Dog Food Goes Natural and Holistic

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the link between food and health, which was recently confirmed by a survey that found that owners were interested in “green” pet foods. These products were most often defined as being natural and containing no artificial ingredients.

Manufacturers of premium pet foods have responded, formulating new products that emphasize quality, natural ingredients. The approach is often termed “holistic,” but what exactly does that mean? Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian at the Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va., and Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams, shed some light on the matter and explain how the approach goes beyond food.

Natural, Holistic Dog Food
“Holistic simply means supplying a complete and balanced diet that supports the entire animal,” says Dicke. Adds Nelson: “Only natural sources are used for the ingredients: no artificial colors, no artificial flavors, no artificial preservatives and no fillers.”

The holistic concept first gained strength among medical professionals. Holistic health holds that all aspects of an individual’s needs, including psychological, physical or social, should be taken into account and seen as a whole. In terms of your dog, the food that it eats may therefore affect all aspects of its life, since the same nutrition fuels every thought and activity.

Desirable Ingredients
If you take a look at the ingredients list for new pet food formulas, you’ll probably see quite a few ingredients that you’d include on your own shopping lists. You might also see other nutrients, like FOS, which have more of a medical sound to them. In that particular case, FOS is a prebiotic often derived from fruits and vegetables that can benefit your dog’s digestion and immune system. FOS is found in some foods that you might eat too, such as certain yogurts.

Here are a few other ingredients to be on the lookout for:

Protein from meat Dogs are not carnivores like cats, but they do love and crave meat. Real, whole protein from meat sources is therefore a great food source for your pet. Beef and fish are possibilities, but you’ll often see chicken as the meat source these days. “Chicken, like all meat proteins, can provide all the essential amino acids,” explains Dicke. Chicken is a high-quality, lean protein source that is easily obtainable and inexpensive. It can then be the basis for a “nutritionally superior diet that is very affordable,” says Nelson.

Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants These important nutrients are found in familiar ingredients, such as apples, spinach, eggs and more. “Natural sources of vitamins are used for overall health,” says Nelson. High levels of vitamin E are sometimes included to help boost your dog’s immune system.

Oils for skin and coat health Omega fatty acids, such as those from fish oils, “are extremely important for skin, coat, GI and joint health,” says Nelson. “Obtaining them from fish oils and flaxseed is preferred to synthetically produced sources.” Again, there’s a crossover to human health, since flaxseed is often now included in many breads, breakfast cereals and other products.

Holistic Means More than Just Food
Nelson advises that you should extend the holistic and natural mindset outside of feeding time. She provides the following three tips:

1. Consult with your veterinarian about ways in which your dog’s exposure to chemicals and drugs can be decreased. Many veterinary practices now include alternative medicines or nutrition-based treatments based on natural ingredients.

2. If you have an arthritic dog, perhaps acupuncture could help you decrease the amount of medication required to keep your pet comfortable.

3. Instead of monthly preventatives, discuss with your veterinarian newer products on the market, which may only have to be used every six weeks to every six months.

Dicke believes that the holistic approach can be applied to the entire experience of owning a pet. “A pet needs quality nutrition; health care; a stable, safe and interactive environment; and love. That is holistic pet ownership,” she says.

Size up Your Dog's Food Needs

When George Kantor took his pug Sadie to his mother’s country home for the holidays, the New York City psychologist forgot to bring his diminutive dog’s small-breed kibble. It was Christmas Eve, and the stores were closed, so he simply fed Sadie from the food bag of his mother’s standard poodle. “If you know pugs, they never turn down a meal, and Sadie is no exception,” says Kantor. But the pug’s holiday meal soon turned sour.

“She seemed to be having a hard time with the bigger pieces,” he explains. Unfortunately, the kibble didn’t stay down, leaving Kantor with a most unwanted “gift” to clean up. He surmises, “I guess she wasn’t able to chew the large chunks quickly enough.”

Kibble size isn’t the only reason to feed your best friend food specific to breed size. Appropriate nutrient levels also vary based on whether your dog is small, medium, large or giant. Below, veterinarian Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, weighs in on the importance of size-specific feeding.

Your dog’s weight at maturity determines its breed size, whether your pet is a big purebred or a tiny mixed breed. A giant-breed dog may reach 90 pounds or more at maturity, while a large breed will grow anywhere from 51 to 90 pounds. A small/toy dog will weigh up to 20 pounds as an adult. Any furry friend in between -- 21 to 50 pounds -- is a medium-size dog.

Puppy Love
While breed size is an important food factor at every stage of life, it may be the most important during puppyhood, when proper nutrition sets the course for future health. “All puppy diets support growth, but breed size matters a lot,” explains Dr. Joyce. “Small- and medium-breed dogs can safely grow very quickly, while the same is not true for large- and giant-breed dogs.” She adds, “To prevent orthopedic issues -- such as disorders of the skeletal system and associated muscles, joints and ligaments -- we try to slow down their growth.”

To feed small- or medium-breed food to a large-breed puppy could put the puppy at risk for malformations, such as hip dysplasia, a gradual loosening of the hip joint that can ultimately be crippling. Large-breed puppy formulas are a bit lower in calories and calcium, helping to prevent unhealthy growth spurts.

Adult Differences
Post-growth, different breeds still have different needs. “Caloric needs vary based on breed size,” says Dr. Joyce. Small and toy breeds have higher metabolic rates -- more than twice those of large breeds -- as well as smaller stomachs. They therefore function best on energy-dense diets, and small meals. Small-breed formulas have more calories per cup than medium- and large-breed foods, making an energy-packed diet most appropriate for them.

Large and jumbo dogs have their own special nutritional considerations, mostly related to joint health issues. “In adulthood, larger dogs are prone to orthopedic problems and arthritis, so you may want to select foods that have protective substances for their joints, like glucosamine,” says Dr. Joyce. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, which are sometimes included in commercial dog chows, are thought to maintain your oversized pet’s cartilage.

Your Dog in Maturity
“The rate at which a dog ages depends on the breed,” explains Dr. Joyce. The larger and heavier the dog, the earlier the aging process begins. A large or jumbo dog should then begin eating a “maturity” diet earlier than a small or toy dog. Larger breeds tend to have shorter life spans, so they might be considered seniors as early as six-years-old, while smaller dogs don’t generally reach senior status until 10 years. Check with your veterinarian if you’re not certain when a maturity diet should be started.

The nutritional makeup of all senior diets should include immune-system supporting antioxidants, like vitamin E and beta-carotene. But such diets also vary by breed size. Large and jumbo dogs are still in need of nutritional support for their sensitive joints, so glucosamine should be on the ingredient list in your large or jumbo pet’s formula. Similarly, small dogs continue to need food that is energy-dense, and the calories per cup should be higher than for medium and large breeds.  

As for Kantor and his pug Sadie, they had to make do over Christmas. “I cut the kibble pieces in half before I fed her Christmas day!” he recalls laughing. “The next morning, the stores were open super early, and we were back to her small-breed kibble by breakfast.”

Top Benefits of Senior Dog Food

If your older, once active dog is experiencing weight gain or health problems, consider looking into its diet: It may be in need of a dog food that’s formulated for senior dogs. While senior formulas are nothing new, continued scientific advances lead to significant changes that are recent. For instance, senior formulas used to have greatly reduced protein content for fear that they could lead to kidney problems. But within the last decade, science has reversed the thinking in that regard, and a significant amount of protein is now a crucial aspect of senior dog food.

“The basic understanding of the science has really pushed the needle toward making food and nutrition optimal,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and nutrition expert in North Carolina. “Seniors are living better than ever before. It’s never been a better time to be an old dog.”

Senior Dog Food Ingredients
Ward and Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, point out some key things to look for when considering a senior formula:

  • Protein: Ideally from a formulation that’s at least 24 percent and higher protein from animal sources like chicken.
  • Reduced sodium (salt): High blood pressure is a serious concern for aging dogs. While research on the effects of sodium is ongoing, few doubt that dogs should consume an appropriate, and not excessive, amount of sodium in their diets.
  • Low caloric density: Compared to adult formulas, senior formulations in general will drop 20 to 30 percent in calorie density per serving. “That’s a big difference because we get into a habit of giving a cup or a bowl per day,” says Ward. “So the food itself needs to have fewer calories in that cup or bowl.” Keep in mind, however, that senior dogs (9 years of age and older for large breeds and 11 years of age and older for small and medium breeds) may have different specific caloric needs. Consult with your veterinarian to determine what is best for your pet.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: To combat the increased inflammation that comes with aging.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin: To combat and prevent arthritic conditions. “The only caution is that the amount of the omega-3 and glucosamine may not be adequate for a specific pet. You may need to supplement,” says Ward.

When and How to Switch Foods
Senior status for dogs is generally considered to come at age 11, but large breeds should probably switch one to two years earlier. Beyond that, the doctors say to not wait for symptoms to present themselves before switching. “This is about prevention, not just treatment,” says Ward. “Be very proactive.”

When you introduce the new food, do so gradually as an increasing percentage of a mixture with your dog’s current food. “Take at least seven to 10 days to switch your pet’s food,” says Nelson. “A fast switch can lead to significant GI upset and an aversion to the new diet.”

It’s important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all food. “There is no perfect food, but there is a food out there that is perfect for your pet,” says Nelson. “Include your veterinarian in the conversation, and you can find the food that is just right for your pup’s specific nutritional needs and health concerns.”

In the future, Ward thinks genetic profiling technology will allow veterinarians to recommend a personalized diet that best suits your dog’s unique DNA. For now, he stresses how important it is to take advantage of today’s optimized, high-quality senior dog foods. “There’s nothing better you can do to prevent disease and add longevity than choosing the right food for your pet,” he says.

Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

Are you feeding your dog age-appropriate food? As a general rule, dogs are considered to be mature when they reach 7 years of age, and true seniors at around age 11. Large breeds skew a little earlier, and small breeds skew later. While 7 might seem like a young age to change the food of a dog that’s still active and playful, experts say looks can be deceiving. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious, others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and technical services veterinarian for Iams who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failing may be less evident or hidden. Changes also include joint/mobility/flexibility concerns and oral health.”

Dog Food for Mature Dogs

Some dog foods tailored to seniors may offer lower calorie levels, which are appropriate for an assumed decrease in activity. But Dicke says food for active older dogs needs to provide enough calories and address the physiological changes happening inside. Ingredients to look for include: antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help support waning immune system function; glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) for dental health; and prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharide (FOS), to support the digestive system. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and starves the bad bacteria,” says Dicke. “This can create an optimal environment in the gut that can promote better digestion and actually have an influence on the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract.”

The right protein is another important factor at this age, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian based in Alexandria, Va. “High protein in elderly dogs adds pressure on the aging kidneys. Low protein, conversely, doesn’t supply them with an adequate amount to preserve normal bodily functions, muscle mass or skin and coat. Therefore, moderate levels are ideal,” says Nelson.

How to Switch Foods
Both experts advise using the guidelines above as a starting point for discussions with your veterinarian, who should be involved in the decision to switch foods. From there, they suggest implementing the change slowly and gradually. Decide on a time period between seven and 10 days, and then give your dog a different mixture every few days. “The first two days, 25 percent of the current food volume should be replaced by the new food and gradually increase until your dog is eating 100 percent of the new product,” says Dicke.

As your dog gets even older and goes from the mature stage to the true senior stage, you may want to switch again to a food that suits a more sedentary lifestyle. That decision should be made with the close supervision of your veterinarian. If many of the early age-related changes may be hidden, the ones that follow into the senior years can be unpredictable. “Dogs, like people, age differently depending on their lifestyle and health condition,” says Nelson. Luckily, there’s likely to be a specialized food out there to help any dog age gracefully.

How to Feed Your Ingredient-sensitive Dog

Like a person, a dog can develop a sensitive stomach at any point in its life. This intolerance -- which differs from an allergy -- is most likely to manifest in the form of gastrointestinal symptoms, with loose stools and excessive gas. Below, veterinarians Amy Dicke and Katy Nelson weigh in on how to identify, feed and care for digestively-sensitive dogs versus caring for a dog with a food allergy.

Allergy or Intolerance?
An allergic dog’s immune system mistakes a substance (say, a protein) for a damaging invader, and then produces antibodies to attack the invading material, causing the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Food allergies most often emerge very differently than food sensitivity, with the primary symptoms of the former being itching and skin problems rather than GI distress. Food allergies account for approximately 10 percent of canine allergies, and are the third most common after fleabites and inhalants. According to Dicke, who is a technical services veterinarian for Iams, dogs that develop signs of allergic skin disease for the first time at less than 6 months or greater than 6 years of age are more likely to have true food allergy.

In contrast to allergies, food intolerances more often result in diarrhea and vomiting. Not a lot is known about what causes this, but food intolerances may develop because of an enzyme deficiency. Think of lactose intolerance in which adult humans do not produce the enzyme that helps to digest milk. Food intolerance may appear, as Nelson explains, because the body is suddenly not able to process the protein or carbohydrate source. It’s “a fancy way of saying no one can explain it,” she adds.

The most thorough approach to determining whether your pet is sensitive to a particular ingredient is to eliminate it from your dog’s diet for six weeks, and then phase it back in to see if the symptoms return, says Nelson. During the six-week detox period, substitute a sensitive stomach formula, ideally one that contains a novel protein like fish, an uncommon ingredient in commercial foods and one your dog has probably never tasted before. If a pet responds well to the new formula, many owners skip step two: reinstating the old protein source to see if the symptoms come back.

Selecting a Food
A quality sensitive stomach formula should have either fish or chicken (a bland protein) listed as its first ingredient. Other beneficial ingredients include:

  • Fructooligosacchararide (FOS). FOS feeds the good bacteria in the gut that help prevent the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, which can lead to vomiting, diarrhea or other signs of GI distress, says Nelson.
  • Omega fatty acids. Pets with or without sensitive stomachs can benefit from a switch to a higher quality food in general. Important components are these acids, which can help to keep your dog’s skin and coat healthy.
  • Antioxidants. High levels of antioxidants like vitamin E, from fruits and vegetables including carrots, tomatoes, apples and spinach, help keep the immune system functioning at its highest possible level.

More than just diet impacts your dog’s stomach. Both Dicke and Nelson emphasize that maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and limiting stress will contribute to your dog’s GI well being. Follow these, and the other instructions, and your dog’s stomach should be manageable in no time.