Does Your Dog Need Vitamins?

Providing your dog with vitamins, minerals and other nutritional components is important to your pet's health and well-being. The best way to do so is by feeding it a high-quality, complete and balanced diet. Often you may be tempted, for a number of reasons, to supplement your pet's diet with table scraps or other nutritional supplements.

It is actually better for your dog if you forego supplementing its food, however. Here's why:

Risks of Supplementing
It is important for concerned pet owners like you to realize that quality dog foods are carefully formulated to meet the caloric needs of your pet. In addition, quality dog food provides the essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals specific to the nutritional requirements of your dog. Quality foods are complete and balanced for a specific life stage or lifestyle. By adding table scraps or other supplements, the delicate nutrient balance can be disrupted.

The interaction between different minerals is very complex. Research has shown that not only are the individual levels of minerals in a diet important, but so is the proper balance. An excess of one mineral may affect the absorption of a second. This could lead to a deficiency in that second mineral.

One common supplement is feeding additional meat. However, because meat contains 20 to 40 times more phosphorus than calcium, adding meat to a balanced diet will upset the calcium to phosphorus (or Ca:P) ratio, which is important for proper bone development and maintenance. This may prompt your dog's body to absorb calcium from the bones in order to reach the right balance. Ca:P ratio should range between 1.1 and 1.4 parts of calcium for each 1 part of phosphorus.

Excess amounts of calcium have been associated with several bone diseases that affect growing puppies. If you own a large-breed puppy, for example, you may believe it requires extra calcium for proper development of bones. However, adding yogurt, cottage cheese, or calcium tablets to the pup's diet will only upset the body's delicate mineral balance. Remember that large-breed puppies will consume more food and receive the calcium their bodies need by eating the recommended portions. The best way to support a normal growth rate is to feed growing dogs adequate, but not excessive, amounts of food that are part of a balanced diet, using a portion-controlled regimen.

Complete and Balanced Food
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates the pet food industry and has established certain nutritional requirements for dogs and cats. These requirements are published annually in the AAFCO Manual. Only pet foods that have met the strict testing criteria established by AAFCO can carry the "complete and balanced" statement on the label. Check to make sure your dog's food has it.

So, while supplementing begins with good intentions, it is often unnecessary and it can upset the delicately balanced nutritional requirements of your dog.

How Much Protein

Have you heard that too much protein is bad for your dog? Or have you heard that dog food doesn't have enough protein? When you look at the labels on various dog foods, some are high protein, while others are lower protein. Some say they have 30 percent protein, some 26 percent, 22 percent or 18 percent. How much protein does your dog really need?

Protein is a nutrient that provides four calories of energy per gram. It's a building block for muscles, organs, bones and connective tissue. It makes up blood cells, antibodies, hair and enzymes. The body that oversees pet nutrition, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), requires that all dog foods have a minimum of 18 percent protein in adult dog food and 22 percent protein in puppy food when all water is removed from the food. But is this what your dog needs? The answer is, it depends.

Active dogs (sled dogs, police dogs, field or hunting dogs, herding dogs) need more protein. These super fit dogs are physically working for several hours each day.  They usually require 25 percent or more protein in their diet to build muscle and repair injuries. Puppies too, need higher protein because they're growing.

But isn't too much protein bad for a dog? Again, it depends. Thousands of sled dogs are routinely fed high-protein diets without a problem, but these dogs metabolize all that protein in their work. They're lean and healthy and lead long lives; sometimes 15 years and older. When considering your dog's protein needs, consider his physical condition and activity level.

If your dog isn't active and not getting much exercise, a food with 18 percent protein might just be fine. Another sign of inactivity is excess weight.  (If you have trouble feeling your pup's ribs through too much padding, then it is probably overweight.)  The important thing to remember is that age, activity level, fitness and health problems should all be taken into account. If you have a senior dog that doesn't run around much, then lower protein is right. If he's still hunting or pulling sleds, he can benefit from a higher protein diet.

While it was once believed that older dogs routinely needed lower protein diets to avoid stress to their kidneys, veterinary nutritionists have done an about-face on this. Older dogs with kidney problems do, indeed, need a low-protein food. But older dogs with healthy kidneys may actually need more protein as they age, because muscle mass tends to diminish with age and the seniors need the extra protein to maintain their muscles.

Protein is essential for your dog, but remember that how much depends largely on your dog's age, activity level and fitness. Talk to your veterinarian about what's right for your dog.

Determining a Food Allergy

Mimi Drew had her dog Charlie for a little more than a year when he got his first ear infection. She took him to the vet, who sent Charlie home with ointment and a round of antibiotics.

After many trips to the vet over a nine-month period to treat chronic ear infections and itchy skin, Drew began to do some research. She ultimately traced Charlie's symptoms to a rare canine food allergy: beef. "I was surprised that my vet didn't even consider food allergies when Charlie had those symptoms," Drew says. "We could have spared Charlie a lot of suffering -- not to mention the vet bills I could have avoided."

Her vet was not necessarily to blame. Canine food allergies are not very common and, like human allergies, can be tricky to diagnose -- dogs often do not show any immediate symptoms. A dog that's allergic to a certain ingredient, such as soy, may remain symptom-free for years before experiencing any related problems.

When it comes to food allergies, it helps to know what to look for. According to Alexander Werner, DVM, of the Animal Dermatology Center, the signs are:  

  • Chronic/recurring ear infections
  • Itchy face and paws
  • Hair loss, especially around the eyes

These symptoms can almost always be attributed to other issues. However, once you've ruled everything else out, consider discussing the possibility of a food allergy with your vet.

How to Tell
The simplest way to determine if your dog has a food allergy is to put your pup on a hypoallergenic food-elimination diet. Kimberly Carvalho, DVM, says you should "pick a novel protein source that your dog has never had before and feed it for six-to-eight weeks." For example, a commercial lamb and rice formula works well if your dog did not previously eat this combination much before.

Carvalho advises that your dog must not have access to any other food, such as table scraps, bones or treats during the trial period. She also recommends transitioning your dog gradually by mixing small amounts of the new flavored food in with your dog's old standby until you are feeding exclusively the new food.

At the end of the trial period, provided your dog's symptoms are gone, try feeding your dog its original diet. If a food allergy is to blame, symptoms will return within two weeks. If this does happen, go back to the food that you used during the trial. If your dog's symptoms still have not cleared up, and you have ruled out other causes, keep trying different flavors until your dog's symptoms disappear. Usually you can stick with your favorite pet food brand throughout the process. If your dog previously ate beef and veggies, try chicken and rice, or vice versa, depending on your dog's prior diet.

Dr. Carvalho also points out that once you've successfully concluded the trial and gotten your dog's allergies under control, it is important to reintroduce treats one at a time, waiting six to eight weeks each time you introduce a new treat flavor, to make sure it does not lead to an allergic reaction again.

While food allergies can be frustrating for pet owners -- and no doubt, even more frustrating for dogs -- they are solvable. So continue with the suggested feeding techniques until you find a food combination that agrees with your dog.

Special Food Choices for Your Senior Dog

When New York City native George Kingsman’s 11-year-old pug, Lily, began regularly limping around after each of her many naps, her veterinarian suggested a food change: senior-plus formula. “I transitioned to senior-plus food. She lost weight and, even better, her joint stiffness subsided within weeks,” says Kingsman.

Dr. Trisha Joyce, veterinarian of BluePearl Veterinary Partners, says that Lily’s quick improvement was probably due to both the weight reduction and the special supplements in senior-plus food. Below, Joyce weighs in on the special nutritional needs of dogs in their golden years.

How Old Is a Senior-plus Dog?
Large-breed dogs age faster because their bulk puts greater stress on their bodies. Dogs that weigh more than 50 pounds are considered senior-plus at age 9, but dogs that weigh less than 50 pounds aren’t considered senior until age 11.

Why Do Nutritional Considerations Change as Dogs Age?
“One of the more preventable problems for older dogs is probably weight gain,” says Joyce. “Like humans, dogs become more sedentary as they age, and their caloric needs decrease.”

Other concerns for older dogs will sound familiar to anyone who is familiar with the human aging process:

  • Immune functioning. A dog’s ability to fight illness declines with age.
  • Mobility. Joyce says that large-breed dogs are especially prone to joint issues, though small dogs are not completely immune. “They are all susceptible to joint degradation, just like people.”
  • Dental problems. Like humans, gum disease leaves dogs prone to heart problems as well as other issues, like pain when chewing. “Dental disease is ubiquitous in small-breed dogs,” cautions Joyce, who adds that larger dogs are also at risk.
  • Skin and coat issues. As dogs age, their oil-producing glands work less efficiently. Their skin and coats can become dry, allergies can worsen and wounds may become slower to heal.

How Do You Know If Senior-plus Food Is Right for Your Dog?
Senior-plus food is appropriate for all dogs 11 and older whose health problems do not meet the threshold for a specific prescription diet. Dogs with more severe health problems may need a more aggressive dietary approach. “Senior food is no substitute for a prescription diet. Make sure to involve your veterinarian in any decision to change your pet’s food,” advises Joyce.

When transitioning to a new food, it is recommended that you gradually make the change, substituting small amounts of new food for old over the course of a week.

What Should You Look for in Senior-plus Food?
Given the most common health concerns of older dogs, senior-plus food should be crunchy and reduced in calories. “The crunch of kibble works like a natural abrasive to help reduce plaque buildup on teeth,” says Joyce. Senior-plus food should also address fat burning, immune functioning, joint health, and skin and coat dryness. The following ingredients mitigate each of these common concerns:

  • L-carnitine. This compound is thought to promote the metabolism of fatty acids, helping dogs burn them as energy.
  • Antioxidants. “Antioxidants are thought to support immune functioning. These fall under the category of ‘Might help; can’t hurt,’” says Joyce.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. These compounds are naturally produced by the body and keep cartilage healthy. A senior-plus formula should be supplemented with these to stop the progression of arthritis.
  • Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. “They’re like immune boosters for the skin and coat,” says Joyce. These fatty acids are widely believed to support sleek coats and supple skin.

With the right pet formula, your senior-plus dog can enjoy its old age as much as its youth.

The Best Meat Meal for Your Dog

Dogs are omnivores, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a veterinarian who would recommend a vegetarian diet for your dog. Dr. Trisha Joyce, veterinarian of New York City Veterinary Specialists, has seen dogs survive but not thrive without meat. “In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we saw dogs that had probably eaten garbage on the streets for weeks but likely no protein. The body starts consuming muscle. They were skin and bones.”

Luckily, dogs are not picky eaters. “Their sense of smell is incredibly acute, but their sense of taste is much duller,” says Joyce. Your furry friend may not exhibit a preference for chicken over beef over lamb, but that doesn’t mean that one isn’t better, health-wise, than the other. Below, Joyce comments on the carnivorous leanings of canines and whether all meats are created equal.

Protein for Growth and Maintenance
Protein is crucial for all aspects of growth and development, which is why puppies as well as pregnant and lactating females need an even greater amount than other dogs. It is also crucial to the maintenance of the immune system and the body in general.

There are 22 amino acids (the stuff that protein is made of) required by dogs, and 12 of them dogs produce themselves. The other 10 must be consumed, and a lack of any one of them can cause health issues.

Choosing a High-quality Food
Dogs thrive on meat-based diets. To make sure your dog is getting just that, choose a food that has a high-quality animal protein as its first ingredient. That is, a meat or meat byproduct, such as meat meal, which is simply meat with the water and fat removed.

Commercial foods with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal have an adequate proportion of protein to carbohydrates. You cannot feed a healthy dog too much protein, and a high-protein diet will not cause kidney problems. If these develop, however, a special food may be in order. If a dog’s protein intake outpaces its need for it, the extra will be secreted into urine or turned into fat.

“Think of canines in the wild. They catch and consume other animals, and probably have a higher protein intake than what would ever be sold in pet stores,” says Joyce.

Chicken, Beef or Lamb?
Every protein source has a different level of usable amino acids. This amount is termed biological value. Egg has the highest biological value, followed by chicken, fish and red meat, in that order. But don’t let that information distract you. Any source of meat protein will serve your dog well.

The one time to consider switching your dog’s protein source is if allergies develop. Indications of food allergies include chronic itching without evidence of an infection; intermittent vomiting; or intermittent diarrhea.

“If you’re seeing a lot of gastrointestinal symptoms, blood tests can reveal whether the GI tract is out of whack. Sometimes the culprit is an allergic reaction to a protein caused by overexposure. The answer to this is a novel protein -- one they haven’t seen before, like duck or venison,” says Joyce.

In short, a commercial food with any high-quality protein will satisfy your dog’s nutritional needs.