Accurate information is something that’s important to me, especially when it comes to nutrition and behavior. All to often I work with people that were given advice by a well meaning person at a dog park, a colleague, or hearsay during a card game. This type of advice is only good if you can double check the information with varied sources, and investigate that possibility and then double check sources again. You don’t want to experiment with your dog when it comes to nutrition or behavior.

I find myself talking about food choices for our dogs about twice maybe three times a day, five days a week. I’m pretty sure this is the most common conversation that I have on a consistent basis with clients, friends and family. Here are the most common questions/statements and my answers with supporting links to articles and books.

Q: I’m vegan and I want my dog to be vegan, is this possible?
A: There is growing popularity and information regarding vegan diets for dogs. Alicia Silverstone’s book The Kind Diet has increased the desire for people who have chosen a vegan life style for themselves to also choose this for their dogs. While her book is wonderful, and the recipes for humans yummy great, it lacks information on appropriate nutrition for dogs and/or the implications of feeding a grain and vegetable diet to a predator and opportunistic scavenger. The book suggests Dr. Harvey’s vegetarian dog diet, and states that our dogs don’t really need meat anymore because they are more sedentary animals. Dr. Harvey’s does sell other products and suggests adding a ‘protein source’. James O’Heare’s book Vegan Dogs makes a great argument for switching our dogs to a non meat sourced diet. There is a website to support this called Vegan Dog Nutrition Association. However, it clearly states that this is Compassionate Nutrition, it never states that it is Optimal Nutrition, nor does it go into health issues a dog may face if they aren’t getting the appropriate amount of meat sourced protein in their diet, such as muscle wasting.  Vegan and vegetarian lifestyles for humans are for the most part by choice, for either health benefits, religion or ethical reasons. Current research has created mounds of empirical data to support that a biologically appropriate diet for humans is largely plant based ( variety of fruits and vegetables), with some whole grains and nuts, and very little meat, but some. In contrast, a biologically appropriate diet for a canines, and there is also mounds of empirical data to support this, is roughly; 50 – 60% meat (varied), 30% meat with crushed bone (varied), 10% organ meat, 5% plant (fruit and vegetable with low sugar content). Canines cannot digest and/or use; corn, wheat or soy.

The two books written by veterinarians that have an emphasis in canine nutritional sciences, that every dog owner should have are Raw Meaty Bones by Dr. Tom Lonsdale and Natural Health by Dr. Pitcairn.

While it is admirable for humans to live on a biologically appropriate human diet, and healthier too, I do not feel that it’s justified to impose those choices on another species that just happens to be a carnivore/opportunistic scavenger.  Making biologically appropriate choices needs to be appropriate choices for each species. Ethical choices for a certain human life style should not be part of choosing a dogs diet, a dog owner needs to be very honest about the animal they own and intend to feed, and offer optimal nutrition for optimal health.

Q: What exactly is a raw diet? I hear this term and I wouldn’t even know where to start.
A: A raw food diet is sometimes referred to as a biologically appropriate raw food diet. Dr. Billinghurst coined this term many years ago. It is using not only appropriate protein sources for a canine (which is a predator and opportunistic scavenger), but also using it in an minimally altered state, raw. A dogs digestive system is designed differently from ours.From their teeth, jaws and saliva to the stomach and intestinal tract. Because your dogs digestive tract is relatively short and simple they are unable to digest large amounts of grain and fiber. It simply passes through and creates more waste.  A raw diet is the appropriate diet for the ripping, grabbing and gnawing off meat, slow digestion in the stomach and a speedy trip through the intestinal area. Commercial kibbles are almost the opposite.

Is feeding a raw food diet easy? It depends on how you go about it. We have been feeding raw in our house for over eight years. We tend to rotate in some kibble because it is convenient during some of the busier work days, some home cooked because I enjoy cooking for my family which also includes my dogs, but my dogs overall diet is around 80-85% raw. We started with pre mixed raw food patties that were frozen. It seemed to be the best choice to start with as someone in the know was making it for me. Darwins Pet and B.A.R.F. are the two that we used until we were ready to make our own. The two books that helped me with making our own appropriate diet were Monica Segal’s K9 Kitchen and Dr. Tom Lonsdale’s Raw Meaty Bones. I also consult and buy product from Big Sky Raw Four Paws.

Q: What is Kibble?
A: Americans spent over $8.5 billion dollars on dog kibble in 2007, I feel confident in saying the numbers are much higher today! What is kibble and where did it come from? After all there is no such thing as a kibble tree, or planting kibble seeds to grow your own. The first commercial dog food was a biscuit product introduced in England about 1860. Although the site was overseas, the ingenuity was Yankee. James Spratt, an electrician from Ohio, was in London trying to sell lightning rods. He saw dogs being fed left-over ship’s biscuits and decided he could do better with a preparation of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot, and meat. While the formulation was based more on guesswork than science, it was clearly a step forward, for Spratt’s company thrived selling food to English country gentlemen for sporting dogs. About 1890, Spratt’s formula and production were taken over by a public company and began a U.S. operation. The Pet Food Industry in America was born. Several U.S. firms entered the market with their own formulations of fortified biscuits and dry kibble based on limited nutritional knowledge of the day. Canned horse meat for dog food was introduced in the United States after World War I. In the 1930s, canned cat food and dry meat-meal dog foods were introduced. The 1950s saw the introduction of dry expanded type pet foods. The 60s were marked with great diversification in the types of food available to the pet owner. Since 1958, the Pet Food Institute has been the voice of U.S. pet food manufacturers. PFI is the industry’s public education and media relations resource, representative before the U.S. Congress and state and federal agencies, organizer of seminars and educational programs, and liaison with other organizations. PFI represents the companies that make 98 percent of all dog and cat food in the U.S. marketplace. Commercial dog food was developed for convenience not better nutrition. Today’s standards are trying to change that, but it takes educating the consumer on appropriate nutrition.

NOTE – some of today’s most popular kibble brand’s are the least nutritious for our dogs, for all intended purposes they are crap. Fillers, by products, dye, preservatives, additives… etc. No more nutritious than us living off of a giant bag of Cheetos.  Pretty packaging that  promises great nutritional advances, claims of veterinarians using this for their own dogs, and the almighty American Dog Owners #1 choice. Great advertising and high end marketing can sway the way you feel about a product. Learn how to read the dog food label, learn how to ask questions at retail outlets.

  1. If a piece of your dogs food is day glow yellow or fluorescent orange you should reconsider the food you are feeding your dog.
  2. If there is corn, wheat or soy in the first five ingredients, please consider a new food choice.
  3. Look for the carcass name. If a label says ‘animal by product’ you have no guarantee what animal, where it came from, or the health of the animal before it became dog food.
  4. Call the 1-800 number on the bag, ask about sourcing. Where did the products come from? Be specific. If any products were sourced from China, change food today. Orijen takes pride in sourcing no further than 500 miles from their manufacturing plant.
  5. I believe this trend will continue with other companies. Petcurean offers information on their ingredients down to government certification, protein sources, and how to choose a food based on the age and energy level of your dog.
  6. If your questions cannot be answered adequately over the phone, change food.

S: I don’t want my dog to ever have human food. If they do they might beg all of the time
A: If we go by biologically appropriate standards, than most of what humans are currently eating is actually dog food. Humans diet should be plant based with a variety of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains and nuts and a little bit of meat. Canine diet is almost 80% meat based with very little fruit and vegetable and some organ meat and bone. Most of what is on the planet could be considered ‘food’ in regards to what is growing (plant or fruit), and prey animals (meat, organs and bone). Kibble is not ‘dog food’, it is a man made product for convenience in feeding a dog, but would not fit under biologically appropriate. After all dogs in the wild are not gathering crazy amounts of ingredients they wouldn’t normally eat, mixing them, baking them, over processing them and then sitting down to eat.

I think though that this question stems from dog owner’s fear that dogs will start begging from the table. If you do not feed your dog form the table or the counter and there is structure in the home, there is no reason for begging. Permissive households that lack some management and structure tend to have problems with begging and counter surfing whether they are feeding store bought kibble/ treats, verses pieces of real meat.

My dogs are on a rocking valuable diet. A variety of raw meats, raw meaty bones, and a small amount of veggies and fruit. For rewards while training I tend to use cooked chicken, beef, fish or buffalo. I have never had a begging problem or a dog that felt entitled when I sat at the table or was preparing food at the counter. Rewards are used for specific reasons, not just for showing up to the party so to speak. We all live on the same planet, breath the same air, share the same water, I think we are bound to also share the same food sources or at least an overlap to some degree. In saying that there are some foods that humans can eat that will make a dog very sick and/or cause death. This should always be a consideration when preparing a homemade diet.

Known Food Toxins To Dogs: note – not all dogs will react to these ingredients, however they have been known to be toxic, cause death, extreme illness, and/or cause disagreeable reactions in many dogs. Sick is never good if it can be avoided, but there are all levels of sick.

  1. Apple, Almond, Apricot, Peach, Wild Cherries, Plum, Balsam Pear, Prunes and similar fruit: Diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, (Stem, Seeds and Leaves) The seeds of most fruits contain cyanide, which is poisonous to dogs as well as humans.
  2. Avocados: The fruit, pit and plant are all toxic. They can cause difficulty breathing and fluid accumulation in the chest, abdomen and heart can cause death.
  3. Broccoli: reported to be pretty potent gastrointestinal irritant
  4. Cherry: rapid breathing, shock, mouth inflammation, heart rate increase
  5. Chocolate: seizures, coma, hyperactivity, rapid heart beat, tremors, death. Bakers chocolate is the most dangerous. A dog can consume milk chocolate and appear to be fine because it is not as concentrated but is still very dangerous.
  6. Cocoa Mulch: (used as garden compost )contain potentially toxic quantities of Theo bromine, a xanthine compound similar in effects to caffeine and theophylline. It is lethal to dogs and cats. A new problem and is now causing a lot of deaths.
  7. Cooked Bones: uncooked bones should be safe but if they are cooked you should refrain because they deteriorate and easily splinter. Can cause extensive damage to internal organs and passage ways, many times resulting in death.
  8. Macadamia nuts: cause locomotory difficulties. Dogs develop a tremor of the skeletal muscles, and weakness or paralysis of the hindquarters. Affected dogs are often unable to rise and are distressed, usually panting…. while painful, seems to be of short duration.
  9. Mushrooms: acute gastric effects, liver and kidney damage, abdominal pain, nausea, salivation, vomiting
  10. Nutmeg: tremors, seizures and death
  11. Tobacco: nausea, salivation, vomiting, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  12. Onion: (cats are more sensitive), gastrointestinal upset, hemolytic anemia, heinz body anemia, hemogloinria, destroys red blood cells
  13. Grapes, Raisins, Prunes: kidney failure, as little as a single serving of grapes or raisins can kill a dog. It takes anywhere from 9 oz to 2 lbs of grapes and raisins (between .041 and 1.1 oz/kg of body weight), to cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, and possible kidney failure
  14. Salt: excessive intake can cause kidney problems
  15. Raw Eggs:  many people feed raw eggs to their dogs but keep in mind that they can contain salmonella. Dogs do have a higher tolerance against salmonella poisoning but are not immune and have been reported to get it from uncooked eggs.
  16. Potato peelings and green looking potatoes
  17. Rhubarb leaves
  18. Moldy/spoiled foods
  19. Alcohol
  20. Yeast dough
  21. Coffee grounds, beans & tea (caffeine)
  22. Hops (used in home brewing)
  23. Tomato leaves & stems (green parts)
  24. Cigarettes, tobacco, cigars

Q:A low/restricted protein diet was recommended for my dog.  Her diet is only 2-4% protein now, but I have noticed that she is acting differently and I am having concerns. Could low protein be causing this behavioral change?
A: When working through acute or chronic health issues with your dog you want to work with your veterinarian for the best possible solution. Once your dog is out of a critical situation and is stable, you have time to investigate the best possible choices. Educating yourself is always helpful as you become an asset in your dogs overall health care. All too often I work with dogs that have serious behavioral problems that began after a major health crisis. Some are acute some are chronic. When I review a dogs diet, it shocks me every time to see that a dog has been put on protein restriction, sometimes as low as 4% (17% is considered low protein by the way). And let me state, it is not really the protein but rather the quality of the protein (amino acids) source and the level of high digestibility or the lack thereof that is shocking to me. Age, overall health, organ health are all factors in diet recommendations. So what are the protein requirements of a dog? According to Dr.’s Foster & Smith they are the building blocks to animal nutrition. Dr. Kevin Bovee has written a great article on the Mythology of Protein Restriction. He states that protein restriction has been widely accepted for over four decades in the veterinary field, but in recent years there have been several studies that have proven otherwise. Dr. Ian Robinson has written a great paper Can Diet Effect Behavior  and it has a paragraph in regards to low protein and it’s behavioral side effects.

I am the owner of four dogs, all varying life stages, and one that had acute renal failure two years ago. She was on a rotation diet of kibble, home cooked and raw. The three veterinarians that I consulted with, that specialize in nutrition, all suggested to up the raw food diet and change one of the meat sources I was using, and minimize the kibble and home cooked. We never restricted her protein, in fact we upped it just a bit. She is going to be 9 years old this summer, is still competing in agility at the Elite level and running as fast as ever, and her blood work comes back healthy and with in the appropriate range every six months. I am grateful that I had the time to seek out specialists in the nutrition field to help me formulate a plan to encourage and support good health, not restrict it.

Q: My veterinarian recommended the bag of dog food that they sell in their office, it has to be the best, right?
A: If you are buying food from a retailer, keep in mind their job is to sell you product not to prevent you from buying it. If your veterinarian is carrying products of any kind it falls under retail services. Be a smart consumer and investigate the food choices before you buy. Some veterinary offices have biologically appropriate nutritional options for sale, others do not. It is up to the consumer to make smart choices. Learn to read the dog food label, it does take some knowledge and I have found this website to be very helpful, Organic Pet Digest. What you will learn is that your dog isn’t always getting what you think they might be getting do to terminology or how ingredients are listed. You can also visit Dog Food Analysis to check on dog food reviews and what are the best options on the market for the year.

S: Raw dog food is dangerous and dogs who eat raw food will shed  E. Coli bacteria in their stools.
A: Dogs are designed to consume and digest a variety of food choices, raw meat being one of them. The qualifier would be, a healthy dog with no underlying health concerns. The one raw meat that is not recommended for dogs is raw salmon. Most humans would get terribly sick from eating raw meat, or under cooked meat, we see these stories in the paper all of the time. I think this would be a topic for an entire book really because it goes back to our food chain and what animals are being fed and how it changes the structure of what we then eat (Mad Cow Disease for starters, and corn being fed to cattle promoting E. Coli bacteria). But I am keeping this simple. There is a bit of risk with anything we put into our mouths, I don’t feel it is any less for our dogs. When assessing risk or nutritional sources, get good information. In studies that test fecal matter of dogs that have been on a raw diet,  kibble or home cooked, they found pathogens in almost all fecal samples, including salmonella and e. coli. It wasn’t exclusive to raw fed dogs.

Cheers,  Nancy

originally posted April 14, 2011

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Carolyn Stigar says:

    What food do you recommend for optimal puppy health?

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Carolyn, here is a video I just posted … and a simple recipe – I am also uploading a bunch of videos this month specifically on raw feeding – thanks, Nancy –
      If you want a book, Dr. Karen Becker has REAL FOOD book, and I heard the next revision comes out later this year …

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