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Food for thought

Feeding our dogs has become a bit complicated. Gone are the days where dogs would be tossed some offcuts from a hunt, or clear the scraps at the end of a meal. The majority of pet owners now feed a commercially developed dog food, and with the number of brands (and claims by those brands) ever increasing, it can be hard to know what the best option really is.

The question 'what do you feed your dog?' can produce surprisingly emotive responses. There's a lot of debate surrounding dog food, and owners, vets, behaviourists and nutritionists often have vastly different views. Why does this topic trigger such strong reactions? We all need nourishment to survive, and trying to provide the best we can for our pets allows us to demonstrate our love for them and our commitment to their health. The fact there's no clear-cut answer means it's easy to get frustrated and emotional, especially when what we're currently doing or have done in the past is questioned.

From a behavioural perspective, I have seen dramatic changes in dogs after recommending a switch to a higher-grade food, such as resolving housetraining problems, better coat quality and a big improvement in terms of hyperactivity and reactivity. When you read some of the ingredient lists on many dog food labels, it is easy to see why this might be the case.

The invention of dog food

Dogs have sharp teeth and short gastrointestinal tracts, which like all carnivores means they are better suited to consume meat. Despite this, dogs have successfully adapted over thousands of years to survive (and often thrive) on a variety of different foods, both meat and non-meat. They are adept and successful scavengers.

Specialised ‘dog food’ is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the first commercial food was created for dogs. James Spratt, an American electrician living in London, saw dogs eating discarded biscuits around a shipyard and came up with his own dog food, which consisted of wheat meals, vegetables and meat. This ‘Meat Fibrine Dog Cake’ was soon in production and initially marketed to English country gentleman for their sporting dogs.

The industry has since expanded over the years. In Australia revenue in pet food amounts to US$2,230m, and over 50% of the industry is controlled by two companies - Mars (with brands like Advance, Chum, Eukanuba, IAMS, Pedigree, Royal Canin, Schmackos and Optimum) and Nestlé (with brands like Purina, Supercoat, Lucky Dog, Beneful and Pet Life). There is a lot of money to be made in pet food, and while legally dog food shouldn’t kill or significantly harm your pet, there are no strict requirements in terms of providing the best possible nutrition for a long life. There has been a recent push in Australia to examine the self-regulated pet food industry after a number of controversies about what is really going into these products, as well as questions around the influence of pet food companies on the veterinary industry.

So how to choose?

What you feed your dog is a personal choice. I advise clients to do the research and make their own mind up. A good quality diet results in a happier and healthier dog, so is worth putting thought into. Some things to consider:

  • Whether you feed dry, wet, raw, home-cooked, dehydrated or a mixture of these, quality ingredients matter. Lower quality dog foods tend to include less meat, and more animal by-products and grain fillers. They are often loaded with sugars, preservatives, colourants and additives. As a general rule, if I can’t understand or easily research an ingredient on the list, alarm bells start ringing. There's great resources out there like Pet Food Reviews which provides nutritional reviews of many major brands. It also has a section which helps to explain what listed ingredients actually mean.

  • Don’t be afraid of variety! When I got my first rescue dog, I was told he didn’t have much of an appetite but would eventually eat if I kept putting his food down at regular times. So this is what I did, and watched him woefully stare at his bowl of kibble, give it a sniff and wander off. He continued to lose weight and as he was already thin this was worrying. I started to question why I was insisting that he eat something he clearly wasn’t interested in, all because adding something tasty would ‘make him fussy’. So his diet became a lot more varied, and his whole demeanour changed (a lot more tail wagging at meal time). Don’t be afraid to make life more interesting for them (would you want to eat the same bland cereal every day of your life?). Healthy treats such as sardines, eggs, vegetables and frozen stock cubes can be very popular, and if you feed a commercial food which has a variety of flavour options (chicken, beef, venison etc.), try to rotate these.

  • The health of your dog can tell you a lot about its diet. If they have a dry coat, smell a bit musty, have lots of gas or dull eyes and there are no clear medical issues causing this, it's worth considering a diet change. Similarly, if your dog is bouncing off the walls and unsettled, make sure to check the label for any dodgy ingredients.

  • As an animal lover, I try to source and eat food in the most ethical way I can, and this extends to what I feed my dog. Many major pet food companies use food from sources that don’t demonstrate high standards of animal welfare, and have also been involved in some questionable animal testing cases. There is growing information online which looks at this in more detail.

Pet dogs aren’t given a lot of choices in their lives. Next time you offer some food, a treat or a chew, try putting a few different options out and see which one they go for. It might surprise you!