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 Nutrition Basics
Laurie S. Coger, DVM, CVCP, RP

More than ever before, owners are paying more attention to what goes in their dogs’ food bowls. The question of how and what a dog should be fed is often heatedly debated – premium kibble versus “look-alike” brands from wholesale clubs versus grocery store brands, raw, home-cooked, and fresh frozen. Should supplements be used, or is the food “complete and balanced”, as the labels state? Should grains be fed? Should bones be whole or ground? What about herbal supplements, joint supplements, vitamins, and probiotics? What about the special needs of the performance dog, older dog, or growing puppy?

The answers to these questions are obviously complex. There are many ways to meet a dog’s nutritional needs. For the show and competition dog, we are especially concerned that the diet supports peak physical and mental condition, as well as overall health. Many dogs have sensitive digestive systems, food intolerances, or other health concerns. The senior dog and the family dog who is not very active need good nutrition without extra calories that lead to weight gain. A sound nutritional program will enable all of these dogs live to long and healthy lives.

Whatever feeding plan is used, it must fit in the daily routine of the owner. The food chosen must be readily available, and in the case of the competition dog, be able to be easily fed on the road. The food must meet the nutritional needs of the individual dog, and be fed in a way to not provide excessive or deficient amounts of key nutrients.  All foods should be clean and fresh, especially kibble that is naturally preserved with tocopherols and or citric acid. Natural preservatives are preferred to chemical preservatives such as BHA or BHT, but naturally preserved food that is stored too long may become rancid or moldy, as well as losing its nutritional value.

The vast majority of dogs in this country, whether family companions or competition/working dogs, are fed some type of commercial food. For the purposes of this article, commercial food will be divided into three categories: standard or grocery store foods, premium or pet store foods, and super-premium foods. The best way to understand the differences in these foods is to review the ingredients of a representative of each food category. (Food examples were chosen based on nationwide advertising and availability.)


Top 5 ingredients of common dog foods

Standard Food                        Premium Food                                Super-Premium Food

Kibbles ‘n Bits®                   Nutro Max Adult®                       Wellness Super5 Chicken®     

Corn                                       Chicken Meal                                        Deboned Chicken

Soybean meal                          Wheat Flour                                          Ground Barley

Ground wheat                          Ground Whole Wheat                           Oatmeal

Beef & bone meal                     Rice Bran                                             Rye Flour

Animal fat*                               Poultry Fat**                                       Menhaden Fish Meal

*BHA and citric acid used as preservatives

**Preserved with mixed tocopherols, a source of vitamin E

As you can see from these examples, the proportion of meat in the top 5 ingredients (listed in order of amount, i.e. the first ingredient is present in the largest amount) is small in the standard grocery store food. The meat source, beef and bone meal, is defined as a rendered product made from beef parts which are not suitable for human consumption. Rendering is the process by which waste products are broken down to be used in, among other things, dog food. Rendering companies typically collect waste from slaughterhouses, dead livestock, restaurant and grocery store wastes, and in some areas, euthanized animals (livestock and in some areas, pets). The collected animals and waste are then sprayed or injected with carbolic acid or similar chemicals to break down the proteins. This is followed by grinding and cooking. Fat is separated out, and the remaining material is dried to produce meal. What do you think the nutritional quality of this meat and bone meal is?

The premium quality food lists chicken meal as the first ingredient. While it is a more specific type of meal, and likely of higher quality, it is still a rendered product. Also, two varieties of wheat are listed, a technique known as “splitting” in labeling jargon. It cannot be determined from the label whether the food contains more chicken meal or wheat. A big advantage the premium food offers is the use of tocopherols for preservation of the chicken fat, rather than the suspected carcinogen BHA.

The super-premium food protein source is whole, unrendered meat, meaning muscle with or without organ meat and associated structures. This product contains fish meal as the fifth ingredient, which is defined as “clean, dried, ground tissue of undecomposed whole fish and/or fish cuttings, with or without the extraction of part of the oil.”  The super-premium food also contains three types of grains, of types not commonly found in most dog foods. With wheat implicated in many food allergies and intolerances, it is advantageous to use other grains if possible, even if they cost more than wheat or corn.

After learning what is really in commercial dog foods, you may be wondering what you have been putting in your best friend’s bowl! You thought you were getting the best food possible when you paid for an expensive brand, only to find out it is mostly grains. You are probably wondering if you have used a food that contains rendered euthanized animals, including dogs and cats. Two studies performed by the US Food & Drug Administration demonstrated the presence of the euthanasia drug sodium pentobarbital in many commercial dog foods, including premium brands. (Read about these studies in Foods Pets Die For, by Ann Martin) You may be considering the possibility that some of your dog’s health issues could be food related. Most of all, you are probably wondering what commercial foods can meet your dog’s nutritional needs in a wholesome way.

Fortunately, as more people learn about commercial foods, the demand for super-premium quality dog foods has increased, and more options are available today than ever before. It is now possible to find non-meal protein sources, grain free foods, and foods that use all human grade ingredients. With some research and careful label reading, you can find foods you can be comfortable feeding. With some companies offering delivery to your home, getting the highest quality food available has become easier, regardless of your location.

In response to learning what may be contained in dog food, many owners have turned to home-prepared diets. Feeding so-called “natural” diets is becoming commonplace in the world of the canine competition. Advocates of natural diets are often very enthusiastic about the merits of feeding real food to their dogs. Commonly cited benefits of a natural diet include reduction of allergies, better coats, stronger immune systems, and fewer gastrointestinal problems.  

There are many feeding plans that fall under the general description of a “natural” diet. Perhaps the best known is the “Bones And Raw Food” diet designed by Dr. Ian Billinghurst. The core of this plan is the raw meaty bone, most commonly poultry necks, backs, and wings. Other pioneers of natural feeding such as Wendy Volhard and Dr. Kerry Brown advocate use of raw meats and vegetables, as well as a grain/cereal meal. Their feeding plan is one of the few that has been shown to meet or exceed the minimum daily requirement of all known nutrients, and was tested on dogs in all life stages for 12 years before being published. Many other feeding plans exist, and incorporate concepts from the Volhard and Billinghurst diets. Several companies are producing premixes and meats designed for inclusion in these plans, eliminating some of the work involved in feeding a natural diet. Finding recipes for feeding plans has never been easier, as there are many books, seminars, and internet resources available.

Although it is becoming easier to feed a natural diet, it can still be time consuming and require extra work. It requires an investment of time to become educated about your dog’s nutritional needs. You must find a source for clean and fresh meats and other ingredients, and have the freezer space to store them. Depending on the diet plan you choose, you may need to grind or blanch vegetables or prepare cereal meals. You will also need to monitor your dog’s health with regular veterinary check-ups and blood testing.

Many veterinarians and owners object to a natural diet. They are concerned that the raw meat may be contaminated with bacteria and cause infection in dogs or people, and that raw bones may perforate the digestive tract. They are worried that the diet is not completely balanced, as a kibble meal would be. Since the advent of commercial dog foods, we have been lectured about the evils of giving our dogs “human” food, as that would unbalance the diet. How can we possibly consider feeding a dog a completely “human” food diet, and how can it supply all the nutrition the dog needs?

Raw meats inevitably contain a large bacterial load. These bacteria can be dangerous to humans, so practicing good food hygiene is important, whether preparing your dinner or your dog’s. However, a dog’s digestive system is designed to handle bacteria that would be life threatening to a person.  Bacteria are everywhere. If he couldn’t handle large bacterial loads, your dog would surely die from chewing on sticks, licking his feet after walking in dirty areas, or scavenging discarded foods from the trashcan.

The risk that raw bones may perforate the digestive tract is small, but theoretically possible. Cooked bones are far more likely to splinter, and do pose a real risk. Appropriately sized raw bones, especially non-weight bearing bones such as poultry necks, can be thoroughly chewed by most dogs and tend to be crushed by chewing. Large bones such as beef thigh bone (femur) are large enough to not be splintered. You may have seen them sold in pet stores, plain or coated with a flavoring. Of course any dog that is an enthusiastic chewer should be supervised while chewing meaty bones.

The dog food industry has long fostered the belief that each meal we feed our dogs must be completely balanced. Meeting your dog’s nutritional needs for the basic nutrients – protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals – is the very definition of a complete diet. However, the body possesses the ability to store some nutrients, a “buffer”, making it unnecessary to eat a 24-hour supply of every nutrient every day. In fact, the Volhard diet is fed in 7 days cycles, taking advantage of the body’s ability to store nutrients and allowing the digestive system to rest one day of the cycle. Do you eat a perfectly balanced diet each day?

Deciding what to feed your dog is not a simple decision. The more you learn about commercial foods, the more selective you will become.  Fortunately, more high quality kibble foods, which approach the quality of well-managed natural diets, are readily available. Premixes that make feeding and traveling with a natural diet easier are also available. Feeding a natural diet is becoming more common and accepted, especially among owners of competition dogs. Whether you choose to feed your dog fresh or kibbled food, you have several excellent feeding plans to choose from.

Please feel free to send your questions to us at!

Resources: Listed below are companies whose products we use for our own dogs.

Competitive Canine Care Recommended Reading List

Wysong Canine Foods

            Savings from the Canine Wellness Center! Use coupon code 139 for free shipping from Wysong!

Oma’s Pride Frozen Foods

          An excellent source of fresh frozen foods

Vetri-Science Products

Cutting edge supplements for your dog, from the makers of Glyco-Flex, one of the first joint supplements. We believe most dogs, especially those over 5 years of age, should receive a glucosamine/MSM supplement such as GlycoFlex.

            Note: Enter the site using the link at the bottom of the page. Watch for special savings!


          Innova-EVO is one of the few no-grain dry foods available. It is an excellent supplement to a raw feeding plan.


          An excellent all natural food , with human quality ingredients.


            Excellent products with a variety of formulas, including a fish and sweet potato formula for the allergic dog.

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