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Canine Nutrition Series: Nature’s Variety Nutrition Researcher helps answer commonly asked questions about dog diets

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Welcome back to this weeks segment of our Canine Nutrition series. Today we’ll be joined by Nature’s Variety director of research and development Dr. Laura Duclos.

Dr. Duclos holds degrees in Biology and Veterinary Technology. Her doctorate research includes studies on the nutritional biochemistry of parasites. As the Director of Research and Development, her role at Nature’s Variety oversees research regarding the palatability and health impact of all new Nature’s Variety products and protein varieties.

Prior to joining the Nature’s Variety team, Dr. Duclos was a biology lecturer at UNL and worked for Oxbow Pet Products as Director of Nutrition and Product Development.

Dr. Duclos holds a BA in Biology and a BS in Veterinary Technology from Quinnipiac University. In 2006, Dr. Duclos graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) with a PhD in Biology.  Her published works include numerous peer-reviewed papers and several articles for pet magazines.

To find out more about Dr. Duclos and the work she is involved with, please check out the Nature’s Variety Learning Center website.

The following is the canine nutrition Q&A session between Dr. Duclos 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…Is there a formula that dog guardians can use to help figure this out? Or should they need speak with their vet? Should owners follow the guidelines on the bag/container of food, or is that unreliable?

A. When determining the amount of food to feed your dog, it’s dependent on many variables that need to be considered. Feeding guidelines are just that- they are guidelines based on an average dog, average size, average weight, and average activity level.  But as you are determining the amount to feed, you absolutely need to consider factors such as age (adults don’t need as much food as puppies!) size (is your dog overweight?), breed (large breed? Small breed?), activity level (is your dog in agility or a hunting companion?)

Just as any responsible parent watches their children’s food intake, use the guidelines as a starting point and adjust accordingly….we do not recommend pet owners try to calculate kcal needs on their own – the feeding guidelines have done a lot of this already.

Kcals are determined based on the above factors using a formula that predicts the metabolic requirements of your dog. This is what the feeding guidelines reflect. Also note that each food will be digested differently and each food has a different nutrient density.

For example, a raw diet is about 95-98% digestible vs. a kibble which may be 85% digestible – your dog will better utilize and extract all the energy in the raw diet and therefore may not need nearly as much to sustain ideal body weight.  This, too, is captured in the feeding guidelines (or should be!)

Q. Do you think that “free feeding” is an acceptable way to feed dogs? Raw vs. traditional vs. home-cooked? Is one better? Why?

A. No – some dogs do not know when to stop eating.  Just like humans, over eating leads to obesity and related diseases.  As for commercial or home-cooked – either can be good and bad.  The key is to look for Complete and Balanced commercial diets with high quality ingredients; meat or protein meal should be the first ingredient.

For home-cooked diets, be sure that the diet you are feeding was developed for your pet by a trained nutritionist – do not use recipes off the internet!  Home-cooking is a commitment, so we highly recommend commercial diets unless you are willing to shop, prep, and cook for your dog.  We believe raw is best, but again, each dog is unique and each pet owner has their own opinions towards raw.

Q. Are “table scraps” acceptable? If not, why? If so, what are the parameters? High quality okay? Healthy such as low fat/lean meats, raw/steamed veggies and whole grains?

A. Table scraps seem like an acceptable way to feed a pet-as an owner you believe that feeding them what you eat is a sign of love. However, too many table scraps aren’t good for your pet.  Not only are you training them to beg at the table, you’re compromising a complete and balanced diet.  Try some raw carrots or celery, or feed a raw diet.

Commercially prepared raw diets are healthy, balanced food that you can feel good about- raw meat, fruits, and vegetables that have been thoughtfully and carefully balanced.  Table scraps can also pose a health risk – choking, toxicity (onion, chocolate, macadamia nuts, etc.), pancreatitis, etc.

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

A. Every pet food manufacturer will tell you that their diets are the best.  And not every dog does well on every diet. In general, most foods are acceptable for dogs, but take a good look at the ingredients, and watch how your dog does on the diet.  Remember- you are what you eat! And that goes for dogs, too.

So look for a diet that is complete and balanced, has a high meat content (meat or meat meal listed as the first ingredient), and that offers the proper nutrition that a dog needs. We recommend a diet that’s highly digestible for maximum nutrient digestibility, with no added synthetic vitamins and minerals.  Some other things to consider are grain-free diets if you have concerns about food allergies or weight issues.

As always, question the pet food manufacturer.  If they are a reputable company, they will respond and answer your questions.

Q. Allergies: seems that “food allergies” are commonly diagnosed but without actual testing. How is it best to determine a dog really has a food allergy? Actual testing? Or is a subjective diagnosis acceptable?

A. “Food allergies” have become quite the buzzword recently.  Seems as if a dog can’t scratch an itch without it being assumed it’s an allergy! A true food allergy is an immune reaction vs. a food intolerance which is just sensitivity. A true allergy can’t be diagnosed unless you perform an elimination diet test followed by a challenge test.

An elimination diet removes certain known allergens from their foods, such as corn, wheat, soy or some proteins like chicken or beef, and the vet will watch to see if symptoms subside over time. Once the symptoms subside, the vet will re-introduce one food at a time looking for symptoms to return.

Once a reaction occurs, only then can the vet be sure which food ingredient is the one your pet is allergic to and recommend foods that do not contain that ingredient. An elimination diet takes time and patience – sometimes it takes as long as 1 year!  If you think your dog has a food “allergy”, try an exotic protein diet such as rabbit or duck, and make sure to look for a grain-free diet.

You should see symptomatic relief right away unless that diet still contains an ingredient your pet is reacting to.  In that case, a visit to your vet may be needed.Remember, there’s no substitute for a visit to the vet if you have concerns or if novel diets do not seem to help.

Another way to help alleviate food allergy symptoms is to rotate the food they eat. Just as if you were to eat a piece of chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of your life, it’s likely that you would develop a sensitivity or “allergy” to chicken.  So rotate your dog’s food between proteins and forms for the best success!

Q. Treats for training: Are there some that are better than others? Healthy vs “empty calories”? How can dog owners provide same nutrition without adding extra calories if using foods to train their dogs? (Besides using the dogs kibble)

A. Dogs love treats, even when you’re not training them. In training, a dog usually receives a lot more treats than on an average day. So it’s important not to overfeed- loving your dog and rewarding him for good behavior shouldn’t come at the cost of having an overweight dog.

Try freeze-dried chicken or turkey for treats. They’re really tasty and have nutritional benefit. Or look for a grain-free, meat-based biscuit that provides nutritional value.

Some treats also claim to have ingredients for joint health, fresh breath or even a calming effect. These treats are so small that the benefit is limited, so it’s best to treat using a healthy snack. Remember to adjust your dog’s caloric intake accordingly based on the number of treats you give.

To follow our blog series on Canine Nutrition and the do’s and don’ts of what to feed your dog, begin with our introductory post on canine nutrition. You will see additional links to each post by our canine nutrition expert’s. 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.

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