The Sliding Scale of Nutrition

From High Quality Kibble to Raw Food

By Carly Piatocha


Dogs are diverse creatures and what may work for one may not be a good option for another. Overall health and vitality is a complex and multifaceted entity and within this paradigm of health, nothing is more hotly debated than what is the ideal diet to feed a dog. Many people feel guilty or pressured because, whether due to budget, lifestyle, or their animals unique health challenges or personal preferences they are unable to feed whatever it is that has been touted as “the best” food possible. Sadly, what often happens in such cases is that owners are unsure how to find a diet plan that best fits their needs, so they continue to feed the same sub-par food despite being unsatisfied with the product and the health of their dog.

Holistic health and nutrition should be looked at on a sliding scale of improvements instead of the simple, and limiting, way that it is often presented to pet owners by statements such as “an all raw food diet is the best” or conversely “don’t feed any human foods or the diet will be unbalanced”. Each dog is an individual and there is simply no one diet that will suit every dog. Although it is difficult to argue that a well chosen and thoughtfully prepared all raw food diet isn’t indeed the most nutritious option for most dogs, there are still a lot of things owners can do to improve their dog’s health quite dramatically even if feeding all raw isn’t an option.

The basics of providing “good” nutrition

If you can’t feed raw don’t despair! There is a way to ensure that dogs who are fed 75% or more of their diet as kibble still get excellent nutrition. The first step of this option is ensuring that the base of your dog’s diet is the best you can can afford.

To determine if your dog’s dry food is of good quality you want to ensure the following:
• It contains a whole meat protein as the first ingredient. You want to see something like
• “de-boned chicken or whole chicken”. Meat meal is essentially the ground up carcass of an animal, usually including some organs, after most muscle meat is removed. This is still healthy for your dog as it provides a high protein content, but you still do not want to see it as the first ingredient.
• It contains NO grains at all. Even grains such as oats, brown rice, millet or quinoa that are often seen as super foods for humans are useless filler to a dog as they take too long to be digested for dogs to even be able to absorb any of the nutrients they contain.(1)
• Unless your pet has allergies, you want to see at least three different proteins included in the food. Variety is important not only to prevent finickiness and boredom but also to give well-rounded nutrition.
• No BHA – this is a toxic preservative and is usually found in the lining of canned dog foods or sometimes in actual dry foods themselves. It is linked to many diseases and should be avoided.
• No Citric acid – a preservative in some dog foods. This is less commonly seen in foods since Purdue University conducted a study in the early 1990’s showing that large breed dogs (those that are 50lbs or more), especially deep chested ones such as Great Dane’s, are at a significantly increased rate of developing bloat when fed a diet that contains citric acid. This risk climbs even higher when moisture is added to such a diet. (2)
• No by-products of any kind – these are very low quality sources of protein and are often things like heads, beaks, feet, feathers and other random animal parts many of which are indigestible. They also usually contain the four D animals: those that arrive for slaughter dead, dying, diseased, or disabled. Use of four D meats is illegal in foods sold to humans but permissible in pet food.(3)
• Artificial colour or flavors – these all wreak havoc on the body as they are indigestible and often affect hormonal function and digestion. There is absolutely no nutritional benefit to these additives and they are simply added to make food look more appealing to pet owners. Flavorings also play a role in enticing a dog into eating a food that is almost all grain, something they would normally never touch. Low quality foods are often sprayed with rancid fat – hence the reason these foods smell terrible to humans. These unnecessary additives are linked to a laundry list of diseases, including various cancers.

The number one rule of thumb to know if your dry dog food is of decent quality or not would be where you buy it. If you are not purchasing your food at a store that sells only pet food and supplies, it is likely of questionable quality. There are quite a few high quality brands of dog food on the market today and it is important to do some research as to which brands will provide your dog with a healthy, balanced diet and which will not.

After you have found a good dry food that works well for you and your dog, there are a still few things that should be added to your dog’s food. The reason behind this has much more to do with the way the way dry food diets are processed than anything else. In order to make any dry food, ingredients must be finely ground together and then must be pushed under high heat and high pressure through a machine in a process called extrusion. As the food is being pushed through the extruder, a spinning blade cuts it into the familiar pellet shape. The unfortunate reality is that many important nutrients that your dog requires for optimum health can not survive the high heat and pressure necessary to make kibble. These nutrients must be added back into your dog’s diet in the form of high quality supplements.

Essential additions to a dry food diet include:

• Probiotics: These are necessary in order to break down and absorb the nutrition from kibble, which our dog’s bodies will essentially treat as a carbohydrate. Dogs are not biologically designed to digest high amounts of carbohydrate and adding probiotics greatly aid in digestion and thus the uptake of valuable nutrients that would be otherwise lost.
• Cold water fish body oil: Omega-3 fatty acids are as valuable to your dog as they are fragile. Omega-3’s are well known for the role they play in making sure your dog has healthy skin and a soft, shiny coat. However, they also play a huge role in reducing inflammation throughout the body as well as to help ease joint and muscle pain in injured or older dogs. DHA, one of the three main components of Omega-3 oil, also aids in brain development and learning as well as ensuring a healthy nervous system. When shopping for a fish oil realize that price often indicates quality and since little is required it is worth spending more money for better quality product. It is important to note that Omega-3’s oxidize very quickly when exposed to air, heat and light. This oxidation process greatly diminishes the many positive effects for your dog, so remember to always store fish oil in the fridge at all times.
• Warm water: This one is free but still important! Moisture is very important for proper digestion. Since dogs have very short digestive tracts compared to humans, there is substantially less time available to fully absorb the nutrients from food that is not moist. Wet food is also much easier on your dog’s kidneys, an organ responsible for filtering toxins out of the body. Protein is hard to digest without adequate moisture and years of doing this, especially if using a low quality dry food, can be a contributing factor to renal failure. Ideally you should add warm water to your dog’s food and allow it to sit for 15 minutes before serving.
• Variety: Even if you are going to feed kibble, there is no reason at all to stick to only one flavor, or one brand. There are many good quality brands that contain wholesome ingredients, little to no filler and offer owners the option of switching the flavor with every new bag. Not only will your dog appreciate the variety in terms of taste, they will also benefit nutritionally. Every meat offers a different nutritional profile, being high in some vitamins and minerals and low in others. By feeding your dog a lot of different protein sources you are ensuring that they get balanced levels of everything over time. Most dry food contain synthetic vitamins and minerals and are therefore not as bio-available or absorbed by your dog. (4)

Adding “human food” to kibble

In addition to the essential supplements listed above, there are lots of great things in your very own kitchen that you can feed your dog to help boost his health. Listed below are some options:

• Whole raw eggs – great source of B12, Sulphur and vitamin E – feed every second or third day
• Cooked meat – adding extra meat as a topper boosts flavor, increases protein levels and helps picky dogs regain their interest in food. Adding more meat makes digestion and absorption of nutrients easier. Most kibble contains more than enough calcium to help balance this extra phosphorus.
• Cooked pumpkin or squash – in small amounts these healthy veggies add a great source of fiber. More importantly this is well known as one of the easiest and cheapest ways to alleviate both diarrhea and constipation.
• Canned fish in water – especially wild salmon and sardines are a great inexpensive and healthy addition to your dog’s food.
• Goat’s milk yogurt – a good source of probiotics and protein. Most dogs do not digest lactose very well and feeding regular cow’s milk yogurt can cause bloating, gas and runny stool.

Do not add:
• Grain of any kind as there is more than enough carbohydrate content in kibble and providing additional carbohydrates is not going to aid your dog nutritionally in any way. As previously stated, most of the nutrition humans can extract from whole grains is inaccessible to dogs.
• The vegetables listed below are all considered toxic to dogs for various reasons so please ensure they do not make it into your dog’s bowl. These include: onions, avocados, grapes, uncooked white potatoes, large amounts of garlic (more than one bulb for a 50lb dog), chocolate, rhubarb, tomatoes, macadamia nuts and nutmeg. If you would like to know why dogs can not eat these foods, a simple Google search will tell you.
• Cooked bones of any size or type – Although a well chosen and size appropriate raw bone is a safe and healthy addition to a dog’s diet, cooked bones are very dangerous. Cooking a bone changes the molecular structure allowing it to break off into small, sharp shards which can cause both choking and serious intestinal damage. The chances of this occurring are quite high so please don’t risk it!
• Very fatty meat scraps, more than a small amount of organ meat, or meat marinated with salt or flavorings are all unhealthy for your dog and should definitely be avoided.

A step up: Providing “better” nutrition

This section is for people want to feed 50% or more of the diet as fresh raw or cooked food or use a commercial dehydrated or freeze dried product. This is a good option for people who want to add more fresh food and variety than feeding primarily kibble, but yet are not able to commit to a fully raw diet for whatever reason. There are a couple of good ways you can add more fresh food into your dog’s diet. Some ideas include: adding cooked meat and vegetables and reducing the amount of dry food you feed; feeding raw food while you are in town and dry food while traveling; or feeding one meal as dry food and one meal as raw food per day. The varieties of ways you can add more fresh food into your dog’s diet are really only limited by how sensitive your individual dog’s digestive system is and your willingness to experiment with options that suit your lifestyle. There is no amount of fresh food that will be too little or too much. Remember that health is a sliding scale. Many owners find that once they start adding in more fresh, whole foods into their dog’s daily or weekly diet they really see their dog’s start to thrive. Dog’s fed whole foods have shinier coats, smaller and less smelly stools, and more energy. The more quality fresh foods you add, the more benefits you will see.

When adding fresh foods into the diet at a percentage of 25% of the total diet a few simple rules must be followed in order to ensure that your dog receives all the nutrients he requires. These rules are as follows:

• If feeding 50% or more of the diet as home cooked, homemade raw or boneless varieties of commercial raw, it is necessary to add additional calcium to the diet. This is easy to do by either adding ground calcium carbonate or powdered eggshell calcium at a ratio of 1/2 tsp per every pound of food given. It is also an option to feed homemade or commercial raw food that already contains ground bone.
• It is generally not a good idea to mix raw meat and dry food in the same meal. The reason for this is because dry food takes substantially longer to digest as it soaks up much of the available stomach acid. Short digestive time and high stomach acidity are two main defenses against the potential bacteria found in raw meat. These two evolutionary adaptations are what enable dog’s to thrive on a raw meat based diet without becoming ill. When these two defenses are negated by adding dry food, we leave the dog open to potentially becoming infected by the same bacteria that would afflict us were we to consume raw meat contaminated by listeria, salmonella or E.coli. (5)
• If you are interested in adding some raw food into your dog’s diet, even if it is just going to be occasional or as one of his daily meals, please see the section on ‘how to introduce raw meat into the diet successfully’. There are so many health benefits to feeding even just some raw food that it is more than worth the effort.
• If you decide to try out one of the many dehydrated or freeze dried options available for your dog, please realize that almost all of these are essentially shelf stable raw foods. Since they are raw meat, the same protocol applies as fresh raw meat when introducing them to your dog. These rules being to start with turkey or another low fat white meat and do not mix these products into dry food. If the product you are using indicates to add water to re-hydrate the food and wait before serving, please do so! As previously mentioned, high protein content without adequate moisture for digestion is very hard on the kidneys.

The optimum diet: Providing the “best” nutrition

Although the option of feeding 90% or more of the diet as fresh, balanced, home cooked or raw food may not be the best for all pet owners, from a strictly nutritional standpoint it offers your dog unparalleled nutrition thereby providing them an optimally healthy overall lifestyle. Many articles have been written about why raw food diets are the best choice for most dogs so this section will be brief. Rest assured that there is ample information out there about this topic! Raw food diets offer a huge list of benefits that have been listed elsewhere many times but are worth repeating. These benefits include, but are certainly not limited to the following:

• Clean teeth and fresh breath: little to no need for dental work at the vet!
• A shiny, thick coat – dramatically reduced shedding and no “doggy” smell.
• Improved digestion – elimination of gas and significantly smaller, less smelly and less frequent stools
• Reduction or elimination of allergies, including the most common symptoms of allergies such as; ear infections, feet and paw chewing, scratching and dandruff.
• A more stable dog – dramatically less carbohydrates means a reduction in the blood sugar spiking and crashing that is common with dogs fed dry food. With stable blood sugar you get a more mentally relaxed pet. (6)
• Raw food diets make maintaining a healthy weight for your dog much simpler. If Fido is a little chunky, switching to low fat raw proteins such as turkey, venison or salmon as well avoiding excessive carbohydrates will help him slim down. If your dog is too thin, switching to raw and feeding fatty meats such as lamb or duck will provide a healthy way to help him get to gain a few pounds.
• Canine athletes will lose any excess fat they have and replace it with lean muscle due to eating more highly digestible protein – just like in human athletes. In addition to proper conditioning, lean muscles will also help support the dog in their sport and prevent injuries. The nutrition in raw food will also help boost your performance pet’s energy and stamina.
• Raw breeders have reported that bitches fed a correct raw food diet when bred and gestating have much healthier puppies, produce more and better quality milk and have puppies with statistically better weights and survival rates.
• When fed correctly, raw food helps maintain slow and even growth rates throughout puppy hood by naturally providing correct levels of calcium. This is especially important in large breed puppies. Not providing the right amount of calcium throughout the growth period can result in bone and joint formation abnormalities. These abnormalities frequently manifest themselves as hip and elbow dysplasia, ACL tears, early onset osteoarthritis and much more.

How to introduce raw meat successfully

Whether you want to try giving your dog some raw meat in addition to his regular food or are intending to eventually feed raw food as the sole diet, the transition process is the same. Many people feel that they have “tried raw” and that it didn’t work for them because their dog became ill after eating it. Further questioning of the owner often reveals poorly chosen products that were introduced at the wrong time. Almost all dogs can be successfully transitioned to a full raw diet and most do fine with even just a partial raw diet provided that the food is balanced in terms of the correct ratios of muscle meat, bone and organ content. It is also recommended to discontinue adding excessive organ treats to your dogs diet at this time.
If you are interested in adding some raw food into your dog’s diet, the best meat to start with is a good quality turkey with bone and vegetables. Turkey is a low fat white meat and is one of the easiest of the white meats to digest and is therefore a good way to ease your dog into raw food without digestive upset. If your dog is particularly sensitive, adding a bit of canned pumpkin into the food prior to serving can also help prevent any issues from occurring.

After a week of feeding two separate meals (kibble for one meal, raw for another or simply two meals per day of raw turkey), you can consider adding another white meat into the diet such as chicken or salmon. Avoid proteins such as duck for now as it is quite high in fat. When introducing each new meat, you need to feed that meat for a minimum of three days in a row. If nothing happens and your dog seems fine, feel free to add the new meat into the rotation.

The reason new meats should be introduced this way is to ensure your dog is not allergic or sensitive to that particular meat. Indications that your dog is not doing well on the new protein are: consistent mucus-coated stool, scratching, chewing or licking the feet and ear irritations or infections. If you see any of these symptoms with any new meat sources, you should discontinue feeding that meat and go back to feeding what your dog previously did well on. After a resting period of three to four days you can try again to introduce a new, different meat.

After finding two white meats that your dog does well on, it is time to introduce a red meat. Lamb is generally the best choice because, despite being high in fat, it is also one of the most easily digested red meats. All red meats from most commercial raw food companies do not contain any bone, so do not be surprised if after feeding a meal of lamb your dog has softer stool than normal. This is due to the fact that bone acts as a source of fiber in a raw food diet and hardens the stool. To introduce lamb into the diet you can mix it into turkey at a ratio that feels right to you, most dogs are okay with half turkey and half lamb. After feeding lamb this way for three days, if all goes well you can attempt to feed lamb as a single protein.

It is important, especially if you are intending to feed 50% or more of the diet as raw food, that your dog eats between two thirds to half of their total diet as white meat and between one third to half as red meat. Since various commercial raw food companies vary greatly in the amount of both bone and organ content they contain, it is important to check these numbers and adjust accordingly. The reason behind this ratio is to balance the amount of calcium and phosphorus in the diet. Bone contains calcium and phosphorus and muscle meat is rich in phosphorus. Some commercial raw food companies have ground bone in their white meat formulas and no bone at all in their red meat formulas. Both white and red meat recipes generally already contain organs. Therefore, if feeding commercial raw food, by feeding a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio, depending on the particular brand you are feeding, you will be able to balance the diet naturally over time and give your dog the right amount of everything they need.

Although a good quality all raw food diet will provide your animal with the most optimal health, there are still many other ways to significantly increase the nutritional value of your dry food if this is not a realistic option for you. Improving the health of your dog doesn’t need to be complicated, messy or time consuming and is certainly not an all or nothing proposition. It is much better for the overall health and longevity of your dog to make small steps towards change that you will actually stick with long term, than to rapidly switch to a high quality raw food diet for a few weeks before feeling overwhelmed and returning to the previously fed dry food only diet. Even just switching to a better brand of kibble can make a big difference and really boost the health of your pet. As long as the guidelines presented in this article are followed, feel free to try out the many options available to you and continue to work towards giving your dog the best diet and lifestyle you can!

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