If you’re a regular reader of The American Dog, then you’re probably already feeding a high-quality kibble to your precious four-legged fur baby. But, and there’s always a “but” with me, that’s merely the first step. Your dog needs more than just kibble in his daily diet. Think about it—we don’t feed our two-legged children the same “nutritionally complete” dry cereal at every meal for their entire lifetime. Why do we do that to our dogs and then expect them to thrive?
Oprah’s Veterinarian for her Chicago dogs, Dr. Barbara Royal, is a passionate advocate for species-appropriate nutrition and summed it up this way: “Yes, we feed dry kibble because it’s easy—that’s the bottom line. However, many health issues are due to a diet based on convenience, rather than on what’s essential for an animal’s optimal health.” I couldn’t agree with her more, and I believe that’s the case with all species, including us humans.
Dr. Royal further explains, “When dry food hits the stomach, it is not what the stomach expects. The large, dry lump of material needs a huge influx of water just to break it up and let it pass into the intestines. This means an abnormal amount of water drinking, and possibly mild dehydration as fluid is taken from the body for this task. There are many ramifications for the kidneys, general health, and even incontinence issues.”
Understand your dog’s digestive process
While humans begin the digestive process in our mouths, using digestive enzymes in our saliva, dogs don’t begin to digest their food until it hits their stomach. Many dog owners lament the fact that their dog gulps their food and never seems to chew. Canine teeth, however, were designed to rip the flesh of meat, not chew cud like a cow.
A dog’s stomach is a strong, muscular organ that mixes the food with hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, and mucus, which the stomach lining secretes to protect the stomach tissue. The food is held in the stomach until this initial digestion is complete and the food changes to a liquid consistency, similar to potato soup.
This “soup” is then pushed out of the stomach and into the small intestine. Further digestion takes place here with more enzymes added from the pancreas and liver. The absorption of nutrients takes place mainly in the small intestine. From there, the large intestine contains bacteria designed to break down any remaining fiber. If your dogs are clearing the room because of gas, chances are they are not digesting the plant material in their food.
A dog’s large intestine is mainly designed to absorb moisture, forming the stool. If a dog has loose stools, the addition of pureed pumpkin will help to absorb moisture.
Determining a dog’s ideal diet
For years, pet food companies and traditional veterinarians have told us that we should never feed table scraps to our dogs. Many of our clients sheepishly admit to slipping an occasional leftover to their dog and then look to me for forgiveness. Instead, I find myself patting them on the back and encouraging more real food to supplement their basic diet.
Dr. Royal advises that “there is no perfect dog food for every dog. The only way to find a 'perfect fit food' is to follow basic guidelines and see what works best.” She has absolute rules and flexible guidelines for her clients, and was kind enough to share them.
ABSOLUTE: Protein greater than 30% (dry matter basis, canned foods have a different measurement), avoid bad carbs (corn, wheat especially), avoid toxins, bad chemicals, and carcinogens (e.g. onions, chocolate, ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT).
FLEXIBLE: Try to feed foods with normal moisture content (avoid dry kibble), avoid other carbs (e.g. white potato), avoid too many chemicals (unpronounceable names and things you don’t recognize as food) or too many supplements (like garlic, which is a strong herbal medicine, and is best given in measured doses).
“I am always mindful of the financial constraints, preferences and lifestyle of the owner," Dr. Royal says. "After that, I factor in the lifestyle, physical response, and the preferences of the dog (working dog? couch potato?) and their physical reaction to the food (normal stool, healthy coat, good weight…) and then the food plan for a particular animal becomes apparent.”
Incorporate moisture into your dog’s diet
Most pet owners are hesitant to give up their dog’s dry kibble for convenience or financial reasons. I consistently have owners ask me if adding water to their dog’s kibble is a good idea to boost moisture content, so I posed this question to Dr. Royal. “It may help," she says, "but it is not an ideal solution. Canned, pre-prepared raw, or home-cooked foods are still better than dry processed food.”
I feed my own dogs a varied diet and advise our clients to do the same. A high-quality, dry kibble can be a good starting point and a convenient backup for most dog parents. Whenever your schedule and checkbook allow, however, try topping the food with raw or cooked meat, steamed veggies, homemade broth, or grain-free canned food. My canine cooking recipes on pages 24-33 are intended to inspire us to look at our dogs’ nutrition in a new way. Feeding dogs shouldn’t be left up to scientists and chemical labs.
Just as our two-legged children can survive eating a diet of only fast food, dogs can obviously survive on a wide variety of diets, including those heavy in carbohydrates. The gold standard AAFCO, Inc. (American Association of Feed Control Officials) feeding trials need only prove that a dog can survive for 26 weeks while eating the food. The question that group hasn’t publicly addressed, however, is whether those dogs are thriving to their full potential.
Ideally, a dog’s diet should consist primarily of fresh meat that has lots of moisture. There are many wonderful, meat-based kibble formulas on the market these days, including Canidae, Evangers, Mulligan Stew, and Solid Gold. Dr. Royal especially favors grain-free formulas by Nature’s Variety Instinct, Wellness Core, Innova EVO, and Orijen. Topping those high-quality diets with a dollop of high-quality canned food or raw meat is a good step towards adding necessary moisture and helping the food pass through the stomach’s acid bath more quickly—giving the dog’s digestive system a better chance to utilize those high-quality nutrients.
The less moisture a dog has in his diet, the longer the food will stay in the stomach, mixing with hydrochloric acid and losing valuable nutrients. Therein, even if you’re feeding an incredibly wonderful kibble, many of those nutrients are lost to the stomach acid. Consider this: The total digestion time of raw food is generally 4-6 hours, while dry food may take 10-12 hours to go through a dog’s digestive tract.
Dr. Royal points out, “Animals eating only processed foods (dry kibble) have been shown to have significantly decreased enzyme levels in their intestinal villi. These enzymes are essential for proper nutrient processing. Highly processed foods increase quick absorption and speed motility in a way that is not always healthful. Without proper enzymes and transit time, the GI tract can’t properly prepare and absorb nutrients. The processed food therefore alters the ability of the intestines to be an effective “border patrol,” determining which molecules are allowed to pass from the GI tract into the animal’s bloodstream.”
Dr. Barbara Royal, DVM, owns and operates The Royal Treatment Veterinary Center, offering general as well as specialty complimentary veterinary services to her clients in the Chicago area. Read more about her practice at www.royaltreatmentveterinarycenter.com