When wondering what’s the best diet for your dog, it helps to first remember where that dog has come from. Although dogs are the descendants of wolves, who are carnivores, our domesticated canines are omnivores — or, as one researcher puts it: “one of the greatest opportunists on the planet.”
“Omnivore” comes from the Latin words omni and vorare, meaning “to devour all” or “to devour everything.” Other omnivores include: black bears, grizzly bears, badgers, chickens, hedgehogs, pigs, possums, skunks, turtles, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and humans. Some fish like piranhas and catfish are also omnivorous.
Some people feed commercial dog food, others feed the RAW diet. Some feed home-cooked meals, and some feed a combination of commercial with cooked and/or raw. Many combinations can work; the important thing is to understand the fundamental nutritional components of the canine diet: protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, water, and carbohydrates. The National Research Council has not established requirements for carbohydrates in dogs. Fiber is not considered an essential component of the canine diet, but most every commercial dog food provides it, and there are important benefits to feeding it.
Let’s think about the best diet for a dog in terms of all the components that make it up:
Dogs require 22 amino acids. They are able to synthesize through the liver 12 of these amino acids, the other ten they must get from their diet; these are known as the essential amino acids: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These essential amino acids include the BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids), which are important for maintaining and building muscle.
Active dogs in agility, fly ball, and other canine sports, have a higher protein and fat requirement than a dog with a more sedentary lifestyle. Hunting dogs, herding dogs, working dogs, sporting dogs, and sled dogs can utilize a higher protein and fat diet for their energy, endurance, and muscle requirements. Lactating mothers and puppies also need more protein.
Just reading the protein percentage on a label does not equate to quality protein. The list of ingredients from a variety of commercial dog foods that provide protein sources can include ingredients like fish meal, animal digest, corn germ meal, corn gluten meal, poultry byproduct meal, rice, chicken meal, meat meal, as well as grain protein sources like rice, barley, and oats.
Fish meal, chicken meal, poultry meal, and meat meal are created through the rendering process. Depending on the process used, rendering, which is sort of like cooking a stew, can include some unsavory ingredients like flea collars, antibiotic residue or a variety of pharmaceuticals used to treat the animal before it was slaughtered or euthanized. What’s critical to remember is: no meal product can be better than the raw material used to make it. Look for fish meal labeled with the type of fish used (salmon, herring, menhaden, etc). Poultry meal could be a blend of chicken and turkey, and meat meal / animal digest could be anything. When a company lists what specific animal or fish the meal is from, it is generally a higher quality protein.
Keep in mind that there are only a handful of commercial dog food producers in the US, and they make the majority of the various brands of commercial dog foods. This is possibly one of the reasons for so many recalls on commercial dog food from several companies at once.
Used by the body as an energy source, they are also necessary for the normal development and function of cells, nerves, muscles and body tissues. Fats are made up of building blocks called essential fatty acids: omega- 3 and omega- 6.
Fats in commercial dogs foods are commonly supplied by both animal/fish fats, and oils from plants. Typical sources of omega-3 fatty acids in commercial dog food can include fish oils (herring, salmon), as well as flax seeds and canola oils.
Typical sources of omega-6 fatty acids in commercial dog food include pork fat, poultry fat, animal fat, safflower oils, sunflower oils, corn oils, soy oils, and vegetable oils. Grains like oats, and barley also supply omega-6 fatty acids.
Animal Fat, Poultry Fat, and the Oils
Animal fat as defined by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is “obtained from the tissues of mammals and or poultry in the commercial process of rendering.” Since companies aren’t required to identify their mammal fat sources, the fat could come from diseased animals, slaughterhouse waste, dead zoo animals, even road kill. Rendered fats could also come from euthanized cats and dogs. Remember, rendered animals can be processed into meat meal which can also be used for chicken feed, which once the chickens are rendered, can be used for fat in dog food.
Soy oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, and canola oils are (unless stated as “organic”) GMO. They are processed with a solvent called hexane, which is listed as a neurotoxin. The heat processing destroys most of the beneficial nutrient components of the oil, including any fat- soluble antioxidants.
Flax oil, hemp seed oil, coconut oil are GMO-free, although a long-abandoned variety of genetically modified flax has been recently identified in several countries that imported the flax from Canada.
Hemp seed oil is predominately cold pressed, maintaining its nutrient integrity. Coconut oil can be processed with hexane, unless it is labeled organic, or it is verified as cold pressed oil. Most flax oil is expeller pressed, but there is still a fair amount of heat generated during the expelling process.
Fish oils are processed under heat, and some companies use a CO2 extraction, which is a combination of pressure and heat to concentrate the amount of omega-3s. The higher quality fish oil companies use a molecular distillation process to remove heavy metals, dioxides, and mercury. They may also use flash distillation which uses steam rather than a vacuum to remove impurities.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel, which slows down digestion. Slower stomach emptying may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels, and insulin sensitivity, which is particularly important for dogs suffering from diabetes. Soluble fiber sources include legumes, oats, rye, barley, some fruits, vegetables, flax seed and nuts.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, has a stool-softening effect, and laxative effect. Insoluble fiber sources include whole grains, beans, peas, skins of potatoes, and some fruits.
Meat does not contain fiber.
The fiber sources most often found in commercial dog foods include: beet pulp, grain hulls, whole grains, flaxseed, fruit pectin, oat or wheat or rice bran, psyllium, powdered cellulose (wood pulp), and tomato pomace.
The slippery slope of some of these fiber sources in commercial pet food includes: GMO beet pulp, GMO grains, GMO rice or wheat. Pectin is isolated from citrus and apple pomace then processed by adding ethanol or isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). This isolated pectin is standardized with sugar or organic acids. Tomato pomace is the by-product of tomato processing for juice and ketchup. The primary component of tomato pomace is the tomato skin, which has a higher potential for pesticide residue than the tomato fruit itself.
Great fiber sources include canned pumpkin pulp (not pumpkin pie mix), steamed or cooked green beans, apple slices, and coconut meal.
Wolves get their fiber from the intestinal contents of the animal they are eating, plus the skin and hair.
More and more companies are providing grain-free dog food. Some nutritionists and veterinarians favor grain-free, others do not. But grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free! Vegetables and fruits contain carbohydrates.
There are no carbohydrate requirements for dogs that have been established by the National Research Council (NRC.)
If we think about the gradual evolution of the wolf into the dog (the wolf/dog) we have to consider that the wolf/dog was becoming domesticated and living with, or close to, humans. Stealing scraps, or being fed with leftovers by the humans. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors would be eating primarily meat, with perhaps some roots, and herbs. If the wolf/dog actually hunted down a sick, old, or young deer, for example, the amount of grain in the intestinal tract of the deer would be minimal. Deer are browsers: they eat broadleaf plants like clover, wildflowers, tree nuts, bushes, and bark. With the advent of farming, deer took advantage of gardens and cornfields, but not during the time of our hunter/gatherer ancestors.
As humans become more agrarian, cultivating more grains, the dog had access to stale breads, and leftover porridge. Dogs living in the Far East had access to fermented soy (tofu, miso, tempeh). With the exception of oats, barley, quinoa, and rye that have remained relatively unchanged, other seeds have not; corn, wheat, rice, and soy have been altered significantly through radical hybridization (wheat) to genetic modification (corn, rice, and soy).
Grains in commercial dog foods: some elements to consider
- The commercial dog foods that contain the commonly used refined grains wheat, corn, rice, and soy are contributors to the decimation of soil quality via mono-culture farming practices, and GMO seeds. The high pesticide/herbicide/chemical fertilizer use further impacts the ecology of the soil, and groundwater.
- High carbohydrate dog foods may be less expensive in the short term than grain-free dog foods, but those carbohydrate calories add up over time. Since carbohydrates are not required on canine labels, there is a simple way to calculate what percentage of the dog food is carbohydrates: Start with 100%. If the protein is 25%, the fat 15%, the fiber 4%, the moisture 8%, and the ash 3%, when you add all that up you get 55%. Subtract 55 from 100, and you will have a carbohydrate content of 45%. That amount alone is considered “high” (20-40% is considered moderate).
- Refined grains are over-processed, which destroys many of the beneficial nutrients in the grains. There is evidence that excessive amounts of refined grains can contribute to obesity and diabetes.
- Minimally processed grains are found most often in premium and/or organic dog food. They include oats and barley. Due to the fact that ingredients must be listed by weight, not volume, it can make it difficult for the consumer to know by reading the label what the volume % of grains in the food is. The total carbohydrate amount can be calculated, but not specifically what % comes from grains.
- Potatoes are added to some grain-free feeds. Sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes. Dogs who are overweight would benefit from avoiding white potatoes.
Vitamins and Minerals
Commercial dog foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Fortification is needed because of dog food processing, and to ensure in the case of Complete Feeds, that the essential nutrients have been met.
Vitamins in most commercial dog foods, and supplements are either synthetic, or are by-products of the petrochemical and coal tar industries. Because they are not from food, they are called fractionated or isolated ingredients.
Vitamin A, unless stated from fish oil, is from petroleum esters; the B vitamins are from coal tar residue; vitamin E, commonly sourced from palm, is extracted with Hexane, a neuro toxin. The destruction of much of the rain forest in Indonesia, displacing the Sumatran Tiger, the Sumatran elephant, and the Orangutan are due to the planting of palm plantations for vitamin E production.
Vitamin C: made from corn or wheat and then processed and purified through biotechnical techniques into ascorbic acid. China sells the most ascorbic acid in the world.
Minerals are essential and critical for the proper functioning of the body, and perform multi-functioning roles including bone, cellular, tissues, organs, enzymes, and amino acids.
Of all the minerals, calcium is required in the greatest amounts. Bones, dairy products, legumes, kale, egg shells, spinach, and blue green algae are excellent food sources of calcium.
The recommended ratio of calcium to phosphorus is 1.2:1
Meat, chicken, eggs, and fish protein are high in phosphorus but low in calcium, with the exception of sardines, which are closer to a 1:1 ratio, but still higher in phosphorus. Other common protein ingredients like soy, turkey, duck, and lamb are also higher in phosphorus than calcium. Cereal grains are higher in phosphorus than calcium as well. As you can see, balancing these high phosphorus foods with extra calcium is critical.
The most common forms of minerals found in commercial dog foods and supplements are the inorganic form (carbonate, oxides) and the chelate form (proteinates, and amino acid chelates).
The inorganic forms have low bioavailability. The body must find an organic compound to attach to the inorganic mineral. This is known as chelation. Plants, when they sprout, bind minerals to free amino acids, thus creating amino acid chelated minerals. Amino acid chelated minerals have a bioavailability of approximately 60%, while the inorganic forms are between 8%-10%.
Ascorbates (minerals chelated to ascorbic acid) are also a form of chelates. The challenge with ascorbates is the GMO connection; if the ascorbic acid is made from corn, it is going to be GMO. Of course since there is no required labeling of GMOs , it is up to the consumer to contact the feed company and find out the source of the ascorbic acid.
Versions of amino acid chelates can be created in the laboratory. The process takes the inorganic minerals and mixes them with proteins: (proteinates, which can be simply soy or rice proteins added to the inorganic minerals), or the inorganic minerals are bonded to specific amino acids (amino acid chelate). Proteinates can be labeled as chelates, but aren’t true amino acid chelates because they aren’t bonded to amino acids.
The best, most bioavailable form of minerals comes from food, and amino acid chelates.
Dog Food Diets
There are many different diets for dogs: RAW, Paleo, home cooked, vegetarian, regular canned food, regular kibble, freeze dried raw food, dehydrated whole food, dehydrated raw food, frozen raw food.
At Biostar we recommend a combination diet: some raw food, some home cooked or dehydrated whole food. Premium kibble can be used as a base on which to add raw or cooked or dehydrated food. The reason we favor this blend is to provide dogs with various sources of important proteins, fiber, fat, vegetables, and nutrients. Also since we are horse people as well as dog people, we know many horse owners take their dogs with them to shows and other venues, which makes the 100% raw diet, or 100% cooked diet a little bit more difficult, when you are spending days on the road.
Biostar does not recommend free-choice feeding for dogs.
Dogs with digestive sensitivities may do better sticking to one particular diet, but many dogs thrive on the combination diet.
Dogs that are overweight need to be taking in below average fat, and below average calories. Increasing protein will help the overweight dog feel more satisfied. Increasing exercise is important for canine and human alike. Be careful of treats as many of those dog cookies contain pro-inflammatory factors like molasses, or a high percentage of fat. Be mindful of dog food kibble that contains over 40% carbohydrates, even if it is labeled a low fat food.
Hunting dogs, agility dogs, herding dogs, sled dogs, fly-ball dogs, and Frisbee dogs all require high energy, and the best source of energy for these dogs is fat. Grain foods (carbohydrate energy) can increase excess lactic acid in muscles, and can increase inflammation. Performance dogs have a higher protein requirement for tissue repair, and hormone production. Higher protein diets should be between 30%-40% protein.
Performance dogs also have a higher antioxidant need because of oxidative stress. Antioxidant foods include: blueberries, apples, carrots, sunflower seeds (de-hulled, raw, unsalted), hemp seed oil, fish oil, spirulina, and micro algae (Astaxanthin).
Pet food companies maintain that their complete feeds have everything a dog needs. However, their nutritional additives are not from food, and the added minerals may only be chelated, not amino acid chelated — resulting in lower bioavailability and absorption.
Adding a whole food multivitamin/mineral will supply the necessary nutrients within the matrix of the whole food itself, thus assuring better bioavailability and absorption.
Dogs fed home cooked food, or on the Raw diet, or Paleo diet need to supplement with a high-quality multivitamin/mineral, preferably one free of petrochemicals and coal tar, that provides amino acid chelated minerals.
If you choose to use a commercial dry dog food as a base, make sure it is premium, meaning the protein sources are beef, bison, fowl, fish, or lamb and are not labeled with the generic “beef meal”, “fish meal”, etc. Check the carbohydrate level, and fat percentage.
There is an excellent website that lists and rates all commercial dog food: dogfoodadvisor.com. We highly recommend that you review this site for information and ratings on commercial dog food. This site also provides an updated list of pet food recalls.
When you add raw or cooked food to dry dog food you must reduce the amount of kibble to adjust for the added food ingredients and calories.
It is also important to add water to dry dog food, and fresh meat is loaded with moisture. Feeding a kibble food dry without moisture hinders digestion.
The Crockpot Method: put your protein (beef, or fish, or chicken, etc) in a crock pot, add some peas or other lentils, or chopped green beans, or kale, some carrots, add water and cook on low all day, or all night. If you choose a Tilipia fish for example, you will only need to cook in the crockpot for an hour or so. The water soaked in the meat, or fish and vegetables makes a great broth!
Adding Raw: you can add some raw bison, antibiotic free, grass-fed hamburger meat by the Tablespoon either to the cooked food, or as an alternative to the cooked food. You can add a range-free, antibiotic egg once or twice per week (raw).
Do not feed raw fish, or raw chicken meat.
One of our favorite raw food meals for dogs at Biostar is Sardines (either packed in olive oil, or in spring water: available at Whole Foods). Put the sardines in a food processor, add some carrots, kale, celery, blueberries, and pumpkin meal. Mix well, and give with a little kibble, or as a stand-alone meal.
By the way, an excellent resource for some recipes is the book Chow Hounds, by Ernie Ward, DVM.
Fish oil is an excellent source of fat and omega 3’s (DHA/EPA). Biostar recommends Nordic Naturals Pet, because of the high quality of their oil processing. Krill oil is another fish oil source, but make sure to check that the krill has not been harvested from the oceans.
You can alternate fat sources, with flax oil or hemp seed oil or coconut oil. Remember, our dogs are ominvores, capable of eating a variety of protein, fiber, carbohydrate, and fat sources.
Every dog owner has an opinion about what is the best diet for your dog, and the best dog food. At BioStar we respect differing opinions, and different points of view.
Really, the best diet for your dog is the one that works the best for your dog.