The feeding of the dog is a rather complex matter; the variables in the field are many and those who love their faithful friend can not afford to dismiss the subject in two bars. One thing is certain: nutrition and physical activity, as is the case for man, play a fundamental role in maintaining the health of our four-legged friends.
The dog is a carnivorous animal that after living with man has developed omnivorous tendencies; this situation is the basis of the first serious mistake in dog feeding: a dog fed with the leftovers of our meals is a dog that is not fed according to its natural characteristics. In particular, the abuse of complex carbohydrates such as bread and pasta causes serious imbalances in the diet of our faithful friend. So, first rule:
A dog should be fed on a purely carnivorous basis.
Many dog owners, especially newcomers, are wondering whether a “home-made” or an “industrial” diet is better. At first glance we would have thought that it is the first food for the right dog, but we must bear in mind that such a choice is not, especially in the long term, easily sustainable, both in terms of costs and time of management, both not insignificant. Those who prefer to feed their dog at home are probably motivated by the fear that an industrial type of feeding may not be adequate, or even harmful, for the animal. In reality, even an industrial diet can be excellent; the important thing is to learn to discriminate between products; certainly there are many that are to be discarded (for example, those with preservatives and EEC colorants), but over time you will learn to choose with caution and criteria.
A fundamental premise: when we talk about feeding the dog, we must bear in mind that certain interventions are of a general nature and are therefore good for each dog, but there are others that also depend on the type of animal (one account is a hunting dog and one account is a companion dog, one account is a Great Dane and one account is a border collie). It is not possible, and moreover it is not in the scope of this article, to give ad hoc suggestions for each individual breed of dog; what we intend to do is to give some advice and certain guidelines that are generally applicable.
Dog feeding: puppies
In the first month of life of the dog, the milk of the bitch is an irreplaceable and complete food. If the mother of the puppy has no particular health problems it is not necessary to intervene otherwise; the important thing is to verify that the puppy does not show signs of insufficient nutrition (crying, hyporeactivity, weight gain less than normal).
Bitch’s milk is a food much more caloric than other types of milk: 135 kcal/100 g (about twice as much as the cow’s milk that counts 66); if this alone is not enough to ensure a correct weight gain, it is necessary to resort to the advice of a veterinarian who will indicate the most correct way of supplementing the diet.
Weaning of the puppy begins between the third and fourth week of life, depending on the breed. As in the case of children, the transition to a new type of diet (solid foods) must be made with a certain gradualness; at the beginning of the weaning phase it will be possible to use ad hoc preparations (small pieces of dry food softened with water). Not all puppies will be able to enjoy the transition immediately, it will be the responsibility of his friend man to encourage him with patience to the new type of food.
After six weeks from birth, at least a quarter of the puppy’s food requirements should be made up of the new type of food (pieces that are gradually larger and have a smaller amount of water). Weaning generally ends after seven or eight weeks; the important thing is to avoid a sudden weaning that could create problems for both the puppy and the mother.
It is essential in the first months of life (but it will also be later) to avoid an excessive diet; an overweight dog will in fact run many more risks of contracting pathologies of the osteo-articular type; among other things, many foods for puppies are supplemented with chondroprotective substances such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate) as well as with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and phosphorus.
The time taken to reach maximum weight varies from size to size; in small dogs the maximum weight is reached within ten months; in medium sized dogs within a year, in large dogs within a year and a half, while in giant dogs it takes about two years.
In the weaning phase, the number of recommended meals is four per day; after the weaning phase, the number of meals will be increased to three and then stabilised at two. For large and giant dogs, however, it is advisable to divide the feed into three meals, regardless of age, to prevent too large a quantity from creating gastric disturbances. It is important that digestion takes place correctly, so meals should be given at appropriate intervals (at least 8-9 hours between meals). It is advisable not to feed the meal in the evening at too late a time.
Adult dog feeding
In some ways, the rules of feeding the dog are not so different from those of humans; even with regard to our friends we must take into account their lifestyle; in fact, among certain dogs can be made the same comparisons that are made between sedentary people and physically active people; it is obvious that we must take this into account because the nutritional needs are certainly different.
In the opening of the article we mentioned two types of feeding of the dog: the domestic and industrial; it is not risky to say that now the vast majority of people opt for the second that offers undoubted advantages: first makes it much easier, faster and practical preparation of meals, even from the point of view of comfort, cost and conservation the advantages are undeniable.
Dog food can be subdivided both in relation to its nutritional characteristics (complete, complementary or dietary foods) and according to its degree of humidity. According to this last criterion, dog food is divided into:
- dry food
- moist food
- semi-wet food.
In dry food, the degree of humidity is lower than about 15%; instead, we speak of wet food when the degree of humidity is between 68 and 78%; finally, we speak of semi-wet food when the degree of humidity varies between 15 and 30%. We can, however, simplify the subdivision considering two main categories: dry food and wet food. Both have pros and cons; let’s look at them briefly.
Dry food – Dry food (crunchy food) has a very long shelf life and there are therefore no problems to keep even considerable stocks; they are easily available in all types of lines (puppy, premium, light, indoor); they can provide a complete diet and generally have an excellent quality / price ratio. Among other things, it should be noted that in many dry food there are preservatives and colorants (although, to be honest, there are some excellent ones that do not use them); dry food is generally less digestible than wet food; not all dogs appreciate it particularly and also problems may arise in administering it to dogs suffering from kidney disorders.
Wet food – In principle wet food is certainly more palatable and digestible than dry food; it is more suitable for dogs suffering from kidney disorders and is much more varied from the point of view of taste. On the other hand, wet foods are more easily perishable; they are also less satiating in the long term and less complete from a nutritional point of view; another problem with wet foods is that they can create many problems at the dental level; and they are certainly more expensive than dry food.
In general, however, it seems preferable, considering the pros and cons, to focus on dry foods that are easier to handle and nutritionally complete.
Quality of dog food
Unfortunately, the current provisions on dog food does not allow for accurate information. Incredibly, very few people have noticed that the nutrition labels for dog food are definitely incomplete. In the case of dog feed, too, the ingredients must be indicated in descending order, without indicating the percentages, except for those which characterise the feed (if we are talking about lamb croquettes, the percentage of lamb meat must be indicated). If we go to the composition we are faced with another difficulty: the sum of the percentages of the components does not give 100! Let’s see what is indicated.
Protein – Protein is the noblest part of dog food. Unfortunately, the European regulation allows the use of horns, nails, bones, etc.; fortunately these elements are not normally used, but offal is used. Of course, the quality is far from that of food for humans, just think that to feed an adult man of 70 kg with kibble for dogs (theoretically possible) you would spend two euros a day! So those who complain about the high cost of dog food should not have a dog!
In dry feed the protein content ranges from 20 to 32% (for puppy feed the lower threshold is raised to at least 24%). Some people believe that the higher the protein content, the higher the quality of the food; in reality, this is not the case, due to two problems:
The higher the percentage, the more the dog is predisposed to renal disease (including chronic renal failure, which is a major cause of death);
it is necessary to verify (list of ingredients) that the proteins are of animal origin, because those of vegetable origin (soy for example) are less assimilable.
Fats – Generally, fats (which have an energetic function in the dog’s diet) are around 20%. From the list of ingredients you can know the quality of fats, maximum for fish oil (rich in omega 3) and minimum for waste fats of other animal origin (such as pork), rich in saturated fats.
Fibers and ashes – Usually the fiber is around 2%; it should be noted that it is generally not assimilated by the dog and this should be taken into account if the dog has intestinal problems.
Ashes are the mineral salts that remain after burning the food; some of these mineral salts are not assimilated by the dog so it is advisable that the ashes do not have a high percentage content. It should be noted that many vitamins and some minerals are added to the food after cooking because during the process of processing those “useful” are lost and remain only those not very assimilable (such as calcium carbonate). Particular attention should be paid to the content of phosphorus and sodium, which are not particularly positive elements in adult dogs (phosphorus is used by puppies for the proper development of bones). So, the less ashes there are, the better, but look at the list of additives that must reflect a good spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
How do we get to one hundred? – Considering that the water in a dry food is about 15%, what is missing to reach 100 is represented by carbohydrates. So a food that has, for example, 22% protein, 15% fat, 6% fibre and ash, will have 42% carbohydrates.
Usually, a food with many carbohydrates comes from cereals and other vegetables, so it is not particularly suitable for dogs. The carbohydrate content should be less than 45%.
In total, using the formula of Atwater (ignoring the non-assimilable fibers), will have about 390 kcal/100 g. Some authors calculate the calorie content of dog feed considering that industrial foods provide on average less energy than household foods (due to their different assimilability), indicating 8.5 (instead of 9 for fats) and 3.5 (instead of 4 for proteins and carbohydrates) as coefficients of the Atwater formula. In this case the feed described above would only have about 350 kcal. Unfortunately, the absence of an indication of calorie content is still a defect in dog feed.
Artificial preservatives, flavourings and colourings – Check that there are no artificial preservatives, flavourings or colourings by reading the label or packaging of the product. It is important not to fall victim to the makeup of products that enhance the absence of one or two of these elements, but in fact indicate that the other two or the third are present!
Preservatives, flavours or natural colours do not automatically indicate a high quality of the product (not everything that is natural is good), but at least they remove some chemistry from the feed. In particular, appetizers are used to make the feed more palatable, but it is not mandatory to specify them on the packaging.
Attention to certain types of food
Some types of food are not suitable for feeding your dog. Let’s look at some that can be risky for our friend.
Some attention should be paid to chicken bones or cooked bones of other types of meat and fish bones because they may cause obstructive problems or cause lacerations in the digestive system. Small bones can stop in the teeth and cause various types of injuries. Raw bone marrow can be given with peace of mind, however.
Chocolate hurts (see our article Chocolate and dogs); also avoid tea and coffee.
The administration of cat food should be avoided since, in the vast majority of cases, it is excessively shifted to proteins and lipids.
The initial advice to set the diet on a purely carnivorous basis should limit plant foods (even if a small fraction is taken by wild carnivores); they can be inserted occasionally, especially during slimming regimens, with some warning: no even to grapes and raisins that can cause damage to the kidney. Hops are also dangerous, as they can cause cardiorespiratory problems and convulsions. In some cases it can even be lethal.
Avoid fungi, garlic, onions and leeks that can cause anemia. It is advisable to avoid potatoes, rhubarb and in any case those foods excessively rich in oxalates which can damage the digestive, urinary and nervous systems.
The temptation to humanize the dog from the food point of view is to be absolutely condemned: therefore, alcohol and candies or other products containing xylitol are absolutely forbidden.
Caution with excessively sugary foods (they can cause obesity and dental problems) and with foods that are too rich in salt, which can cause electrolyte imbalances.