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Canine Nutrition Series: Holistic Cat Loving Veterinarian Brings Light to Dog Nutrition

August 9, 2010

Welcome back to our Canine Nutrition blog thread. This week we are joined by holistic veterinarian Jean Hofve, DVM, a Denver Colorado-based veterinarian who lives with her four fabulous felines: Flynn, Puzzle, Sundance, and Spencer.

After receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Colorado State University in 1994, Dr. Jean settled in Denver, practicing full time for 5 years and then part time, while maintaining an active career as a respected writer, speaker and consultant in all areas of pet health. From 2004 to 2007, she served as the Editor-in-Chief for the  Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

Dr. Jean is internationally known for her expertise on pet food and nutrition. She has written hundreds of articles, lectured on pet topics throughout the US, and regularly appears on radio and TV. Her articles have appeared in Animal Wellness, Feline Wellness, The Whole Dog Journal, The Whole Cat Journal, Cats, DogWorld, Journal of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, and many other publications. Her website, www.littlebigcat.com, is a respected source of information on feline health, nutrition and behavior.

A well respected writer, Dr. Jean (along with nutritionist Dr. Celeste Yarnall), has just published her first book, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook (Quarry Books, 2009). Yes, she loves cats but she knows her stuff about dogs too! Here’s a little of what she said to me regarding nutrition for dogs:

Feeding a dog is just like feeding a child. It’s mostly common sense, with a little bit of education on a few specific canine quirks. MDs and nutritionists keep telling us–eat a variety of foods, mostly fresh meats, fruits and vegetables (as opposed to “food” that comes in bags, boxes, or cans). I say this is also what our canine pals need. It wouldn’t make sense to feed a child the same food at every meal, day in and day out, from infancy to adulthood–and it doesn’t make sense for dogs, either!”

To read more about Dr. Jean Hofve’s veterinary practice, books and resources please check out her Little Big Cat website.


The following is the canine nutrition Q&A session between Dr. Jean Hofve and myself:

Q. Roughly how many Kcal’s may a dog have per day? What factors into the amount allowed: Age, size, breed, activity level etc…

A. Yes, all that, and you can add to the list season, weather, time of day, social factors, health history, personality, spay/neuter status…and of course, what exactly is being fed!

Q. Is there a formula that dog guardians can use to help figure this out? Or should they speak with their vet?

A. There is a formula for maintenance energy requirement (MER), and it is: 70 kcal x kgBW0.75, though the range may vary from 48 to 114 kcal. Which of course is a pain in the you-know-what to grind through, especially if numbers like “to the 0.75 power” freak you out like they do me!

It’s easier to use one of the online dog-food-calculators which may also account for variables like age, extreme weather and activity level. This will give you a ballpark number, but since caloric requirements are so individual, consider it a guideline only and not a pat answer.

And…there are a couple of hitches. First, to get best estimate, you have to list your dog’s ideal weight, not what he weighs now. When trying to get a dog to lose weight, you must feed for that ideal size. And it’s not going to look like very much food to either of you!

The other hitch is that most dog foods do not list calorie content; it’s not required. However, for many foods you can find calorie information online. If all else fails, call the manufacturer; they’ll be happy to tell you!

Honestly, most vets know very little about nutrition—at my school (Colorado State) we had a 2-hour lecture on pet nutrition (given by a guy from Hill’s) out of 4 years of vet school, and even that was better than some! And most vets’ continuing education on the subject comes from pet food sales reps. It’s not hard to know more about your dog’s nutritional needs than your vet…and it’s worth the effort!

Q. Should owners follow the guidelines on the bag/container of food, or is that unreliable?

A. It’s unreliable, because there are so many factors that affect caloric needs that are not considered in those recommendations. Moreover, it is in the manufacturer’s financial interest to over-estimate the amount to feed, because that sells more dog food. This was recently proven in a study of “weight control” dog foods—the calorie contents were all over the map, and most were inappropriately high.

Q. Do you think that “free feeding” is an acceptable way to feed dogs?

A. No. Dogs aren’t built to graze. In fact, canids come with a large-capacity stomach and relatively short digestive tract. They’re supposed to hunt, kill, eat as much as they can, then digest and metabolize while they sleep it off. In a couple of days, they do it all again. A wolf can eat up to 30 *pounds* of meat in one sitting!

Q. Raw vs traditional vs home-cooked? Is one better? Why?

A. In general, I do recommend raw-meat-based diets for dogs (and cats). That said, there is no one diet that is right for all dogs. Some dogs can’t tolerate raw meat, others need a certain amount of grain in the diet. Hate to say it, but you just have to try different things and pay attention to the results in terms of energy, skin and coat, stool quality, appetite, and all that sort of stuff. The dog’s needs will change, too, with season, weather, age, activity, etc. Some days they seem to be “hungrier” than others. Don’t you have days like that? I do!

Q. Speaking of “table scraps”, are they acceptable? If not, why? If so, what are the parameters?

A. Here’s my simple rule: If you would eat it, you may share it. Don’t treat your dog like a portable garbage disposal. Be aware that certain foods that are fine for people, like onions, chocolate, macadamia nuts (I wouldn’t share those anyway!), grapes/raisins/currants, can be toxic to dogs. Also, go easy on meat trimmings, chicken skin, and other high-fat items; they can cause pancreatitis, which is life-threatening.

Darn near every pet food out there claims to be “high quality,” so that’s kind of meaningless. Ya know, you wouldn’t market a pet food and say “Hey, we’re okay!” Clearly there is a huge variation in quality, and not everyone can be at the top. In most cases, the disparity is detectable by the difference in price. However, some foods, such as those from a company that also makes a line of veterinary “prescription” diets, cost far more than is justified by the quality of ingredients. They have to support that bloated advertising budget somehow!

The term “human grade” also has no legal definition; some companies are sincere about it, but others are not. However, the terms “natural” and “organic” do have legal definitions, so sticking to foods that make those claims may be better. However, beware of foods that use “Nature” or “Natural” or similar terms in the brand name—that use is not well enforced. The USDA has, however, cracked down on brands that featured “Organic” in the brand name but did not comply with the strict federal regulations on the term.

Q. High quality, healthy such as low fat/lean meats, raw/steamed veggies and whole grains?

A. Sure. Veggies must be pureed or cooked (steaming works well), and grains must be cooked. A dog’s carnivore digestive tract doesn’t have the means to break down those tough plant cell walls to get at the nutrition. In the wild, the prey animal has already begun the digestive process. But digestive contents are not a significant part of the predator’s nutritional intake; an adult dog’s physiologic requirement for carbohydrates is zero.

Q. Dog foods: are some better than others? If so, what should dog guardians look for in finding good quality foods?

A. It’s easier to list the things you want to avoid: by-products, meat-and-bone meal, corn products, multiple grain products, artificial preservatives….here’s an article on foods for dogs you’d want to avoid that explains all that.

Q. Supplements: Daily vitamins, minerals? Is this necessary if dog eats a healthy diet? When would they be required?

A. Homemade diets (raw or cooked) need supplementation. Follow a tested, balanced recipe and don’t skip any of the recommended supplements. Serious nutritional deficiencies can occur, with serious health consequences.

A “complete” commercial diet will state whether it is for adult maintenance or growth/all life stages. I recommend an “all life stages” food as it will meet the higher standard. Manufacturers typically over-supplement to make sure that the food still meets requirements after processing and packaging. You can add water-soluble vitamins and Vitamin E without worries, but fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, and K) and minerals are not necessary and can be harmful.

However there are four supplements that I recommend for all pets, regardless of diet. These are:

  1. Digestive Enzymes
  2. Probiotics
  3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  4. Antioxidants

Q. “Joint supplements” are becoming very popular and people are giving them to their dogs without consulting – is this a good choice?

A. Most joint supplements are very safe, but a few contain minerals like manganese or zinc that may accumulate over time, and could reach toxic levels. Some also contain herbs that could be problematic in certain animals; alfalfa, for instance, is a diuretic and would not be appropriate for a dog with kidney issues.

There have been a few reports that glucosamine raises blood sugar in diabetic dogs, but it does not do so in normal dogs, and the jury is out on this one.



To follow our blog series on Canine Nutrition and the do’s and don’ts of what to feed your dog, check our our introductory post on canine nutrition and first installment with nutrition-and-exercise-for-dogs expert Dr. Audrey Harvey. To continue following the blog series make sure you’ve signed up to receive them. You can do this directly on our inquisitive canine blog website.


2 Responses to Canine Nutrition Series: Holistic Cat Loving Veterinarian Brings Light to Dog Nutrition

  1. Just bookmarked your post keep us up to date

    • Joan the Dog Coach says:

      Wonderful! Thanks for stopping by and checking out our post. Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the information. Woofs to you and your inquisitive canine!

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