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Diet, Health & Behavior: Changing Food Can Make a Big Difference

When I was a kid, we thought we were spoiling our wire-haired terrier Perri with a diet of Alpo. He got one can a day. But we noticed that he kept getting into garbage cans around the neighborhood. When I was older and smarter, I was horrified to realize that he'd been hungry because he just wasn’t getting enough, either in quantity or quality. We didn’t know any better, and options were few in those days. At least Alpo was superior (I hope!) to what most dogs were getting then: Purina Dog Chow and Gravy Train.

Now we have a huge array of choices, starting with multiple types of diet: dry kibble, wet/canned, raw, commercial raw (frozen, dehydrated, or freeze-dried), homemade . . . and combinations thereof. It can be really confusing, which leads many people to reach for what’s convenient, economical, or persuasively marketed. Other consumers are as careful and discriminating as they are about knowing what’s in their own diet.  

A new online guide called “Best Dog Food” is the result of an impressive amount of research: consulting with 20+ experts in the field (vets, behaviorists, trainers, researchers), reading dozens of studies on dog food, analyzing 2,000+ labels for ingredients and nutrient levels, and talking to dog owners. Go here to see the results: http://www.reviews.com/dog-food/
 

When the reviewers surveyed 300 owners, they found that 70 percent didn’t know what was in their dogs’ food. Why does it matter? Because diet affects everything: health, life span, and behavior.

I know of only two other authoritative and unbiased guides to dog food—provided by Whole Dog Journal and Dog Food Advisor (see below for links)—but this new guide by Reviews.com is a little different. This one can help us to quickly ensure we’re choosing a food that is, first of all, safe (something we cannot take for granted), that also provides the right levels of high-quality nutrients and contributes to a long, healthy life. Of course, we also want our dogs to love the taste and to experience the benefits of real nutrition. 

Best Brands and Formulas
The 10-member team at Reviews.com started with 115 brands and narrowed that down to a list of 29 “approved” brands. But wait, they went much further! Since each brand offers a variety of formulas, with different levels of quality, they examined 2,225 formulas and came up with a list of only 134 that met their high standards, including sources of protein. This is really important because many ingredients in dog food and treats are sourced from countries that have few food regulations or are known for using toxins. 

We need to read labels and know what’s safe and healthy, and what isn’t. 

Several features in this new guide at Reviews.com will help people understand how (and why) to choose a high-quality food. 
*  A chart with pros and cons of feeding dry, wet, dehydrated, raw, and home-made diets
*  A list of top-quality ingredients—and ones to avoid, such as “meat” and “byproducts”
*  A list ofbest foods by type: dry, canned, puppy, and grain-free
*  The connection between bad ingredients and poor health (allergies, IBD, obesity, and more) plus difficulty training
*  Analysis of levels of protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and nutrients
* Consideration of the history of complaints, recalls, and how those companies handled them

How many consumers are aware of whether their brand has ever been recalled for illnesses and possibly deaths?  For example, two years ago a class action lawsuit was filed against Purina for thousands of complaints of kidney failure in dogs who were fed Beneful. Another giant company, Diamond, which makes many popular brands of dog food, had a massive recall in 2012. Have these companies made appropriate changes?

Some manufacturers refused to provide information about where they source ingredients, which was cause for exclusion from the “approved” list. 

Diet also affects behavior, for better or worse. I always ask clients about diet because improving nutrition often leads to improvements in behavior. When dogs eat better, they feel better, and therefore are likely to behave better. Trainers report that many dogs eating foods made of byproducts and low-quality grains (worst are corn and wheat), chemical preservatives, and maybe even food coloring (!) are hyperactive and unfocused, easily distracted, and hard to train. 

The purpose of food, after all, is to support the healthy functioning of all organs, including the brain. You may remember days or weeks when you were eating poorly, and how difficult it was to think clearly, pay attention, learn, or do your job well. 

So how did you decide what kind of food to feed your dogs? Was it because your breeder recommended it? Because your vet sells it, so it must be good stuff? Maybe it’s just convenient to buy it at the grocery store. Or it’s the same food you fed your previous dogs, when it had a good reputation—though several popular brands have been bought by mega-companies that downgraded the ingredients and got them from cheaper sources. 

If you aren’t convinced that there’s much difference between various dry foods—note that fresh, whole foods are considered to be far more healthful—take a look at the first 12 ingredients of these three brands of kibble. Unhealthy/low-quality ingredients are in italics. 

Purina Beneful IncrediBites with Real Chicken (given 2 stars out of 5 by dogfoodadvisor.com)  Chicken, whole grain corn, barley, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole grain wheat, rice, beef tallow preserved with mixed-tocopherols, soybean meal, poultry by-product meal, glycerin, egg and chicken flavor . . . 

Hills Science Diet Adult Advanced Fitness Chicken and Barley (given 3 stars out of 5 by dogfoodadvisor.com): 
Chicken, whole grain wheat, cracked pearled barley, whole grain sorghum, whole grain corn, corn gluten meal, chicken meal, pork fat, chicken liver flavor, dried beet pulp, soybean oil, lactic acid . . . 

Orijen Adult Grain-Free Dry Dog Food (5 stars and approved by Reviews.com and the Whole Dog Journal): 
Deboned chicken, deboned turkey, yellowtail flounder, whole eggs, whole atlantic mackerel, chicken liver, turkey liver, chicken heart, turkey heart, whole atlantic herring, dehydrated chicken, dehydrated turkey . . . 

Yes, 5-star food is more expensive than 2-star food. Better ingredients cost more. But a bag of the better stuff usually goes further since it is more nutrient-dense than the food that’s full of grains and has inadequate, inferior protein sources. And spending more on food will probably save you money on veterinary care—and give your dog a longer, happier life too!

It may be time to find a better diet. And dogs in the same household may do better on different foods.

Many people are reluctant try a new food, assuming that it will cause diarrhea or that their dog is “supposed to” stick with lamb or chicken for life! Not true. It’s actually much healthier, holistic vets say, to switch around and at least rotate proteins. It takes only about a week, maybe less, for a healthy dog to switch over to a new food without upsetting the stomach. You may discover that your dog really thrives on a different brand or a different type altogether. You will see the benefits in coat, skin, eyes, energy, and enthusiasm at mealtime. You may also notice better behavior and quicker learning.

So check out the new guide at http://www.reviews.com/dog-food/--and also check these three other authoritative and unbiased resources:

* The Whole Dog Journal provides loads of helpful information and an annual “best” guide to dry, canned, and raw, as well as e-books: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/topics/dog_food" 

* The Dog Food Advisor covers recalls and grades all dog-food brands with 1 to 5 stars, but not every formula of each brand: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com

* Dogs Naturally Magazine promotes raw foods: http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com

Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017

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