In recent years, pet owners have been questioning the ingredients and the quality of the ingredients in their pets' food. Labels on some store-bought pet foods can be confusing or list ingredients that aren't what they seem. This has led many people to make their own pet food and treats, but that can also raise more questions about proportions, the proper nutrients, and pet-allergies. While homemade pet food may seem healthier, not all store-bought brands are bad. To answer some of these questions, I reached out to Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, and founder of Pawcurious.com.
Is there a best time of day to feed my dog?
In general, the best idea is to be consistent whatever time you choose. Most people choose to feed their pet twice a day; I would recommend people do two as opposed to one to help maintain more consistent blood glucose and reduce the chance of bloat.
Should I leave his food out all day or only put it down at specific meal times?
Some dogs take only what they need and are fine grazing throughout the day, but many dogs eat as much as is put out for them. Those dogs should be fed at specific meal times because leaving a huge bowl of food out can predispose them to overeating. Think of the typical person who has all day access to a huge bowl of M&Ms ̶ even if you're not super hungry, it can be hard to resist taking a handful every time you walk by. The specific meal times approach is also a good choice for multi-pet households so you know who is eating what.
What should I look for in a pet food?
The AAFCO statement on the back of the bag is a sign a pet food manufacturer has adhered to industry guidelines for complete and balanced nutrition. I don't purchase foods that do not have this statement on the label.
Pet foods should be appropriate for the life stage of the dog; puppies have different energy requirements than seniors, for example, and pet foods have become very targeted in making foods appropriate for specific dietary needs.
You can get a general idea of the quality level of the dog food by looking at the first five ingredients. Ingredients are listed by weight, so a food made with whole meat (75% water) is likely to list meat higher on the list than one including a meat meal, which is the same thing minus the water. I like to see a meat or meat meal, whole grains, and vegetables high on the list.
What should I avoid?
Labeling rules are sometimes tricky for pet foods. Anything that says "with" is only required to have 3% of the food be that item. For example, "Chunks with lamb and rice" needs to only have 3% of the ingredients consist of the combination of lamb and rice, and the majority of the food might be chicken and corn. Always read the label.
Many people are nervous about the idea of byproducts, but many byproducts are perfectly good sources of nutrition. Viscera such as the liver, kidney and heart are considered byproducts, but are good ingredients. So I'm fine with those.
On the other hand, I avoid artificial dyes, long lists of chemicals I don't recognize, and companies who aren't able to tell me where they source their ingredients. After the melamine recalls in 2007, companies that do source their ingredients within the US are more than happy to share that information with you.
What are the nutritional benefits of homemade dog food?
The main benefit to homemade dog food is the control you have over every ingredient. You know where it's from and how much of each ingredient has gone into it. Homemade dog food can be a huge asset to pets with very specific nutritional needs, for example, a dog with both kidney disease and food allergies, for whom an appropriate commercial good might not exist. I do recommend owners interested in home cooking seek the advice of a board certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure the diet has both the proper amount of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals.) BalanceIt, a company run by veterinary nutritionists, is my personal go-to for clients who home cook. They can take pretty much any request on the planet and tell you how to make it for your dog.
If I can find a healthy store-bought brand, is making homemade pet food really better for my dog?
Many people who home cook are justifiably proud of the care and commitment that takes. But for many of us, myself included, buying commercial food is the right fit for our busy life and budget. The vast majority of my clients do purchase food, and we tailor our recommendations to the individual. There's no one size fits all for pets ̶ it's about what size fits *you*.
For more information, you can check out Dr. Vogelsang's website, Pawcurious.com.