Dog Food That Maintains Healthy Digestion

Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Katy Nelson has seen the havoc that a poor diet can wreak on a dog. “You can spot a dog on the wrong diet a mile away,” says Nelson. “Their coat is dull and they look lethargic.” Some breeds, such as German shepherds, are more prone to digestive issues than others, but all dogs can suffer the consequences of a diet that produces too much stool and thereby precludes proper nutrient absorption.

Veterinarians and dog food manufacturers agree that dogs need to eat food with moderately fermentable fibers. Below, Nelson shares her advice for identifying digestive issues and looking for specific ingredients in your dog’s food to ensure that it’s getting all the nutrients it needs.

Identifying Digestive Troubles
Unfortunately, the best way to know whether or not your dog is having digestive problems is to check its poop. Stools that are too hard or too soft may be an indication that your dog is either not absorbing nutrients from food, or that the food does not have the proper nutrients to keep the digestive tract healthy in the first place.

“If your dog is having problems with elimination or vomiting, you need to work with your veterinarian to investigate what is going on,” says Nelson. “If you haven’t changed your pet’s diet and it has diarrhea for more than two or three days, vomiting multiple times a day, or has any blood in the stool, this indicates something more serious than improper digestion.” Once your veterinarian has ruled out conditions like pancreatitis, parasites and inflammatory bowel disease, it’s time to talk about food.

Best Ingredients for GI-healthy Diets

  • Beet Pulp The term “digestibility” refers to how easily food goes down -- and how readily absorbable its ingredients make its nutrients. According to Nelson, the best fiber source is moderately fermentable, which comes in the form of beet pulp.
  • Prebiotics These are ingredients that promote the gut’s natural, good bacteria while keeping the bad bacteria in check. The next ingredient on Nelson’s list of must-haves is the prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which crowds out the bad bacteria and feed the good.
  • Grain sorghum and barley Research has found that the combination of these complex carbohydrates also enhances digestibility. providing a stable source of energy throughout the day.

The above ingredients enhance gastrointestinal tract health, allowing your dog to absorb vitamins, minerals and other beneficial components, like vitamin A and fish oils.

Prescription Formula
If your dog is having digestive problems despite being on a diet that includes beet pulp and prebiotics, talk to your veterinarian about a veterinary intestinal formula. “I often try a prescription diet for a short period, and then taper off to a nonprescription food,” says Nelson. “The prescription diet usually serves as a temporary solution. Once the pet gets through a tough time, we go back.” Nelson adds that some dogs need to remain on the veterinary-prescribed food. “It is more expensive, but less so than continuous trips to the vet. If you find something that works, you can stick with it.”

It’s important to note that GI tract problems are often stress-related. “Whether their favorite person is away from home or they are engaging in fun activities, like a long hike, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and can require treatment with antibiotics,” she says. Taking care of your dog’s GI tract will help to ensure that you and your pet can enjoy each other’s company for many meals to come.

Top Feeding Tips From Dog Owners

Anialisa Shah makes mealtime special for her four Labradors by petting each of their sides while they eat. “I know it makes them happy because their tails start wagging so fast,” says Shah. Thought and care should go into the meals you serve your dog, as they do when you serve your family. Every mealtime gives you the chance to provide nutrition and to nurture that special bond you have with your dog.

Shah and other dog owners offer their top feeding tips:

Have a Chat
Shah makes sure she offers encouragement as the dogs eat: “I usually say things like ‘You are such a good girl or boy,’ since those words seem to make them happier.”

Mealtime comes soon after Shah’s alarm rings in the morning. “Anyone who knows Labs knows they love to eat,” says Shah. “They get fed in a specific order, and they wait until their food is poured. It’s very routine.”

Be Patient and Predictable
With seven large dogs, Paul Caster’s feeding times can get a bit hectic. “One trick we learned a long time ago was to train each dog to sit and wait until it’s released before getting dinner. This has to be continually reinforced, but it saves a lot of trouble,” says Caster.

Caster knows senior dogs can be finicky eaters, so he was willing to adjust when his Irish wolfhound stopped approaching meals with relish. “Frodo is a very sensitive, 106-pound puppy. He just wanted me to hold his dish while he ate,” says Caster. “Moral of the story: Before you rush your pup to the veterinarian when it stops eating, give it a little extra attention and you’ll see what happens.”

Spread out Feeding
Monica Anthony separates food for her 10-year-old Labrador retriever and 7-month-old Doberman pinscher into portions throughout the day. “Both my dogs are fed meals three times a day, along with stuffed Kongs twice per day,” says Anthony. “Spreading out mealtimes helps keep the Lab’s weight in check, since she is not as hungry. It also allows the puppy to digest the high volume of food required as she grows.”

Anthony works to keep consistent feeding times. After her dogs exercise, she makes sure they get an hour of quiet time before she feeds them again. Access to clean water is a must. She keeps things neat by placing a shoe tray from a dollar store under the food. She also buys water bowls that are large enough to contain splashes and splatters.

“If your dog is older and tall, consider raised feeding dishes,” advises Anthony. “They allow our Lab to eat and drink in comfort.”

Accommodate Your Dog’s Tastes
Truffles, a 6-year-old Havanese, likes cold water. So her owner, Dr. Debra Jaliman, adds a few ice chips to Truffles’ water bowl at mealtimes. She also coats Truffles’ dry kibble with wet dog food. “I try to feed Truffles before I feed the family. Otherwise, Truffles gets antsy,” says Jaliman.

Make Meals a Challenge
Joan Hunter Mayer, a certified professional dog trainer in Ventura, Calif., makes sure her 8-year-old Chihuahua mix finds mealtimes stimulating. She suggests stuffing interactive food toys, such as Kongs, with your dog’s food. “This is an ideal way for your dog to have meals,” says Mayer. “These are toys that are meant for dry foods as well as wet foods. Instead of always feeding it out of a bowl, allowing your dog to engage in these productive, challenging and enjoyable activities taps into your dog’s natural predatory drive -- making mealtime fun.”

Engaging your dog at mealtimes will allow you to feel closer, and it will make the experience more enjoyable overall.

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Control Your Dog’s Weight With Food

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 45 percent of all dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Luckily, there are food choices, based on good science, that can help treat the problem of an overweight or underweight dog.

Fat Dog, Skinny Dog

For many dog owners, determining what’s over or under a normal weight isn’t so obvious. The most reliable way to find out is to ask your veterinarian, says Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based vet who has consulted on dog food nutrition matters. Your vet will use one of two scoring systems, with a sliding scale that runs from emaciated to morbidly obese.

A good at-home way to measure is to look at your dog’s ribs, says Rebecca Rose, a veterinary technician who has routinely advised pet owners about weight issues over her 23-year career. “If ribs can be seen, your dog is too thin,” she says. “If the ribs can be felt, that is optimum. If the ribs are not felt, then your dog is overweight.”

Once you know your dog’s goal, there are a large number of specialized foods that can help. Here’s a quick rundown for each situation:

Adding Weight
Foods created specifically for underweight dogs, sometimes called “performance” foods, usually contain higher protein and fat than usual. This can help build muscle mass. They aren’t merely the doggie equivalent of Big Macs, says Nelson. They’re just much more calorically dense than other foods, allowing a dog to eat a “normal” amount but supplying it with more calories per bite.

Nelson believes it’s a better option than giving bigger portions of “regular” food. “If a pet becomes accustomed to eating a large amount per day, it may be more difficult to transition it [back] when it's achieved an ideal weight,” she says.

Weight Control
Anyone who has dieted knows that, after losing weight, keeping it off can be just as hard. That’s where “weight control” foods come in (sometimes they’re also called “weight maintenance” or “weight management”). They’re used to maintain the ideal weight once it’s been achieved.

“Don’t count on them to reduce your pet’s weight,” warns Nelson. “But they’re wonderful foods if your pet is where it needs to be.” She says these foods can also be used for obesity prevention -- for a dog that has the potential to become overweight, such as hypothyroid or “couch potato” dogs.

Losing Weight
There is a wide variety of options for dogs that need to lose weight. Some of these foods are very high in fiber, since fiber makes dogs, like people, feel fuller with smaller amounts of food. But Nelson says drawbacks include the increased “output” that results from a fiber-rich diet, as well as poor coat quality. Instead, she prefers high-quality dog foods with moderate amounts of carbohydrates and protein.

“Look for products that include L-carnitine, an amino acid that helps ‘escort’ fat into cells to be burned efficiently,” says Nelson. “Also look for vitamin A -- it helps fool the brain into thinking that it’s full -- and chromium tripicolinate, another fat-burning additive.”

But these foods alone won’t do the trick. “Portion control is the key in utilizing these scientifically engineered foods,” says Nelson. “You can have the best weight loss food on the market in your pet’s bowl, but if you’re dishing out too much of it, giving too many treats or not incorporating physical activity, your diet plan will fail.”

It’s also important to know the proper definition of a “cup” of food. Rose says she’s experienced many occasions where a dog owner’s idea of a cup was way off from the official eight ounces. “Conversations around ‘cup’ varied -- that a coffee can is a cup, or a 24-ounce soda cup is a cup. Obviously, these are not true 8-ounce servings,” she says.

Lastly, you might wonder how all these foods taste. Are they as unappealing to dogs as many “diet” foods are to people? “You may have to try a few foods to find the one that your pet will like,” says Nelson. “But in general, pets that are obese often do not have the most discerning of tastes.”

What Not to Feed Your Dog

When shopping for dog food, pet food stores offer a wide variety of choices.

“There are foods on the market which are very easy and tasty for your dog but don’t provide the highest nutrition,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian who has consulted on the nutritional makeup of dog food products. “Even though your pet may be excited about what’s in their bowl, it won't necessarily glow afterwards, just like people who regret those visits to fast food restaurants.”

Avoid “Fast” Dog Food

How can we tell the difference? Like with fast food for people, very inexpensive dog food may indicate a less nutritious meal.

“Generally, the higher-priced premium brands have higher-quality ingredients, as well as specialized nutrients,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a veterinarian who also consults on the nutritional aspects of pet food. As a general rule, it’s wise to feed your pet the best food you can afford.

“From foods which use human-quality sources, to foods which use the scraps off of the slaughterhouse floor, you truly do get what you pay for most of the time,” says Nelson.

After price, look at the list of ingredients. Just like we screen our food labels for unsaturated fats or high fructose corn syrup, there are things to look out for on dog food ingredients lists.

Because ingredients are listed in order of quantity, “always look at the first three ingredients on your pet food's bag,” says Nelson. “If there is corn or something with the word ‘gluten’ in those first few ingredients, step away and keep looking.” Gluten, a vegetable protein, is a cheap alternative to protein from animal sources. But animal protein is more nutritious for your pet.

Spotting Good Dog Food

Although it’s not a panacea, there is a seal of approval you can look for. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides pet food guidelines and regulates the naming of ingredients.

“AAFCO’s nutritional adequacy statement identifies the food is nutritionally complete and balanced and contains all of the required nutrients,” says Dicke.

Beyond that, there’s still variation. But Nelson recommends at least avoiding foods without AAFCO approval.

Special-needs Dog Food

Many foods are tailored to special circumstances, like a dog’s health or age. Dicke says these claims are also regulated by AAFCO. Choosing the right one for your dog just involves matching your dog to the goal of the product, which typically falls into the following three categories:

  1. Age: Growing puppies (0 to 24 months), healthy adults and senior dogs (5 years giant breeds and 7 years and older for other breeds) all have different nutritional profiles.
  1. Body/activity: According to Dicke, “Pets that are overweight or underweight need different nutrition than those who are at optimal weight. Pets who get lots of exercise also have different nutritional requirements.” These food labels include weight control, performance or maintenance.
  1. Health history: Your dog may have a condition requiring a therapeutic, or prescription, formula. For instance, dogs with sensitive stomachs can benefit from foods containing prebiotics. These nondigestible food ingredients stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria that help the digestive system. Other blends are specialized for heart health, dental health, bone/joint health and more.

Ask Your Doctor
In the end, however, Nelson says the most important thing is to discuss your dog’s food options with your veterinarian. In fact, she says the biggest mistake people make when choosing food is seeking advice from the sales associate at the pet store rather than their veterinarian.

“Your veterinarian can help you find the food that’s best because they know the particular issues that your pet deals with,” she says. “Your veterinarian has the best interests of your pet in mind.”

7 Food Ingredients for Your Dog’s Health

Which key dog food enhancements help safeguard dogs? Glucosamine and chondroitin boost joint health, dental care additives reduce tartar buildup, L-carnitine helps metabolize fat and higher levels of antioxidants support a healthy immune system, says veterinary technician Jennifer Taylor. Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian, shares more information about these and other ingredients.

1. Two fibers are better than one
Your dog needs fiber to clean out its system and promote a healthy digestive tract. Some dog foods now include a one-two fiber punch, doubling up on ingredients rich in fiber.

Look for beet pulp and fructooligosaccharides (FOS) on the ingredients list of dog foods. “Beet pulp, a moderately fermentable fiber, releases short-chain fatty acids, which are used as energy by the intestinal cells, thereby boosting their capability to absorb nutrients,” says Dicke. FOS, on the other hand, “selectively feeds the beneficial bacteria and promotes balance in the digestive tract,” she adds.

2. Antioxidants

Antioxidants help to prevent oxidation, a process which forms “free radicals” in the body. Free radicals are rogue oxygen molecules that can dangerously react with other molecules, leading to health problems. The same process may happen to your dog and to other mammals.

As a result, some dog foods now contain antioxidants like vitamin E and beta-carotene, the natural component that adds color to many vegetables. These antioxidants have been shown to improve immune function in dogs and cats, says Dicke. “A strong immune system is important in fighting and protecting against disease and invaders, such as bacteria and viruses,” she says.

3. Glucosamine and chondroitin
The dynamic duo of glucosamine and chondroitin has eased the minds of arthritis patients, because they play an important role in nourishing and supporting joint health. These components occur naturally in your joints and in the joints of dogs and other mammals.

4. Dental care formula

While nothing can substitute for regular dental cleanings and exams at your veterinarian’s office, what you feed your dog can help to prevent the formation of tartar. “Tartar is a hard, yellow-brown accumulation of minerals, which can cause gum regression, gum inflammation and loss of teeth,” says Dicke.

Studies show that feeding your dog a food with a daily dental care formula can result in an impressive 55 percent reduction in tartar buildup.

5. L-carnitine

L-carnitine is a naturally occurring vitaminlike compound that plays a vital role in the metabolism of fat. Dicke explains that L-carnitine helps dogs and cats gain a desired body composition by promoting the loss of weight and fat while maintaining lean body tissue.

6. Prebiotics

A prebiotic, such as FOS, is actually a fiber. The enzymes in your dog’s digestive tract do not digest it. “Instead, the bacteria in the intestinal track break the fiber down and use it for food,” says Dicke. “What makes a prebiotic different from other fibers is that it feeds, or supports, the good bacteria -- not the bad -- helping the good bacteria to grow.”

7. Natural, high-quality ingredients

The final enhancements are natural, high-quality ingredients. Sometimes what’s not included in dog food is just as important as what is on the ingredients list. In this case, you should look for dog foods that do not contain any added fillers, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Given the nutritional and medical benefits of the above ingredients in dog foods on the market today, you can rest easy knowing you are feeding your dog some of the best food available.