What is the “best” diet?
This is a question dog owners ask veterinarians all the time, and unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. CARE does not believe there is a single best brand or type of food out there, and ultimately, what you choose to feed your dog comes down to practicality and your family’s budget. The most important things are don’t feed your dog too much and choose a diet that is nutritionally complete and safe.
Today, there is no shortage of food options for our dogs. Any time you walk into a pet store, you’re bombarded with a wide array of packages all stating how healthy that food is for our best friends. It can seem overwhelming!
In addition to the growing number of dog food brands on the market, there are many types of diets to choose from (and much like human diets, people get very passionate about what they feel is the “right” or “best” diet!). There’s grain-free; raw; freeze-dried; home cooked; kibble, and canned, just to name a few.
Which diets have been proven to help with weight loss?
When it comes to weight loss, veterinary research supports using weight loss diets that come in kibble or canned formulas from pet food companies such as Royal Canin, Science Diet, and Purina. These diets have been designed for complete nutrition, meaning your dog is certain to receive the nutrients they require in the appropriate ratio.
Many nutritionists recommend one of these diets if a dog is 20% or more overweight. This is because if you just cut back on how much of your dog’s regular food you feed them, they could end up with inadequate nutrients.
Many weight loss formulas also have high protein and fiber content, which gives them a lower caloric density than diets that are higher in fat. This means that you can feed your dog a greater volume of food while still reducing calories. The high fiber will also help your dog feel full.
Weight loss diets from the companies listed above have been tested in clinical trials and have been shown to help dogs lose weight. Diets from these companies focus on the delivery of nutrients to meet the nutritional requirements of dogs.
What about other types of diets?
Many people want to feed their dog a brand or diet other than those listed above. This is understandable, as many dog parents want to feed a less processed diet and one that concentrates on the nutritional quality of the individual ingredients.
There is growing research in human nutrition focusing on the role of food processing (rather than calories) on obesity and other health concerns. Studies suggest that highly processed foods have contributed to the human obesity epidemic that has swept the world in the last few decades. We do not yet have the same data for our dogs, though we do know that the pets are also suffering from an obesity epidemic.
Food types, research, and considerations
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about types of food you might feed your dog.
- Kibble, no matter which brand, will be the most highly processed food. Individual nutrients, preservatives, and other additives are combined and high temperatures are needed to make the kibble.
- Canned foods are less highly processed than kibble, but still processed.
- Currently, CARE believes that the ideal diet would be a complete and balanced, gently-cooked, fresh food diet that is formulated by a veterinary nutritionist. At this time, we have not seen any studies investigating weight loss in dogs fed a fresh-food (or raw) diet.
- As for raw diets, while we have seen many dogs thrive, and medical conditions such as allergies improve when dogs are fed a raw diet, we do not currently advocate for raw food. At this time, there are no scientific studies documenting the benefits of raw feeding over gently cooked whole food, and there are real and serious risks of bacterial infection. There is also recent evidence that raw pet food is introducing antibiotic-resistant bacteria to dogs and their family members.
In 2007, a number of dogs and cats sadly died or became very sick from eating food that was tainted with a poisonous substance called melamine (you can read more here).
A large-scale investigation occurred and eventually led to the indictment of several Chinese businessmen. It also pointed to a US-based pet food company that was importing a product from China which was meant to be wheat gluten for pet food but was actually contaminated with melamine. You can read the details here.
Following this tragedy, and concurrent with trends in human nutrition, pet food companies began making and marketing “grain-free” diets that were free of wheat gluten and other common grains. Pet owners were led to believe that grains are bad and a common allergen for dogs, when in fact, this is incorrect. Chicken, beef, and dairy are much more common allergens for dogs. Beyond untruthful marketing, there may be an even bigger problem with some grain-free diets.
Grain-free and the link to DCM
In 2016, several veterinary cardiologists began to diagnose a severe heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in breeds of dogs that are not typically susceptible to this deadly condition, such as Golden Retrievers and Labradors. DCM can develop when taurine, a nutrient that is typically consumed in the diet, is too low. It turned out that the dogs being diagnosed with DCM had low taurine levels and were also eating grain-free diets.
In 2018, the FDA launched an investigation into the link between grain-free diets and DCM. Currently, experts believe that diets that contain peas, lentils, or legumes in place of traditional grains may be associated with low taurine levels and DCM. This investigation is ongoing and the exact cause has not yet been identified. However, you should use caution and work closely with your veterinarian if you are currently feeding your dog a diet with peas, lentils, or legumes listed as primary ingredients.
Meat sources in your dog’s food
As if this topic isn’t confusing enough already, we must also consider the ecological footprint of raising and sourcing the meat that goes into our pets’ food. In other words, we need to think about which meat we are feeding and the impact that animal agriculture has on our fragile environment.
Pet food production is responsible for ¼ of the environmental impacts of meat production. CARE does not advocate for dogs to be fed a vegetarian diet, but we do ask you to consider the impact of feeding beef, lamb, and salmon.
Concerns around beef, lamb, and salmon
Beef production requires a huge amount of environmental resources (land, water), and methane production by cows (ie, cow farts) is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses. In fact, if cattle were their own country, they would rank 3rd behind the US and China in the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters!
Beef is also the most common allergen in dogs, so be cautious when feeding beef food or treats.
While sheep (lambs) consume fewer resources than cattle, they also produce methane and are nearly as bad as cows when it comes to a sustainable meat source.
Farmed salmon and other fish are associated with numerous environmental concerns such as water pollution and chemical use. Wild caught fish are healthier for humans and pets, but overfishing can also lead to serious environmental threats such as endangered killer whales suffering from starvation. If your dog eats a fish-based based food, CARE recommends you check the source of the fish to ensure it is wild-caught and that the company adheres to a sustainable fishing practice.
The protein sources we recommend are turkey, chicken, duck, rabbit, and if necessary, pork.
Other factors to consider:
When choosing treats, choose ones without animal protein (or use low-calorie options such as blueberries or green beans. See more options here).
Homemade diets using human-grade ingredients can be a very nutritious option, but it is crucial that you work with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure the diet is complete and balanced. Well-meaning pet owners have caused malnutrition and other conditions, such as DCM, in their dogs by feeding homemade diets that are not nutritionally complete.
Quality control is important
One additional factor for choosing a brand of food is to ensure that the company has strict quality control protocols in place. Food recalls happen, just like recalls happen in the human food supply chain. We want our pet food companies testing each batch of food to ensure it is the highest quality, and equally important, being honest as soon as a problem is detected.
At this time, CARE has had a very hard time finding a food that meets all of our ideal criteria: complete and balanced; minimally processed (but not raw); turkey or chicken as the primary protein; sustainable raising/ sourcing of the ingredients; whole grain (ie, not grain-free); without peas, lentils, or legumes; convenient, and cost-effective. However, the comes closest to meeting these criteria is Just Food For Dogs.
How much to feed
The number one rule when it comes to weight loss is not to feed too much. It doesn’t matter which food you are feeding, if your dog is eating too much, including treats, they will not lose weight!
When deciding how much to feed your dog to help them lose weight, it’s important that you talk with your veterinarian. You will need to start by figuring out how many calories your dog is eating with the food you are currently feeding. Once you know how many calories your dog consumes on a daily basis, your veterinarian can help you safely reduce that amount to achieve gradual weight loss.
If your dog is spayed/neutered and needs to lose weight, the amount of food listed on the product bag will be way too much. Your veterinarian can help you calculate how many calories your dog should get each day, and the food should clearly list how many calories are in a cup or can. You can also use CARE forms to help you calculate your dog’s caloric requirement.
CARE believes there is not a single “best” or “right” food, but it’s important to choose something that supports your dog’s nutritional needs and fits with your budget and lifestyle. As always, we are not a replacement for your veterinarian, so we encourage you to work closely with them on your dog’s diet.
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