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Wellness: Recipes
Food Works: Putting Homemade To The Test

For about a year, I’ve been supplementing our dogs’ quality kibble with homemade turkey burgers (along with whole-wheat pasta and cooked vegetables). Our three dogs eat twice a day; at each meal, our largest dog (45 pounds) gets half a burger, while the two smaller ones (30 and 25 pounds) roughly share the other half.

I developed the recipe myself, and while I tried to cover the bases in terms of appropriate canine nutrition, I had no particular agenda in mind—I mostly just wanted to make our dogs’ meals a little more interesting for them. Curious about the burgers’ nutritional value, I turned to Roschelle Heuberger, PhD, RD, professor at Central Michigan University and devoted Akita person, to find out how my culinary experiment stacked up.

The Recipe

Turkey Burgers

Makes approx. 36 3-inch patties, each about 3.5 ounces

Total prep time: 20 minutes

Total cooking time: 1 hour

Preheat oven to 400°

Combine

  • 6 1/2 lbs. ground dark-meat turkey
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 tsp. ground dried eggshells
  • 3 tsp. chia
  • 1/2 c. garbanzo bean flour
  • 1/3 c. wheat bran
  • 2 Tbsp. ground flax seed
  • 1 c. plain organic pumpkin
  • 3 c. organic rolled oats
  • 2 Tbsp. rehydrated dried shredded seaweed (low-sodium variety)

Mix well, making sure all the ingredients are completely incorporated. Shape into 3-inch patties, place on lightly oiled (with spray oil), rimmed baking sheet(s). Optional: Spread little ketchup (about 1/8 tsp.) on top of each patty.

Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour. A longer baking time will produce a drier and easier-to-crumble burger.

Tip: Deglaze the baking sheet with water, which makes a great gravy that can be used to moisten the meal. This recipe makes around 1 1/2 to 2 cups of this gravy. It’s also an easy way to help clean the baking pan.

The Analysis

By Roschelle Heuberger, PhD, RD

There is much controversy within the veterinary nutritionist community about commercial pet food and home cooking. And, since manufacturing standards for canine food are so much different than those we apply in our own kitchens, it’s difficult to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison. Nonetheless, using proprietary nutrition software, it’s possible to determine the relative values of the major food components of Claudia’s recipe with those found in commercially produced dog food (in parens).

Analysis (per patty)

Note: All measurements are given in terms of 100 kilocalories (kcals) against measurement standards used by commercial food manufacturers.

Protein: 7.5 grams (8 grams is considered high protein)

Calories: 5.3 kcals (5 or more kcals is considered high calorie)

Fat: 2 grams (a low-fat food contains less than 2 grams, so this is neither high nor low)

Sodium: 30 mg (anything less than 100 mg per serving is considered low-sodium)

Fiber: 0.75 grams (neither high nor low)

Moisture loss with one hour covered cooking time is approximately 10 to 15 percent. High heat and long cooking time will destroy 90 percent of the thiamin and up to 50 percent of some of the other B vitamins in the burgers. On the bright side, it will also kill pathogens, so you don’t have to worry about the contamination that’s a concern when it comes to undercooked meats.

The Verdict

Used as a “topper” to both to increase palatability and provide calories, protein and other nutrients, the turkey burger is a great addition to a complete commercial dog food. Feeding turkey burgers as toppers may also be helpful for older dogs, who often have poor appetites, or dogs who have been ill or malnourished. In those cases, the turkey burger need not replace the commercial food, but rather, could be fed in addition to it.

As the recipe is given, it would not be advisable to feed turkey burgers as the sole source of nutrition because they may be too high-calorie for some dogs, and also because they’re missing some of the other nutrients dogs need. Obesity is becoming an epidemic among dogs, as it is in humans. Caloric restriction and regular exercise are important for weight maintenance, particularly as a dog ages.

As always, choose the best commercial food you can afford. To educate yourself on the options and issues, try out one of the online dog food evaluators; Dogfoodadvisor.com is a good place to start.

The Background: Canine Nutrition

Dogs, who are omnivorous, require the same sorts of major nutrients—proteins, carbohydrates and fats, and vitamins and minerals—as human omnivores, but in different ratios. For example, they have an absolute requirement for linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid, and for nearly a dozen amino acids, the building blocks of protein. These amino acids range from the complex (arginine and phenylalanine) to simple (leucine and valine).

We and our four-legged companions get all 22 amino acids from protein sources such as eggs or meats, which contain varying percentages of each one. Some protein sources contain most of them, others only a fraction. Meats, eggs and fish are among the best sources of complete amino acids, and their proteins are highly digestible; this means that the amino acids are absorbed more readily from the gut.

Standards for minimal nutritional composition of food for dogs are based on percentages, which are determined by a dog’s physiological status; the percentages are higher for dogs during growth, reproduction and lactation stages, and increase as the weight of the animal increases. Usually, the amount fed to achieve the minimal percentages required for maintenance of normal physiological function in the dog is based on dry matter per kilogram of body weight. That is why labels that show the number of cups of food to be fed per day base the measurement on the size of the dog. Companies formulate their foods to provide a specific amount of protein, linoleic acid, and calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.

If you’re cooking for your dog and want to do your own analysis, a number of websites allow you to do that, but none can be considered foolproof. For example, there’s the USDA Nutrient Database. This is a food calculator only, and doesn’t contain information on ingredients that one might use in a dog-food recipe, such as eggshells (a free web calculator that includes eggshells can be found here: nutritiondata.self.com).

Wellness: Recipes
Recipes For Dogs: Barbara Laino’s Homemade Dog Food
Healthy home-cooked meals for your dogs

In the April/May 2011 issue of The Bark, we interview Barbara Laino about the nutritional benefits of feeding your dog home-cooked meals in addition to, or in lieu of, commercial dog food (see “Home Cooking with Barbara Laino” April/May ’11). Here are two more recipes cooked up at Laino’s Midsummer Farm in Warwick, N.Y., that are sure to please your pup’s taste buds and keep her healthy:

Homemade Dinner Recipe for Dogs

This recipe feeds 2-3 large dogs for 7-10 days.

Grind the following ingredients in a meat grinder. Alternate ingredients so the grinder does the mixing for you. For instance, grind six necks, one carrot, a handful of pumpkin seeds, then six more necks and so on. Mix with a large spoon as you grind.

Meat:
• 40 lbs of chicken neck without skins
• 10 lbs of chicken hearts
• 5-10 lbs of organic chicken livers
• 2 cans of pink salmon (optional)

Vegetables:
Can be interchanged with other vegetables and fruits (no grapes or onions). Dogs and cats usually do not like citrus.
• 2-5 lbs carrots
• 1/2 a bunch of red cabbage
• 1 beet
• 2 apples
• 1/2 a bunch of spinach or other dark greens

Other ingredients:
• 1 cup of raw pumpkin seeds

Add a couple of the following items. Have these ready on hand as you are grinding and add a sprinkle here and there of each so you can thoroughly mix the batch of food.
• 9-12 raw whole eggs (optional)
• 2,000 mg of vitamin C powder
• 1/4 to 1/2 cup of Thorvin kelp powder
• 1/4 cup of tumeric powder
• 1/2 to 1 cup of dried parsley
• 1/2 to 1 cup of dried oregano
• 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup of tahini
• 1/4 cup of raw honey

After grinding and mixing all ingredients thoroughly, keep the food in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Midsummer Farm Homemade Fish-Based Dog Dinner

(The below recipe is for 1 medium dog for 3 days, about 10 1-cup-size meatballs) This recipe can be made in larger batches for efficiency sake. This raw food can easily be frozen in meatball shapes appropriate for the size animals you are feeding.

Serving Sizes of Raw Meatballs:
• For a large 50-100 pound dog – three to five 1-cup-size meatballs per day
• For a 20-40 pound dog - two or three 1-cup-size meatballs per day
• For a 1-10 pound dog – one to two 1/2-cup-size meatballs per day
*Remember – this is a concentrated and efficient food source and is power packed. You won’t have to feed as much bulk-wise as with a commercial food; most commercial foods have a lot of fillers.

Ingredients
• 2 pounds of Frozen Fish Fillets. I like to use an oily fish like Mackerel or Whiting.
• 1-2 cans of Alaskan Wild Pink Salmon
• 1/4 - 1/2 pound of Beef Liver
• 1-3 Eggs (optional)
• 2 cups of Chopped Veggies (can be any combination of carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cooked squash, green beans, cooked yams, apples, berries, kale, spinach). Do NOT use onions or grapes of any kind.
• 1/2 cup of Pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
• 2 tbsp Honey
• 2 tbsp Dried Parsley
• 2 tbsp Dried Oregano
• 2 tbsp Tumeric Powder
• 2 tbsp Thorvin Kelp Powder
• Optional: 1 cup of cooked oatmeal, barley, or brown rice

Directions:
Alternate putting frozen (still frozen grind much easier), liver, vegetables, and seeds through a meat grinder. As you grind into a big bowl, add and mix in the canned salmon, eggs, honey, dried herbs, powdered kelp.

Keep in a well-sealed container in fridge. Scoop out appropriate amounts for your pet, or if you made a very large batch that is more than can be consumed in about 5 days, roll into meal-sized meatballs and freeze. Then you can just take out whatever number meatballs you need and defrost them a couple days before you need to feed them. Meatballs will last at least 3 months in the freezer.

To learn more about homemade dog food and its many benefits, see our interview with Barbara Laino.

Note: We've omitted the garlic originally in this recipe.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Winterizing Your Dog's Coat
The Well-Oiled Dog
The Well-Oiled Dog

Winter weather can be a refreshing change of pace, but at the same time, low humidity and home heating can dry out your dog’s skin and coat. While we humans might opt for topical moisturizing creams and lotions, our fine canine friends do best when they’re well oiled. The healthiest fix for your dog’s winter dandruff and dry skin problems is to add oil to his diet. You don’t have to run out and purchase special oils; two of the best, olive and coconut, are easy to find in supermarkets and health food stores. I recommend them for glowing skin and coat and general health.

Let’s begin with olive oil. I particularly like cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil for cooking. Many commonly used oils break down at high heat, which can affect digestibility. Olive oil does not, making it the preferred oil to use when cooking for your dog. Rich in antioxidants, especially vitamin E, and phytonutrients, olive oil is best stored in the refrigerator to keep it from being degraded by heat and light. It tends to harden during refrigeration, but will liquefy when allowed to warm up to room temperature. If you simply want to add olive oil to your dog’s meal, use a teaspoon a day for a 30 to 40 lb. dog, or up to a tablespoon for a large 90 lb. dog.

To keep a dog’s coat soft and rich, coconut oil is my favorite. Plus, it decreases “doggy” odor; even dogs with a musty scent begin to smell sweet. Coconuts are classified as a “functional food,” and their oil provides many benefits beyond its super-healthy nutritional content. The secret to this oil’s healing power is its medium-chain fatty acids, which have special healthgiving properties. The fats in coconut oil are similar to those in mother’s milk, and they have similar healing attributes. Aside from human breast milk, coconut oil is nature’s most abundant source of lauric acid, which has been used to kill viruses, bacteria and yeast as well as prevent tooth decay. It also supports thyroid function and enhances metabolism. Dogs love coconut oil on their food as a condiment. One-half to one teaspoon daily for a medium-sized dog (30 to 40 lbs.) is an average portion. Coconut oil should also be refrigerated.

Supporting your dog’s biological terrain is the single most important way to maintain his well being and help him have healthy skin and a great coat. Both olive and coconut oil are healthy for your dog’s insides, and it will show on his outside. The well-oiled dog will have soft skin and a coat that shines all winter long.

Wellness: Recipes
Thursday Thanksgiving
Fast, easy and nutritious turkey feast.

It doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to give thanks! Working in animal rescue, I’ve seen a lot of heartbreak, but I’ve also seen and experienced the love that a rescued animal can bring to a human and vice versa. Each one of my rescued dogs gives me so much joy and love every day—cooking for them and making sure they are healthy is the least I can do to say thanks. This recipe is chock-full of nutritious and delicious ingredients that help keep your beloved pup healthy and happy.

Makes 4 servings for a 50-pound dog

2 tbsps. olive oil
2 1/2 pounds ground turkey
3/4 cup uncooked barley
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
1/4 cup (2 ounces) minced beef heart
1/4 cup canned pure pumpkin
1/4 cup salmon oil
4 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped

1. In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium low heat. Add the turkey and cook until it is browned. Drain any excess fat and set the turkey aside to cool.

2. Prepare the barley as directed on the package. Set it aside to cool. You should have about 1 cup of cooked barley.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low heat. If using the garlic, add it and sauté until it is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and sauté, stirring frequently until wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

4. Once cooled, puree the spinach and garlic mixture in a food processor and set it aside. You should have about a 1⁄4 cup of spinach puree.

 

To Make One Serving

1 1/3 cups cooked ground turkey
1/4 cup cooked barley
1 tbsp. spinach puree
1 tbsp. minced cooked beef heart
1 tbsp. pumpkin puree
1 tbsp. salmon oil
1 sprig chopped parsley

In your dog’s bowl, combine the turkey, barley, spinach puree, with beef heart, pumpkin, salmon oil and parsley. Refrigerate any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

For a serving chart of proportions for different size dogs, see bowmeowraw.com

Home Cooking for Your Dog by Christine M. Filardi © Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013

Note: We've omitted the garlic originally in this recipe.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
The World's Most Dangerous Foods for Dogs
Alchohol, Avocado, Raisin, Currants, Cooked Bones, Walnuts, Macadamias, Onions and Garlic, Dairy, Mushrooms, Caffeine, Medications, Grapes, Fatty Foods, Xylitol, Chocolate
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
The Balance Canine Diet
Feeding your dog for life

The modern dog food industry bears little resemblance to the dog food industry of 60 years ago. Rather than a handful of brands, a kaleidoscope of options is now available: preservative- and GMO-free, organic, raw, even some with varying degrees of “source to bowl” traceability. Many of the newer food companies were founded by people dissatisfied with the status quo—dog owners who wanted both the convenience of commercial food and the assurances of safety and quality that accompany food fit for human consumption.

For many, a high-quality commercial diet is an appropriate way to feed their dogs. Though this may sound blasphemous to home-feeding purists, when the number of contemporary foods that contain corn, wheat and far worse ingredients (for example, ethoxyquin, a preservative banned from food intended for human consumption in Australia and the European Union but still found in some dog foods) is taken into account, making a change to a healthier commercial diet could constitute a drastic improvement.

But as we have learned more about the marriage of food and disease, so too have we learned of the necessity to divorce ourselves from processed foods. Many a book has been written on the virtues of whole and natural foods in the human diet, and increasingly, science suggests that their benefits may apply to our canine companions.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than one-third of all human cancer deaths may be eliminated by a healthy diet, and while preventive or palliative canine cancer diets have been comparatively less studied, work done on the topic indicates that a similar effect may exist for our dogs. A Purdue University study found a significantly lower rate of bladder cancer among Scottish Terriers fed cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and kale) three or more times weekly (JAVMA 2005, 227 (1): 94–100).

As dietary changes to ward off or combat numerous canine diseases become more widely accepted, it’s likely that many owners will feed their dogs a homemade diet at some point in their pets’ lifetime. A diet rich in antioxidants and whole foods—the same protocol physicians recommend we follow ourselves—does not have to be an exercise reserved for sick dogs but rather, an approach taken on behalf of stacking the odds in favor of our dogs’ longevity.

To some, this is a radical notion. Few remember a time during which the family dog’s meal did not come from a bag or can and contain ingredients of uncertain properties and dubious origins. But despite the fact that owners might wrinkle their noses at the smell of their dogs’ food and struggle to decipher the ingredients list, most who continue to feed commercial food do it for a single reason: the food is “complete and balanced.”

It is true that a balanced diet is essential, and that most traditional commercial dog foods provide the vitamins and nutrients that most dogs need to survive. However, there is a vast distinction between surviving and thriving, and the inclusion of fresh, whole foods in the canine diet may well be the catalyst that transforms good health to great.

For example, antioxidants play a vital role in clearing the bloodstream of free radicals, which can damage cells and are believed to speed up the progression of cancer as well as cardiovascular and age-related diseases. With this in mind, an increasing number of dog food brands have added blueberries, cranberries and other fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to their recipes. However, some of these foods’ benefits can be destroyed in the manufacturing process, so their appearance on an ingredient list—frequently near the bottom—may not guarantee a positive effect. Merely incorporating a food is not beneficial if its nutritional quality is diminished or its quantity is not sufficient to be useful to the dog.

For many, the dog food recall of 2007 was a real (and rude) awakening. Even those unaffected by it became aware of the uncomfortable realities of the modern dog food industry, from the vagaries of food safety and sourcing to the ultimate question: what are we really feeding our dogs? The answers—at times limited—left owners wondering what aspect of canine nutrition was so complicated that it could only be understood by a rarified few and only met by a commercial product.

Following this landmark recall, many dog owners ventured into the world of home feeding, where they often encountered a thicket of contradictory information and complex formulas. While some were discouraged, others persevered, and discovered that home feeding need be neither costly nor complicated. It requires a primer on nutrition, a handful of decisions about cost and time, and finding a veterinary professional who can provide guidance on recipe formulation and how to create a balanced diet that optimizes the health of dogs over time.

Stepping into Home Feeding

The first choice is to decide between raw or cooked, which may require some research. There are many books and websites on the attendant benefits and drawbacks of the two approaches; a vet or vet nutritionist should be able to recommend reliable and useful resources.

The second consideration is whether to prepare the food from scratch or purchase a commercial product. While the latter may sound antithetical to the idea of home feeding, here, it refers to commercial diets that include the same whole, fresh ingredients as would be found in a “from scratch” meal, and that incorporate an appropriate nutrient balance. These come in raw, cooked, frozen or dehydrated forms and are manufactured without the harsh processing that can leach ingredients of nutritional value.

For owners who wish to pursue this option, a number of companies offer raw and/or cooked meals. Some provide information on the sourcing of their products, humane treatment of food animals and whether they utilize human-grade ingredients. Those who elect to feed their dogs commercially prepared raw food—pre-balanced, unprocessed raw diets and raw meaty bones—will usually find it in specialty pet-supply stores. (As a reminder, dogs should never be given cooked bones, which can splinter and cause serious problems, including the risk of internal damage.)

These options all offer convenience, sometimes at a price. Because their quality is generally quite high, commercial “homemade” diets can be a more expensive option. Some owners combine methods—for example, feeding a dehydrated food in the morning and preparing a meal from scratch in the evening.

Handmade at Home

Depending on the type of ingredients and where they’re purchased, preparing meals from scratch at home can be more or less expensive than purchasing premade options. Organic ingredients and a shortage of storage space can make it as expensive (or even slightly more expensive). On the other hand, buying in bulk, particularly at wholesale clubs, and being able to store and/or freeze ingredients make this type of home feeding much more affordable. For protein sources, an increasing number of reputable American farms offer individuals the option of purchasing bulk meats (including raw meaty bones) online at discounted prices, an excellent cost-saver.

Entirely homemade meals require attention to supplementation. In the aggregate, all elements need to be accounted for in proportions relative to a dog’s size, activity level, health status and tastes. Fish oil supplements can be an excellent addition, and canine multi-vitamins also can be useful, although they vary widely in quality; some are little more than treats, while others are a sound way to achieve balance. Consult your veterinary professional for guidance on selecting supplements that will meet your home-fed dog’s needs. Calcium is a particularly critical element, although dogs fed a raw diet usually get a large portion of the calcium they need from raw meaty bones.

Finding Your Way

For years, the holistic veterinary community has widely supported raw and cooked diets for dogs as a way to both prevent and manage disease. Veterinary nutritionists, who are fewer in number than holistic veterinarians, are also excellent resources. When looking for a holistic veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist, ask if he or she is familiar and comfortable with the type of diet you wish to feed. Regardless of the method you choose, work with a veterinarian to ensure that the diet is benefiting your dog. To find a holistic veterinarian, visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association website; find a veterinary nutritionist at the American College of Veterinary Nutrition site.

There are a number of online recipe sites as well as canine cookbooks designed for either raw or cooked home feeding. Be aware that their quality varies, and that even in combination, the meals may not afford balance over time. However, if you like the idea of incorporating certain ingredients, take your ideas to the vet professional you choose to assist you in developing a meal plan for your dog. Also, before feeding any new food, check with your veterinarian to be sure it’s safe; a number of foods (including chocolate, grapes and onions) can be toxic to dogs. The ASPCA website also has information on this subject (aspca.org; enter Foods That Are Hazardous for Dogs in the search box).

In recognition of the impact our culinary habits have on the planet, an increasing number of dog owners are applying the same eating ethos they incorporate into their own diets to their dogs’ food regimen. Feeding homemade food also has the benefit of helping reduce our carbon footprint when we choose locally grown, seasonal produce (preferably pesticide-free). You can take that benefit one step further by growing your own fruits and vegetables. Another avenue to consider is buying meat raised humanely; grass-fed beef contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Improving the lives of our dogs can also translate into improving the lives of food animals.

Julie Mayer, an integrative veterinarian who has dedicated most of her 20-year career to holistic veterinary medicine, has a special interest in nutrition. She has seen firsthand the benefits of feeding dogs a homemade diet, and encourages all owners—even those who are not yet ready to feed homemade—to integrate safe, whole foods into their dogs’ meals. “Food is medicine, and what we feed our dogs can make a profound difference in their health,” she says. True for us, true for our dogs. And truly, there will never be a better time than the present for all of us to eat and live well.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
30 Day Pet Food Challenge
You Tube videos chronicle awareness around pet food ingredients

When I got my first dog, I spent countless hours pouring over the ingredient of different pet foods. I finally settled on grain free kibble made from human grade ingredients, but even so I don't think I would eat a day's worth of dog food.

Enter Dorothy Hunter, animal lover and owner of Paws Natural Pet Emporium in Kennewick, Washington. Dorothy is so passionate about quality pet food that she just completed a vow to eat only dog, cat, and bird food from her store's shelves for one month. She embarked on this journey to create awareness around pet nutrition, chronicled in a series of You Tube videos.

“You would be surprised how tasty dog and cat food can be when it's made right,” says Dorothy. She believes that, in many cases, our pets are eating better than us.

Many people asked Dorothy about her digestion, but she says she felt great on the diet. Her selection couldn't be further from the “supermarket kibble” people picture when they think of pet food. Dorothy's menu consisted of oven baked blueberry treats, freeze dried vegetables, kibble with salmon flakes, and canned food with pieces of succulent chicken.

Dorothy's You Tube videos are a great way to get people thinking about their pets' food while reaching a new audience. There's nothing like eating dog treats and kibble to make you hyper aware of the ingredients inside!

Wellness: Recipes
Simple Frozen Yogurt Treats
A perfect recipe for summer
Dogs Licking Ice Cream

Stepping out with our furry friends during the sunniest time of the year makes for hot and hungry dogs. This quick, simple recipe is designed to cool off your pup, while providing a delectable, tasty treat! Makes 30-40 cubes, enough to last the summer. Feel free to add other tasty items like raspberries and strawberries, or any of the superfoods listed here (yogurt-fish-honey pops, anyone?).

Ingredients:

4 cups yogurt (flavored or plain, non-fat if needed)
½ cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 ripe banana, mashed

Directions:

  • Melt peanut butter in microwave for about 30 seconds

  • Place all of the ingredients into a blender, mixer or food processor and mix well (until smooth)

  • Pour into ice cube trays or Popsicle trays.

  • Freeze until firm.

  • Pop out of the tray (you’ll need a knife) and let your dog enjoy this frozen treat!

  • Recipe from Pet Guide

    Wellness: Food & Nutrition
    Dog Food Logic
    Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.

    When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process. 

    Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion. 

    Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?). 

    Inclusion Claims
    Inclusion claims are declarations that the food contains a desirable ingredient or nutrient. If you are selecting a dog food based upon an interest in a particular set of ingredients, these claims can be helpful, provided your reasons are sound and evidence-based. This is a significant prerequisite, of course, and one that is often ignored by dog owners and pet food companies alike. Unfortunately, a substantial number of the “We have it cuz it’s good” and the “We don’t have it cuz it’s bad” claims are marketing responses to current feeding fads that are designed to sell more food rather than to impart knowledge or support healthful choices. 

    Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients. 

    Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods). 

    Exclusion Claims
    Claims of exclusion can be particularly difficult to interpret and decipher, given the rapidity with which new dietary theories, fads and health-promoting practices arrive on the market and the fervor with which certain ingredients are denigrated. Unfortunately, pet food manufacturers exacerbate these trends expressly to boost sales. When enough dog owners begin to believe a common ingredient is harmful, manufacturers respond by making label claims that their food is free of the targeted ingredient, which, via circular reasoning, appears to confirm that the ingredient is harmful. 

    As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term. 

    Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence. 

    Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience. 

    The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency. 

    Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
    The term “digestibility” refers to the collective proportion of all nutrients in the food that is available for absorption from the gut (intestine) into the body. Because a highly digestible food provides a higher proportion of absorbed nutrients than a less-digestible food, digestibility is a direct measure of nutritional value and quality. The reason that a food’s digestibility is so vitally important to our dogs’ well being is precisely because the majority of commercial foods sold today are developed, tested and marketed as “complete and balanced.” This means that the food provides all of the essential nutrients that, in correct quantity and balance, a dog needs on a daily basis. 

    Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.

    The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins. 

    In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it. 

    This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.

    Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent. 

    It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients). 

    Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality. 

    In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).

    In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.

    Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
    Today, significant numbers of dog owners are concerned with where the ingredients of their dogs’ food originate and who is making their foods. And, because pet food companies are aware of the importance of this to many consumers, foods that contain regionally or domestically (U.S.) sourced ingredients will make this claim on their labels. Additionally, the claim of “Made in the USA” is found on some products. Although this claim does not really suggest that it applies to ingredient source, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that guide this type of claim require that “all or virtually all” of the parts and processing of a product must originate in the United States. For pet foods, AAFCO interprets this FTC regulation to mean that a food with the “Made in the USA” claim can contain no or negligible foreign-acquired content. 

    This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.

    The Take-Away on Label Claims
    Multiple factors affect each individual dog’s health, energy level and well being. Of all of these factors, diet is the only one over which we as owners exert total and complete control and is quite easy for us to modify. While there’s no single perfect food, there are smart choices. And these you can definitely learn to make for your dog.

     

    Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.

    News: Guest Posts
    What Should I Feed My Dog?
    Book Review: Dog Food Logic

    How wonderful if you could pose this question just once in your dog’s life and receive a perfect answer that would last a lifetime. Imagine if there were a ‘right’ formula, and once you know it, you could feed your dog forever and ever on the same exquisite diet. Your dog, in return, would be the happiest and healthiest doggie camper there ever was.

    Unfortunately, “What should I feed my dog?” is not the question we should be asking. In fact, “What should I feed my dog” is akin to the infomercial that comes on at 3 AM informing you that if you just buy this Mega-Blast Belt (for three low monthly payments of $19.99), six-pack abs will follow. Both fall into a quick-fix category — the “right” product, the “right” answer — that unfortunately doesn’t exist.

    Instead, the question that will last you a lifetime is, “How should I feed my dog?” This is where Linda Case, M.S. comes to the rescue. I don’t mean to be superhero-y about it, but Case’s new book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices is a unique work designed to help readers make informed, science-based decisions on what and how to feed our beloved companion dogs. As one veterinarian offers, “Dog Food Logic cuts through the noise and chaos and provides pet owners with a rational, science-based approach to evaluating their pets’ dietary needs and their feeding choices” (The Skeptvet Blog).

    Linda Case knows a thing or two about animal nutrition. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She maintains the well-received blog, The Science Dog, and has written numerous books on companion animal nutrition, training and behavior. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Cats in Context conference at Canisius College in 2013 (Case spoke on cat nutrition, and I gave a talk on research into whether dogs and cats in the home can be friends — they can).

    But back to dog food. If you are expecting a dry read on dog nutrition and diet, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dog Food Logic is a page turner, jam-packed with real-world examples that you can easily relate to. Case unpacks label claims, fad diets and the wonderfully persuasive field of pet food marketing. What does it mean when a food is ‘recommended by veterinarians or breeders?’ Who is Chef Michael, and should you trust him? And who’s keeping our dog food safe?

    Throughout the book, Case discusses research into canine nutrition and diet in a way that is easy to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun. For example, studies have investigated:

    • Do large-breed puppies (say Great Danes or Newfoundlands) have different nutritional requirements than say, Chihuahuas? Should the big puppies eat the same type of food as the little ones? Or is it just a matter of quantity? Case provides the research.
    • Can diet influence cancer progression? While a particular dog food brand won’t cure cancer, nutritional science and canine cancer research find that particular dietary compositions can be beneficial to dogs with cancer.
    • What about age-related illnesses? Can they be prevented or delayed through nutrition?

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, and since I can’t possibly summarize all the topics and findings covered in Case’s book, the above are intentional teasers. To find out more, read the book.

     

    References

    Case, L. 2014. Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices. Dogwise Publishing.

    Case, L. The Science Dog blog.

    Hecht, J. 2013. Dogs and Cats in the Home: Happiness for All? Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog?

    McKenzie, B. The SkeptVet blog.

    This article first appeard on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.

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