Your Dog’s Unique Nutritional Needs

In the not-so-distant past, there were basically two dog food options: puppy chow and everything else. Now, dog owners have more choices. Different foods for puppies, adult dogs and the senior set have been in stores for a while. Newer to the market are foods geared to meet the requirements of dogs based on size, sensitivities to digestive ailments, skin issues, weight and level of activity.

Dogs That Benefit From the New Foods
Does the average dog need these new dog foods? “No, but they have been a godsend to owners with dogs that have certain problems or requirements,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University. “It’s been extremely helpful to give good quality nutrition and meet the health needs of these animals.”

A Checklist for Dog Nutritional Needs
To determine which dog food is right for your pet, experts say you should talk to your dog’s veterinarian and consider the following:

  • Age Older dogs tend to burn fewer calories than puppies and normal adult dogs do. Therefore, nutritional needs differ based on age, says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on pet nutrition issues. In general, dogs are divided into the following age groups: puppies (0 to 12 months), adult dogs (1 to 7 years) and senior canines (7 years and older).
  • Size of breed Smaller breeds often eat less, but they frequently need more dietary fat to maintain a high energy level, as do larger dogs. Dogs are generally defined as small (1 to 20 pounds), medium (20 to 50 pounds), large (51 to 100 pounds), and giant (100 pounds and up).
  • Weight Issues Overweight dogs tend to develop a variety of problems, such as joint disease, a higher risk of cancer and gastrointestinal problems, in addition to having a shorter life expectancy. To determine if your pup is overweight, Beaver suggests feeling its ribs. If you push through too much fat and cannot feel them easily, your dog could be overweight. Foods for overweight dogs often contain L-carnitine, a nutrient that helps the body turn fat into energy.
  • Activity level Dogs that get lengthy walks or do more strenuous exercise will burn more calories than couch potatoes, so you want a food that promotes good digestion and properly energizes your pet.
  • Pregnant/nursing/neutered dogs Dogs that are pregnant or nursing may need a higher caloric intake than other adult dogs. Dogs that have been spayed or neutered have lower energy requirements and metabolic needs. According to Nelson, “maintaining those sex organs takes a lot of the body’s energy and slows down a whole lot of processes.”
  • Unique issues Healthy digestion may be maintained by feeding your dog a food containing prebiotics, which stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in the gut. Dog foods that reduce tartar buildup can help your pup maintain healthier teeth. Dry, flaky skin may be alleviated by foods that contain essential fatty acids. To prevent joint and mobility issues, try foods containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and fish oil. Meanwhile, dog foods with novel proteins and carbohydrates are also available for canines.

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How Dog Food Is Made and Tested

The process of making high-quality commercial dog food involves scientists, nutritionists, veterinarians and even dog-food tasters in a production more befitting the Food Network than Animal Planet.

“They’ve got as many Ph.D.s and doctorates on staff as any of the pharmaceutical companies,” says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian who works on pet nutrition. “They’re trying to make a product that is going to be the sole thing that these animals are going to survive on, so they have to make sure they have everything in there that could possibly be needed to sustain life and enhance the well-being of these animals.”

Here’s how the dog food manufacturing process often goes, from start to finish:

Find the Right Dog Food Recipe
It can take years for a new dog food to progress from a concept to a food you can buy at your local pet store. In addition to keeping up with the latest nutrition and scientific research, pet food makers also work with dog owners to explore what would best meet the needs of particular dogs, beyond the basics. “Getting the idea is the easy part,” says Nelson. “Developing the food and making it into a great product is the hard part.”

Adds Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers: “Innovative nutrition starts with research.”

Here’s how the different stages of developing a new dog food usually progress:

  1. Formula development
    Dog food formulas have their beginnings with research teams that include nutritionists, behaviorists and veterinarians, says Dicke. During this stage, raw ingredients are evaluated for functional qualities, nutrient availability and digestibility.
  2. Product and process development
    Many factors can affect formulas for dog food, such as cooking temperature, cooking duration and even the order in which ingredients are added, says Dicke. Dog food makers will produce small sample quantities of test formulas in their laboratories and make adjustments to find the best combination of production efficiency, production capability and nutritional enhancement for every formula.
  3. Analysis
    An expert team of chemists, biologists, microbiologists and lab technicians evaluates the test dog food formula for proper levels of nutrients.
  4. Palatability testing
    “Even the most nutritious pet food is worthless if the dog or cat won’t eat it,” says Dicke. During this stage, dog food formulas are tested by dog taste-testers. Instead of primarily relying on pets in a research setting, some pet food makers now recruit dogs for palatability testing in their own home environment.
  5. Digestibility testing
    Researchers don’t stop after determining which dog food is more palatable to dogs. They also test to understand how much of the nutrients in the food are absorbed by the body. “This tells us how well the formula’s nutrients are retained and how well they contribute toward the health and well-being of the pet,” says Dicke.

Before new dog foods are sold, they must be complete and balanced and meet the nutritional adequacy expectations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which regulates pet food labeling in the United States.

Pet food makers are always looking for volunteers to help test foods. “A lot of companies feel like in-home usage gives you more realistic information about how pets are going to do on this diet, because it incorporates the stresses of everyday life -- both good and bad,” says Nelson.

Prebiotics Support Your Dog’s Inner Strength

During any given week, your inquisitive dog has probably explored your house and neighborhood, which means it comes into regular contact with everything from dog park soil to favorite canine lampposts, all of which can harbor germs. Your dog’s immune system works to combat these invaders, and dog food with ingredients called “prebiotics” can now strengthen that defense.

Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of digestive-system bacteria that are beneficial to your dog’s health. For the first time, they are now available in both wet and dry high-quality dog foods. Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian, explains more about what prebiotics are and how they work.

Prebiotics in Dog Food
While certain dog foods now have the word “prebiotics” on the front label, check the product’s ingredient list. Look for the long word “fructooligosaccharides,” or FOS for short. Foods with this word have one of the best prebiotics now available. Although the name seems very scientific, it actually refers to a fiber, according to Dicke. “FOS is found naturally in certain fruits, vegetables and grains,” she explains. “However, the concentration is typically very low and does not provide the desired health benefits.”

How Prebiotics Work

Sixty-five percent of your dog’s immune system is in its digestive tract. To infect your dog’s body, germs and other invaders must break through a mucous membrane barrier of cells lining the gut. Like a wall, this barrier can prevent unwanted organisms from moving into the body.

When FOS is broken down, it produces short-chain fatty acids, which serve as food or energy for the cells of the mucosal barrier, promoting their health and integrity. An increasing population of beneficial bacteria help to crowd out bad bacteria through physical competition for space and nutrients, as well as producing substances detrimental to the undesirable bacteria.

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

Beyond supporting the immune system, prebiotics may also lead to other health benefits in your dog. Research on humans, who use prebiotics in a similar way, found that prebiotics appear to reduce inflammation. “Just as some foods can lead to poor health, it’s no surprise that others can have positive effects,” said Dr. Louis Montaner, editor of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, which recently published a study on prebiotics.

Prebiotics have also been shown to cut the development of skin allergies in human babies. A study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood reported that prebiotics -- very similar to those found in breast milk -- ward off a dangerous form of dermatitis. Puppies receive comparable prebiotics from their mothers when they nurse, so it’s possible that prebiotics in dog food help prevent skin and coat problems in adult dogs.

How to Begin Feeding a Dog Food Containing Prebiotics

If your dog is not currently eating a food that contains prebiotics and you’d like to make the switch, there should be a transition period of mixing the new food with your dog’s current diet. Here’s a sample feeding schedule over a week’s time:

  • Day 1 and 2: Feed approximately one-fourth of new food mixed with three-fourths of current food.
  • Days 2 and 3: Mix half of old food with half of new food.
  • Days 4 to 6: Give your dog three-fourths of the new prebiotics-containing food and one-fourth of its former chow.
  • Day 7: Begin feeding your dog 100 percent of the new product.

Are Prebiotics Suitable for All Dogs?
According to Dicke, prebiotics can be beneficial to nearly all dogs. “There are times during your pet’s life when dietary FOS may even have greater value,” she added. Dogs that may especially need the immunity boost of prebiotics include:

  • Weaned puppies with developing immune systems
  • Dogs with certain chronic medical conditions
  • Pregnant females
  • Older dogs that may suffer from decreased immune system function

Consult with your veterinarian to see what he or she recommends. If your dog has a serious weight or medical condition, it might require a special veterinarian formula food to address its particular needs.

Is Your “Natural” Dog Food Truly Natural?

For dog owners like Carol Davis of Fairfax, Va., the sight of a synthetic or chemical ingredient listed on a pet food label leads to the following conclusion: I wouldn't feed that to my dog. "I usually avoid it," says Davis, who has a 5-year-old English springer spaniel named Lana. "I feel like if she eats healthy now, she'll stay healthier and we'll have fewer vet bills later."

Like Davis, you are probably more concerned about putting "natural," or minimally processed, foods on your dinner table, and that standard now extends to what’s in Fido's bowl. Davis says she looks for recognizable ingredients, such as chicken and carrots, when choosing commercial food for Lana. However, there’s still some confusion about what constitutes a "natural" dog food.

"Natural" Dog Food Labeling Rules
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulate labeling of dog food in the United States so that companies can't make claims about pet food products that aren't true. The FDA doesn't define the term "natural" for the pet food industry, but the AAFCO definition says natural food is “… derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources … not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Most commercial dog foods do contain some synthetic sources of essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids in order to meet AAFCO's requirements that the food be "complete and balanced" to satisfy a dog's nutritional needs, says Amy Dicke, DVM, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers. "If a product says it is all natural and has not pulled out 'with the inclusion of vitamins, minerals and amino acids,' then in truth, they may not be practicing proper marketing," Dr. Dicke says.

Ingredients in a "Natural" Food

  • Protein Dogs are classified as either carnivores or omnivores. Either way, they are best fed a diet high in animal protein. Meat and/or poultry sources -- such as chicken, lamb or eggs -- should be listed within the first three ingredients in a natural dog food, says Katy J. Nelson, D.V.M., an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on dog nutrition.

  • Byproducts This term has gotten a bad rap. Meat or plant-based byproducts fit the definition of "natural" under the AAFCO regulations. "Good, high-quality pet food byproducts don't need to be a four letter word," Dr. Nelson says. Organ meat and tissue help provide dogs with needed minerals and amino acids.

  • Grains Natural sources of carbohydrates, such as brewer's rice, whole grain barley and ground whole grain sorghum, can provide energy for a dog's active lifestyle, Dr. Dicke says.

  • Fruits and vegetables Spinach, tomatoes and peas are rich in vitamin E and antioxidants to help your dog build its immunity; apples are a great source of fiber; carrots help keep your dog's vision healthy.

  • No added artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
    "Natural" dog foods should not have synthetic fillers, artificial colors or flavors or man-made preservatives. Natural flavors and colors are okay. Some preservatives are naturally occurring, such as vitamin E and tocopherols (TCP), which are fine to help preserve food.

When deciding on a food, talk to your veterinarian about your dog's individual needs. In addition, some pet food companies list toll-free phone numbers on their packaging so you can call and speak to a nutritionist.

Experts caution that there is no scientific agreement yet that natural foods provide more safety or nutritional value than traditional dog foods. "I don't want people to expect health miracles from feeding a natural food," says Dr. Dicke. "It's a personal choice. It's another feeding option." For some dog owners, however, "natural" is the way to go.

Feed Your Breed Right

With such a variety of offerings in the pet food aisle, selecting the right food for your canine friend can feel complicated. Health issues and life stage may take precedence, but feeding according to breed-specific need is also an important consideration, especially for healthy adult dogs. Katy J. Nelson, DVM, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian, weighs in on the appropriate kibble for Chihuahuas, beagles, shepherds and more.

1. If your dog is a … Chihuahua, teacup poodle, Brussels griffon, Maltese, Pekingese, Pomeranian, Yorkshire terrier or otherwise weighs in at 10 pounds or less
... it may require toy-breed formula

“The vast majority of toy dogs are shaky and are always cold,” says Dr. Nelson. “They’re worked up all day long over basically nothing.” As with fidgety people, the constant movement of toy dogs means they are burning energy all day long. They also have small stomachs that cannot hold big portions, so they need a formula that is especially calorie dense.

Small dogs also tend to have poor dental health and may benefit from tartar-controlling pet foods, which can help protect their teeth.

2. If your dog is a … Jack Russell, shih tzu, pug, Lhasa apso, cocker spaniel, border terrier, French bulldog, dachshund or weighs between 10 and 20 pounds
... it may require small-breed formula

In the commercial dog-food world, toy and small formulas are often one and the same, and with good reason: “A lot of small dogs are also high in energy and low in stomach capacity. Plus, they need bite-sized kibble for their relatively small mouths,” says Dr. Nelson.

However, small dogs are more likely than toy dogs to become overweight. To ensure that toy- and small-dog formulas do not pack the pounds on your pooch, small-dog owners need to be particularly attuned to portion control.

3. If your dog is a … schnauzer, beagle, border collie, bassett hound, Irish terrier, Portuguese water dog, shar-pei or weighs between 20 and 50 pounds
... it may require standard adult fare

Midsized dogs are considered standard by the pet food industry, and their needs encompass the needs of most dogs: high-quality protein to maintain muscle mass, fiber to promote intestinal health, fish oil for healthy skin and coat, carbohydrates for fuel, and vitamins and minerals for proper immune function.

“These are middle-of-the-road dogs,” says Dr. Nelson. “In adulthood, there’s not a lot separating their dietary needs from large breeds.” Such dogs do, however, reach what is considered old age more slowly than bigger dogs. Midsized canines can safely remain on adult -- as opposed to “maturity” -- formula through age 7.

4. If your dog is a … German shepherd, Labrador retriever, golden retriever, pointer, Great Dane, bullmastiff, Newfoundland, rottweiler or weighs over 50 pounds
... it may require
large- and giant-breed formula

Post-puppyhood, large and giant breeds have the same nutritional requirements and the same concerns. “They have a lot more joint issues compared to smaller dogs,” says Dr. Nelson. Foods for these oversized dogs should contain glucosamine and chondroiton sulfate for joint health, as well as antioxidants like vitamin A and vitamin E to slow the effects of aging, which larger dogs do more quickly.

Finally, they also require fewer calories. Large-breed foods have less fat and calories per kibble because, with the exception of hunting dogs, the dogs they’re targeted at tend to be less active. The L-carnitine in these formulas will help large and giant dogs to burn fat more efficiently.

No matter what your dog’s breed, feeding the right formula will help maintain its health and longevity -- an objective that all dog lovers can agree on, regardless of their breed preferences.