It is no surprise I list this first. Nutrition affects nearly every aspect of the dog’s life and is one of the best ways we can support our pets. While I am definitely a proponent of a fresh homemade diet that is formulated to ensure that all the essentials are provided (and more!), I understand that a fresh food DIY diet formulated to each dog is not always an option. Commercial foods that are formulated using nutrient guidelines and utilize fresh ingredients are next in line- but they can be expensive. Dog food delivery services like Ollie or Farmer’s Dog are awesome options if time is an issue. These services are fantastic- utilizing high quality cooked ingredients and nutrient guidelines. Again, these foods do cost more and are not available to everyone. Canned can be a great choice and dogs can do exceptionally well on a high quality kibble. No owner should feel any shame or guilt for selecting ANY of these options. If the owner is looking to dress up kibble- here is an extensive guide. Looking to determine which commercial food to go with? I have a guide for that, too! I cannot stress how important it is to feed a commercial food correctly. Feeding well below feeding guidelines for target weight can result in suboptimal nutrition. If your dog is not losing weight on a commercial food, select a food that has a lower energy density. Of course,
A homemade diet means selecting the highest quality ingredients possible while providing essential nutrients specific to your dog. Search and rescue dogs do better with higher omega 3, antioxidants, and fat. Dogs with very low calorie intake will require nutrient dense diets that are not dense in energy. Dogs with black fur will benefit from higher levels of some amino acids. Northern breeds can often need more zinc. Arthritic dogs can benefit from higher levels of EPA, manganese, and other antioxidant nutrients. Different disease states can require addressing all the nutrients specifically. Some conditions might require lower phosphorus. Some conditions may require drugs that can increase the risk of hyperkalemia and therefore potassium (and others) will need to be addressed. Other conditions might require controlled sodium levels. Other dogs benefit from tightly balanced essential fatty acid. Some conditions that produce stones will require careful ingredient selection and nutrient balance. Some dogs might suffer from adverse food reactions that might include poor stools, itching, and yeast. Whether immunologic or non-immunologic in nature, homemade diets can be critical for managing these conditions (and if that is you- I have a guide for that here). The list is never-ending.
I could go on in this category- but that is what the rest of this site and Raw Fed & Nerdy is for!
Quality Vet Care
It saddens me to see many owners distancing themselves from a good relationship with their vet. Quite often I see this in raw feeding circles. Vets have good reasons to not recommend a raw diet to their clients and while I personally choose to feed a raw diet- I accept the risks involved. It is not something I push on clients (though it can be quite useful for some conditions) and I can appreciate the many reasons why a vet may not recommend a raw diet. These reasons include risks associated with raw bones, contamination risks (for humans), lack of studies, and because homemade diets can often be unbalanced. Many raw diets that land on my desk are short in zinc, vitamin D, vitamin E, manganese, and magnesium while being disproportionately high in phosphorus, copper, and sometimes vitamin A. While proper selection of raw bones dramatically reduces risk when feeding bones, there will always be a risk associated with feeding raw bones.
Obviously, I am a proponent of responsible fresh food feeding, raw or cooked as appropriate, that is balanced and optimal for each dog. My intent is to not pick on homemade diets but rather show where veterinarians are coming from when they make their recommendations.
Good vet care is key to being proactive as a dog owner. Getting blood work dog regularly- among other things that make up annual check-ups for healthy dogs (or biannual check ups for the seniors!)- are all done by a veterinarian. These proactive exams are important because it allows you to watch for any trends in blood work and catch illness at the earlier stages. They are the only ones qualified to diagnose and treat your dog. Should illness occur, a veterinarian is absolutely essential in order to formulate a proper nutritional protocol. (Just as a reminder here- typical annual blood work should not be used as an indicator of a balanced diet)
Take for example chronic kidney disease. Testing and diagnosing the condition (by stage, too) by the veterinarian is absolutely essential when we go about formulating a diet. There is no other accurate way of determining where key nutrient players should be at- potassium, vitamin E, selenium, phosphorus, sodium, omega 3, protein (later stages), and more.
The work I do is applied clinical nutrition. I simply cannot do my job without the work of a veterinarian. No amount of intuition will tell me if a dog needs more or less potassium in their diet while being treated for conditions such as heart disease or kidney disease without proper lab work done by the veterinarian.
Exercise & Mental Stimulation
The majority of dogs in the United States are overweight. Dogs that are overweight often see shorter lifespans and are at risk for various diseases including heart disease. Part of a healthy weight is top quality nutrition- but do not forget that your dog needs to move. Our idea of “active” is is much different than what it means to be an “active” dog. Generally speaking, the majority of dogs are not receiving the amount of exercise they are truly meant to receive.
Exercise has a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome, mental health, and helps maintain a balanced energy state. These are things that good nutrition cannot replace. Certainly we can feed appropriate calories and “feed” the gut microbiome, but it does not replace the benefits of exercise. I can confidently say from my own work that dogs who are active tend to fare better nutritionally. This is because the owners are not having to limit the food being fed and have more freedom to satisfy nutrient needs with the more calories that are available. Lower calorie diets are harder to formulate because they often need careful supplementation when creating a homemade diet. When feeding commercial foods, dogs who are confined to the house tend to be eating below the feeding guidelines on the back of the bag for the goal weight. While this reduces calories fed, it also reduces all of the essential nutrients that the dog still requires.
A critical mistake that dog owners make is decide that their older dog is “slowing down” and believe that their dog no longer needs physical activity. Any sudden “slowing down” requires a vet check-up. Generally speaking, healthy seniors benefit enormously from exercise. Older dogs tend to lose lean muscle mass. This has two major side effects: Loss of lean muscle mass results in lower calorie needs. Without a correction in food, undesirable weight is gained. Secondly, many chronic illnesses result in cachexia, a condition that happens during ill health where body weight, inclusive of lean muscle mass, is lost. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight with healthy muscle stores puts them in the best position possible should disease manifest.
Dogs get bored, too! Physical work is excellent, but combining physical work with mental stimulation (games, training, etc) is optimal.
One of my favorite trainers (or canine health coaches- as they preferred to be called) at Know Thy Dog (unrelated business) in Montana talks about dogs needing time to be dogs. While this area certainly is not my area of expertise, dogs need time to be dogs. For me, this is going outside and letting Luca off leash (which is appropriate for him) to do zoomies, sniff, pee on things, do more zoomies, pee on more things, and you guessed it- sniff even more things. This is a time of standard boxer dog goofiness and play bows. Perhaps for your dog it is different. Luca isn’t really a dog that likes to play too often with toys (some days he does!), but maybe your dogs do!
Dogs also need to be balanced. Disturbances to behavior, such as aggression or anxiety, are symptoms. A solid trainer is a key player A dog constantly in flight or fight is not only mentally suffering, they are also physically suffering. This constant state of stress affects the gut and certainly the body’s ability to assimilate nutrients because stress creates disturbances to how blood flows to different parts of the body. During times of stress digestion is not prioritized.
Selecting a competent professional to work with you and your dog as needed is a critical component for healthy dogs. I selected Know Thy Dog in Bozeman because their approach speaks to how I address dogs nutritionally- entirely integrative as a whole being.
You are the most important key player in your dog’s well-being. Take care of yourself! I do not know how many times I have heard in canine nutrition circles people laughing about how poorly they eat and how poorly they take care of themselves. It is not something I ever encourage in FB groups or really laugh along with anymore. Your pets need you. They (and you!) need you to take care of yourself so you can continue to support them in all areas above. You need good nutrition. You need exercise. You need good mental and spiritual health. You need good health practitioners. You need a strong social circle.
While health can be complex when we look at the nitty gritty details (I am looking at you, essential fatty acids!), it is no mystery to me when I see that the healthiest dogs I work with are eating diets providing optimal nutrition, receive proactive vet work, are mentally balanced, have owners who care for themselves, and have not lost their opportunity to be a dog.
These things aren’t easy! With school starting up and work not slowing dog, I have dropped the ball in a few areas. Hopefully with some adjustments we will be back on track. Luca just an annual checkup at The Path Home Vet Care and all things came back good.
Savannah Welna, Cert. ACN