Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Annual wellness appointments is when I ask what pet owners are feeding. There are sooo many options out there, so how do you choose?? Most pet owners look at the ingredient list, because this is how they do their own shopping. With the internet, pet owners are so much more knowledgeable. Gone are the days when you 100% respected the education of your veterinarian, seriously. Back in the day, you had no internet, so you took the advice from the educated professionals.
No offence to anyone who works in the pet food industry, but where did you go to school and get your nutrition degree? Do you have a PhD in nutrition? In the medical world, you cannot call yourself a “specialist” unless you are a diplomat, i.e. written a board certification for a specialty.
What is a Veterinary Nutrition Specialist?
So glad you asked! In North America, veterinarians can specialize in nutrition. What that means is they typically did a four year bachelors degree, usually in a science, then four years of veterinary medical school earning the title of Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Then, an internship or worked as a general practitioner for a few years. Then a three to five year residency, often with a Master’s or PhD. So when it comes to nutrition, or any other topic, I’m going to turn to the board-certified specialist in that topic - not the one with a blog post about it ;) and definitely not the high school student behind the cash register at the pet food store, or the person who decided to make a pet food in their garage. But I digress.
A veterinary nutritionist is the most educated person that you can get your pet’s nutrition advice from. Period. These nutritionists in North America, can be found through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Many people don’t want to hire a specialist. Specialists cost money, and the internet is free. The advice in my wellness appointments isn’t free either, however, I try to do a lot of follow-up, on my own time, send emails with information. Checking in with the pet owners to see how things are going. It's truly important to follow up to ensure that things are working well for the owners, and the pets.
Guess what? You do not have to hire a specialist to figure out what to feed your dog. Their website has an area for pet owners, with some resources - links to pages like guidelines on how to feed your pet. I just checked and some of their links on their website need to be updated, so if you are here later and my links aren’t working, please let me know!
How to Choose a Good Diet
The Global Nutrition information posted on the WSAVA site is similar to everyone looking to the WHO for their public health information (though all conspiracy theorists would disagree). Here's a quick little guide from their site. There is soooo much information online, it's overwhelming. The last thing I want is to argue with a new puppy owner who read on Google some bad reviews about meat by-products in their puppies food, so they are now going to feed their puppy a raw diet.
My job is to inform. I can't tell owners what to do, and their pet's health depends on building a team with the clients to better the pet's health. If pet owners do not trust their veterinarian, then this is the sieve of poor information, like the brain of a person with dementia - it's not really going to stick. The veterinarian should work with the client and point owners in the direction towards reputable websites so that the pet owners can make an informed decision. I've been using this site: Pet Nutrition Alliance. Pet Nutrition Alliance Dare to Ask Survey
I did a few screen shots to help you navigate. First - I select for Nutritional Expert, then I select whether the company provided information on their AAFCO standards. See below.
Finally, I want to know that a Veterinary Nutritionist was involved in formulation of the diets. Again, these are Doctors of Veterinary Medicine that did a residency in Nutrition - including a board examination to obtain this level of education called a Diplomate.
ACVN is the American College of Veterinary Nutritionist
ECVCN is the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition
Just an FYI, this really works better on a desktop computer, so I suggest going there when you have time.
Ok, now you are armed with some knowledge to choose an appropriate diet for your pet! There are a few specific requirements for puppies that I wanted to mention.
Large Breed Puppies
Our veterinary school training in nutrition was pretty limited, but the one thing that was stressed was that large breed puppies cannot be fed like small breed puppies. Large breed puppies should also not be fed like adult dogs! A few important things to consider is that large breed puppies should not be over fed, as there is an increase in orthopedic conditions when the puppies bones and body grow too quickly. Large breed puppies should not be fed a high-protein/grain-free diet, because these diets will not have appropriate calcium levels and they tend to be much higher in calories. The diet should not say "All Life Stages" and along with AAFCO labeling it should read "Large Breed Puppy" on the packaging.
Note: I do not receive any monetary gains from my recommendations below. This is for the readers' benefit only!
Homemade Diets or Toppers
But my dog is picky... Now what??
My opening line during my consultation with a new dog owner is: “what does Luna like to eat?” I chose Luna because we have a LOT of Luna puppies! Anyway, it opens up the conversation of what Luna actually likes, and what Luna refuses. This client is offering a well-balanced puppy kibble diet, that they then top with something juicy like boiled chicken, which they then mention that Luna is picky, she noses around and eats the chicken and doesn’t eat the kibble. This is the equivalent of telling me that your child picks around the plate and doesn’t eat their vegetables and only eats the cheese or pasta. So what do you do for your child who doesn’t eat their veggies? They get a vitamin supplement. So guess what?? For those picky dogs who don’t want to eat that dehydrated kibble, and only eat that juicy chicken, they also need a vitamin supplement.
If you are going to all this work to dress up your dog's kibble, and they just don't want to eat that kibble, or any kibble for that matter, then don't offer kibble! There is actually no reason (other than balancing a diet) that your dog needs kibble. You can feed your dog 100% canned dog food and maybe she will be happier!
Or, you can spend some time in the kitchen, knowing exactly what your pup is eating with a homemade diet, but it still needs to be balanced! I have been leaning towards the BalanceIT.com website, because it is easy to use, pet owners can choose the protein, veggies, fat source and starches that their pet enjoys, then you click the DONE button, and you are provided with a pass or fail - and which vitamin and mineral supplement to use to balance the recipe. It's really good for pets who are allergic to things! Hilary's Blend is another. A newer one that our technician found is Just Food For Dogs.
My Pet Has a Medical Condition, What Should I Feed?
This will be very individualistic, and best to consult your veterinarian who knows your pet’s health condition the best. I definitely have my go-to diets for health conditions, but each pet should be treated as an individual.
Itchy skin? There are diets for food and environmental allergies.
Intermittent diarrhea? There are diets for that too.
Intermittent vomiting? Yup, that too!
Kidney disease, pancreatitis, bladder stones, cystitis, the list goes on!
There are a few conditions that you can try to make your own homemade diet, but the diet should be balanced and should pass the test. For example, kidney diets should be lower in phosphorus, because part of kidney disease is that the kidneys cannot excrete phosphorus well and this backs up in the body as waste. So consult with your veterinarian for your specific pet's needs.
The BEG (boutique, exotic and grain-free) diet debate is the most recent and most common client education topic that I discuss with dog owners when it comes to nutrition. There was a study published in 2018 that found that dogs who were offered a grain-free diet were developing dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease that was not common in certain breeds. It also seems that the bioavailability of the nutrients in each diet differs depending on the protein sources, even when the diet is formulated and balanced.
Taurine has been known for decades to be important in the prevention of dilated cardiomyopathy. The golden retrievers that had dilated cardiomyopathy were treated with taurine and their heart disease improved. So part of the story includes taurine absorption or metabolism.
Twenty-three of 24 dogs diagnosed with taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy were fed diets that were either grain-free, legume-rich, or a combination of these factors. None of these diets were feeding trial tested using Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) procedures. Twenty-three of 24 dogs had significant improvement in their echocardiographic parameters and normalization of taurine concentrations following diet change and taurine supplementation.
It's 2020 now, and I know from experience with publishing literature, it can take a long time from the completion of a study to publication of these studies, so what is new in the world of cardiology and diet? Many of the fad diets are replacing grains with pulses (lentils or peas). A few small clinical trials have been published, this one used Labrador retrievers, and found that the grain-free diet in their study did not decrease the dogs' taurine levels, though they did not do any cardiac ultrasounds in that study either. The Golden retriever still appears to be an at risk breed for diet associated dilated cardiomyopathy. I couldn't find anything about the cross-bred Golden Doodles that have been popular in the last decade, but I just inform owners to be cautious about what they are choosing to feed their dogs.
The one thing that we all want is a healthy puppy! It's good to be wary and to be informed. Pet owners and veterinarians should always work as a team for what is best for the health of the pet.