You Are What You Eat

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
Feed me!

The latest pet-food scare (as if the concern over grain-free foods isn’t enough) is that several brands of dry dog food have been recalled for toxic levels of vitamin D.

The FDA first alerted dog owners in early December, and it recently updated the list of recalled foods. You know what I am going to say next: If you’ve chosen your dog’s food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list of approved dog foods, you have nothing to worry about. They do the legwork, checking out the companies’ manufacturing process, documentation of the nutritional completeness of the food, quality control, and ingredient sourcing so you can confidently purchase any food on the list. The list includes foods in a huge range of prices and formulas, and many are very easy to find at pet supply stores, feed stores, Ace-hardware-type stores, and the like. You do not have to spend a fortune at an exclusive pet boutique to get quality dog food; in fact, many of the exotic boutique foods are of poor nutritional quality.

Vitamin D is a vital nutrient for dogs (and humans). It helps maintain the proper level of calcium and the balance of calcium and phosphorus, according to PetMD. (Read the full PetMD article, Vitamin D Poisoning in Dogs, for more details.) Too much vitamin D, though can cause vomiting, weakness, lethargy, excessive thirst, urination, and drooling — and kidney failure and death.

A Whole Dog Journal article (available only to subscribers) says that in most commercial dog foods, the problem is likely to be too little vitamin D, not too much. In addition, dogs in the same household eating the same diet can have very different levels, due to differences in how their bodies absorb the vitamin. Over time, a vitamin D deficiency can cause bone disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and some researchers are studying a possible link to immune system disorders. A blood test can measure your dog’s vitamin D levels.

The best approach is to feed a high-quality meat-based food. Suggestions from the Whole Dog Journal article include adding probiotics or apple cider vinegar to the dog’s meals; avoiding alkalizing foods like corn, wheat, soy, rice, white potatoes, tapioca, and peas; and supplementing with coconut oil. It’s hard to recommend a specific combination of supplements, though, because each dog’s diet and needs are different.

The key takeaway is that what you feed your dog matters.

It matters what you feed yourself and your family, too. But each member of the family makes dozens of choices daily about what to eat and, one hopes, over the course of a day or a week, eats a range of foods that cover her or his nutritional needs. The dog does not get to make those choices, though. He eats what you give him. The dog also probably eats the same thing every day. Some dogs eat the same food for weeks, months, even years. If that food doesn’t have what the dog needs to be healthy, there’s not much chance he’ll get it some other way. So choose your dog’s food carefully — and give him some variety by changing it up every so often.

 

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Update: Is Grain-Free Dog Food Risky?

Koala, a black Lab, eyes a bowl of dog biscuits.
Despite what your dog might tell you, an all-cookie diet is not recommended.

A few months have passed since the FDA scared dog-owners who feed grain-free dog foods, so the I decided that Thinking Dog blog needed to run an update.

I am grateful to veterinarian and researcher Lisa Freeman, who has written extensively on this issue. Based on some of her work, including this Dec. 1 JAVMA article, “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?” here is what I have learned:

  • Grain-free diets are not the problem. What Freeman calls “BEG” diets — foods from boutique producers that are based on exotic ingredients and are grain-free — appear to be a common factor in many of the cases of DCM. (DCM is dilated cardiomyopathy; see the earlier post, Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? for more info.)
  • Most dogs do not need to eat boutique foods with exotic ingredients.
  • Some of the companies producing these foods have not done thorough nutritional research and testing, and the foods are not nutritionally sound. Or their quality control might not be as good as some more conventional dog food producers, so the foods may be less consistent.
  • The problem is not only about taurine levels, either. Freeman writes that most of the dogs she’s seen (in the practice at Tufts University) with DCM have normal taurine levels. Furthermore, many improve with a diet switch (away from a BEG food), even though their taurine levels were and remain normal.
  • Owners who have moved to home-prepared diets should be extremely cautious and consult with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the homemade diet meets the dog’s needs.

The problem does appear to be linked to nutritional deficiencies. Exactly what, though, is still unclear.

What should a concerned owner do?

  • Feed a high-quality food from a responsible manufacturer. You may be tired of hearing this, but: The best food for your dog is not necessarily the best food for my dog. Each dog’s needs are different. Your budget and what’s available in your area differs from what I can get easily. So, I am not going to recommend specific foods. I strongly urge you to choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. Their 2018 list is available; I will post a link to the 2019 list when they publish it.

Dry dog foods

Canned dog foods

  • For advice on raw foods, check out the Dog Food Advisor recommendations.
  • If your dog gets lots of ear infections, is itchy, or has hot spots or other issues that could indicate food sensitivities, consult with a vet and a nutritionist (some vets have lots of training and knowledge about canine nutrition but many do not; ask for credentials).
  • I do not recommend “prescription” diets. Many vets will recommend these. Why? They make a lot of money selling them. They tend to use low-quality ingredients and be very, very expensive. You can get a higher-quality commercial food for less money that addresses the same issue. Whether your dog needs a lower-fat or lower-protein diet, should avoid particular ingredients, whatever the issue, there are likely to be several foods in your (high quality) pet store that will work.

Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free?

A golden retriever carries her food bowl
Fill that food bowl with health, high-quality proteins and veggies.

A spate of atypical cases of a serious heart condition in dogs is raising the question of whether grain-free dog food formulas are somehow responsible. The FDA is investigating a possible link between diet and the disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dog breeds where the condition is extremely rare. DCM causes the heart to become weak and enlarged; it can cause heart failure. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Breeds that have a genetic predisposition for DCM include Irish wolfhounds, great Danes, and boxers. According to a New York Times article on the potential link with grain-free diets, concern was triggered when a large veterinary cardiology practice noticed an unusual number of cases among other breeds, including Labradors and golden retrievers.

There’s no definitive link, and researchers are exploring whether the absence of grains in the diet could be problematic. Another potential problem: the legumes, like lentils and peas, that are used in large quantities to replace the grains in these foods. One avenue of research is whether the legumes inhibit the production of taurine, an essential amino acid that most dogs get from the meat in their diets or synthesize from amino acids in other proteins in their diets. To do this, they need to get enough real meat protein in their diets. To further complicate matters, not all meat proteins contain the same levels of taurine; poultry has more taurine than lamb or beef, for example.

What’s a concerned dog owner to do? Choose a dog food carefully, considering only the dog’s nutritional needs and ignoring food fads. For example:

  • Choose a quality dog food brand that uses specified (named) meats and meat meals as the top ingredients. Use the Whole Dog Journal‘s list of approved dog foods, and you will not go wrong. Don’t use supermarket brands, which are full of fillers like corn and wheat (common allergens), artificial colors, sugar, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
  • Choose a protein that is right for your dog. It’s unlikely that your dog needs an exotic, and expensive, protein like kangaroo. If your dog has shown signs of food allergy, sure, try a “novel” protein — but that just means one she hasn’t eaten before. Switch from chicken to fish or duck or lamb.
  • I tend to favor foods with one or two proteins, rather than those with four, six, or more. This is simply convenience: If my dog were to develop a sensitivity, it’s easier to find a novel protein if she hasn’t been consuming lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bison, and fish at every meal.
  • Ensure that the food has enough protein and that most or all of it is from high-quality meat sources. Many dogs do well with kibbles that are 25 percent to 30 percent protein; higher-protein foods are great for some dogs and not for others. Puppies will grow too quickly on a high-protein food. Educate yourself. Consult a vet or canine nutritionist, talk with knowledgeable experts at small pet stores that focus on high-quality foods (I’m not talking about those boutiques with a room full of doggy clothing and luxury accessories and only one or two very pricey foods), and read the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs Naturally.
  • Make sure the other ingredients in the dog food are of good quality and, preferably, sourced in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. I’ve avoided any and all food products sourced in China since the melamine and other contamination scares several years ago.
  • Pay attention to whether your dog runs hot or cold. A vet who treated Jana for many years (and who was Cali’s pediatrician) talked with me about “warming” and “cooling” foods. This turned out to be a wonderful guide to choosing proteins for my girls, who both were “hot.” Since moving to duck a few years ago, for example, Cali has not had a hot spot.
  • Don’t treat your dog like a person. I am a committed vegetarian, but I know that neither Jana nor Cali had any desire to become vegetarians. While I have no desire to go gluten- or grain-free, if I did, that would not extend to my dogs. Dogs are omnivores. Give them a balanced, varied diet, avoiding things (like chocolate) that are known to be toxic or harmful to dogs.

As to whether we should avoid the grain-free foods — the jury is out on that question. My advice would be to look at the specific food(s) you are feeding and see whether it meets the Whole Dog Journal’s criteria for a high-quality food. If so, and your dog is healthy and energetic, has normal digestive processes (translation: look at her poop) and a shiny, healthy coat and bright sparkly eyes, don’t make changes. If your fancy boutique food was selected based on the marketing copy or you’re simply following the latest diet craze, reconsider.

What does Cali eat? For breakfast, she gets a Steve’s Real Food Turducken patty. For dinner, she gets a heaping cup-and-a-quarter of Canidae Sky limited ingredient duck formula. Yup, they’re grain free. They’re also chock-full of high quality, nutritious ingredients. She also gets fish oil, joint support and digestive enzyme supplements, eggs, cucumber, plenty of cookies (not grain-free!) and coconut popsicles (ice cubes made with coconut water), and all the fresh raspberries she can reach.

Read more about the potential problems with exotic diets here: “A broken heart.”