What is the right food to feed my dog?

Yeah, that's a big question. The things that have to be considered are your dog's age, underlying medical conditions, chronic issues, and lifestyle. And so those things will help to assess what nutrition is appropriate for your pet. If your pet is completely healthy, has no medical issues, healthy weight, and all of those things are good. I think a good general over-the-counter diet is usually sufficient, but nowadays, many dog foods are coming onto the market literally every week. Sifting through that can be a real challenge. Finding balanced nutrition can be done. It's just challenging. And so the one standard to look for, and most dog foods should have this, is the AFCO stamp on it. They publish information on a baseline for nutrition in the dog and a variety of species, particularly for the dog based on their age—puppy, adult, or senior pet. And so, having that AFCO label on the food at least means that they have met baseline requirements.

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

What are the life stages of feeding my dog?

The simplest way to break that down is going to be puppy, adult, and senior. So puppies are going to be typically anywhere from when they're weaned and once they're on actual dog food up until roughly around a year old, and that's because that's when the rapid growth is happening. And those dogs need particular nutrition to support that rapid growth.

And then an adult dog is roughly around a year old, with some variation depending on the dog's size, but generally around a year. And then that last up until roughly seven, eight years old, sometimes a little younger on the really large dogs—so really anywhere from probably six to eight years old.

And then, at that point, they've transitioned to the senior category, which is six to eight years old and older. Then, you can even get a little more specific and get into the geriatric category, which is once they've surpassed their average lifespan, so generally roughly around 13 years old. And again, that varies based on the breed, but they're in the geriatric category.

How do I wean my puppy and get them onto regular food?

When we're talking about puppy food, like I said a minute ago, we're talking about once they've been transitioned. So that weaning process typically starts roughly around three to four weeks old, and the goal is to usually have them on puppy food by at least six weeks. And so that process is one of just slowly introducing dog food. And that's usually some, some sort of wet puppy food. You're adding in small amounts of that. And then, every few days, you gradually increase the amount of that really soft, wet food and decrease the amount of milk they're getting. And that process is usually about a two to three-week process. You can do that with dry food. You just have to warm it up and add water to make it more of a soft consistency.

Should I feed my dog on a schedule, and how do I know if my dog's nutrition is suffering?

Yeah, let's answer the first question. How do we feed them on a schedule? And I am a big proponent for feeding dogs meals versus free feeding. And so, I'll walk you through some of the reasoning for that. If you have one dog in your home and no other pets, and there's no intent on getting another pet in the future, that's the one circumstance where I could see free-feeding potentially working. The thing is, you still need to be able to control the number of calories they're eating each day and not just allow them to eat as much as they want because many dogs will overeat. The problem is most households in America have more than one dog. And so, as soon as you get more than one, it becomes very challenging to control who's eating what and how much they're eating. That's why I recommend meal feeding generally with dogs twice a day, as it is the most practical thing. I definitely like that more than once a day because having multiple meals keeps the metabolism going. Just as with people, you want dogs to eat smaller, more frequent meals versus one large meal. So generally, twice a day accomplishes that and is still practical for most people.

Now, the other thing is you're able to tightly control how much each pet is eating when you do that. So when I say meal feeding, I mean putting the food down a measured amount and ideally separating the pets, and then that way, when they're done eating, if they didn't finish it all, they might wander and try to find the other dog’s food. You can pick up the bowls, and again, have tight control over who's eating what, so that's how I recommend doing the scheduling.

And then how do you know if your dog's nutrition is suffering? Many different things can be considered there, but either the dog is overweight or too skinny, they might have a poor coat quality, intermittent or chronic loose or soft stools, occasional vomiting, and more gas than they should. Although sometimes that's hard to tell, those are some general things that you can be looking for. And not all of that is always tied to nutrition, but there's often a nutritional component that can play a role there.

How do I know if I'm feeding my dog too much?

I love that question because, generally speaking, the pet population tends to be overweight. And what I've noticed over the years is that it's become the norm for dogs to be overweight to where people, when they look at a dog, they think that the dog is a healthy weight, as that's what they're used to seeing. In reality, most of the time, that dog is overweight. So what I like to tell clients is I want them to gauge their pet’s weight objectively so they can have an idea of whether they're feeding the appropriate amount in between appointments so they can make adjustment adjustments and titrate as needed.

The thing that I've is most helpful for dogs is whether you can feel the ribs easily. So the ribs are on the front half of the body of the dog, right? And so you want to be able to gently rub your fingers along the ribs without having to push through a bunch of fat. You should be able to just gently rub your fingers along the ribs and feel them easily. If you can't feel them and you have to press through the extra padding, then that means your dog has excess weight around the ribs. And that's where they tend to put a lot of their excess weight. The other thing is you want your dog to have a nice waist tuck. So as you go from the chest back to the abdomen, it should tuck up both looking from the side, and if you're looking down, you should see some distinction between the chest and the abdomen. Now that varies a little bit between breeds. Um, that's why I think getting used to feeling the ribs is helpful.

What are the essential nutrients my dog needs?

The essential nutrients are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals. Those are the things that are what make up the nutrition that's required for dogs. And that's really where I think a lot of the foods differ is the balance of those various nutrients, but those are the main ones.

How will a veterinarian be able to assess if my dog is getting proper nutrition?

All the things that I mentioned earlier about what to look for are similar to what we are going to be looking for when we evaluate a pet. So is the pet too skinny? Is the pet too heavy? How's the coat quality? What's the GI system like, vomiting, diarrhea? All of those things are part of the assessment. The other big thing that we can look at to get better input is laboratory values— blood work, urine assessments—those things can be beneficial. I'll give you one example, as this is commonly seen in veterinary medicine nowadays—diets that are way too high in protein. When a diet is really high in protein, that puts more stress on the kidneys and the liver. The kidneys have to process and filter all that extra protein out when that happens. And that can be hard on the kidneys and the blood. There's a value called BU that is sometimes elevated in the blood because the kidneys cannot appropriately excrete that from the blood. Protein's not the only thing that can cause that, but it is one of the big factors. And I see that more and more because so many dogs are on high protein diets now.

There are so many brands of dog food. How will I know the best one for my dog?

Yeah, this is tough. I hate answering this question because it's such a difficult one. So I think laying some foundation here—the one big thing that I would encourage pet owners to think about is not as much the ingredients, the ingredients are important, but it's the nutrients that the ingredients provide. And I think that's been the vast divide lately in the last decade where more and more marketing, more and more online stuff is focusing on the ingredients to the detriment of the nutrients. And again, the one example of that is protein. So you can have a diet that has the absolute best protein source, organic, you know, high quality, with maybe a few other ingredients because limited ingredients is another big fad right now as well.

And there's not anything inherently wrong with that, but because that's the focus, we don't realize that that diet has 40% protein, which is an enormous amount and way too much for a dog to have to process every day. And that can be hard on their liver and kidneys. So I think having that foundation of saying let's focus on the nutrients being provided and that being the priority. I’m not saying that ingredients don't matter, but they're not the priority, which they provide nutrient-wise.

With that said, I think that some companies have that as their focus, and these are the companies that are doing most of the pet nutrition research. And that also plays a significant role as far as what I'm comfortable recommending because these are the companies investing in the research on the pet nutrition side. And these by no means are the only good pet foods out there, but the ones I have the most confidence in because of the reasons I just mentioned are Hills and Purina, particularly with their Pro Plan line, and then also Royal Canin. Those are the big three companies that do most of the research that focuses most of their efforts on good nutrition as the priority. And therefore, those are the ones that I tend to lean most heavily on.

When would my dog need a prescription diet?

I'm a big fan of prescription nutrition because there are so many situations now where we have great nutrition that can help manage that condition. So when we talk about prescription nutrition, another word for that would be therapeutic nutrition, and that's a diet that has been specifically formulated to either treat or manage a specific condition. So that means that it's a prescription diet. It’s gone through testing and studies that prove that it has a benefit to that end. It has an actual claim to say that it causes your dog to lose weight or whatever it may be. And we currently have quite a few good therapeutic diets that can help manage the disease. And I think if we can manage conditions through nutrition as much as possible, it helps, and it's the same thing on the human side.

I'll give you a couple of examples of what this looks like in day-to-day practice for me. So, for example, joint disease, we see a ton of joint disease, arthritis, torn, ACLS, hip dysplasia, all kinds of things in dogs. And those dogs usually are suffering from some level of chronic pain. And we want to focus on managing their pain and helping with their quality of life. And one of the helpful ways to do that is providing excellent joint support through the diet. And as one example, the prescription diet has high levels of omega-three fatty acids. And the research out there shows that that is the best way to get the omega3s into the dog because they get the best absorption and therefore provide the best anti-inflammatory properties in the joints for those dogs that have arthritis and other joint diseases.

So I'm quick to go to the prescription joint diets for added support and usually in addition to other things. And then for the weight management side of things, we’ve got great diets now that can focus on both joint and weight management, helping to increase a dog's metabolic rate to help them shave off the weight more naturally. So those are just two of many examples of where we can manage and treat disease through nutrition. And so, I would talk to your veterinarian about what options are available if your dog has a medical condition, as there's a decent chance that it can at least be helped through nutritional therapy.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Nutrition - FAQs

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

Is a dog able to live on a vegan diet?

That's a good question. This question is becoming more and more popular. The thing to understand about dogs is they are what's called omnivores, meaning that they can live on both a meat and a vegetarian diet, similar to people. An important distinction is that cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have to eat meat. They must have a meat-based diet because their protein requirements are so high. And so the answer is yes, you could feed your dog a vegan diet, whereas the answer for cats would be a hard no.

To elaborate on vegan diets for dogs, even though I say yes, they can, I would add that it would be particularly challenging. I would suggest that anybody interested in doing that, and it can be done, work with a veterinary nutritionist who can help formulate homemade vegan diets that meet all nutritional requirements. That's the big thing. Anytime we do home-cooked feeding, particularly something as specific as a vegan diet, there are a lot of opportunities for malnutrition that can harm your pet in the long run. So if you want to do that, please make sure you work with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Is wet food more nutritious than dry food?

No, it's not. The big difference is that wet food has a massive amount of water content. Usually, about 75 to 80% of the food in the can is water, which certainly has its benefits in some circumstances, like if you have a dog that is just not a big drinker and tends to get dehydrated if we aren't careful. Adding some wet food to the diet can be helpful because it adds water content. Also, with certain chronic conditions like kidney disease, having added water content can benefit dogs who can't maintain hydration status because of underlying disease. You can obtain adequate nutrition with dry or canned food or a combination of the two.

What about a prescription diet? Is that better for my dog?

Prescription diets are extremely useful in many different circumstances because prescription diets treat or manage specific conditions. So if you're dog has an underlying joint disease, you can use prescription joint diets to help manage that. Suppose your dog has urinary problems or a history of bladder stones, which are actually fairly common in dogs. In that case, there are prescription urinary diets that will help reduce the risk of recurrence once the underlying issue is addressed.

Those are just two of many examples where prescription nutrition can be very valuable. Because they are prescription diets, they have a particular condition that they're treating. They have to be prescribed by a veterinarian to ensure that it is the appropriate diet for that pet. My personal approach in the way I practice is to rely heavily on therapeutic diets whenever possible because if we can manage or treat disease through nutrition, it's always a good starting point.

If my dog is eating grass, does that mean that they're missing something from their diet?

No, not typically. I've never seen that be the case. When dogs are eating grass, sometimes they're just dogs. I have a dog that will occasionally eat grass and never throw up. She's kind of like a horse in that sense. I think eating grass because of a deficiency is an uncommon scenario. From what I see in practice, dogs eat grass because they haven't eaten their dog food that day, making them a little nauseous. So they eat grass, and then they throw up afterward, or they throw up, and then they go eat grass. There's usually a presence of underlying nausea or GI upset that many things can cause. Grass eating is typically related to GI upset rather than inadequate nutrition. Them trying to find nutrition in grass isn't typically the case.

Will human food make my dog overweight?

That's a good question because we see this type of thing a lot. Human food can inherently make your dog overweight, but not necessarily. You can feed your dog small amounts of human food and still keep your dog lean. The problem is, once you start feeding them human food, they become more acclimated to it. They end up hanging around you when you're eating and begging a lot more. You end up giving them more food. In most circumstances, dogs tend to be overweight when they're fed human food regularly. Another thing to consider is when you're feeding your dog human food in addition to their normal dog food, the density of those calories is much more impactful because the animal is much smaller than us. This is especially true for smaller dogs, but it applies to any dog.

Even a small piece of meat in a 10-pound dog is like an entire meal for somebody our size. So giving them human food on top of their dog food, will set them up to be overweight. The other part of that is that if they are getting more than 10% of their daily caloric intake from foods that are not their balanced dog nutrition, you risk having a nutrient imbalance. And typically, when people are feeding human food, dogs will tend to lean more heavily on human food and eat their dog food less and less. This is commonly the case to the point where they're not even eating their dog food anymore, or only sporadically because they're getting their nutrients and their food on the human side.

That is setting them up for nutrient imbalances unless you're really diligent about it. Regardless of their weight, there is a much higher risk of having significant GI-related issues, particularly pancreatitis and a condition called HGE, which can sometimes be related to certain food indiscretions. Feeding dogs human food, specifically high-fat meals, in even small amounts, triggers those types of conditions, which are potentially very dangerous and certainly very costly to deal with.

Will free-choice feeding make my dog overweight?

It tends to lean in that direction, just like human food does. You can do free feeding in a single-dog household successfully and have a lean dog. Sometimes even a multi-dog household can pull it off, but it's a lot more difficult to manage the more dogs you have. If you think about it, if they're free feeding, you have no idea who's eating what, or how much they're eating throughout the day. So there's no way to control their calories tightly. I am a big proponent of meal feeding, typically twice a day because that's most practical, and it keeps their metabolism going consistently throughout the day. That allows you to control exactly how much each pet is eating. You're using a measuring cup and working with your veterinarian to figure out how much to feed with the goal of feeding for an optimal body condition.

Are there any other myths about dog nutrition that you hear as a veterinarian?

We could probably talk about this a lot. I'll try to pick some of the highlights, but I think some specific things should be touched on because they're super common. The biggest thing nowadays is the grain-free movement that has gained a ton of traction in the last several years. It's been slowed a little bit with the concerns of heart disease linked to it, but it's still a big thing. It's not that grain-free is necessarily inherently bad, but some of the deficiencies they've identified that could potentially be linked to underlying heart conditions in some dogs are certainly a concern. The idea that grain-free diets are inherently better for pets does not have any sort of research behind it to support it. It's more based on assumptions about how nutrition works. The problem with that is that, apart from there being no research to support it, is that dogs that are on grain-free diets tend to be overweight. This is largely caused by what has to be done when you move to a grain-free diet. For example, one of the big concerns is corn. Many people become very heated when you talk about corn in dog nutrition because they believe that corn is a filler that is harmful to pets and that many companies use it to fill the food without it having any benefit.

Corn is, therefore, one of the grains that get removed. But corn, when processed properly, is very dense in nutrition. Pet companies use it because it provides a lot of nutrients for the pet. When a company removes it in making a grain-free diet, they have to replace it with something else or their food will be nutrient deficient. They'll often replace it with a more starchy carbohydrate like potatoes just to be able to label it as grain-free.

As a result of that, it tends to be a more carbohydrate-dense diet, and, generally speaking, dogs tend to be more prone to gaining weight.

I see that as one of the problems, along with the concerns about the links to heart disease.

The struggle is that many people are moving their pets to grain-free diets because they have an underlying issue, whether it is skin allergies or GI issues, and they think that the grain-free diet will fix the problem. It doesn't because grain is not a common allergen in dogs most of the time. There isn't good research that proves this is a common allergy, and therefore we should move in another direction. It's giving a lot of pet owners false hope. If I have a pet owner that has their dog on a grain-free diet, and the dog's doing much better than before, I certainly won't argue that, and I've had that happen on a few occasions.

The other concept that I see more of, maybe even more so than the grain-free nowadays, is high protein diets. High-protein diets in dogs are extremely common, and it's become the norm that it is good for the dog. Again, the problem is that the research does not support it. Clinically, I see a lot of problems with dogs that are on high-protein diets, especially older dogs. The older your pet is, the harder it is for them to process that protein. A good, well-balanced diet in an adult dog is a diet that's cognizant of the nutrition that's being provided and created based on the current research that's out there. Proteins usually make up a percentage of low to mid-twenties of daily food intake on a dry matter basis. That should be the percentages if you're looking at dry food. These other diets that I'm talking about, and there are so many of them that it's actually the norm now, contain upwards of 30%, even as high as 40% protein.

The liver has to process that extra protein, and the kidneys have to excrete the breakdown products. We often see dogs with abnormalities in their blood work because they're getting all of this excess protein that they don't need but that their body has to deal with. The older your pet is, the more harmful that can be. So the myth would be that high-protein diets are good for dogs. That is just, unfortunately, not true. It's not based on research, and the older your dog gets, the less protein they need. Good senior diets will typically have even lower protein, closer to 20%. If there are significant kidney problems, dogs with kidney disease need an even lower percentage of potentially down to 15 or 16% protein.

I could go on about additional myths, but I think those are the two most impactful ones for where we are with pet nutrition.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.