Some owners prefer to give their puppy a home-cooked diet; others prefer to give a commercially prepared food, such as dry kibble or moist tinned food. Dry kibble is pellets of food packed in sealed bags. The question that concerns most owners is: ‘how do I choose what’s best for my puppy?’

The answer isn’t as simple as you expect, because no two organisms react identically to the same foods. For example, lamb is used in the diet of dogs with various sensitivities – stomach upsets, skin problems… yet some dogs are allergic to lamb. I happen to live with one. She can eat all sorts of rubbish (within reason, of course) and be fine. But, give her lamb and she’ll soon be vomiting. I have seen dogs do poorly on a high-quality commercial food, and thrive on a low-quality one, and have also seen the opposite. As a rule, however, a dog is more likely to be healthy if he eats quality foods. Vets are usually well read with regard to the most nutritious foods available and seeking their advice is always a good move.

There are many brands on the market, ranging from low to high quality. The price also varies according to quality – high-quality foods are relatively expensive; medium or low-quality ones are cheaper. Look around vets, pet stores, and supermarkets before making your choice. The following is a guide to help you choose a high-quality brand of food.

Some nutrients are more likely to cause allergies or intolerance and should be avoided. They are: beef, soy, egg, cow’s milk, wheat, corn, and gluten. Food allergies usually occur in puppies, but a dog that’s been eating the same food for six years can develop an allergy. This is because his threshold for a certain allergen has overflowed. The only true way of telling the difference between food intolerance and a food allergy is through a blood test that scans for antibodies. Certainly, if your dog develops an intolerance or allergy, talk to your vet about a change in diet if:

he vomits or has diarrhea

develops frequent ear infections

the coat becomes dull

hot spots appear; the skin becomes dry, itchy and scaly

he frequently licks his muzzle, feet, and groin, or scratches his face

When you read the label, it’s more important to look at the list of groups of ingredients than the percentage of protein and fat, because the food may have the ideal percentage of protein, for example, but the protein may come from a poor source.

The first group of ingredients should be of an animal protein source. Meat meal is dehydrated meat and should be preferred over meat by-products. This is because meat by-products include skin, bone, nails… all protein, but of low nutritional value. But beware, because meat-meal can be any meat from dead pets to road kills. Instead, look for a food brand that says what species of meat-meal is in it: for example, chicken, lamb or venison meal. Some brands have two, three, and even four meat sources as their first ingredients. Some vets and nutritionists think this is better than having only one source of animal protein.

The second group of ingredients can be carbohydrates such as potato, rice, oat, sweet potato. Dogs do not necessarily need carbohydrates, but they are a good filler.

The third group of ingredients should be fats such as poultry fat, fish oil, salmon oil, olive oil. Sunflower oil has been removed from some food brands because studies indicate it may raise the risk of certain types of cancer. Corn oil is too high in Omega 6 and can promote inflammation internally. Avoid a brand that says ‘animal fat’ or ‘vegetable oil’, because not all animal fats and vegetable oils are healthy, and the label should mention the source of fat.

Fibers, such as beetroot pulp and chicory, are usually added to commercial foods because lower quality ingredients and their processing do not provide enough quality fiber. But if a food brand has whole vegetables (including the peel) or enough bone meal, there’s no need for added fiber. Look for a food that has whole vegetables as the fourth group of ingredients.

Brewer’s yeast is a nutrient supplement rich in Vitamin B (except vitamin B 12), other vitamins, amino acids, and it nourishes the intestinal flora – beneficial bacteria carried in the digestive tract, that promote the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of bad bacteria. However, some dogs are allergic to brewer’s yeast, so it’s better to use probiotics.

High-quality commercial food also contains all the vitamins and minerals essential for good health. Low-quality commercial food may need to be supplemented, because it may be short on essential vitamins and minerals. An excess of supplements, especially while your dog is growing up, may cause irreversible harm. At the same time, it is important to prevent bone and joint problems during growth. Because supplementing your puppy’s diet is a controversial issue, you should seek your vet’s approval before deciding on a brand.

All commercial foods need to be preserved or they’ll go rancid. There are natural and chemical preservatives. Examples of natural preservatives are: Vitamin C, Vitamin E, rosemary extract. Foods with chemical preservatives should be avoided. These are disguised with fancy names that mislead any unsuspecting dog owner. Some of them belong to the pesticide category and others to the anti-freeze category. These have been implicated in cancerous conditions and kidney problems, just to name two. The most commonly used chemical preservatives in commercial dog foods are: ethoxyquin, BHT (also known as E 321), and BHA (also known as E 320).

If you decide to feed your puppy a home-cooked diet, seek the help of your vet or a nutritionist because, while you can guarantee the quality of the nutrients going into your puppy’s body, if they are unbalanced, the diet may cause harm.

As the saying goes: ‘we are what we eat’. This applies to our dogs, too. Just as the caffeine in coffee gives you an energy boost – thus affecting your state of mind and demeanor – whatever goes into your puppy’s body will also affect his. And remember, many dogs will eat from dawn to dusk, given half a chance. The sooner your dog grows accustomed to meals at set times, of a reasonable quantity, the better. An obese or overweight and overfed puppy will become a distinctly unhealthy and sickly older dog, with progressively poorer health. If you have trouble deciding how much is ‘reasonable’, consult the vet or nutritionist.

How can you tell if your puppy is doing well on the food you’re giving him?

The eyes should be clear and free of discharge,

there shouldn’t be much wax build-up in the ears,

the coat should be shiny,

the skin shouldn’t be scaly,

the puppy shouldn’t have too much gas,

the stools should be firm and not too smelly,

and the breath should be almost odorless.

– Alexandra Santos –


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