For owners

What's Cooking?

Find out what should be in your dog's diet

Do you know just what goes into the food you feed your dogs, and why it’s important? Stephanie Hollebrandse spoke to the experts to find out.

Classified as omnivores, dogs need a combination of meat, cereals and vegetables to maintain a healthy lifestyle. So what exactly is the best meal to serve up to them? And how does each of the meal’s components affect their body?

Be water wise

The most essential nutrient for dogs is water. Just how much they need depends entirely on their lifestyle – how often they exercise, whether they eat wet or dry food and the temperature of their home environment.

While also regulating the body’s internal temperature, water is especially important for transporting nutrients throughout the digestive system.

The power of proteins

Proteins contain all the essential amino acids dogs are unable to manufacture on their own. Good forms of protein include cooked chicken, fish and cooked eggs.

An integral part of any dog’s diet, proteins are responsible for forming healthy muscle, skin and hair. They also play a vital role in maintaining the immune system.

A diet lacking in proteins can lead to poor coat condition, stunted growth, loss of muscle bulk and increased risk of infection. Several amino acids are also precursors for both neurotransmitters and hormones – deficiencies can lead to poor reproductive performance.

Fat for fuel

While fats are important for improving the taste of your dog’s meal, they primarily provide the fuel dogs need to stay active. Including animal fat in your dog’s diet, such as chicken and beef, is ideal, and vegetable and grain sources, such as corn and flaxseed, are also important.

Fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6, keep a dog’s coat and skin healthy. Without them, dogs may also suffer from reproductive problems. On the other hand, too much fat can lead to obesity and other medical problems, so getting the balance right is vital.

Vitamins and minerals

Small amounts of vitamins in a dog’s diet help to maintain growth, healthy skin and coat, strong vision and normal functioning of the nervous system.

Vegetables, cooked eggs and fish are great natural sources of vitamins which, if your dog enjoys a bit of rough and tumble, also play a crucial role in the healing of wounds.

Minerals such as calcium and phosphorous are essential for strong teeth and bones. While this is particularly important for growing puppies, other minerals like magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and iron are important for normal body function at all ages.

It’s also worth the effort getting the balance of minerals correct. “Too much of one thing can cancel out the benefits of another,” explains veterinary surgeon and member of the Dogs Australia Canine Health Committee Dr Peter Higgins.

“For example, an excess of copper can eradicate zinc, a mineral crucial to healthy bone growth and development.”

A balanced meal

So what do those in the know suggest is the best way to bring all these elements together and provide your dog with a healthy, wholesome meal?

When asked about the benefits of cooking your dog’s food at home, Dr Higgins recommends speaking with your vet first.

Veterinarian, Dr Peter Higgins, says getting the right balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals is just as important as ensuring all of those feature in your dog’s meal.

“Cooking for your pet can be a great bonding experience, but it also has to be done in a fairly scientific manner. The cooking process can destroy essential vitamins and your dog misses out on a full and balanced diet.”

“Pet food companies can account for this as everything is handled by computer – they understand a certain amount of elements will be destroyed and compensate for this in the measurement of all ingredients,” Dr Higgins says.

Vitamin and mineral additives are hot on the market these days, with many dog owners taking up the opportunity to include supplements in their home meal preparations. While such products can benefit dogs if their diet is lacking in minerals and vitamins, Dr Higgins urges everyone to educate themselves on exactly what they’re adding to the meal.

“As with everything you’re feeding your dog, it really all comes down to balance. When adding vitamin supplements you must be certain to measure exact amounts to avoid problems down the track. An excess of Vitamin A for example can lead to liver problems, something none of us want for our best friends.”

 Dr Kay Weller from Bowral Veterinary Hospital says you get what you pay for with commercial foods.

“Cheaper products on the market will often use poor ingredients,” says Dr Weller. One example she cites is protein contents. While two products may contain the same percentage of protein, the more expensive food’s proteins may be derived from higher quality meats, while the source of the cheaper product’s protein may be skin or bone. “This is a poorer quality protein and therefore less able to be absorbed and utilised,” Dr Weller explains.

Dr Weller says another key thing to look out for is the use of sulphur preservatives in foods such as kangaroo meat. This can destroy the vitamin thiamine in the meal and lead to serious deficiencies.

“Diets high in plant derived foods can also reduce the relative availability of copper and zinc, leading to reproductive problems,” says Dr Weller. But just like humans, every dog is different, so what can owners do to ensure their particular pooch is getting the right doses in its dinner?

Different dog, different dinner

Depending on the breed and age of the dog, dietary requirements will differ. Pet food manufacturers produce meals for all stages of life, from puppy days that require a diet rich in calcium for growth, to the slower senior years when dogs need a lower fat intake to avoid obesity problems.

Naturally, smaller breeds have smaller stomachs and mouths than their larger cousins. However, they will digest a lot of food in their tiny tummies, so it’s recommended they are fed little and often. Once they’re grown up, small breed adults may need to be fed two to four times a day to meet their specific nutrient and calorie needs.

“Smaller breed pups are also vulnerable to developing hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar. This is another reason to feed them more frequently when they are young,” says Dr Weller.

While large dog breeds may have a slower metabolism than smaller breeds, they have bigger stomachs and therefore different needs.

“Large and giant breeds grow rapidly, so there’s more pressure on their joints. It’s vital to feed them a diet that is both completely balanced in minerals and also relatively energy restricted,” says Dr Weller.

“Generally it is safer to feed a premium quality commercial food that has been specially formulated for these breeds. But if you do decide to develop a home made diet, it’s very wise to contact a specialist nutritionist first to ensure your special pup’s diet is well balanced.”

What not to feed (dangerous or poisonous foods)

Although safe for people and some other animals, there are certain foods that can cause serious health problems in dogs, so should never be offered.

  • If you enjoy sharing table scraps with your dog, take care. If scraps are fed in addition to regular meals you may over feed your dog. If they are a substitute for regular meals, table scraps can be too high in protein and fat, and lack important nutrients like calcium.
  • Be sure to never feed cooked bones to your dog; they splinter easily and can cause damage as they make their way through the gut. Sometimes fragments can even become lodged in the stomach, or bind together in the large bowel, causing constipation.
  • Deep-chested breeds should not be allowed to drink large volumes of water after eating a dry food meal. This will predispose them to life-threatening stomach bloat.
  • Most dogs cannot tolerate fat derived from pig products such as that in ham, pork or bacon. Ingestion can lead to pancreatitis, which can be fatal.
  • Some common human foods are poisonous to dogs. These include onions, rhubarb, avocado, mushrooms, beetroot, grapes and spinach.
  • Chocolate in particular is extremely harmful and should never be given to your dog. Consumption of just 90 grams can kill a medium-sized dog.
  • Sharing a beer with man’s best friend is not recommended. Feeding your dog an alcoholic beverage can lead to intoxication, coma and death.

“Cooking for your pet can be a great bonding experience, but it also has to be done in a fairly scientific manner. The cooking process can destroy essential vitamins and your dog misses out on a full and balanced diet.”

Who’s who

Dr Peter Higgins is a veterinary surgeon and Honorary Associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney.

Dr Kay Weller is a veterinary surgeon at Bowral Veterinary Hospital.

T: (02) 4861 1444