Designer Diets: What's in My Dog's Food?

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Nutrition

Dogs, unlike cats, aren’t usually finicky eaters. Dry food? Sure! Canned food? Yummy! People food? Wow! Despite their reputation for being easily pleased, not all dogs eat just any old thing. Nor should they!  Most are happy with 'ordinary' dog food, but others require 'designer' diets. 

What are ordinary diets?

Ordinary diets usually contain a protein source (often chicken, beef, pork, or fish), a starch (often grains) and, perhaps a vegetable. Most traditional commercial pet foods are made from byproducts of human food production. That means your dog may have chicken in his food, but it’s probably not an entire chicken breast like the one on your dinner plate. Premium dog food brands usually cost more, but may contain higher quality, more digestible ingredients than lower cost foods.

Premium or not, all commercial pet foods should meet the requirements set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to be certified as 'complete and balanced'. AAFCO approved pet foods include all the ingredients necessary to provide adequate nutrition for the specified pet.

What are designer diets?

Designer diets are ‘designed’ with a specific goal in mind. These diets target dogs or owners who need or prefer certain qualities in dog food. Designer diets may be grain free or gluten free to prevent complications in dogs with rare sensitivities. They may be totally organic to avoid contamination by pesticides. They may include a novel protein source such as venison, tuna, turkey, duck, rabbit, bison, or even kangaroo to reduce the effects of food allergies. Like ordinary diets, designer diets should be AAFCO certified.

What’s up with grain free diets?

Dogs are historically omnivores, meaning that they eat meat and plants, including grains; nevertheless, grain-free diets are popular among dog owners. Some people reach for grain free food in a misguided effort to reduce food allergies such as gastrointestinal (GI) upsets and itchy skin issues. While a small percentage of dogs may have sensitivities to grains, the vast majority of food allergies are linked to common proteins like beef and poultry, not carbohydrates like grains.

"While a small percentage of dogs may have sensitivities to grains, the vast majority of food allergies are linked to common proteins like beef and poultry, not carbohydrates like grains."

Pet owners may also mistakenly think that grain free diets control weight. As with high protein/low carb human diets, grain-free pet food can be lower in carbohydrates, but higher in fat and calories. That’s why grain free diets don’t guarantee weight-control or weight-loss. Also, manufacturers may substitute grains like wheat, oats, or rice with non-grain carbohydrates like potatoes, carrots, cranberries, sweet potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, beans, or peas. Regardless of the source, carbs are carbs and calories are calories.

Unfortunately, these alternative carbohydrates provide less fiber than grains and may precipitate GI issues. The fiber in grains aids in elimination and also contributes important nutrients to the diet. Iron, thiamine, calcium, riboflavin, folate, and niacin are all in grain. Grain free diets may result in a deficiency of these essential nutrients. And alternate carbohydrate sources cost more.

Here’s yet another good reason to think twice about feeding your dog grain free food. Ongoing research is focused on the potential link between canine heart disease, especially dilated cardiomyopathy, and grain free diets. Dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) have enlarged hearts that do not pump blood properly. DCM usually affects certain breeds including Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Wolfhounds, and Boxer Dogs. When cases of DCM were reported in dogs of non-predisposed breeds, a common factor was noticed…many ate grain-free diets.

Veterinary cardiologists, nutritionists, and the FDA are investigating how diet impacts cardiac disease. Some of the implicated diets containing grain substitutes such as legumes (chickpeas, peas, lentils) as primary ingredients may be a factor. Research is also looking into the rare relationship between taurine deficiency in dog food and heart disease. And, there is additional evidence that there may be food ingredients (exotic meats, fruits, vegetables) that are toxic to the heart.

Here’s the bottom line: research into grain-free diets and heart disease is in the early stages. The FDA wants dog owners to be aware of the potential link. On the other hand, there is no conclusive evidence that whole grains are harmful to the general dog population, so it may be prudent to feed your dog a reputable commercial diet that includes grains unless there is a medical reason to avoid them. As the investigation proceeds, updated information will be provided. Speak to your veterinarian if you have any concerns about the diet you’re feeding to your dog.

What’s up with gluten free diets?

Gluten free diets may be the current nutritional craze, but pet owners should be aware of a few facts. Gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains including barley, wheat, and rye, but there are grains that do not contain gluten. Gluten free does not mean grain free. All grain free dog foods are gluten free, but not all gluten free dog foods are grain free.

"All grain free dog foods are gluten free, but not all gluten free dog foods are grain free."

Some gluten may actually be beneficial. Gluten is sticky and helps bind food together into kibble pieces. Gluten sensitivity is rare in dogs, so gluten may be a safe, useful part of a diet that includes grain.

What about DIY designer pet food?

If you choose to prepare your dog’s specialty food, make sure the recipe meets your pet’s nutritional needs. Follow the directions carefully for preparation and storage. Home-made dog food doesn’t contain preservatives and needs to be stored safely.

There are nutritional resources with sophisticated computer programs to help calculate the amounts of protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins in a recipe. Some programs take into account a dog’s age, health status, and activity level in formulating an appropriate diet. But it can still be tricky verifying that your DIY pet food is nutritionally balanced, i.e., the bioavailability and metabolism of taurine is different in a lamb-based diet compared to a chicken-based diet. Also, the absorption of nutrients may vary with the amount and type of fiber in the diet. To be safe, you may choose to stick with a commercial AAFCO approved pet food.

What about commercially prepared designer diets?

Designer diets can also be purchased. Many pet food manufacturers offer a range of diets for dogs with specific needs. So if you don’t want to cook, you can still feed your pup designer food….even if you aren’t the designer.

As an added plus, when you feed your dog a commercial food, you are actually being ecologically responsible. Some pet foods are made with by-products of human food that would otherwise be discarded.

What dogs need designer diets?

Whether home-cooked or store-bought, all dogs need food that contains proper amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and nutrients. But the proper amounts vary with age. For example, young growing puppies have different nutritional needs than adult dogs.

Medical status also impacts diet. Dogs with urinary problems eat different formulations than dogs with heart conditions. Dogs with sensitive skin have a different menu than dogs with sensitive stomachs. So, some dogs do need designer diets.

What about the average healthy adult dog? Does he or she need a designer diet? Do dogs on high end pet foods live longer? Are they healthier? Are they happier? For now, there is no documented research that definitively proves that designer diets have any health benefits over more traditional, commercially prepared diets. But keep watching, research is ongoing!

The bottom line is that dogs are usually easy to please when it comes to their dining options, so their food doesn’t always need to be ‘special’. But designer diets are beneficial for dogs with certain nutritional needs or medical problems. Determining which diet is best for your dog should include a discussion with your veterinarian.

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