By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
"What is the best food to feed a dog?" Every day veterinarians are asked that question by dog owners. It's a sincere question because most dog owners want to feed the very best to their furry friends. Good health begins with proper nutrition, regardless of price or convenience of acquisition.
Please understand that the entire discussion on this page relates to healthy dogs with no kidney, thyroid, food allergy or other abnormal conditions. Also, the content of this page is my opinion regarding the "best" dry food and how to determine what you think is "best" to feed dogs.
A big reason why it i is strictly an opinion, there is no single answer to the question "What is the best diet to feed a dog?" Or if there is an answer it is, "It depends".
Over the past 37 years I have been examining dogs and cats in my practices I have made it a point to ask the owner "What diet are you feeding?" I have gotten all sorts of answers but in every case I relate the owner's response to what I am seeing in the patient. And over the years my suggestions regarding what to feed have changed.
Originally I took the pet food manufacturer's declarations as fact -- that an assortment of "Complete and Balanced" pet foods were perfectly nourishing because that wording was not legally permitted on pet food labels unless feeding trials demonstrated its veracity. I eventually discovered I was mistaken in the belief that any "Complete and Balanced" dog food was appropriate to feed.
It was in 1978 that I had an awakening. A number of clients were presenting dogs to me that had coarse hair coats and slightly greasy and flaky skin; and often these dogs (and cats!) had chronic itchy skin, hot spots, ear infections and seemed overweight.
So, they were over-caloried but under-nourished. Their calorie intake was up but the food they were consuming simply -- no matter that the pet food label indicated "Complete and Balanced" --was not providing a proper nutrient spectrum to the dog. Sometimes I would simply say that some fatty acid supplements "might help". I was a believer in those "Complete and Balanced" diets. One of the reasons I couldn't see what was going on regarding these dogs with poor health signals relating to diets was that some of the "Complete and Balanced" diets were resulting in well nourished dogs, partly because the owners were feeding table scraps as well.
I'll jump ahead a bit and tell you the defining element that separated the good "Complete and Balanced" diets from the poor ones was this: The poor diets were based on corn -- meaning, corn was listed as the first ingredient in the ingredient list on the label -- and the good diets were based on chicken or some other meat source -- lamb, beef.
I was always instructed, and learned in the few nutrition courses in veterinary school (nutrition is much better covered in veterinary school these days) that an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus in a dog's diet would lead to health disasters. This holds true today, too.
I was instructed that "since meat is high in phosphorus and lower in calcium, too much meat is not good for dogs over long periods of time". (Many people still confuse the disastrous all meat diets with meat-based diets; one is not good the other is ideal.) Grain-based diets for dogs, and even more so for cats, do not make nutritional sense and that was exactly why I was seeing those patients with the dry and flaky, sometimes greasy skin and coarse hair coats. They were eating "Complete and Balanced" grain-based diets with nothing else added. Why add anything when it is "Complete and Balanced" already?
Further confirmation came when I saw another litter owned by a local Bloodhound breeder. This fellow seemed to me to be quiet and a healthy ten-year-old dog with a shiny coat.
When I'd ask him what he was feeding his dogs we would get into our annual nutritional discussion and I'd keep warning him about the home-made recipe and all that meat he had been feeding his dogs for years.
Funny thing was, his dogs were among the very best I had ever seen. All his litters, and adult dogs, were robust, had perfect skin and coats even at six weeks of age, and never had to come in for skin problems, skeletal dysfunction, gastrointestinal problems or oral health issues. This breeder was sending his pups all over the country and there I was trying to tell him to be careful about "feeding too much meat" and I'd talk about such things as "a 'Complete and Balanced' commercial dog food would be best, make sure you don't get skeletal problems". I wondered why I felt rather foolish instructing him because I honestly thought his dogs were in optimum health.