What Should We Be Feeding Our Dogs?

two dogs eating
Choosing the best diet for your dogs can be a daunting task. Westend61/Getty Images

Loretta Lou is a chocolate Lab. That means she'll eat anything and everything. That's why when it comes to her diet, I'm a helicopter dad. I hover over her making sure she only has the best eats. She gets a top-of-the-line grain-free diet and treats (when she's not licking the cat food dishes) and frozen yogurt goodies that I make (she gets to lick the spoon).

Frankly, and unapologetically, I'm a snob when it comes to dog food. I've never fed any of my girls off a grocery store shelf. But these days it is getting increasingly difficult to know what the best diet is for a dog. There are so many of them. Should we be feeding our dogs a raw diet, a grain-free diet, a vegan diet or make the food ourselves?


In short, what is the ideal diet for a dog's optimum health? "[That's] a good question," Dr. Cailin Heinze, a nutritionist at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University says in an email. "We don't know! We know the minimum amounts for many nutrients, but we don't know optimal for most."


Ingredients Are Key

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time reading the list of ingredients on each bag and can of dog food. Some owners may even go to websites that rate different foods. Heinze and her colleagues have studied the nutritional needs of dogs for years, and have concluded that reading the ingredient list is pretty useless. In fact, they say, it's nothing more than a marketing ploy because the label doesn't have any information about the quality of ingredients or if they are in the right proportions.

Instead, as Heinze's colleague Dr. Lisa M. Freeman suggests, dog owners have to look deeper and decide if the manufacturer places a priority on nutrition. For example, does the company have at least one full-time qualified nutritionist? What are the qualifications of the people formulating the food? Does the manufacturer own the plant that processes the food? Most small companies do not. All these things, and so much more matter.


"There is a very wide spectrum when it comes to the quality control and nutritional expertise of the many, many companies that currently manufacture pet food," Freeman writes. "And the ones with the best quality are not necessarily the ones that are the most expensive or who have the best marketing. To make it even harder, the information you need to sort this out is not on the label and requires a little (and sometimes a lot of) digging."

Heinze also says when reading a food label and choosing a brand be careful when companies use words such as "premium," "super-premium," "ultra-premium," and "gourmet" and other superlatives. Such descriptions have "no legal meaning and can be used by any manufacturer without any burden of proof," she says.

Plus, "all health claims on diets must be evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). However, it is not uncommon to see unsubstantiated health claims on labels and in marketing materials. If a health claim seems questionable, call the company and ask for written documentation of the claim," Heinze explains, such as those found in peer-reviewed studies.


The Scoop on Exotic Ingredients

Rabbit, salmon, ostrich, even alligator. When it comes to what your dog eats, exotic proteins are all the rage. Often, manufacturers market these ingredients as "natural" or less likely to cause an allergic reaction in your furry friend. But, Heinze and her colleagues at Tufts have concluded that protein is protein regardless of where it comes from. "For healthy dogs and cats, there is no benefit of including exotic proteins in pet food. They are not healthier than more traditional meats..." they write.

In addition, if you think bison or kangaroo meat will stop your dog from coming down with an allergy — think again. "Food allergies in pets develop to ingredients that they are regularly exposed to — things in their everyday diet rather than to specific foods like peanuts or shellfish like in people. Food allergies in general, are quite uncommon in pets — most gastrointestinal and skin signs attributed to food allergies are due to other factors in the diet (e.g., fat and fiber differences) or environmental allergies."


Grain-free and Raw Diets

Loretta Lou is prone to ear infections, which is why she's on a grain-free diet. It appears, according to the Tuft's clinical nutrition team, that while grain-free diets are popular, "there is no reliable evidence that suggests that it is harmful to feed grains as a group to dogs or cats." In fact, some grains can provide dogs with protein that is much easier for their digestive systems to absorb than the proteins found in meat.

By the way, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that your dog will be healthier if they eat a raw diet of meats and vegetables. Raw diets, the Tufts' vets say, can make your dog sick. "Recent scientific studies have shown that a large percentage of raw meat diets (whether commercial or homemade) are contaminated with bacteria. Some of these bacteria are unlikely to have negative effects on health, but others can have serious consequences."


So what is the best food to feed our dogs? After all, most of them love to eat. Heinze says to keep certain things in mind when choosing a diet. You'll have to do your homework, though. For example, she says:

  • Make sure the food maker has an "established track record of making good food (at least a decade)."
  • Keep away from companies that have had a bad recall or failed FDA inspections. That means the company's quality-control is poor. "A recall by itself is NOT a good reason to avoid a food," Heinze says. "It depends on the circumstances. Some recalls are because companies are careful, others are because of incompetence."
  • Go with a company that makes their own food in plants that they own.
  • Buy food from a company that has published research to support its claims.