Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of raising a dog. A poor diet can cause all sorts of problems from skeletal abnormalities to poor skin and coat. Assuming you don't have a doctorate in veterinary nutrition, how do you know what to feed?
There is a growing movement to feed dogs more "natural" diets. There is a lot of appeal to this concept; after all, I have never spoken to anyone who wanted to feed their dog an "unnatural" food! The word natural brings with it all sorts of positive connotations healthiness, purity, ecology, and safety to name a few. We do have to be very discerning, however, any time we see the word natural used. It has become a great marketing tool, and is greatly overused.
Wild canids eat a variety of things. We think of wolves as hunters, pulling down large game and feasting on the meat. But meat-on-the-hoof is not always readily available. Wild canids also eat small animals like mice and squirrels, and they will also eat plant material like berries if they need to. There is not much in the way of grain in the natural diet.
When we look at the anatomy of the dog's digestive system, from teeth to intestines, we see that they are meant to eat meat. They have teeth and jaws designed to shear through flesh. The intestinal tract is fairly short, suited for an animal that eats meat. They have become "quasi-omnivores" after long association with man, but that is a man-made convention rather than a physiological one. They are designed for protein digestion. However, humans have been feeding dogs meat and grains and other detritus (think of the fact that until the last 50 years dogs were fed leftovers, scraps and garbage from whatever food their humans happened to be eating) and doing adequately on these diets.
In the wild, animals are able to take advantage of variety and generally have a nutritionally balanced diet. Domestic pets, on the other hand, depend of people to feed them. Commercially available foods limit the amount of variety that we can give our pets, as they tend to have a fixed ingredient list.
Obviously, whatever we feed our pets will be very different from what they would be eating in the wild. The degree to which your dog's diet mimics a wild-type diet is the variable you will have to determine. You now have the choice of everything from raw meat and bones to commercial prepared dry dog foods. Some people have strong feelings one way or another about what they want to feed. The key is to do your homework and make a decision based on good information from reliable sources. This will provide some basic information for you to help you in your decision.
Traditional commercial dog foods
Brands like Purina Dog Chow, Science Diet and Pedigree fall into this category. Millions of dogs eat these foods every day, and are healthy and full of life. The better brands are made with relatively good quality ingredients. There is little variation from batch to batch, so the quality tends to be quite stable. They are easy to feed, require little or no preparation, have been proven over time, and are widely available through many retail outlets.
Premium dog foods - the "extras"
These include foods made available by food companies exclusively for veterinary clients as well as some of the "natural" formulations. Examples of these foods include Medi-Cal Royal Canin, Wellness, Innova, Canidae/Felidae, Blue Buffalo, Acana, and a number of others.
There are differences in the ingredients and supplements contained in these foods. Some, like Royal Canin foods, contain higher levels of antioxidants than other commercial foods and so are recommended for puppies who are being vaccinated. Some are specifically designed for dogs of a certain breed or size. Some have limited ingredients so are good for dogs with allergies to some foods. Some have a variety of unusual ingredients, like yogurt and apples, that may be appealing to you. They are a good choice and have all of the advantages of any other commercial food (convenience, quality).
There are several categories of fresh foods. Homemade diets are very appealing to some people, especially those who enjoy cooking. The drawback to homemade diets is that they are very difficult to balance. It is far more complicated than "take some meat, add some potatoes and vegetables and voila". The chef (that's you!) is responsible for making sure that all of the nutrients levels are balanced and that there are adequate amounts of the trace minerals and vitamins in the diet. Most people, faced with the complexity of cooking for their pets, opt for one of the commercially available fresh foods like Koko's Gourmet.
Raw meat diets are a world unto themselves. There are pros and cons to raw meat, as with all diets. Make sure that you do your homework. Raw diets are not for all, but they can be a good choice for those aware of the risks and benefits. Raw bones are part of this as well; the same caveats apply.
Many of my patients are fed raw diets. I have not appreciated any real differences in the health of pets on raw food versus good commercial dry foods, with one exception. The dental health of dogs fed the appropriate raw bones is quite good - they tend to have less tartar accumulation. However, this is balanced by the finding that they also tend to have more dental fractures.
Studies show that dogs fed raw poultry can have significant amounts of Salmonella bacteria in the hair around the mouth and anus, as well as in the stool. Households with small children should not feed raw food, as the risk of Salmonella and E. coli poisoning is significant.
It might also interest people to know that there is almost no regulation of the pet food industry in Canada. Yes, there are rules as to what the label can say - you can't call a dog food a "dinner" unless it can meet certain criteria for contents, for instance. But there is no policing of the actual contents of the food. There are no rules that say a marketed pet food has to meet ANY minimum nutritional requirements. This rule means that anyone (you included) can decide to produce your own dog food. As long as you comply with the labelling regulations and don't call a "puree" a "gravy" on the label,
Above all, remember that no food is going to be all things to all dogs. What is good for your neighbor's dog may be disatrous for yours, and vice versa. Make you selection based on your level of comfort with the diet and the amount of time you are willing to commit to feeding.