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Safest diets for dogs

The nutritional status of dogs is a strong indicator of their overall health and welfare, so getting their diet right is crucial. Your veterinarian is the best person to advise you because every dog has individual needs. The following information will help prepare you for the issues your veterinarian will most likely discuss. You can also use this as a guide to keep your dog healthy and avoid any foods that may be harmful to them.

The best diet for your dog

The best diet for dogs is a high quality balanced premium commercial diet. These diets have been formulated by experts in pet nutrition based on research findings, so that your dog will not miss out on essential ingredients. Being ‘complete and balanced’ means that a diet is designed to be the main source of nutrition, and contains the correct ratio of ingredients (including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water). This is what your dog needs for their health and metabolism and why veterinarians generally recommend these diets, which give dogs the nutrition they need while leaving them feeling satisfied and energised without requiring large portion sizes.

Premium commercial diets are highly palatable and come in both wet and dry forms. Dry food (kibble) is cost-effective and very convenient. Some owners use a mixture of both. If you want to make sure the pet food and treats you use comply with the Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food,  the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia website has a comprehensive list. Keeping your dog’s food fresh is important, just like it is for our food, and it is recommended that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to storage and preparation.

There have been documented cases of safety issues with some commercial treats, such as dogs suffering from kidney problems after eating chicken jerky, pig’s ears and other chewy products. The RSPCA recommends that the safest treat options are small portions of commercial dog food, safe human food or home-made treats prepared according to veterinary advice.

Tailoring the diet to your dog’s individual needs

Another benefit of premium commercial diets is that they are designed to meet a dog’s unique nutritional requirements based on life stage, reproductive status, size, breed, activity levels and health. The life stages of dogs include puppy (from birth until 6 to 9 months, depending on breed and size), young adult (from end of rapid growth until physical and social maturity, around 3-4 years), mature adult (from completion of maturity until the last 25% of estimated lifespan) and senior (from last 25% of estimated lifespan until end of life).

Your dog’s needs will change as they move through these life stages. For example, growing puppies, pregnant and nursing females and dogs who exercise heavily have higher energy needs (and so need more proteins, carbohydrates and fats). Senior dogs have lower energy requirements due to their slower metabolism but may need higher quality protein sources (for example, if they have kidney disease) or low levels of sodium (for heart disease). After consulting your veterinarian, you can buy dog food for small, medium and large breed puppies, adults and seniors.

Many diseases of dogs can be treated or improved by dietary management. The good news is that premium commercial diets also offer prescription (or veterinary) diets to support the health of dogs with a range of medical conditions. Diets are available to improve joint, skin, dental, kidney, liver, heart, urinary and metabolic function and to promote weight control. They also offer diets tailored to specific dog breeds based on conditions these dogs are prone to (for example, adapted diets for Labradors to help them maintain an ideal weight). Any change of diet, including switching puppies  from growth to adult maintenance foods, should be introduced gradually and only after veterinary advice. This highlights the importance of routine veterinary checks, as your veterinarian will weigh your dog, assess their body and muscle condition and suggest modifying their diet as needed.

How much to feed your dog

When discussing safe diets for dogs, an issue we can’t avoid is how much to feed them! While your dog may be happy to eat all that is offered, this isn’t what is best for them. Obesity is one of the biggest health concerns for dogs. It places them at greater risk of diabetes, heart, liver and urinary tract disease, arthritis, cancer and cruciate ligament rupture, increases risk if they need to have surgery and reduces their quality of life and lifespan.

National surveys have found that 41% of Australian dogs are overweight or obese and the major causes are overfeeding and too little exercise. Ways to tackle obesity are to feed your dog the recommended quantities of a high-quality food, give healthy treats sparingly, keep up their exercise and have them weighed regularly. Your veterinarian can help you design a safe weight loss program as needed and may recommend a commercial weight control diet. As a guide, you can also learn to use a body condition score chart which will help you identify whether your dog is overweight, underweight or at an ideal weight and shape. You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs, and observe a defined waistline from above and the sides.

Diets that are not recommended

Home-cooked diets

Many owners ask about home-cooked diets as they prefer to choose their own fresh ingredients. It is possible to achieve this, but the disadvantage is the higher cost and the difficulty in formulating a nutritionally complete and balanced diet. First talk to your veterinarian about the pros and cons of this approach and whether it is a safe option for your particular dog. If you decide with your veterinarian that it is safe and suitable to feed your dog a home-cooked diet, the safest way is to seek advice from a specialist veterinary nutritionist who will be able to help formulate a diet that meets your dog’s needs. Your dog’s veterinarian can refer you to a specialist veterinary nutritionist.

Unfortunately, many dogs on home-cooked diets are not receiving a nutritionally balanced diet. For example, dogs who are fed predominantly with a single food item, such as meat, can develop calcium deficiency (due to incorrect calcium to phosphorus ratios), which affects their bones, and feeding them liver can induce Vitamin A toxicity. Other common home cooking mistakes include using recipes that would not be approved by a veterinary nutritionist and feeding home-cooked diets to pregnant or nursing dogs and growing puppies, which can cause serious health problems because their needs for extra nutrition are not met. There is also no quality control over home-cooked diets, and they are unable to be adapted to support the health of dogs with particular medical conditions.

Raw meat-based diets

RSPCA Australia does not recommend raw meat-based diets due to the risk of bacterial illness and because some products marketed as ‘pet mince’ have been found to contain sulphite preservatives. These preservatives cause thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency, which causes neurological symptoms and can be fatal. Pet owners can minimise this risk by feeding only human-grade raw meat products, but there is no assurance that raw meat will be free from pathogens (such as Salmonella in raw chicken meat, which can also affect humans who handle the food). Many owners like to feed raw chicken to their dogs, but this has been associated with neurological disease.

Veterinary associations  internationally have discouraged the trend in recent years towards feeding raw meat-based diets to dogs, whether these diets are home-prepared or commercial. This is due to concerns about pathogens, nutritional imbalances (such as dogs developing rickets from Vitamin D deficiency) and the risk of bones becoming stuck in the oesophagus or intestines or causing dental problems.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association also warns against raw meat-based diets due to the high risk of contamination by bacteria (that may be resistant to antibiotics), injury from perforation by bones, gastrointestinal symptoms due to higher fat content and the impact of nutritional imbalance, which can include painful skeletal disorders in puppies.

Bones

There are many risks to feeding your dog bones, and these outweigh the benefits. While bones can be a way to provide stimulation to dogs through chewing,  they can damage a dog’s teeth and mouth. Cooked bones are the most dangerous as they are likely to splinter, but raw bones can cause harm also. Dogs often chip or break teeth when eating bones. And while bones may also remove tartar from the tops of the teeth, this action cannot fully prevent tartar build up and dental disease due to tartar that is present below the gumline.  Like raw meat, bones contain bacteria that can cause infection. They are also high in fat, which can lead to pancreatitis, a condition that can be very serious and painful. Of great concern is the risk of dogs swallowing bones that become lodged in their digestive tract, requiring life-saving and expensive surgery. This is one of the many unexpected situations where having pet insurance   is worthwhile. The safest option is to provide your dog with alternatives to bones, such as dental chews.

Foods that are unsafe for dogs

Many human foods can be dangerous to dogs, whether this is due to causing gastrointestinal upset, blockages or toxicity. In general, human foods should only be given to dogs if they are known to be safe, such as well-cooked lean meat, safe fresh fruit and vegetables and cooked white rice or pasta, and in small amounts as treats. Household foods frequently involved in the poisoning of dogs include foods in the onion family like garlic, shallots, leeks and chives (which affect red blood cells and cause anaemia), alcohol (which affect respiration and can lead to a coma), grapes and their dried products like raisins and sultanas (which can lead to kidney failure), macadamia nuts (which can cause severe weakness and other symptoms), caffeine and related products such as chocolate (which can cause high heart rate, irregular heart rhythm and seizures) and xylitol, a widely used artificial sweetener (which can cause dangerously low levels of blood glucose and liver failure).

Keep the following list of foods that are unsafe for dogs in a handy place to reference. Please be aware that this is not a comprehensive list, and doesn’t include all foods that are dangerous to dogs.

  • Avocado, alcohol

  • Bread dough

  • Chocolate, cooked bones, currants, chewing gum, corncobs, citrus, coffee or caffeine products, compost

  • Dark chocolate

  • Eggs (raw)

  • Fruit stones, fruit seeds or fatty foods

  • Grapes, garlic

  • Mango seeds, mushrooms, mouldy foods 

  • Nuts

  • Onions, onion powder

  • Peaches, plums (seeds only, not the flesh)

  • Raisins

  • Sultanas, salt, small pieces of raw bone, spoiled foods

  • Trimmings (salty or fatty)

  • Unripe (green) tomatoes, including leaves or the stem 

  • Walnuts

  • Xylitol (common ingredient found in chewing gum, and some peanut butters)

  • Yeast dough

Your veterinarian is the best person to guide you towards a safe and well-balanced diet that supports the health and wellbeing of your four-legged friend. They can also tailor this according to your dog’s age, size and any special needs.

Despite the best knowledge and care, sometimes the unexpected can happen and our pets can become ill or suffer an injury. Consider cover for illness and injury with RSPCA Pet Insurance and know that a portion of first-year premiums help support the RSPCA.