that make food cheaper, however some of these have also been linked to dietary intolerances.
  • Possibly the craftiest trick is ‘ingredient splitting’. This a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers by subdividing a more abundant — yet inferior quality — ingredient into smaller portions to artificially raise a meat item to a higher position on an ingredients list — and lower an inferior one.  Read more about ingredient splitting.

So what are my dog food options?

If your dog is free from any problems that could be made worse by a certain diet, then you are free to choose from any of the types of food on the market. If your dog suffers with dietary related issues such as pancreatitis for example, it’s best to ask your vet for advice first, but try to find a vet that can provide a holistic, unbiased recommendation as many will only recommend their brand of kibble.

Raw feeding is regarded by many as the most natural way to feed a dog and over the past decade or so it has become the fastest growing feeding trend in the UK – although ironically dogs have been eating this way for thousands of years, so its not really a new concept!  You can buy pre-made foods from the freezer section of your pet store, or buy meat from a local dog food supplier or butcher and add the vegetables yourself if you know what the correct balance is.

I feed my dogs a raw food diet because, in my opinion, that’s what their teeth, jaws, intestines and stomach are designed for.  That’s why a raw food diet is often called ‘species-appropriate’. Your pet could enjoy fresher breath, cleaner teeth, a stronger immune system, much smaller poos, and no ‘doggy odour’, hot spots, ear infections, or flaky skin as well as reduced arthritic symptoms and increased energy.

Some high scoring raw food brands (not recommendations) are Natural Instinct, Nutriment and Natures Menu. Click on each name to see their scores and ingredients on All About Dog Food.

Fresh foods are a relatively new product, that make a viable alternative to raw feeding if it’s not appropriate in your household.  Fresh ingredients are gently cooked and packed in trays or pouches so they retain a high proportion of their natural nutrients compared to conventional dry and wet foods. They need to be kept refrigerated at all times, typically lasting up to 14 days from the date of manufacture, but can be frozen and defrosted as needed.

There are only a couple of fresh food brands (not recommendations) on the site: Butternut Box and Different Dog.

Wet foods often come in tins, trays, pouches and chubb rolls. The ingredients are blended and cooked before being vacuum sealed into their containers, then heat sterilised which is likely to damage some of the natural nutrients contained within the food. The vacuum sealing and sterilisation do, however, ensure a long shelf life without the need for any added artificial additives, and they can be very expensive in comparison to fresh or raw.

Some high scoring wet food brands (not recommendations) include Akela, Aatu and Forthglade.

Dry foods owe their popularity to the millions spent on marketing and the convenience as they’re available everywhere, they don’t need any preparation, and most owners don’t think they need any special storage requirements (although they do!)

They can be processed in five ways: extrusion, baking, cold-pressed, air dried and freeze dried.  There are plenty that score the full 5/5 in analysis, so it’s just a case of doing a little research and maybe buying online and getting your food delivered.  While some are expensive, I’ve fed a 5/5 kibble-based food in the past, before I switched to raw, and it didn’t cost any more than the big brand I was buying from my vet.

Some high scoring dry food brands (not recommendations) are EdenMillies Wolfheart and Simpsons.

Every type of food described above has its own pros and cons and no one category is ‘best’ for all dogs or all owners. The final decision must come down to what’s best for you (personal preferences, budget, convenience, ethical considerations etc) and your dog (their individual health and their personal preference).