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.”

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.

New Supplement Can Help Your Dog’s Digestion

If your dog has experienced tummy troubles in the past, such as diarrhea, your vet may have suggested to feed it a mixture of white rice, chicken and yogurt -- the latter will help balance bacteria in the gut.

Now, there is a new dietary supplement that helps manage doggy diarrhea. Just as probiotics in foods with active live cultures like yogurt are being touted as a way to maintain human digestive health, they can have the same benefits for dogs. Below, Dr. Trisha Joyce, veterinarian of New York City Veterinary Specialists, weighs in on dog stomach concerns and the utility of dietary supplements that contain beneficial bacteria for preventing them.

What Causes Loose Stool in Dogs
Joyce emphasizes that the most common cause of diarrhea in your dog is you. “Pet owners should not be feeding table scraps,” she says. “People food is too rich, and dogs are not accustomed to it. It is likely to cause soft stool or watery diarrhea.”

Some dogs simply have sensitive stomachs, especially as they age, and stressful situations like a new pet in the home or even a veterinarian appointment can be the precursor to an episode of runny poop; so can changing your pet’s formula. “Always transition from one food to the next by mixing them together in shifting proportions over the course of a few days,” says Joyce.

Finally, there are some digestive ailments that are chronic and need to be treated with a prescription diet. These include irritable bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn’s disease. “The nature of those digestive signs is different for a dog that got pizza the night before. The pizza eater will go from having formed stools to having sudden watery diarrhea. The dog with IBD will have low-grade chronic signs over a long period.”

When to Worry
Joyce says that diarrhea is common in dogs and can be expected to last about five days, though the first 24 hours are usually the worst. Diarrhea is only an emergency if it is:

  • Very profuse.
  • Accompanied by vomiting.
  • Primarily bloody, like raspberry jam, says Joyce. “A little bit of blood is common with diarrhea because the rectum and the colon become inflamed. A couple of drops of blood are not a big deal.”

If your dog’s diarrhea fits the description above, a trip to the emergency veterinarian is in order.

Ways to Keep Your Dog Diarrhea-free
One good way to start is to feed your dog a supplement that contains Bifidalis, which includes a strain of live and active culture. It can help to balance the microflora in your pet’s gut, reducing the likelihood of not only diarrhea, but also uncomfortable digestive issues like gas and bloating. Ask your veterinarian about such supplements.

“Live and active cultures are effective for maintenance of a healthy GI tract,” says Joyce. “These treats are not preventive against dietary indiscretions or diseases like IBD, but they may promote general intestinal health. They certainly won’t hurt, and they may help. They’re easy for a veterinarian to recommend.”

Joyce also suggests:

  • Avoiding table scraps and quick switches between different pet formulas.
  • An annual fecal exam to confirm that your pet is dewormed. “Parasites sometimes don’t flare up until your dog is stressed. Doing regular fecals guarantees they’re not carrying anything.”


How to Care for Your Sensitive-skin Dog

Some dogs, like people, have more sensitive skin than others. For dogs, a few of the telltale signs are itching and inflammation. These can be caused by food allergies and environmental problems, among other factors. For food-related issues, you can take action to help your dog feel better.

One of the first key questions to ask, however, is if your dog’s skin problems are tied to the food that it is consuming. “Most people jump to change their dogs’ food whenever the dog starts to itch, assuming that the food is the problem,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. “However, only about 10 percent of pets actually have a food allergy, so finding the true allergen is key to controlling skin problems.” She adds that “even if the allergen is not an ingested one, sensitive-skin formula foods may still help.”

Dog Foods That Target Skin and Coat Issues

Special foods are now available through your veterinarian to address skin and coat problems. They promote a healthy skin and coat with these types of ingredients:

  • Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids: These are found in ingredients such as fish oil and canola oil. They help to manage a pet’s itching and scratching. These oils also “help the skin replenish its own luster,” says Nelson.
  • Unique blends of proteins and carbohydrates that can reduce the risk of bad reactions to food: “When looking for a sensitive-skin formula, ensure that there is just one protein source (e.g., chicken or beef versus ‘poultry products’) and one carb source to reduce antigenic stimulation,” says Nelson.
  • Vitamins and minerals to restore nutrients in the coat and skin: Nelson mentions biotin and vitamin E in particular.
  • Linoleic acid: This acid is found in high-quality, animal-based protein. It helps to keep your dog’s coat shiny and healthy.

Both wet and dry foods may contain all of the above. “Premium wet food can provide the same nutritional benefits as its dry counterpart,” explains Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams. “Premium foods provide a complete and balanced diet and deliver higher-quality ingredients for easy digestion and absorption of essential nutrients.”

Your Dog’s Breed Matters
Nelson says that certain breeds are more prone to skin and coat disorders. These include hound dogs, white dogs (think redheaded people with sensitive skin), golden retrievers (and other thick-coated breeds), Pomeranians, Doberman pinschers and more.

Wrinkly dogs, such as bulldogs and shar-peis, are notorious for suffering from skin and coat issues. A recent study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, determined that the wrinkled skin of shar-peis contains an excess of a compound called hyaluronan. Co-author Linda Tintle of Wurtsboro Veterinary Clinic and her colleagues found that the excess is caused by a genetic mutation, which can result in inflammatory skin disease. “With this genetic information, people can avoid breeding shar-peis with many (genetic) duplications,” she says. “Understanding the causes will also lead to more effective treatments.”

Additional Tips
Whether your dog is one of the at-risk breeds or just an itchy mutt, you can help your pet, according to Nelson, by doing the following three things:

  1. Always keep your dog’s flea and tick prevention current.
  2. Keep its skin as clean as possible by bathing frequently and using wipes in between baths.
  3. Avoid switching between foods/protein sources to lower antigenic stimulation. It’s better for your dog if you find one quality food that agrees with your pet, and stick with it. Variety can be the spice of life, but for dogs with sensitive skin, it’s best to stay with the tried-and-true food that your veterinarian recommends.