What should you be feeding your dog? An expert answers all our FAQs

Just because they will eat anything doesn’t mean they should.

Just because they will eat anything doesn’t mean they should

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

This past July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration named 16 dog food brands (most of which were considered "grain-free") as having a possible link to canine heart disease. The disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), causes a dog's heart to thin which can lead to congestive heart failure. The FDA hadn't found a definite link between the foods they named and the disease, but they continue to post updates on their investigation.

The story stirred up a lot of confusion amongst dog owners. Many have always found the task of determining the best diet for their dogs quite daunting. Pet store shelves are as confusing as any grocery store — filled with trendy food terms. To help sort through some of the decision-making, we enlisted the help of Anna-Kate Shoveller, Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph, for her answers to some of the most frequently-asked questions.

What are your thoughts on the potential connection between certain dog foods and canine heart disease?

Anna-Kate Shoveller (AKS): I am well aware of the FDA's original warning and the continuing updates that they have provided. As a pet nutritionist who works with the broader food industry, we are concerned for the dogs affected by DCM and are working to understand if any diets or the ingredients represented in those diets play a role in the development of nutrient deficiencies that could be associated with the development of this disease. The companion animal scientific community also continues to research into the basic differences among dog breeds and new-to-the-world ingredients. 

Does grain-free dog food cause canine dilated cardiomyopathy? Should owners be avoiding that kind of food?

AKS: At this time, there is no evidence to support a cause and effect relationship among the diets or ingredients included in those diets with DCM. In the FDA report, there is a greater proportion of large breed dogs and those who have a genetic predisposition, but there are others that have not been shown to have this genetic predisposition. If you have a dog that is considered to be at greater risk for DCM, you should consider reducing your use of grain-free diets and especially those that do not use added amino acids and vitamins. Grain-free diets that use pulse ingredients (dried beans) need to be supplemented with two amino acids, methionine and taurine, and diets should also contain added vitamins. Few diets that undergo cooking would meet minimum vitamin requirements at the end of shelf life if they did not contain added vitamins. 

What ingredients found on dog food labels should owners be wary of?

AKS: Ingredients are not required (on labels), but the nutrients they provide are. There are no ingredients that are used in dog foods that I am uncomfortable with. I am more concerned about the long term use of diets that use few ingredients and also do not consider supplementing vitamins and minerals. We need to better understand the nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, as there are few studies that seek to contribute to answering this question. 

What type of diet would a dog generally do well on?

AKS: Consider their life stage (growing, adult, senior) and lifestyle (active, sedentary) and also their health status. If you are dealing with disease, then you should consult a veterinarian. If your dog is healthy you can consider rotating diets, which can help avoid nutrient deficiencies and make your dog less fussy. Rotating diets means using a number of different diets that work for your dog to provide diversity in nutrient delivery throughout the dog's lifetime.

Should I buy food specifically labelled for my dog's size/age/breed or does that not really matter?

AKS: This matters A LOT! Look for specifics on food that relate to your dog. Companies that make size-specific or breed-specific foods are catering the different formulas based on what we know differs among breed or breed sizes in terms of nutrient requirements.

Is expensive food, or food bought at the vet's office, better for dogs?

AKS: Just like with human food, price does not always dictate nutrient quality. Remember that your dog is a dog, so avoid marketing that is directed at what you believe in eating and look at the claims and direction on the front of bags to make your decision. Claims such as "for active dogs" or "skin and coat", have nutrient targets that help improve those systems. Also remember that diets bought at the grocery or pet store should not be used for weight loss through a severe restriction of food. If your dog needs to lose weight, then a weight loss diet that has additional nutrients is required

Are there advantages to buying raw/natural/organic dog food or is it just marketing?

AKS: There is no scientific evidence to support that these approaches are healthier for dogs. Raw food may be advised against, due to the potential bacterial risk that they possess. 

There are a lot of homemade dog food recipes online. Is it okay to make dog food at home? If so, what should be in it?

AKS: For the most part, homemade diets are often associated with nutrient deficiencies, because the formulas tend to be relatively similar and often don't use supplements to balance nutrients. If you are really interested in homemade diets, you should visit a veterinary nutritionist and ask for a series of homemade diets that fit your food philosophy and provide the best nutrition for your dog.

Generally speaking, how much and how often should I be feeding my dog?

AKS: This depends. While many dogs tolerate once-a-day feeding very well, others feed 2-3 times a day. Growing dogs or old dogs may need more frequent meals, but adult dogs can easily tolerate once a day feeding as long as they do not experience any gastrointestinal problems.

Any tips for dealing with fussy eaters?

AKS: Rotate foods to ensure that your dog does not get used to one taste. Stock your diet tool box with a number of different flavours to help your dog move away from being a fussy eater. Feeding the same brand and flavour day-in and day-out will make them scared of eating new flavours, just like humans.

Can I give my dog a bone from the butcher?

AKS: Bones can splinter and cause perforations in dogs' gastrointestinal system, and for this reason, are often advised against. Instead, look for compounded bones at the pet store that have been engineered to avoid splintering. Also, eating too much of anything is bad, and this goes for your dog and bones too! These types of chews are good, but try not to overindulge your dog.

Is it bad that my dog eats a lot of grass?

AKS: As long as the grass has not been chemically treated, I am not concerned with your dog eating grass! 

What makes a good dog treat and how often can they eat them?

AKS: Dog treats that carry the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal have produced clinical data behind them to support cleaner teeth and do really work! As for treats, I prefer to use vegetables like carrots or slices of apples, but there are a lot of reasonable treats available on the shelf. Again, moderation is key and mainly you want to ensure that you do not use too many because they are not a balanced food.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Has your dog's diet been working for them? Do you have more canine chow-related questions for our experts? Comment below.


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