Dr. Bonnie Franklin: In Crafting Your Dog’s Diet, Don’t Dismiss Commercial Food | Four-Legged Friends and More

What do you feed your dog? This is a topic shared among so many people in dog-friendly Santa Barbara County.

The answers range from commercial kibble and canned food, to fresh diets, raw diets, vegan diets, keto diets, vegetarian diets, home-cooked diets and many more.

It seems to be “artificial” (commercial) verses “natural” (all other) diets, according to Dr. Brennen McKenzie of Adobe Animal Hospital in the Bay Area and the nonprofit Evidence-Based Veterinary Medical Association.

Let’s start with commercial diets. Dog food has changed significantly in the last 30 years from the days of bags of generic kibble. Commercial dog food now is available by age (puppies, adult dogs, senior dogs), by size (large breed, including small and large puppies), medium breed, small and toy breeds, by individual AKC breeds, by generic purebreds or mixed breeds and even for dogs living primarily indoors.

There also are a multitude of prescription diets for various conditions, such as weight management, joint and mobility, skin and coat health, dental and oral care, energy and mental well being, digestive issues, kidney issues, urinary issues, liver issues, environmental sensitivities, cancer, calming diets, diabetes management, aging cognitive disorders, pregnant or nursing dogs, cardiac problems, thyroid disorders, appetite stimulation, high-energy diets, stress support, and diets for very ill dogs that are in need of urgent care.

Commercial diets may contain chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, rice, cranberries, pork, prime rib, porterhouse, beet pulp, spinach, cheese, red bell pepper, green beans, zucchini, quail, bacon, liver, cod, Bison steak, egg, filet mignon, venison duck, ocean fish, salmon, lamb, turkey and tuna — to name way more than a few.

Please read the label of your dog food. Reading the label is essential to fully understand what your dog is really eating.

Labels must list ingredients in order of quantity from greatest to least. Usually the protein source will be at the top of the list, followed by whole vegetables, fruits or grains, then fats.

Kibble and canned dog food vary by brand, but all are required to be balanced and meet the nutritional needs of a dog. Under Agriculture Department regulation, “all animal foods must be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no substances and be truthfully labeled.”

According to the Food & Drug Administration, all ingredients in dog food must be listed in order by weight, which includes their water content. For example, one pet food may list “meat” as its first ingredient and “corn” as the second ingredient.

The manufacturer doesn’t hesitate to point out that its competitor lists “corn” first and “meat meal” second, suggesting the competitor’s product has less animal-source protein than its own.

However, meat is about 75% water and water and fat are removed from “meat meal” so it is only 10% moisture (what’s left is mostly protein and minerals). If we could compare both products on a dry matter basis (mathematically “remove” the water from both ingredients), we could see that the second product had more animal-source protein from meat meal than the first product had from meat, even though the ingredient list suggests otherwise.

Commercial dog foods often are a better option for pet owners because they are more consistent, less expensive and less time consuming. Many people also don’t have the time or money to cook for their pets.

Commercial diets are easier to store, have long shelf lives, are affordable and provide the convenience of so many different diets.

But, McKenzie emphasizes, commercial kibble dog food is not an “artificial diet” that has “the nutritional equivalent of potato chips just because both come in bags.”

“Human snack and convenience foods are deliberately designed to be appealing, not nutritious,” he said.

Your personal food philosophy will most likely determine what you feed your dog. While some people might think a meat-based diet is best, others may believe a plant-based diet is.

Dogs — and cats — have a tremendous impact on the environment, so much so that one study found they’re responsible for 25% to 30% of the environmental impact of meat-eating in this country. Because animal agriculture is responsible for up to 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions, a theory that has been making the rounds is that switching dogs to a plant-based diet could help lessen the effect of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

McKenzie says there is no medical evidence that dogs eating traditional commercial diets will have shorter lives and more health problems than dogs eating fresh diets.

“Currently, the most optimistic assessment of diets identifies by marketing materials as fresh, lightly cooked whole food, human grade, etc.” he says. “It is plausible they may have health benefits if properly formulated by veterinary nutritionists and properly handled and fed by owners.”

In all diets, McKenzie added, “we need evidence from the real world on meaningful health outcomes before we can have any confidence about the benefits of any diets.”

So read your labels and speak with your veterinarian about what you want to feed your dog. Also, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine offers one-to-one counseling with veterinarians who are board-certified in nutrition at UC Davis Veterinary Nutrition Service. They can be contacted by email at [email protected] or phone at 530.752.7892.

Each year, Americans spend more than $44 billion on pet food so beware of marketing claims that are not backed up by research but motivated by financial gain.

— Dr. Bonnie Franklin is a relief veterinarian who grew up in Santa Barbara. She earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine from a joint program of Washington State and Oregon State universities, a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and does consulting work with the US Forest Service. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.


Leave a Comment