We all know that what we eat is crucial to our long-term health – but how many of us pause to extend that logic to our dogs? Although we’re aware that if our diet is high in ready meals, sugar and processed meat we’ll pile on the pounds, few of us stop to think in the same way for our four-legged friends. And that means that, sadly, millions are now what we can only describe as doggy porkers.
Even if our beloved canine companions are not actually overweight, the foods we choose to feed them are causing long-term health problems. Over the past 20 years vets have noticed a massive rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and skin problems in our dogs – just like humans in fact.
Author and animal lover Kate Bendix is shares her nutritional tips for dogs, pictured with her dog Nikita
Deep-down most dog owners know they’re sometimes guilty of over-feeding their pets and not always feeding them the right things. But we’re also victims of marketing misinformation which has made it increasingly difficult to know what a healthy canine diet consists of. We’ve grown up feeding our dogs processed food and commercially prepared dry dog food, or kibble, because we believe the claims made by the food companies such as ‘stick to one food’. In my opinion, this is rubbish.
Luckily help is at hand. This week and next, I’ll be sharing with you sound nutritional tips gleaned from years of research into pet foods and dogs’ health issues. If you follow them – and particularly if you can bring yourself to ditch the dried dog food – then you really will see a different, healthier dog in just eight weeks. You’ll also be able to stop any weight gain and put your pet on the path to fitness. And there are delicious doggy recipes for you to try cooking for your pet at the back of this magazine too.
Part of the problem is that many of us are in denial about over-feeding our pets. You might think you only give them the odd this or that, but to a small animal that’s a big deal. For instance, a digestive biscuit is to a 10kg dog what seven would be to a 70kg human. A 10kg dog needs around 600 calories a day and a plain digestive has 73 calories – an eighth of their daily ration.
Kates says if you really follow her tips, you will see a different, healthier dog in just eight weeks
Guilt plays a major part too. Modern life is very busy and we feel guilty for leaving them alone while we go out to work, guilty for having to go out at night and guilty for watching TV when we could be playing with our pets. So when the pleading eyes look up at you, you slip him an extra treat or two. But a good dog diet is not rocket science, I promise you. And it won’t cost you a fortune or eat up your precious downtime either. More to the point, your dog will love it.
HOW TO WORK OUT IF YOUR DOG IS OVERWEIGHT
Take an honest look at your pet – then compare them to the dogs in the Body Conditioning table below to see if they need to lose weight. It works for all dogs and is widely used by pet professionals. Ideally your dog should have 16-25 per cent body fat, or just under if you have a leaner breed like a lurcher or greyhound.
You should also concentrate on the shape of your dog. Stand behind him and place a thumb on either side of his backbone. Now spread both hands across his rib cage. The ribs should be easy to feel without excessive fat covering – like pens in a soft pencil case. Now stand back and look at him from the side and from above. Can you see his waist? Run your hand underneath from the end of the chest along the belly – it should follow an upward curve and not droop down. This is the abdominal tuck.
Is your dog in good shape?
A little extra weight can be a big problem.
Check your dog’s shape regularly – at least once a month with this Body Conditioning table to make sure he’s staying happy and healthy.
A GOOD DIET CAN GIVE YOU A HEALTHIER, HAPPIER PET
Studies have shown that even moderately overweight dogs are at risk of an early death. When a dog gains weight, the hormones released start to have an inflammatory effect on their body. Over time this can create problems for the dog’s whole system – heart, pancreas, liver, kidneys and immune system. This is the starting point for a host of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
Excess weight can also lead to respiratory distress and can worsen brachycephalic syndrome, an upper airway problem afflicting snub-nosed breeds such as pugs. It can even cause a dog to collapse after exercise because it isn’t getting enough oxygen. These diseases are not only distressing but expensive to manage. A 12kg dog with diabetes could cost up to £1,100 per year in vet bills and drugs to manage the disease.
For the past decade the consensus has been that a dog needs to consume 2-3 per cent of their bodyweight daily, equating to 200-300g a day for a dog weighing 10kg. But how much your dog really needs to consume can depend on their energy levels – and whether they’ve been neutered. A neutered dog may need 25 per cent fewer calories a day.
Studies have shown that even moderately overweight dogs are at risk of an early death
If your dog needs to lose some weight, you should first get him checked by his vet, then, if all appears to otherwise be well, reduce his intake of food by 15 per cent per day – no more – and watch for weight loss of 3-5 per cent per month.
Not all overfed dogs develop diabetes, but an unhealthy diet can cause a host of other problems including flatulence, bad breath, allergies, loose stools, constipation, poor coat condition, itchy skin, candida, lack of energy or twitchy energy. Indeed, regardless of whether your dog is overweight, the fact that many of us feed our pets the same food for years on end can itself lead to problems.
This lack of variety can cause Adverse Food Reaction (AFR), an intolerance to ingredients that are continuously served up. This is particularly true of chicken, as it’s prevalent in dog food. While AFR rarely leads to a full-blown allergy, it can compromise your pet’s immune system, causing chronic itchy and dry skin, flea-allergic dermatitis, leaky gut and colitis. These will wear your pet down, cause you worry – and cost a fortune in vets’ bills. But the good news is that you may be able to clear them up with a varied diet.
An unhealthy diet can cause a host of problems including flatulence, bad breath, allergies, loose stools, constipation, poor coat condition, itchy skin…
WHAT YOUR DOG NEEDS
Dogs need a balanced and varied diet. There is good research to show that a low-carbohydrate, high-protein, fruit and vegetable diet is the optimum way to feed them. The best way to achieve this is with a mixture of shop-bought wet food, raw food and home-cooked grub. We’ll look at raw and home-cooked food over the page – and you can try my tasty recipes at the back of the magazine.
DITCH THE DRY FOOD
If you can only do one thing for your dog, I recommend you cut down on the amount of kibble you give or even ditch it entirely. The process by which dried pet food is produced involves refining the carbohydrate content. Refined carbohydrates can play havoc with your dog’s blood-sugar levels and irritate their gut. In addition, some brands contain raw starch, which can be harmful because the bad bacteria in the gut thrive on it, overwhelming the good and leading to problems ranging from bad breath and wind to colitis and skin problems. For the majority of dogs in the UK, dry dog food is all they will ever eat, but many of them are overweight and suffering identical diseases to us.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN SHOP-BOUGHT WET DOG FOOD
■ Buy British. In my view, we make the best dog food in the world, using good ingredients and up-to-date manufacturing equipment.
■ Aim for a good balance of ingredients. Commercial dog food suits a lot of people, particularly if they don’t have time to cook. Look for fresh meat, poultry-based fat, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
■ Note how the ingredients are listed. It’s the first six ingredients that count, so often anything listed below this is there for marketing purposes only. The exception to this are food supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin (both of which can help your dog’s joints), which may be listed as additives rather than ingredients.
‘In my view, we make the best dog food in the world’
■ Check the carbohydrate content on the label. Too many refined carbohydrates are potentially damaging to your dog’s gut, pancreas and insulin levels so avoid foods that have wheat, soya and maize in them. Instead look for complex carbohydrates which release energy more slowly and are found in foods such as sweet potato, oats, brown rice and carrots.
■ Avoid any food containing ‘various sugars’ – these are added to boost palatability.
■ Also avoid vegetable protein. Dogs can digest meat protein better than vegetable protein, partly because the amino acid balance is better suited to their guts.
■ Beware of foods with antioxidants added. These are preservatives put into the food to slow the rate at which oils and fats spoil and turn rancid. They include Ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT, which have recently been linked with tumour growth. Instead look for foods that have Vitamin E and plant extracts as the preservative.
■ Stay away from food containing the main causes of diet-related allergies in dogs: beef, wheat, dairy, soya and artificial colours and flavours.
Cook up a bowl full of goodness – he’ll wolf it down
As we’ve seen, the wrong kind of diet can cause many problems for our canine companions. Cooking your dog’s meals from scratch gives you the advantage of being able to select ingredients he likes, while avoiding those that set off problems, and I’ve devised some deliciously healthy recipes for your pet that you can try at the back of the magazine.
And as you’ll be feeding your dog more nutrient-rich food, he’ll need less of it. Many dog owners don’t want to pay more than 50p a day to feed their dog. No judgement here, but hand on heart I have to say that feeding a dog properly at this price isn’t viable today. In the recipe section at the back of the magazine, I’ve costed all my recipes to an average of 75p per meal. To economise, I suggest preparing home-made meals in batches, bagging up the food in meal-sized portions and freezing it.
Cooking your dog’s meals from scratch gives you the advantage of being able to select ingredients he likes, while avoiding those that set off problems
Overall, home-cooked food can make a massive difference to your pet’s health, especially if you’re switching from shop-bought food. To keep the costs of home-prepared food down, here are some tips that I’ve gleaned over the years.
Get your bog-standard meat or fish from any supermarket you like. I personally like Aldi and Morrisons because all their meat is British and not outrageously priced. If you make friends with your local butcher or fishmonger you’ll find there’s often a cheeky bag of offal or a small bone to be had for pennies while you’re buying food for yourself. Cooking in batches ensures there’s always something good in the freezer for your pet. Just repeat the Dog Diet mantra to yourself: ‘I’m choosing to spend money on good food now to save money on vet bills later on.’
CAN THEY EAT LEFTOVERS?
Another divisive topic is whether to feed your dog leftovers, so here’s a guide to what you can sensibly feed them…
They can have…
■ Meat – with all the fat, skin and bones removed.
■ Fish – with no bones.
■ Potatoes – a bit of leftover mash is fine, as is a boiled potato, but steer clear of Dauphinoise or fried potatoes.
But they can’t have…
■ Fatty meat or fatty foods. These can cause pancreatitis in dogs.
■ Foods with added salt and pepper. Remove any seasoned skin from meat.
■ Stews and casseroles. Fat, salt, wine, Worcestershire sauce and onions are all bad for dogs.
■ Gravy, even home-made, contains too much salt for pets. Just say NO.
■ Fast food. No surprises – this is also a no-no!
Foods to avoid
Some human foods are dangerous for dogs. Here’s what they cause…
■ Chocolate: Seizures, heart arrhythmia, death
■ Alcoholic drinks: Depression of central nervous system, slow respiratory rate, can be fatal
■ Onions: Damage the red blood cells – anaemia
■ Raisins and grapes: Diarrhoea, dehydration, kidney failure
■ Avocado: Upset stomach. The stone can cause obstruction if swallowed
■ Coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks: Seizures, heart arrhythmia
■ Milk, yoghurt, cream: Dogs can be lactose-intolerant causing stomach upset, diarrhoea, itchy skin. Goat’s milk is better
■ Macadamia nuts: Pain for up to 48 hours, fever, weakness in the back legs
■ Sweets, chewing gum, diet foods, toothpaste: Rapid drop in blood sugar caused by increased insulin release. Disorientation and seizures, liver failure
■ Fat trimmings from meat: Liver and kidney problems, pancreatitis
Raw bones can be fed to your pet a few times a week
Should they eat bones?
Raw bones can be fed to your pet a few times a week. Bones must always be raw and never cooked. Cooked bones of all descriptions – not just chicken – are harder, more brittle and will splinter easily.
Raw bones are much softer and full of nutrition.
Try chicken wings, lamb shoulder, duck necks and pork ribs. Many can be bought frozen in pet shops – or befriend your butcher.
Why not give raw food a try?
Faced with a raft of health issues from obesity to diabetes and allergies, increasing numbers of pet owners I come across are feeding their animals raw food to help them back to health. The raw food diet, which involves feeding your pet uncooked meat and fish plus vegetables (either blended raw or cooked) and fruit, has become such a trend among dog owners in recent years that some pet food manufacturers are now selling their own formulations. The thinking behind it is that our pets’ ancestors were hunting carnivores and therefore uncooked meat is nutritionally superior for them. The types of meat and fish served raw include rabbit, duck, salmon, turkey, venison, beef and chicken.
Raw food certainly divides opinions. Some vets love it because they see healthy dogs with pearly white teeth, but others think it’s dangerous because they’ve had to operate to remove splintered bones from a dog’s gut, although cooked bones are more likely to be a problem as they’re a big no-no (see the box below). If it fits in with your lifestyle, your dog may thrive on it, but don’t feel guilty for not feeding it to your pet.
Some vets think raw food is dangerous because they’ve had to remove splintered bones from a dog’s gut – but they are more hazardous cooked
Raw food can have enormous benefits. Firstly, you have less ‘output’ to clear up. This is because your dog’s body can use most of the nutrients so doesn’t waste much. You’ll notice digestion improve, energy levels and weight seem to even out, your dog’s skin, coat, eyes and teeth gleam. I’m not quite sure why this is the case, but all the raw-fed dogs I’ve met are a healthy weight. I suspect this is because the extensive research their owners put into making it work leads to them becoming more attuned to their dogs’ needs.
If you’re new to raw feeding, try your dog on a commercial raw food first. Brands like Natural Instinct, Natures Menu and Nutriment are very good and available online or from your pet shop’s freezer. They’re designed to be a complete food, so you know your dog’s getting the right balance of nutrients. As a guide, the ingredients in shop-bought raw food should resemble those in the table above. Add in the odd raw treat as well, such as thawed frozen duck necks and tripe sticks… Yum!
If you’re preparing your own raw food, the basic rule of thumb I use is: one-third raw meat with some bone, one-third cooked carbohydrates and one-third blended or cooked fruit and vegetables, by weight. If you’re avoiding carbohydrates, try 80 per cent meat and bone and 20 per cent fruit and veg. There’s no need to eliminate carbs from your dog’s diet unless it’s for health reasons, such as a clear intolerance to a particular food. For a normal dog, eliminating carbs may leave them lethargic. High-energy breeds need slow-release carbohydrates such as those found in sweet potato or quinoa.
Commercial Raw Food
These are the typical ingredients you can expect to find in shop-bought raw food. By law, they have to be listed on the packet in order of quantity with the largest amounts first, as they are here…
■ British chicken with bone (75%)
■ British chicken liver (5%)
■ Butternut squash
■ Curly kale
■ Flaxseed oil
■ Sea kelp
■ Barley grass
■ Thyme, bilberry, brewer’s yeast
Blend veg like carrots and kale. Dogs barely chew and a dog’s digestion starts in their stomach
Tips for serving raw food
■ Practise good food hygiene. If you’re using frozen raw meat, defrost it thoroughly, mix it with other ingredients, then serve it. Never refreeze raw meat that’s previously been frozen.
■ Blend fruit and veg. Dogs barely chew and a dog’s digestion starts in their stomach. Blending fruit and veg really amounts to doing the chewing for them, making the food easier to absorb.
■ Mix cooked vegetables with raw meat. Starchier vegetables such as carrots, swedes and turnips become easier to digest when cooked.
■ Vary protein sources. Lamb, pork, chicken, game and fish contain different levels of essential vitamins and minerals, all of which your dog needs.
■ Most dogs love offal. If raw feeding, around 20 per cent of your meat and bone ratio can be offal. But limit liver to 5 per cent as it’s high in Vitamin A which can cause joint pain.
Why raw food is good for your dog
■ It’s unprocessed
■ Good for healthy teeth and gums
■ Now available as a complete dog food from your pet shop
■ Feeding raw clears up a lot of health niggles in your pets and can reduce that doggy smell
…and its pitfalls
■ Raw food needs supplementing with extra minerals and vitamins if you’re not buying commercial products, see my website thedogdiet.co.uk for details
■ It’s crucial to get the meat/offal/fruit/veg ratio right
■ Freezer space is required
■ Raw food requires safe handling as with any raw meat
■ Bones can be a hazard
For more info, visit www.thedogdiet.co.uk.
The Dog Diet by Kate Bendix is published by Short Books, £8.99.