A Dog's Breakfast

The wide range of dog food available these days means dog’s meals may look better than ever, but the decision of what to put in them can be tricky. Cyndi Tebbel asked Dr Karen Hedberg for advice.

Australians spent over $1 million on dog food in 2009, according to the latest figures from the Australian Companion Animal Council Inc. It’s almost an even split between wet and dry food ($474m and $448m respectively), with treats and ‘mixers’ bringing in $185m. That’s a far cry from the days when feeding the dog was as simple as tipping a can of chunks onto the back step at dinner time and watching Champ clean it up in one gulp. Today there are so many types of commercial pet food available in the supermarket, in pet stores and veterinary clinics, as well as all of the DIY options, it’s tricky to know which is best.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most common questions pet owners ask vets is: What should we feed our dog?

Vets themselves are often divided on the subject, and some have even developed their own foods. One of the most recognised of these vets is Dr Billinghurst from Bathurst NSW. His Bones and Raw Food (BARF) diet is based on what he believes dogs have evolved to eat. Billinghurst says most of the diseases that affect modern pets are due to poor nutrition, specifically artificial grain-based dog foods. The BARF diet advocates feeding a raw meaty bone each day, vegetables, a weekly meal of offal and daily supplements such as yoghurt, various herbs, oils and kelp. Fans either make it at home or purchase ready-made frozen portions that are chemical, colouring, filler and preservative free.

Dr Karen Hedberg BVSc is a veterinary surgeon who practises in North Richmond NSW, breeds German Shepherds and chairs the Australian National Kennel Council’s Canine Health Committee. She doesn’t always agree with Billinghurst but says quite a few diseases can be due to poor nutrition or overfeeding. “The BARF diet is fine for an adult dog, if you know what you’re doing,” she says. A bigger problem, in her experience, is that people tend to feed a dog as much as it will eat without thinking about what they’re feeding the animal for.

Choosing a meal

There are thousands of choices when it comes to a dog’s diet. Dry food varieties range from high density, high priced, super premium, to mid-range and budget brands. “You’re paying for digestibility and palatability,” says Hedberg. The super premium market also features ‘specific needs’ foods tailored for dogs with kidney, liver, skin and dental conditions.

Wet foods – cans, minces, rolls and boutique brands – also vary in price and quality. Hedberg cautions that you’re often paying for “a lot of water” in canned food. “I prefer a bit of fresh lean mince, with a little bit of fat,” she says. “But canned foods for dogs with specific conditions like diabetes or liver and kidney failure are usually what keep those dogs going.”

The ‘right’ diet should take the dog’s size, activity level and stage of life into consideration. For example, hard working and fast growing dogs, or those that are pregnant, lactating or suffering from a medical condition, all have different needs.

How much and how often a dog needs to be fed are other vexing questions. Chihuahuas and other small breeds have a higher metabolic rate than larger dogs, so they may need to be fed twice a day. Average sized, middle-aged or older dogs should only need one meal a day. “Look at your dog and watch what it’s doing,” says Hedberg. “If it’s sitting around the backyard doing nothing it doesn’t need a lot. If a dog’s working all day, it needs more food. If it’s cold weather it needs more food, if it’s hot it needs less.”

Hedberg sees a lot of overweight dogs in her practice due to overfeeding. While some owners are simply following the manufacturer’s guidelines, common sense should kick in if the dog is becoming too fat (or too thin). “You can start with the manufacturer’s recommendation, but you really need to go by the dog,” she says. In particular, people tend to overfeed dogs on super premium kibble and puppy varieties. Dogs need to be fed less of these as they often contain higher concentrations of proteins and fats.

Because overfeeding at a young age can force growth too quickly and lead to problems, Hedberg says she has started to “put puppies on middle-of-the-road adult dry foods by around 8-12 weeks”.

For the average backyard dog, Hedberg recommends an ordinary dry food that contains 22-24 per cent protein and 12-14 per cent fat.

Her own dogs are fed a mix of three-quarters dry food to one-quarter kitchen and table scraps, including vegetables, fruit and chicken.

Sensitive type

Many pet owners seek out specific diets to combat food allergies to beef, wheat and sometimes chicken, but Hedberg doesn’t believe food allergies are as common as people think.

“A dog with a food allergy is going to be itchy all over, not just on the feet or belly,” she says. An elimination diet is a good way to determine what the dog is sensitive to. “If they’re still itchy after an elimination diet, something else is going on.”

Like people, dogs can be picky about food for a variety of reasons. “Pregnant dogs can get very picky,” says Hedberg, but if a dog that is otherwise healthy becomes picky or starts refusing food, ask yourself if it’s being fed too much (is it the correct weight?), too often or simply being given too many choices. “People put down a smorgasbord – a little bit of cheese, a bit of chicken, dry food – and then worry when the dog eats the meat and cheese and leaves the dry food,” says Hedberg. “A lot of picky dogs are made that way. The dog is leading the charge about what it wants to eat, but it’s not necessarily what the dog should eat.”

You can also try taking the food away if it hasn’t been eaten in a short time. Using competition to encourage eating is another trick; Hedberg suggests placing the picky dog and its food on one side of a screen door, with other dogs on the opposite side – their excitement might encourage the picky eater.

Once you have ruled out other reasons a dog might not be eating, convincing it to swallow its dinner might be simpler than bowing down to constantly provide its favourite meal. “If they’re really picky, put a little bit of canned cat food over the food – it’s very highly flavoured,” Hedberg suggests.

To treat or not to treat?

Because so many dogs are overweight, Hedberg is not a fan of commercially manufactured treats, many of which are high in fat. “If you’re going to give a treat, give a tiny bit of biscuit. If you give a lot of treats, take something out of their dinner,” she says.

A lot of dogs will eat anything, in which case vegetables (except onions) are great treats. Pumpkin is especially good as a treat for dogs that need to lose weight, too. “It’s the best bulk you’ll come across and doesn’t add a gram,” says Hedberg.

Supplements shouldn’t be necessary if the dog is eating a balanced diet. Most dry foods contain plenty of minerals so you rarely need to add to them. However, Hedberg says that dogs with poor ligaments or skin conditions may benefit from a bit of zinc and vitamin E.

Dr Karen Hedberg BVSc is a veterinarian at North Richmond Veterinary Hospital and Chair of the ANKC Ltd Canine Health Committee.
T: 02 4571 2124 

Food at a glance

Dry food/kibble
Many dogs can thrive on a diet of dry food only, and one benefit is that it is good for their teeth and jaw – the chewing action promotes jaw strength and the kibble itself can keep teeth clean and healthy. Dry food can also be left out for a dog to graze on all day without spoiling.

Canned food
Canned foods are sometimes more appealing to picky eaters and older dogs that are reluctant to chew hard biscuits.

Premium food
More expensive products, whether dry or wet, generally contain higher levels of available proteins and fats. They may also be more palatable for dogs.

Prescription diets
Dogs with special nutritional needs to treat or manage weight, disease, skin conditions and other health issues may benefit from a specialty food. Vets can recommend whether these are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

Cooking your dog’s own meals means you can be sure there are no preservatives, allergens or ‘filler’, and you can also work towards minimising the environmental impact of your dog or use organic-only ingredients. On the other hand, it can be difficult to ensure your dog is getting the right balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, not to mention vitamins and minerals without professional help.

Dr Ian Billinghurst believes his Bones and Raw Food (BARF) diet provides the nutritional balance dogs have evolved to need, without unnecessary additives. BARF advocates say the diet can help dogs avoid diseases caused by modern dog food, which they believe is inappropriate for the needs of dogs.