Can New Dog Feeders Help Solve Mealtime Problems?

The slow-food movement isn’t just for organic foodies anymore. Take a look at the food bowls offered at online pet stores and you’ll find more than a handful of newfangled slow-down dog food bowls, along with claims concerning various health benefits.

The Skid Stop Slow Feed Bowl ($3.95), for example, is supposed to “slow rapid eating, promote regular digestion and prevent bloating and discomfort.” The Break-Fast Dog Food Bowl ($13.20) says it’s veterinarian-tested and “helps reduce risk of gastric dilatation-volvulus (bloat).” And the makers of the Omega Paw Portion Pacer Ball ($14.99) pull no punches whatsoever: “Studies show that bloat is a leading cause of death in dogs. The Omega Paw Portion Pacer lets you control how fast your dog eats, to prevent choking, gulping, vomiting and bloat.”

The bowls themselves are pretty standard, except they have one to three raised bumps in the middle that dogs have to work around to get their food. The Pacer Ball, which is essentially a 2-pound oversized pinball, serves to do the same thing when placed in a standard bowl. Online customer reviews indicate that they can indeed slow down dogs’ eating. But whether the slower pace can prevent bloat and ultimately save lives is a question better left to veterinary professionals.

Canine Bloat and Fast Eating

Bloat is a condition with which a dog’s stomach becomes overstretched by excessive gas, the buildup of which is usually caused by some obstruction or internal injury. It’s most common in large breeds with deep chest cavities, like Great Danes and Saint Bernards. However, smaller breeds that have deep chest cavities, such as Basset Hounds, are also susceptible. No one cause is to blame, although increased speed of eating is a risk factor, along with genetics and old age. Makers of slow-down bowls suggest that dogs eating slower will swallow less air, and therefore be less susceptible to bloat.

“It’s not an unreasonable claim,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists. “We don’t know why it happens. For some dogs there might have been a combination of eating and excessive exercise. So that means a lot of food and a lot of air in a short period of time.”

Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams, says that eating slower is, in general, a good thing: “Slowing food intake could potentially aid in digestion by reducing the incidence of vomiting. Food gulping can be associated with the swallowing of excessive air, which may lead to flatulence.” She notes that published research has linked fast eating and bloat, but adds: “With that said, I am not aware of research to indicate the use of these bowls will curb the incidence of bloat.”

Elevated Food Bowls?
You’ll also find a fair share of elevated food bowls, such as the adjustable Store-N-Feed Elevated Dog Feeder ($21.99), the stylish Pet Food Storage and Server ($39.99), and the spill-proof Neater Feeder Dog Bowl ($56.41). Makers of these bowls laud their digestive benefits, which they say are due to better posture while eating. Joyce says her practice, like many others, recommends elevated bowls for all large breeds.

But there is something of a controversy over elevated bowls. A Purdue University study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that eating from an elevated bowl is actually a risk factor for bloat, as well as increased speed of eating. This study, however, only proved a correlation between the two -- not that one causes the other.

“What we need to keep in mind is this was a prospective study,” says Dicke. “It identified factors associated with an increased risk of bloat, but no cause-and-effect relationship was established; therefore, their true influence is not known.”

If you’re not sure about whether or not you should get an elevated bowl for your pet, speak to your veterinarian about your dog’s condition. As for slow-down bowls, Joyce puts them in a category she calls “benign recommendations.” There’s no harm in trying, she believes, so anyone concerned may as well give it a shot. Even if slow-down bowls don’t actually prevent bloat, most dog owners would agree there’s nothing wrong with cutting back on their dog’s vomiting and flatulence.

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.

Organizations That Feed Dogs When Owners Can’t

In difficult times, dog lovers all over the country have separately rallied to make sure that no canine is left unfed. Grassroots pet food banks have sprung up in most regions, with local humane societies offering contact information for needy or infirm pet owners in their communities. Below, organizers and satisfied customers tell their stories and share tips on how to receive food bank services.

The Central Florida Animal Pantry
When Erica Wilson and her 9-year-old son, Zach, went to a Florida shelter to find a companion for their German shepherd-Labrador mix, Brandi, Zach found himself face-to-face with a problem he never knew existed: homeless dogs abandoned because their owners couldn’t afford to feed them.

“We knew we needed to do something,” says Wilson. What began as a Cub Scout food drive grew into a full-on food pantry in the spring of 2009, when a distribution location in Longwood, Fla., was donated for their use. They distribute an average of 600 pounds of food a week, much of it donated by major manufacturers.

“We meet people from all walks of life here, from those who’ve struggled all their lives to those who aren’t used to asking for help, but now have no other choice,” says Wilson. The organization provides food to the disabled and elderly as well.

We All Love Our Pets (WALOP)
Meals on Wheels has a reputation for feeding homebound seniors, but since 2006, they’ve also offered the same service to their clients’ pets. WALOP was founded in recognition of the fact that companion animals are vital to the well-being of the elderly. It is a national initiative to focus attention on that vital relationship.

Estelle Bergman of Forest Hills, N.Y., has been relying on Meals on Wheels since she broke her ankle three years ago. “I am in no shape to carry home a 10-pound bag of food from the grocery store, and on a fixed income, it’s not easy to afford either. WALOP has taken care of my dog, Popcorn, as Meals on Wheels has taken care of me,” she says.

Save Our Pets Food Bank
In 2008, former CEO Ann King of Atlanta, Ga., had a 30,000-square-foot building and a dream. She wanted to fill her warehouse with pet food and hand it out to people who could no longer afford to feed their animals. King approached a local food pantry -- specializing in feeding people -- and asked if they could help her to distribute her wares. “They told me they didn’t think there was a need, which I knew was crazy,” she remembers.

King got going without them, and in the last three years her food bank has helped over 700 families and 200 rescue organizations and shelters in Georgia through donations from independent supporters and pet food manufacturers alike.

“I hear stories about the lengths people have gone to try to keep their pets with them,” says King. “One woman was boiling chickens and ladling the broth over rice she had for her dogs, just to provide them more protein. Meeting our clients makes me feel grateful.”

Getting Help

  • Locate a pet food pantry near you by calling your local humane society for contact information
  • Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered before applying, as many banks make this a requirement for membership. They will connect you to low-cost spay and neuter options if your pet has never been fixed.
  • Provide proof of income (or lack thereof). While the income caps at different pantries vary, most require some type of proof of financial hardship, be that a copy of your latest income tax return, a copy of your most recent pay stub, or papers such as a social security reward letter or a disability check stub.

9 Key Ingredients That Nourish Growing Puppies

Mother’s milk may be the gold standard for newborn dogs, but when they wean at around 3 to 4 weeks of age, a new gold standard is required: a high-quality commercial puppy food. Luckily, it’s not hard to find.

“The pet food companies do a remarkable job with products that address overall nutrition,” says Dr. James Cook, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. “The science that goes into commercial pet food these days is comprehensive. It’s great as a veterinarian, because it makes advising clients about food easy.” Read on to learn what other docs have to say about feeding your pup for growth.

Choosing a Solid Food
“Puppies have different nutritional needs than adult and senior dogs,” says Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian. “Puppies need a food specifically formulated for young dogs. They also have size-specific needs.” Small breeds need higher protein and higher calories. Large-breed puppies, on the other hand, must have less of both to avoid joint and bone problems as they grow. Make sure then to select the right chow for your pup.

Introducing Solid Food
When puppies begin to wean at 3 or 4 weeks, they’ll consume both mother’s milk (or a milk replacement) and solid food, which should be mixed with water and initially provided once or twice daily. “Mix water with puppy formula to make gruel,” says Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with Procter & Gamble. “Typically, more food will end up on them than in them. Slowly, they’ll make progress, and by 5 weeks they’ll be eating more skillfully. Slowly decrease the water as the puppy adjusts to eating kibble. By 8 weeks, they should be ready for weaning and dry food consumption.”

The Nine Key Ingredients

  • Chicken and Egg Nelson says that egg and chicken are the most ideal protein sources, followed by other meats and byproducts. “Puppies need a good-quality protein source, whether human-grade or directly below,” says Nelson. “There’s a bad feeling about byproduct meal in the world, but as long as it’s quality refined, it’s not actually a bad thing. Skin, liver and spleen are nutritious.”
  • Vitamins and Nutrients Like human infants, puppies have specific nutrient requirements. Calcium and phosphorus need to be in proper balance so that bone development is healthy. The same is true for amino acids and vitamins. “The proper ratio is key,” says Nelson. Look for a commercial food that has been certified “complete and balanced” by Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the FDA of pet foods.
  • Beet Pulp and Fructooligosaccharide (FOS) These fermentable fibers help to keep the digestive tract healthy. Beet pulp and FOS are moderately fermentable, which means they enhance nutrient absorption while also helping the puppy remove waste.
  • Antioxidants These substances are thought to protect cells against the effects of disease-causing free radicals. These free radicals are produced when food is broken down and when there is environmental exposure to toxins. Free radicals likely play a role in diseases like heart disease and cancer, among others. Puppies who take in antioxidants through food are thought to be less likely to have growth abnormalities and are generally healthier in the long run.
  • Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids Plan on teaching your new dog old tricks? Fish and vegetable oils -- rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, respectively -- may help you succeed. “It’s brain food,” explains Nelson. These fatty acids also keep skin and coat healthy, and benefit the joints and GI tracts by reducing inflammation. “They help with all body systems. I don’t think we’ve reached the tip of the iceberg in understanding their benefits,” adds Nelson.

Feed your pet right from weaning and into adulthood (one year, in dog time) and you’ll ensure it has a healthy foundation to grow on.

Does Your Dog Food Meet AAFCO Standards?

Most of us have learned to check the ingredients list on dog food, but there’s another set of information on pet food labels that merits your attention: the guaranteed analysis. Understanding this information, which is based on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines, provides you with yet another important tool in the marketplace.

“Minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture must be listed in the guaranteed analysis,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with Iams. “Pet food manufacturers may guarantee other nutrients as well.”

Here, Dicke and Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., take you through the guaranteed analysis information on dog food, explaining its many benefits -- and its limitations.

What the Guaranteed Analysis Will and Will Not Do
“Guarantees indicate the nutrient will be present at no more or no less, depending on the guarantee, throughout the shelf life of the product,” says Dicke. Here’s what the guaranteed analysis will and won’t do:

Will

  • Allow you to compare foods
  • Indicate the legal minimums of crude protein and crude fat
  • Provide the legal maximums of water and crude fiber contained in the product
  • Permit direct comparisons between products with similar water content, such as one dry food versus another dry food or one wet/canned food versus another wet/canned food

Will not

  • Portray the quality of ingredients within a product
  • Specify the actual amount of protein, fat, water and fiber in the food
  • Permit comparisons between products with different water amounts

As you can see, water levels are a big consideration. “Canned foods typically contain 7 percent to 78 percent moisture, whereas dry foods contain only 10 percent to 12 percent moisture,” says Dicke. “To make meaningful comparisons of nutrient levels between a canned and dry product, they should be expressed on the same moisture basis.”

Using the Guaranteed Analysis Information
Until your dog actually eats a food, you cannot tell if the meal will be a taste bud pleaser. By reading pet food labels at the store, however, you can make predictions about a product’s quality and nutrient punch. Nelson shares the tips below:

1. If your dog is getting older and/or has renal issues, look for a food that has higher moisture content. It will help keep your pet hydrated.

2. If your dog suffers from weight issues, diabetes, renal difficulties, diarrhea or constipation, speak with your veterinarian about desired protein and fiber levels in pet food. You may need to find a diet that is more geared to your particular pet’s needs.

3. Beneficial inclusions like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are not required in the guaranteed analysis; however, many premium dog food products will guarantee minimal levels of these fatty acids to let pet owners know that the health benefits of the nutrient can be expected throughout product shelf life.

4. Another inclusion not required in the guaranteed analysis is L-carnitine. If your dog is overweight, however, studies suggest L-carnitine can help the body enhance lean muscle mass by promoting a more efficient manner of utilizing dietary fats.

5. Helpful inclusions found in diets, especially for large breeds, senior pets or overweight pets, are glucosamine and chondroitin. “These are the building blocks of cartilage and can help to promote joint health and even keeps the healthy cartilage in an already damaged/arthritic joint going strong,” says Nelson.