Printer Version with Pictures
Nutrition and Longevity
There are few decisions you will make for your dog more important than what to feed and how much. Good nutrition is essential to good health. In addition, many nutritional factors influence longevity and cancer risk. You are not only feeding a diet for today, you are feeding for future health, too.
In humans, proper diet can prevent breast and colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and many other diseases. The same is true for our pets - the better the diet, the lower the risk of disease. The food a pet eats also affects injury risk, organ function, the brain and the immune system.
Nutrition is a complicated topic. Oversimplification and deceptive marketing of pet products has created misconceptions about what makes a pet food good or bad. We want to give you some simple guidelines on what to look for and what to avoid when it comes to nutritional ingredients and supplements.
Overall, our goal is for you to feed the best food you can afford to feed. The hard part is understanding what makes a food good or bad. Cheap foods have inferior ingredients, poor quality control and may contain excesses or deficiencies of various nutrients. The better the food, the more digestible it is, so the less you have to feed. A better diet may actually save money because you feed less. You may need to feed three times as much of a poor quality food to get the same amount of nutrition.
Most of you already get this and are not feeding the least expensive food you can find. The problem for us is more the opposite. Many of our clients are spending a lot of money on “premium” dog food. Unfortunately, many expensive pet store diets actually provide very poor nutrition, despite their fancy marketing. Over a dozen brands, including Blue Buffalo, Taste of the Wild, Rachel Ray Nutrish, Fromm’s, Zignature, and others, have been linked to heart failure in dogs. Grain-free diets are especially problematic.
Diet-Related Heart Disease
The specific form of heart disease we are seeing in dogs eating grain-free diets is dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. DCM is a disease of the heart muscle. Instead of being an efficient muscular pump, the heart muscle stretches and becomes thinner, like an old rubber band or a water balloon. Eventually, the dilated, flabby heart cannot keep up and the affected dog (or human) goes into heart failure. DCM is the most common reason for people to need heart transplants.
The heart on the left is normal in size and shape. You can see the reddish-colored muscle tissue. On the right is a heart with DCM. It is large and flabby, no longer able to pump blood effectively.
DCM can also be caused by a genetic defect or by certain toxic drugs. Sadly, 90% of DCM in dogs nowadays is directly linked to the food they are eating.
Grain-free diets have become very popular, making up 25-50% of our patients’ diets. We have been spending the last couple of years trying to discuss this topic with every pet owner we see. The more patients we can get switched off grain-free diets and onto more traditional diets, the fewer will die of a completely preventable form of heart failure.
The Truth about Grain-Free
The grain-free concept originally arose from anti-corn sentiments. Many pet foods are marketed as having “no corn,” implying that corn is bad. You'll find loads of information online proclaiming corn is bad for dogs from a nutritional aspect. That is myth, not fact, but it has been heavily used as a marketing ploy, and most pet owners believe it.
There are health benefits implied with grain-free diets, but there is no scientific support for these claims or this approach. Many grain-free diets are not actually lower in carbs than a regular dog food, The ones that are low-carb are high in calories – less carbohydrate, more fat instead. Grain-free diets are a major contributing cause to high obesity rates in dogs.
The marketing of grain-free diets as being “low carbohydrate” also fits in with what people are eating for themselves and what they feel good nutrition is supposed to look like.
Grains are not at all unhealthy, despite what you hear in pet food ads. Whole grain, containing fiber and complex carbohydrates, is healthy for both humans and dogs; flour, sugar and processed grains are not. We would much rather you feed a diet with whole grains than potato as the carbohydrate ingredient. We definitely don’t want you to feed a diet containing peas or lentils. Those are the ingredients most linked with diet-related heart disease.
The FDA spent several years tracking diet-related heart disease cases. In the summer of 2019, they published a report listing the ingredients associated with DCM (chart on page 3) and also the brands of food implicated. We have the complete list if you are interested in seeing it. We strongly recommend you don’t feed any of those brands.
Reducing Risk for Cancer
One of the most important things to remember is that cancer takes years to develop. What you are feeding now, if you have a young dog or cat, is already influencing what diseases your pet will develop many years from now. Avoiding cancer is a key to successful aging because cancer is the leading cause of death in older pets. Nutrition has a lot to do with cancer development.
Processed carbs increase cancer risk. It’s what we do to grains that make them dangerous. Stay away from any diet or treat that contains flour, cornmeal, corn syrup or other processed carbohydrates.
Sugar is metabolized in the body to molecules that cause cell damage. Sugar and simple carbohydrates increase cancer risk and decrease lifespan. They also stimulate insulin production; excess insulin has damaging effects as well. Both the sugar and the insulin promote cancer development and progression. Cancer loves carbs!
A big factor in the development of cancer, as well as allergies, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and many other disorders, is inflammation. When cells are damaged, a repair process occurs, which brings increased blood flow to the injured area, as well as white blood cells, antibodies and other substances to stimulate healing. This is fine if the inflammation is short lived, say after a small wound or minor injury. Chronic inflammation, however, causes further damage. Heart valves, joint cartilage and kidney cells are among the tissues that are damaged by it. Long term inflammation also leads to cancer.
Pet food labeling and marketing are often about how dogs are like their wolf ancestors and need meat, especially red meat, and lots of protein. The digestive systems of dogs today are much different from wolves. Dogs are omnivores, not carnivores. At least 12 different genes having to do with the digestion of starch have evolved over thousands of years, helping dogs adapt to eating a more varied diet.
Not only do dogs not need a lot of meat but a specific sugar called Neu5Gc, which is found in the fat of red meat, promotes antibodies, inflammation and cancer. Humans make an enzyme that breaks down Neu5Gc but in dogs it becomes incorporated into cell DNA. This foreign sugar then generates an immune system response and results in the formation of antibodies. Antibodies are part of the inflammatory process. It is better to have chicken or turkey as the meat source in your dog’s diet rather than beef, because of this Neu5Gc sugar.
Anti-inflammatory substances, including Omega 3 fatty acids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as carprofen or Deracoxib, and many nutrients that act as antioxidants all increase life expectancy by reducing inflammation. OM3s and NSAIDs augment each other when used together, with greater effect plus reduced risk for side effects from the NSAIDs. Dogs taking NSAIDs for arthritis actually live longer because of it!
Fatty acids come in two types, Omega 3 and Omega 6. Omega 6 fatty acids, found in most plant oils, promote and sustain inflammation (though they do give the skin and coat a nice shine).
Omega 3 fatty acids, the good kind, can be found in algae and in the bodies of fish that eat algae. Farm raised fish that eat pelleted diets instead of natural foods such as algae do not contain Omega 3 fatty acids. Many times when you buy fish oil you are getting oil from farm raised fish that don’t contain Omega 3 fatty acids, so you would actually be getting the harmful Omega 6 type of oil. Look for the amounts of DHA and EPA, the Omega 3’s, in any fish oil supplement you buy. Those are the ones you want.
Fish oil isn’t a very concentrated source of DHA so you have to give a fairly large amount of it. That’s why those capsules are so large. Fish oil can be contaminated with organophosphates and heavy metals. One of the brands we carry, Nordic Naturals, is one of the few brands that test the oil for contaminants on a regular basis.
It’s actually safer and easier to take oil derived directly from algae instead of fish. Protectacell™, made by Animal Health Options, is a brand we recommend. Right now you have to search to find Omega 3 supplements derived from algae but in the future algae farms will probably be a more efficient and less expensive way to obtain these nutrients.
Another important factor in the development of cancer is the amount of food you feed. Keeping pets lean increases lifespan by two years and increases the quality of that life as well. This is because fat cells produce toxins that damage other cells. Damaged cells, especially if the DNA is damaged, can turn cancerous.
Our goal with weight management is not just to increase “lifespan” but to increase “healthspan” – the number of years your pet is healthy and feels good. Lean pets develop arthritis two years later than overweight pets, so both healthspan and lifespan increase by two years if pets are not allowed to overeat.
Oxidation is a process that breaks down chemical bonds between molecules, another way that cells in the body become damaged over time. Many vitamins and other nutritional substances have antioxidant properties – they protect cells from oxidative damage. Vitamins A and E, selenium, fatty acids and Beta-carotene all have antioxidant effects.
However, overdoses of any of these actually increase cancer risk. It is very important to give supplements at the proper dosage; otherwise you will shorten lifespan instead of lengthening it!
- Limit carbohydrates but don’t overcompensate with protein.
- Supplement with fatty acids, either fish oil or from an algae source – not from flax, which is not digestible by dogs or cats.
- Don’t over-supplement!!
- Avoid beef as a protein source. If you do choose a food with beef try for beef meat meal instead of beef meat. Meat meals contain just the protein with the fat removed.
- Ingredients vilified in advertisements are not necessarily bad, including grain, corn, soy, and by-products.
- Just because it’s on the label doesn’t make it true! Choose a diet from a company we recommend for its research and quality control.
Choosing a Good Pet Food: the Basics
A lot of research goes into a good brand of dog or cat food. We are still learning about the nutritional needs of our companion animals, and only the companies keeping up with the latest findings have incorporated them into their foods.
We always recommend choosing a pet food developed with the help of a veterinary nutritionist. It is very easy to create a pet food that meets minimal government standards. It’s much more difficult to formulate one that provides the precise amounts of vitamins a dog needs for the greatest possible healthspan.
A high quality company doesn’t substitute ingredients or vary the nutritional content from batch to batch of food. Exact nutrient content should be available on the company’s website. Most consumers judge a diet by looking at the list of ingredients. This is not a very good way to evaluate a food. You have no idea how much of each is in there. The problem is, it’s about all you have to go on when you are looking at labels.
You can’t even tell how much protein, fat or carbs the food contains. What’s on the label is a maximum or minimum amount, not a measured quantity.
The way veterinarians evaluate diets is by a scientific analysis on a dry matter basis. This is only available from companies that do testing and scientific analysis of their diets. We don’t use the information on the government-required label at all, because it’s inaccurate and misleading.
HOW do companies formulate their diets?
Most pet food manufacturers simply put a bunch of ingredients together that add up to sufficient amounts of nutrients on paper – but that doesn’t guarantee that nutrition is still adequate in the finished product. Diet-related heart disease and cancer caused by an excess of vitamins are both examples of what can happen when a diet has no research behind it.
The agency that sets standards for pet food manufacture is the American Association of Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO. Pet foods are supposed to at least meet AAFCO minimums for nutrients. Every pet food is supposed to either have feeding trials to prove it is complete and balanced or it has to meet AAFCO standards.
AAFCO nutrient amounts are minimums though – if a diet barely meets the minimum amounts, your pet may become nutrient-deficient due to illness, stress, age or other problems that increase nutrient demands. The phrase “complete and balanced” on a pet food label doesn’t mean a food is complete and balanced under all conditions. Calorie and nutrient needs are on a bell curve, with pet foods formulated to be adequate for the middle of the range - the average pet under average conditions. Pets with low metabolic rates, pets with health problems or those under environmental stress may have very different needs than the average.
Some ingredients now known to be essential, such as fatty acids, are not even included in these standards, which are decades old. Just because it meets a minimum standard doesn’t mean the food is a quality product. It’s a pretty low bar.
AAFCO is also not a regulatory agency. They don’t do any inspection of food plants or testing of diets. There is no proof that companies have to provide in order for them to print “Meets AAFCO standards” on the label.
The formulation method of calculating the nutrient balance of a pet food based on its ingredients, without actually doing any testing of the end product, only costs a pet food company about $1000. It’s inexpensive, but it doesn’t ensure that the ingredients work well together, are not changed by processing of the food and are not contaminated. For example, calcium supplements can bind to iron supplements so that neither are absorbed from the food. Flax seed is not digestible at all by dogs and cats, so it provides no nutrient value. Just because an ingredient is present in the food doesn’t mean it’s available to the pet.
Most OTC diets, both canned and dry, don’t have enough fatty acids or antioxidants in them. These nutrients are not listed on the label at all. Pet food stores sell some better quality diets, but it’s difficult for a consumer to tell good from bad, and many are not nearly as healthy as the fancy marketing campaigns make you think they are.
Food trials are the gold standard way of evaluating a diet. In a food trial, dogs or cats are fed a particular diet over a long stretch of time, while their health is monitored carefully for any adverse changes. Doing feeding trials to make sure the diet works as expected cost well over $100,000 per trial. This is why the majority of pet foods have never been tested in food trials.
Food trials protect pets. It’s been many years now since the big pet food recall for melamine contamination in 2007. Thousands of dogs and cats suffered kidney damage from melamine-contaminated food at that time. The problem was detected by a pet food company doing feeding trials. It would have been much, much worse if that company hadn’t discovered there was a problem early on. Feeding trials are essential to detecting problems such as contaminated ingredients.
THINGS to THINK About when choosing a diet
Our diet recommendations are individualized for each patient, because it’s complicated. What you feed your pet matters, and your pet isn’t quite the same as any other dog. Good food promotes good health but there are a lot of factors to consider. We’re always happy to help you pick and choose the best products available!
Tartar control is important, since 80% of dogs over age three have some degree of dental disease. If your dog is healthy otherwise, a dry tartar control food is great. Purina makes a great prescription diet for dental tartar control that is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. (It’s called DH, for Dental health.) This is our favorite diet for adult dogs because it addresses both our dental disease and weight control concerns. Hill’s T/D diet, in contrast, is formulated for senior pets, so if your dog is age ten or older, T/D is likely what we will recommend.
Royal Canin makes a nice diet for small dogs that combines weight control with dental tartar control. Sadly, nobody makes a large breed formula that is formulated for both weight-management and dental tartar.
Remember that the second most common health problem in dogs, after dental disease, is obesity. About half the dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and this number has gone up 71% since 2005. Food should always be measured and metered out so that pets don’t overeat. There is a huge range in calories per cup between different dog foods. Many diets are too high in fat and calories for most dogs. Check the calories per cup listed on the bag for any food you are considering. It’s a lot easier to keep a dog from gaining weight in the first place than it is to get it back off again.
WET or DRY?
Some dog owners feed only canned food or canned food in addition to dry. This has drawbacks. It’s more expensive to feed canned food and not as convenient. Dry food is easy and it doesn’t dry out or spoil. Little dogs are the ones most likely to be eating canned food yet they have the highest risk for periodontal disease. All toy breed dogs should be eating tartar control diets if possible.
There really isn’t one correct diet that fits every dog and every situation. However, if we had our way, every pet would be eating a prescription or therapeutic diet. (Hill’s has copyrighted the word “prescription” for pet food, so other manufacturers use the word “therapeutic” for their veterinary-specific diets.) These diets are designed to address specific problems such as weight management, arthritis or dental disease.
OTC diets are required by law to provide nutrition that fits within certain parameters. These parameters don’t allow for nutrients to be added in therapeutic amounts – extra fatty acids to treat arthritis for example. Prescription diets are different. They can legally contain amounts of things, such as fish oil for arthritis, that are high enough to treat diseases. You may see the words “contains glucosamine” on a bag of food at the pet store but the amount of glucosamine in an OTC diet cannot legally be enough to have a therapeutic effect on your pet.
Therapeutic diets can also contain less of some ingredients than is legally required for an OTC diet, such as lower amounts of fat or fiber to treat certain digestive disorders.
Almost every dog could benefit from one or more of these strategies. Therapeutic diets have been clinically proven to have health benefits, with research and quality control behind them. No matter how good the ads sound, most brands do not provide this level of nutrition.
Prescription diets have been tested and approved by the FDA just like drugs. They are made in the company’s own facility, so they have control over things like ingredient testing, cleanliness and processing. Nothing goes in the food that isn’t on the label and nothing is on the label that isn’t in the food. They have their own laboratory on-site so they can test each batch of ingredients and each batch of finished food to make sure it meets their standards. The facilities are inspected and are open for tours by veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Their nutrition research is published and the results of extensive food trials and testing on live dogs and cats are utilized when they formulate their diets.
Our basic recommendations are:
- Feed dry Purina DH as your main diet if your dog is young and healthy.
- Measure out how much food you feed, with a measuring cup
- Switch to T/D, which is Hill’s tartar control diet, when your dog gets older. T/D is lower in protein and is designed for older dogs with reduced kidney function.
- Avoid cheap grocery store foods, both canned and dry, unless your dog won’t eat anything else.
- If your dog needs to lose weight, feed a prescription weight loss diet
PET FOODS WE REALLY LIKE
• Hill’s Healthy Advantage • Science Diet • Purina Pro Plan • Eukanuba • Royal Canin
PET FOODS WE THINK ARE PRETTY GOOD
• Iams • Purina ONE
Diets we want you to stay away from
• Everything else!
1) We want a diet manufactured in the company’s own plant, not in a giant production facility that makes diets for dozens of different brands. This ensures the company has control of the ingredients, the processing and the cleanliness of the plant.
2) We want one formulated by a nutritionist – that means a PhD in animal nutrition or a veterinarian board-certified in small animal nutrition. Nutrition is way too complicated to formulate on paper from a chart.
3) We want ingredient testing before those ingredients go into the food – for purity, heavy metals, fat and water content, fiber balance and a host of other things.
4) We want the company to perform and publish nutritional research.
5) We want feeding trials, where the food is fed to live dogs or cats who are tested and monitored for things like heart disease and kidney failure.
There are only four pet food companies that do all this. Those are Hill’s, Purina, Iams & and Royal Canin.
Nutrition Fun Facts
· A pet food that says “holistic” on the label can just as easily be made in a dirty facility with inferior ingredients as one that does not.
· Obesity is the most common nutritional disease, and half of America’s pets are overweight or obese. The heavier the pet, the shorter the lifespan.
Pets don’t have to be obese to damage their health. Being just 15% overweight shortens the life expectancy of a dog or cat by two years. (Two years!!!) That’s about 9 lb. of excess weight for a 60 lb. Labrador retriever and only 1.5 lbs. for a 10 lb. poodle, an amount that many pet owners don’t even notice or think is significant.
· As of January 1, 2016, all pet foods are required to print the calories per cup of their foods on the pet food label. For the first time ever, we can now easily compare calories from one diet to another.
· Many times people think they are buying a hand crafted, high quality diet from a small company that cares about their pet, but this is rarely true. Most pet foods are made by giant corporations. For example, the brands Diamond, Kirkland, Natural Balance, Wellness, Canidae, Chicken Soup and Premium Edge are all made in the same facility. This is why, when there is a pet food recall, it’s common for many brands to be involved in the problem.
· Allergy to grain is very rare, despite what you may have heard. Food allergy is usually to major protein ingredients in the food, such as beef or chicken.
· Some treats are healthier than others. Most pet snacks are junk food, high in fat and salt, but some pet treats provide complete and balanced nutrition just like a regular pet food. Iams treats and some ProPlan biscuits are good. Look for the words “Complete and balanced” on the label.
· “Complete and balanced for all life stages” is an oxymoron – it doesn’t make any sense. Puppies and kittens have different nutritional needs from adult pets, and seniors, and the overweight and the underweight pet have different needs as well. Foods like Canidae and Felidae that have the label claim of “Complete and balanced for all life stages” are formulated for puppies and kittens and are not appropriate for other life stages.
· “Human Grade” by FDA definition means a food is meant for human use and made in a plant intended for human consumption. No pet food can be human grade and it is actually illegal to have it printed on a pet food label. This means Rachel Ray’s pet food is breaking the law by claiming their ingredients are “human grade.” (They also have no nutritionist on staff.)
· Words like “no corn,” “grain-free,” “natural,” “premium,” “human grade” and “holistic” are thrown around with abandon, yet mean very little as far as determining the quality of a pet food.
· Is meat better than meat meal? The word “meat” on a pet food ingredient list means the meat is wet and unchanged. “Meat meal” has been cooked to strain the fat off and then dried. Meat meal contains the protein part and not all the fat. It is often a healthier ingredient than actual meat.
Poultry by-products, contrary to the understanding of most consumers, does not consist of feathers, beaks and feet. Those are not legal to include in pet food. Instead, by-products consist mainly of the internal organs, including the liver, heart and spleen. These organs are a rich source of nutrients, including taurine, iron and the vitamins A, D, E and K. This is why wild predators eat these parts first! It makes no sense to throw all these organs away while simultaneously having to add artificial vitamins back into the food.
· The rule-of-thumb for how much to feed is to start at the bottom end of the range listed on the pet food bag and go up only if necessary. If your pet becomes or stays overweight eating that amount of food, he or she needs a weight-loss diet because to go below that low end amount means the pet will not be getting sufficient nutrients to meet its needs.
· Base the food amount on the weight your pet should be, not its current weight.
· Canned pumpkin has long been used as a fiber supplement to help with constipation and diarrhea. Unfortunately, it’s been found to work no better than a placebo, even in large quantities.
· Raw diets: There is no nutritional advantage to feeding raw, regardless of what you may find on the internet. These diets, whether frozen, freeze-dried or raw, all expose your pet to bacterial contamination. Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and several other exotic diseases you’ve probably never heard of have been found in raw diets. Even worse, both handling these pet foods and cleaning up your pet’s stools exposes you to these infections as well – even if your pet’s stools look normal. No commercial raw diets meet the above criteria. Homemade raw diets made from recipes you find in books or online are nearly always lacking essential nutrients.
· Visit our website for handouts on nutritional topics. We have videos on nutrition on our YouTube channel, BFVCTV.