From Finicky Fido to Chowhound Charlie

No matter how hungry your dog may be at mealtime, you'll notice that a quick sniff of the food will almost always precede the chow down. Like a connoisseur inhaling the bouquet of a fine wine before the first sip, your dog is deciding if what you've laid out for the meal is worth eating.

Dogs reportedly have about one sixth the number of taste buds that we humans do, but their sense of smell is far more sophisticated than ours. "The tissue in their brain used for smelling is bigger and actually weighs more than the same tissue in human brain," says Dr. Nancy Scanlon, DVM, at the Sherman Oaks Veterinary Clinic in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Moisture on your dog's nose helps to dissolve molecules in the air around the food, which are then inhaled, making contact with the nerves inside the nose. The nerve impulses travel instantly from the nose directly to the brain and, at this point, your discriminating doggy can immediately determine if this food is familiar, fresh, rotten, sweet or salty -- and whether or not it should be eaten.

But dogs are not easily fooled. Once your dog starts eating, the sense of taste takes over. If a food has been artificially altered so that it smells like beef but is actually soybean mush, your dog will not continue to eat if the flavor is not to its liking.

What flavors do dogs like?
One study found that dogs prefer meat to any cereal foods. They like canned meat more than fresh meat, and cooked meat better than raw. And while dogs have a taste for sweetness, they can quickly detect -- and will avoid -- food with a bitter taste.

Some dog owners may feel that their pets need a variety or certain intensity of flavors to keep them interested. Not so, say experts. "Dogs don't need a lot of flavors," says Scanlon. There is no need to switch foods, she says, unless you need to coax your dog to eat, for instance, when it's sick. Most dogs love, and will accept, flavorful treats, but these should only be used when you're training your dog or at other special times, but not as a meal replacement.

Picky eater problems
Most of us know dogs that will eat just about anything. These tend to be bigger dogs, strays or dogs that were bred to be hunters. "But for the picky guys, the fresher (the food) the better," says Scanlon, who adds that small, thin dogs, such as whippets or grey hounds, tend to be pickier eaters. Canned food or a combination of canned and dry may be best for these dogs.

If you constantly change your dog's food, or frequently give your dog scraps of human food, you could actually create a picky eater, says Dr. Kimberly Bolduc, DVM at Willowood Acres Veterinary Clinic in Romulus, Mich. Keep your dog on a consistent diet and refrain from offering human food, which can be dangerous to a dog's health.

If your dog has lost interest in its food, for some reason, here are a few tips to try to make it more palatable:

1. Warm the food in the microwave for a minute or two, making sure it doesn't get too hot. Most dogs prefer moderately warm to cold food. Warming has the added advantage of heightening the food's aroma, making it all the more enticing to your dog.

2. Add a little bit of fat-free chicken or beef broth to the food. The added hint of moisture, taste and nutrition can sometimes pep up your pup's interest. It can also help to keep the food moist if you microwave it, per the first tip. You can additionally achieve the warming effect by heating the broth itself, but not the dog food, before stirring the two together.

3. Combine wet with dry dog food. Canned food can be more satisfying to some dogs, so try adding a tablespoon or two of canned food to the bowl of dry food, mixing it together completely.

4. Try adding a small amount of a specially formulated dog food sauce to your dog's dry food. These new sauces are designed just for dogs, so look for them at your local pet food store or other pet food retailer.

Dog Food Goes Natural and Holistic

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the link between food and health, which was recently confirmed by a PetfoodIndustry.com 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.

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.”

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/AVAVA

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.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/yoglimogli