If you’re a regular here at KrisCarr.com, you know I love nourishing, whole foods—from growing them in my garden to cooking them up in the kitchen to serving them up at the table. And I’ve done a lot of research when it comes to what fuels our bodies best. But when I adopted my dog Lola (and later rescued and rehabilitated Buddy), I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about food for our furry friends.
A lot of you are proud pet parents. And over the years I’ve gotten tons of questions about pet food—especially dog food. And although I’ve tried to educate myself as best I can, I’m not the go-to pet food expert. So what do I always do? I find an expert we can trust!
That’s why I brought in author of Canine Nutrigenomics and co-creator (with Dr. Jean Dodds) of the Complete Canine Nutrition course, Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, to help guide us down the dog food aisle. (Don’t worry, kitty lovers—we’ll address our feline friends in a future post!) Diana holds a Master’s Degree in Animal Science and is an award-winning canine health writer, canine nutrition consultant and healthy pet food advocate. Through her company, Pet Food Diva, she provides dog parents with custom-formulated diets to optimize the health and longevity of their canine companions and she also created a way for dog owners to self-study canine nutrition through her online master course.
Whether you’re trying to weed through commercial dog food ingredients or understand the differences between cooked and raw options, we’ve got you covered!
(Note for plant-based pet parents: I know some of you feed your furry friends a vegan diet with a lot of success. I totally respect that! That’s not the approach this pet nutrition expert takes, so I hope you’ll respect that too.)
So let’s dig into this doggone topic and separate pet food fact from fiction…
Kris: What should we know about the pet food industry to be informed consumers?
Diana: The pet food industry is evolving toward many healthier food and treat options, such as gluten-free, non-GMO and organic. At the same time, all these options can feel overwhelming, and you can’t always trust the marketing claims. That’s where credible information sources come in. They can help us make educated decisions about what we feed our pets.
When you’re researching, look for information sources that have no financial stake in the products they recommend (i.e. avoid large pet food companies that benefit by claiming their products are the best), rely on factual data and have appropriate education and expertise in their fields of knowledge. The top three information sources that I trust are DogAware.com, Jean Dodds, DVM, and Dr. Karen Becker, along with my website, Pet Food Diva.
Kris: What should we watch out for when reading pet food labels and what the heck are by-products?
Diana: When reading labels, we should ignore the marketing claims on the front of the package and focus on the ingredients list on the back. Fresh meats, fruits and vegetables should dominate the food. Beware of artificial colors (e.g., Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5), flavors (e.g., MSG), humectants (e.g., propylene glycol) and preservatives (e.g., BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin). Also beware of a common tactic known as “ingredient splitting” or “fractioning”, which occurs when a less desirable ingredient, such as corn, is “split” and listed as its different components (e.g., “ground corn”, “corn meal” and “corn gluten”).
“By-products” refer to parts of a slaughtered animal other than the muscle meat, so pet food “by-products” are typically the discarded parts of dead animals left over from the human food industry and deemed unsuitable for human consumption. I highly recommend avoiding them.
Kris: What foods do dogs thrive on? And what should they avoid?
Diana: Dogs thrive on fresh, minimally processed foods, such as lean muscle meat, organ meat, fish, eggs and some vegetables and fruits (except, of course, those that are toxic to dogs, such as grapes, raisins and onions). Avoid dog food brands that include chemical additives and highly processed soy, wheat and corn-based proteins (which are also problematic because of things like GMOs and mycotoxin contamination). Fresh animal-based proteins supply the ideal amino acid profile for dogs in their most bioavailable form (more on amino acids and protein below). The foods a specific dog thrives on will depend upon his individual health status, physiological state, age and lifestyle.
Kris: Which is better for dogs: raw or cooked food?
Diana: The answer depends on the individual dog. Many dogs thrive on raw food diets, while others respond better to foods that have been lightly cooked. Raw foods tend to be high in fat, which may be more appropriate for high-energy sporting dogs. But canines with GI issues may do better on cooked foods, as these dogs are at greater risk of bacterial contaminants. Studies show that fresh, whole foods are more bioavailable than highly processed foods; the decision whether or not to cook these foods depends upon the individual dog, as well as the owner’s preferences.
Kris: Can dogs do well on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Diana: Dogs need lots of “high-quality” proteins to thrive. High quality proteins supply the correct level and composition of essential amino acids in forms that are highly digestible and absorbable. Unlike people, who are efficient at processing amino acids from plant-based sources, a dog’s digestive system is “built” to break down and assimilate animal-based proteins. Therefore, animal-based sources offer the highest quality proteins dogs need. That’s why I do not personally recommend plant-based diets for dogs. If a vegetarian or vegan diet is provided, it should be purchased from a reputable commercial manufacturer or formulated by a qualified nutritionist to ensure it is properly balanced.
Kris: Should we feed our dogs the same foods across their lifespans or do they need specific foods for specific ages?
Diana: Dogs need specific levels of nutrients at different stages, and their diets at each stage should best provide these nutrients. For example, young puppies require much higher levels of protein and calories than adult dogs at maintenance weight and size to fuel their rapid development, as well as different amounts of vitamins and minerals. Many people believe that healthy senior dogs need less protein, when in fact they require as much as 50% more protein than their younger counterparts to avoid loss of lean muscle mass.
Kris: What are your top dog food brand recommendations?
Diana: My top dog food recommendation always depends on the individual dog because the brand must align with the specific dog’s health status and physiological requirements. I recommend identifying a few high-quality brands based on the parameters we have discussed above, and then experimenting to determine which brand best agrees with your dog. Barring any specific physiological requirements or health issues, Orijen, Sojos, The Honest Kitchen, Stella & Chewy’s, Primal Pet Foods and Darwin’s are all brands that meet the qualifications discussed above. Of equal importance is letting your dog’s taste buds choose the food he/she most enjoys!
Kris: What are your favorite lifestyle tips to help our fur-kids thrive?
Diana: Providing your dogs a wholesome and nutritious diet and enough physical activity are two important ways to help them thrive. Equally important is carving out quality time to spend together. It really doesn’t matter which activities you choose to share with your pets, as long as you both enjoy them and they strengthen your loving bonds.