Only relatively recently (evolutionary speaking) have companion dogs become domesticated with their closest ancestral relative being the wolf. Wolves were and are hunters and scavengers eating most aspects of prey including bones, organs and muscle tissue. Dogs as we know today have evolved over the past 15,000 years being in constant contact with humans. They have evolved to eat almost anything but mainly thriving on food scrapes and leftovers. Ancestrally speaking dogs are considered to be primary carnivores, however they do have a clear ability to eat more like an omnivore. Having said that, they still possess a notable carnivore bias.
The pet food industry which expanded in the 1930’s and 1940’s changed the way we fed our domesticated dogs. The commercial pet food industry has made it incredibly convenient to feed our pets, but how can we grade the performance of commercial dog food? Well, it certainly keeps them fat and alive. But are they really thriving? Reports show an alarming annual increase of chronic diseases in pets. More than 50% of dogs have periodontal disease and more than a quarter of dogs are obese. Other very common chronic ailments include skin allergies / ear infections, irritable bowel syndrome or food sensitivities, diabetes, thyroid conditions, orthopedic conditions (ACL injuries, chronic arthritis), immune-mediated disease, cancer and many more. Hippocrates was a Greek physician whom is considered the ‘father of modern medicine’. One of his most famous quotes is that ‘All disease begins in the gut’. I do believe this to be true. The gut is an important interface between you and the outside world with more than 70% of our immune system is located in and around the gastrointestinal tract. There are roughly equal numbers of microbes in the gut as there are cells in the human body. The gut microbiota regulates our immune system, plays an important role in our digestive processes, produces various neurotransmitters and regulates intestinal barrier function. Could there be a link with the food that we feed out pets and the high numbers of chronic illness we see? In my opinion, yes. While this association is gaining steam in human medicine it is sadly rarely discussed in veterinary medicine.
While I do believe most of the intentions of the pet food industry are virtuous, they have sadly taken advantage of the fact that dogs will eat just about anything. Also, to accommodate the demand of the consumer to have convenient, inexpensive dog food with a long shelf life, they have been forced to add poor quality ingredients and preservatives to meet this demand. It’s worth noting that when I speak of the ‘pet food industry’, I am speaking of this entity has a whole. There are certainly some dog food producers that are recognizing these concerns and making attempts to offer a higher quality food. The addition of low quality, cheap ingredients often results in a carbohydrate percent much higher (50-75%) compared to a more ancestral diet (~15%). In humans, high carbohydrate diets have been associated with an alteration in the microbiome in the gut (dysbiosis) and thought to play a role in many chronic diseases. Could the same be true in our dogs? This has not been studied in dogs but it is my belief that an unhealthy gut microbiome plays a huge role in the cause of chronic disease, including those of which have a neurologic basis.
To help prevent chronic disease we need to obtain and keep a healthy microbiome. So, what is the ideal diet for dogs? The answer to that question is unknown and probably not the same for every dog. Just as there is no one diet that is perfect for all people. There are genetic and lifestyle (epigenetic) factors that influence how we respond to certain foods. Even though one perfect diet may not exist for all dogs there are some general guidelines we can follow:
– The diet should use higher quality meat based proteins
– The diet should be higher in non rancid / not excessively heated fats and oils
– The diet should be lower in carbohydrates
– The diet should be composed of whole unprocessed food, not by products
– The diet should not contain any artificial flavors, colors or preservative
– The diet should be complete in all essential vitamins and minerals (i.e. complete and balanced)
The pet food industry is frequently changing. New companies are coming on the scene almost monthly. It is impossible to keep up with this industry and quite honestly it is very daunting and exhausting. To complicate this further, reading ingredient and macronutrient labels on bags of food is not intuitive. I do not have any affiliations with any pet food companies but I do have a few favorite brands. Because of the overwhelming decisions available, I recommend that pet owners go to the website dogfoodadvisor.com. This has been the best resource I have found to compare and review dog foods.
In addition to having a solid base nutritional base, the diet can be altered to act as a therapeutic measure to treat disease. This is done by either altering the macronutrient ratios (carb/fat/protein) of the food and/or by adding specific supplements to the food. The most classic examples of using a diet to treat neurologic disease is a ketogenic diet to treat epilepsy and help with some cancers. This is a well-known therapy in humans. It’s rarely used in dogs mainly because of the inconvenience. To learn more about the ketogenic diet visit https://www.ketopetsanctuary.com/
A lot of the strategies we employ to treat disease with diet with dogs are extrapolated from human medicine. While many of these strategies have not been studied extensively in animals, yet there can be a rational and ‘common sense’ approach to the recommendations.
If you have any questions about how diet may be used to pet your pet’s neurologic disease please feel free to ask. I won’t have a perfect answer to every question because we clearly ‘don’t know’ more than what we ‘do know’.
A few of my favorite brands:
- Vital Essentials (what I feed my dogs and cat)
- Visionary Pet Food (ketogenic option)
- Answers Pet Food
- Below is a link to a relatively easy at home, balanced adult dog food recipe.