Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Thoughts on What to Feed Your Dog

Pet Column for the week of March 21, 2011

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Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

Oh happy day! You have just acquired your new pet dog, your new partner in crime and best friend for life. When you go to buy the best quality dog food full of nutrients for your new pup, you are faced with dozens of different foods from many companies, all featuring shiny pictures of happy animals and proclaiming in large, bright lettering that their food is the best. Now what?

If you've been in this situation, you know there are just too many options and not enough concrete information to make a good decision. So how exactly should you go about picking out food for your pup?

Dr. Kelly Swanson, an Animal Sciences professor who teaches nutrition to students at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, provides these helpful points.

First, all pet food marketed as a "complete diet" must provide all the nutrients, including minerals and vitamins, necessary to support life. While that still leaves a lot of room for variation, at least it is a start: look for food labeled as a complete diet, not a treat or supplement.

The main difference among the myriad options lies in the ingredients used. Specific diets, such as "lamb and rice," indicate that a primary protein source is lamb and a major carbohydrate source is rice.

But what constitutes quality? That may be a matter of opinion. There is a difference between lower cost foods and the "premium" or "super premium" diets. Premium and super premium tend to be more nutrient dense and have better digestibility. Better digestibility can mean fewer "restroom" trips and possibly less gas. Yet that still doesn't mean that your pet cannot get all the needed nutrients from a lower cost diet.

The most important thing about your pet's food is that your pet likes it and is willing to eat it. The marketing is designed to entice pet owners, not the pet. Your pet can like a food without knowing that it is lamb, salmon, or all beef; he just likes it.

What about the specialty niches, such as organic or raw food diets? The term "natural" is vague and difficult to regulate; not much is excluded, and the quality of the food can still vary a lot. The word "organic" is regulated: an ingredient cannot be labeled as organic unless it produced in accordance with USDA standards for organic. However, there is no clear proof that organic is better than non-organic; once again it is pet owner preference.

One important consideration when choosing a food for your pet is the life stage of your pet. There is a difference in the composition and nutritional requirements supplied for different life stages. A puppy will need more energy as well as protein and some minerals for growth. Senior animal foods are often more nutrient dense because older pets may not be inclined to eat as much.

Foods marketed for specific breeds have not been proven to make a difference, at least not in the scientific literature. The exception is foods designed for very large breeds. The nutrient requirements for skeletal growth and maintenance for a Great Dane or Newfoundland differ from those for smaller dogs. It isn't always about the amount of food provided, but also the composition of the food.

And while we're on the subject of feeding, it is important to note that pet obesity is a serious condition that leads to many additional health woes. Whatever food you choose, it is important to maintain a healthy weight in your pet.

So when it comes to picking a suitable food, concentrate on the life stage of your pet and whether he will eat the food. Remember that the marketing on the pet foods is aimed at you, the owner, not the pet. Tailor your food choice to fit your budget without feeling guilty. Bargain brands supply all the needed nutrients that a super premium food does. Just pick a food your new pet likes and enjoy your best friend for life.