What makes a dog food “good” or “bad”?

I and EBy Dr. Regehr

Welcome to the blog this week. I want to share with you the seriousness of good nutrition choices for your pet. I know that you want to feed your pet the very best food within your budget. However, what does the best mean? If I chose a dog food simply based on the company’s advertising there are two that would rise to the top, one is a budget buster that would feed our dogs like pet wolves and the other is a bargain price more generic food. I would consider neither of these high quality diets.

A current trend in veterinary foods is protein, protein, protein. The secondary message is that grains are terrible and all our pet’s health issues are related to grains. First, let me share what I’ve said thousands of times over the years, dogs are not carnivores (exclusively meat eaters). Muscle protein alone does not provide a dog with balanced nutrition. We need to move past the current marketing buzzwords and really assess whether or not the food we choose is nutritionally balance.

Here are a few examples of advertising buzz word confusion. We hear “whole grains” are essential but then hear a product is “corn” free. Corn is a whole grain, as are rice, barley, quinoa and whole wheat. Whole grains are moderately processed grains that are excellent sources of needed carbohydrates, digestible fiber at moderately protein levels.

Coming back to the current trend on proteins are good and grains are bad, the pet food market is inundated with many very popular foods way too high in protein for good pet health. In recent years we’ve seen an explosion in popularity of diets that are called “natural, holistic, and organic”. Please be aware that there are no specific requirements to put this information on a pet food bag.

Pet food labeling for percentages of protein, carbohydrates, fiber and fats do not correlate to an amount of food as do human food labels. This has to do with federal regulating agencies for human (FDA) versus pet (USDA) foods. Unfortunately, you can’t turn over a bag of pet food of any brand and know exactly what nutrients are in any measured amount.

I am going to share what some veterinarians have known was coming, but now have some evidence based medicine to support. Too much protein and an unbalanced diet can be harmful to your pet. I want to share two specific cases we’ve seen recently as examples of this.

At Perimeter Veterinary Center we do organ function testing (lab work) throughout a pet’s entire life, not just in their senior years. This allows us to trend changes when organs are still working enough that function looks normal, but in fact are starting to work less efficiently.  This screening identified two dogs in recent months whose diets were damaging kidney function.

The first little guy is a 4 year old, toy breed dog we will call “Daddy’s boy” who ate only home cooked meats, mostly poultry. He ate some vegetable, but not many. Early on we asked his family to at least add a canine multi-vitamin each day, which they did. We continued to discuss balancing the diet though.

When “Daddy’s boy” came in for his second screening lab work with us, his kidney values had increased from very high normal to much higher than normal. At his age we do expect normal kidney function. We did some follow up urine testing and ask the owner to feed a nutritionally balanced adult dog food for one month. Together we chose a food that the owners were comfortable trying.

After 1 month on the commercial dog food his kidney values fell to their lowest levels, right in the middle range of acceptable function. They had previously chosen to cook for “Daddy’s Boy” because they wanted to do what was best for him, truly not seeing the damage until we could show them on paper what was happening inside his body.

In the same time a one year old boy we’ll call “Happy” came in for his 1 year visit with lab work. His family over the past month had transitioned him from our preferred puppy food to a high protein, holistic and very popular adult food. He was also getting many treats for training. His kidney values had also exceeded the acceptable norms. His phosphorous level was also much higher than it should be. These are the critical values in how well the kidneys are working.

The dramatic change in his values had us more concerned about solving the problem for “Happy” faster than with “Daddy’s Boy”. We had “Happy” come back for a urine evaluation and a recheck of his kidney values after 1 week. During that week we had him immediately transition to a much lower protein maintenance adult dog food. In 7 days, with a decreased work load on the kidneys, “Happy’s” values were back to normal.

The science behind this is the higher phosphorous levels. It isn’t the protein in itself. The higher intake of phosphorous asks the kidneys to do more filtering than they are able to do. Muscle meats are very high in phosphorous. Therefore, it isn’t the meat ingredient damaging the kidneys, it is the high amounts of phosphorous in the proteins that cause progression of kidney damage.

When discussing this with a colleague recently he named another doctor in the area who had shared with him three similar cases discovered on routine screening. Could this be going on with your pet? If we aren’t doing screening lab work then there is no way of knowing until your pet is sick.

We take your pet’s health very seriously. We feed and recommend foods whose companies do research and diet feeding trials. We choose companies who invest more in research and science than in advertising. You may not be aware that you can purchase a pet food that has never been involved in a diet trial (feeding to dogs to observe the effects of the food). I want to feed a food that has been analyzed for ingredient composition and is balanced for my dogs. My dogs are members of our family.

If you’d like to discuss nutrition more or see nutrient comparisons done by independent researchers on ingredients in pet food, please give us a call to schedule a consult. As well, we can recommend balanced commercial diets that do meet the consumer demand towards single proteins, whole grains or grain free by providing alternate carbohydrate types (Ex: potatoes). Thank you all for reading today. I very much enjoy sharing my passion for pet health with you!

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