Canine Diet - Alternative Choices

Raw food? Kibble? Home-made mash? We survey the options for your pet’s next meal.

Few of us know what truly makes healthy nosh for Fido; we often assume that buying the more expensive bag will ensure the nutritional needs of our pet are met and that it will be safe to consume. But after March 2007, when more than 100 brands of pet food were recalled because they were found to contain toxic melamine-laced wheat gluten (a commonly used filler ingredient), pet owners were left wondering what they were really pouring into their pet's bowls. Even pricier foods like Iams, Eukanuba, Hill's Science Diet and Purina Mighty Dog—all considered safe and reputable brands—were contaminated, and many pets fell ill or died as a result.

Since then recent studies have suggested that pet owners are moving away from buying commercial pet food products in favour of alternatives, such as organic varieties and home-made raw food diets.

So what kinds of alternatives are available for feeding your pup? Here are just a few:

Off-the-Shelf Food

Ensuring your pet has a well-balanced and nutritious diet isn’t the only way to keep them healthy— regular exercise and playtime are also essential—but it’s a biggie. A good rule of thumb is to avoid dog foods that are highly processed and contain enough chemical preservatives to keep them shelf stable for years. Choose foods naturally preserved with vitamins C and E instead of the usual preservatives like BHA and BHT (which may cause liver damage). Chemicals like ethoxyquin and propyl gallate (synthetic chemicals that may lead to allergic reactions or tumours in animals) are thankfully not as commonly found in pet foods as they were a decade ago, but it’s still critical you look for identifiable ingredients on the label. Also, meat ingredients listed as "by-product meal" or "meat and bone meal" are sources of animal protein of poor nutritional value and vary in quality from batch to batch. Instead, try to find kibbles that list whole food ingredients (e.g., lamb, beef, chicken).

Good quality kibbles include brands such as:

  • Fromm: Fromm’s describes itself as a holistic dog food company. Its balanced diets (dry and canned) do not contain corn or wheat. The ingredients and final products are free from artificial and industrial preservatives, and the company ensures the fish it uses are not treated or preserved with ethoxyquin.
  • Innova: A high-quality dog food with organic lean meats, cottage cheese, whole grains, vegetables and fruit high in healthy omega-6 and omega-3 essential oils.
  • Orijen and Acana: A top Canadian pet food produced in Alberta. Orijen uses ingredients such as free-run chicken, free-range wild boar, bison and heritage pork, grass-fed lamb and a variety of wild-caught freshwater & saltwater fish. The Acana brand philosophy believes that a meat-concentrated diet—higher in protein, lower in carbohydrate, low in grains but rich in fruits and veggies—is the best balance for modern dogs.
  • Merrick: A lower-protein option that uses human-grade meat ingredients, whole fresh vegetables and fruits, and no unnatural preservatives or fillers.

Raw Foods

Raw diets are becoming a popular trend nowadays, sometimes as a supplement to kibble or in combination with meals made from scratch. They hinge on the idea that a raw, high-protein diet is the “natural” diet of dogs and cats in the wild. In addition to high levels of protein, this would have included lots of fats and water, and very few carbohydrates—the exact opposite of what commercial foods offer, argues Dr. Ian Billinghurst, a veterinary surgeon who developed the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, or B.A.R.F, diet. B.A.R.F. frozen raw patties for dogs contain 10 different meats mixed with fruit, eggs and vegetables.

The raw meat diet has received a great deal of attention (and take-up) in recent years despite health warnings issued by the CVMA and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), due to bacterial risks to pets and to humans in contact with such pets. Finding the right food type, amount, and frequency of feeding depends on the dog’s age, activity level, environmental conditions and physiologic state. According to the CVMA, owners choosing to prepare dogs meals from scratch should consider the following:

  • that meals contain the proper amount and balance of all nutrients,
  • that ingredients are easily digested, absorbed and utilized by the pet,
  • that meals are palatable, and
  • that vitamins and minerals are supplied in the proper ratio to ensure good health.

Nutrient requirements differ from dog to dog, so make the transition slowly. When changing foods, the CVMA suggests mixing a small amount of new food in with the old one, gradually increasing the proportion of new food over a 4-to-5-day period.  

Many people strongly endorse raw food diets for their dogs, claiming they represent a superior nutritional model—one based on providing fresh, unprocessed, preservative-free chow. Whatever you decide, consult your veterinarian for advice and recipes to ensure you’re feeding your canine a truly healthy, well-balanced diet.

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