Re-evaluating your dog’s diet

Common ways we mess up our pups’ nutrition

When you love your dog, you may feel the urge to spoil them with treats or come up with elaborate meal recipes. But some of the feeding choices we make out of love can turn into big mistakes — depriving our dogs of necessary nutrients, overdoing fats or leaning too heavily on the magic of chicken and rice (which is supposed to be a temporary diet for upset digestive tracts).

Too many treats

When asked about where things often go awry with doggy diets, Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, section chief and professor of clinical nutrition, immediately responded, “Too many treats!”

“It is common, even when the dog is on a commercial diet, that folks still like to feed treats or table scraps,” Wakshlag says. “Treats should be limited to no more than 15% of the daily calorie intake since these are often not complete and balanced foods, which may throw off nutrient intake.”

Many veterinary nutritionists recommend limiting your dog’s calories from treats to 10% of their total diet, especially if you are working on a weight-loss program. Even though many of us feel like we only give our dogs occasional table scraps, those bites add up quickly.

“I was involved in a study looking at table-scrap feeding, or human foods to be more precise, and the average calories from these sources was about 20% of calories for the average dog, which is a bit too much,” Wakshlag says. “Veggies are often fine because they are low in calories, while the pizza crust, burger bites and fries are just way too high in calories, and can really lead to obesity and subpar nutrient intake.”

The good news is that there are easy ways to get your dog’s diet back in balance without denying them treats and snacks. Instead of feeding random food scraps, use part of your dog’s primary diet as treats. Set aside part of each meal to use for training and random snacks. This is helpful both for weight-loss management and to ensure that your dog is eating a balanced diet.

Another option is to use healthy, low-calorie items as treats. Carrots, broccoli and snap peas are three examples that many dogs love.

Hazards of home-cooking

Home-prepared diets for dogs are increasing in popularity, but many veterinary nutritionists advise caution. It is critical to use a recipe that is deemed complete and balanced to make sure that your dog is getting everything that they need. For dogs with health conditions, a custom diet designed by a veterinary nutritionist is often the best plan.

“If people are feeding home-prepared diets, this can be a problem, since there are a number of nutrients that are often deficient like calcium, B12, zinc, magnesium, etc., which can lead to subclinical deficiencies,” Wakshlag says. “The most egregious deficiency is usually calcium, which can lead to pathologic fractures in puppies and osteopenia with a risk of fracture.”

But your dog can have their ground turkey cake and eat it too. If considering a home-cooked diet for your dog, ask your veterinarian to evaluate it for nutritional adequacy. “It’s very important to use vitamin and mineral mixes designed for home-prepared diets when feeding dogs, particularly if using primarily a meat-based diet plan,” Wakshlag says.

Too much of a good thing

Our dogs love meats and fats, but overly rich foods don’t always love them back. Overindulging can irritate your dog’s pancreas and cause pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is an extremely painful condition characterized by nausea, vomiting, lethargy, poor appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever. In severe cases, it can be fatal. Pancreatitis is treated with pain medications, anti-nausea medications and intravenous fluids. Most dogs who have survived pancreatitis have to stay on a strict, low-fat and low-protein diet for the rest of their lives to prevent recurrence.

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to pancreatitis. Only give your dog small amounts of rich or fatty foods, especially if they have a history of having a sensitive GI tract. An occasional marrow bone is likely safe, but avoid making them a regular snack. (Also keep in mind that dogs can crack or break their teeth when chewing on these bones, or get hurt from splinters that break off and become lodged in their throat).

Long-term bland diets

Plain, boiled chicken and rice can save the day when your dog has diarrhea. Lean, cooked hamburger and cooked pasta are two other great options when your dog is sick and needs a bland diet to soothe their GI tract.

However, neither of these diets are balanced, and they are not safe to feed long-term because they have an incomplete nutritional profile.

If you find yourself whipping up a bland diet for your dog on a regular basis, then they may have a health condition more serious than a simple case of diarrhea. Some possible underlying causes include intestinal parasites, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pancreatitis, food intolerance, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), Addison’s disease, liver and kidney failure, food allergies or even cancer. The bland diet will help temporarily with your dog’s discomfort, but won’t resolve the underlying issue and may even make it worse over time.

Schedule a veterinary appointment to discuss your dog’s symptoms and complete testing to figure out why your dog may still need a bland diet. Bloodwork, plus a fecal exam to check for parasites, is a great place to start. If those tests don’t provide clear answers, your veterinarian may recommend additional blood tests, an X-ray or ultrasound, allergy testing or endoscopy.

Switching too quickly

If you need to change your dog’s diet, do it gradually. Start by feeding 75% of the old diet mixed with 25% of the new diet. The next day, feed 50% of each diet, then on the third day feed 25% old and 75% new. This 4-day transition works for most dogs, but dogs with sensitive stomachs may need a longer, more gradual swap.

If you end up doing a sudden diet change, your dog may have some diarrhea because they aren’t used to the new diet yet. This is usually temporary and will resolve without treatment, but can be unpleasant for both of you. If the diarrhea lasts more than a day or two, or if your dog has other symptoms, call your veterinarian to get some probiotics or anti-diarrhea medications to help ease the transition.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.