Diet Management in Dogs


Balanced dog diets


Question: Hello Dr. Richards,

I want to be able to give my Poms a good balanced diet while at the same time seeing to it that they are not fed food that will cause renal and/or liver failure in the long term. I understand that grains are not readily digested by dogs (being true carnivores) and the lower quality proteins are considered to contribute to eventual renal failure. Is this correct? I've heard too that dogs are lactose intolerant and if so, why feed them cottage cheese? What I'm hearing is that it is best to feed dogs a diet mostly of meat because that is high quality protein which dogs do readily digest and are therefore much better for the kidneys and liver to handle. Please comment. BTW, the link below is an interesting one because it gives forth reasons not to give raw food and bones. So what is a fur parent to feed their fur kid(s) for good health?

Tony A.  

Answer: Tony-

Dog are not true carnivores, because they can produce the essential amino acids and do not have to ingest them in their diet. Cats are true carnivores.

Feeding all meat, or nearly all meat diets to dogs almost inevitably leads to feeding an improperly balanced diet, especially in the calcium and phosphorous ratios. There is no evidence that I know of that feeding more protein than is necessary for maintenance and repair of the enzymes, muscles, etc. in the body has any benefits. It doesn't make a lot of difference to the dog's system if the protein is high quality or low quality as long as it does meet those needs. It is necessary to feed higher quantities of poorer quality proteins, though. This is bad for dogs who already have kidney failure because it increases the amount of protein products the damaged kidneys have to deal with. It seems logical that it might help the kidneys to feed lower amounts of higher quality protein throughout life but there really isn't much evidence to support a beneficial effect except in dogs who actually have kidney insufficiency.

Cooked grains are nearly 100% digestible for dogs. There really isn't a lot of question about this based on the results of feeding studies. I am not sure why people come to the conclusion that grains are not good for dogs.

It is estimated that about 50% of dogs are lactose intolerant, to some degree. I think that a smaller number of dogs actually show recognizable signs of lactose intolerance after ingesting milk products, though. This is just based on observing patients in our practice, though, so I could be wrong. Given this, you could make a case for not including dairy products in a diet that you were formulating.

There is a lot of confusion about diet and truthfully, what we do know for sure about optimum diets for pets is almost certainly much less than what we don't know. The therapeutic diets have made this issue even more confusing for pet owners. Many people think that if a diet is good for treating a condition then it should be good for preventing it. This isn't necessarily true, though. In some cases, it is even possible to demonstrate that this conclusion is false.   Right now, it takes a great deal of research to sort through these issues and even then, some of them are just not possible to understand with certainty.

Personally, I think that the commercial foods are a good bet. The big companies spend a great deal of money making sure their products meet the needs of dogs and cats. They have a vested interest in keeping their customer's pets healthy and in doing all they can to make their live's longer. A pet that lives for 20 years eats a lot more pet food than one that lives 10 years. A healthy pet's owners are more likely to stick with the brand of dog food they are using because they perceive it may be part of the reason.  Why wouldn't these companies strive to produce these effects? I know that my patients are living longer than they were twenty-two years ago when I started out in practice. I think that good quality pet foods are one of the reasons. This is my side of the food argument. I know that there are lots of disagreements with this and you are free to take a different approach to feeding your pets. If you do, please have any diet you do come up with analyzed by a nutritionist to make sure that it is adequate.

Mike Richards, DVM

Dietary needs and homemade diets for dogs

Question: Dr. Richards,

From what I remember in Zoology 1A class, dogs are anatomically carnivores with a short and very highly acidic digestive system designed for the quick digestion of food. I remember reading that the very acidic digestive system kills bacteria and other pathogens that would render sick or even kill humans. Could you please explain how kibbles and canned dog foods these days can be digestively reconciled with the structure of the dog's digestive system? I understand that all processed dog foods are made primarily made of grain such as rice, corn, wheat and barley. How long does it take the digestive system to fully assimilate these grains? The longer it takes food to be digested, does that not increase the chances of allergies and digestive upsets?

Too, I read somewhere that oatmeal is the best choice for dogs among the grains because it is higher in protein and fat content. Is there any truth to this information?

I want to wean my dogs away from commercially prepared foods and give them something fresh and wholesome to eat which would be better for their health.

Tony A.

Answer: Tony-

I don't think that it is known with certainty whether dogs are better able to resist bacterial infections than humans or other species. The nutritional books that I have say that dogs are modified carnivores, well adapted to an omnivorous diet. The predominant carbohydrate source in the common grains, including corn, barley, rice and oats is starch. When starches are cooked, including using the extrusion process commonly used in producing commercial dog foods, the starch is more easily digested then when it is fed raw. There is no significant difference in digestibility in the starches found in the grains mentioned above. Dogs are able to utilize nearly 100% of the starches in cooked diets containing these starches and at least 60% of uncooked starches in these diets. Dogs do not digest raw potatoes efficiently and probably only use about 40% of the starch in these diets. (Much of the above information comes from "Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th ed." by Hand, et. al.  The carbohydrates in these diets is reported to be rapidly assimilated. I do not think that transit time has too much to do with food allergies. I believe that the current thinking on food allergies is that they occur when inflammatory processes in the bowel allow the body to become sensitized to an entire protein, which normally doesn't occur because they are broken down prior to absorption.

I am traveling and don't have access to the protein and fat contents of oats but it is unlikely that either one of these ingredients is of great importance from the carbohydrate source in a balanced diet.

It is definitely possible to formulate home-made diets that are safe to use, with the help of a nutritionist who knows the dietary requirements for dogs. If you wish to do this it is important to have a nutritionist evaluate the diet you plan to use to be sure it is nutritionally adequate. I know that Dr. Remillard, who is a board certified veterinary nutritionist offers this service online and there is a link to her site on the link page of our site.

Mike Richards, DVM


Cancer diet and pancreas


Question: Dear Dr. Richards,

I came across some of your writings on the Internet about pancreatitis and subscribed to your newsletter today. Thank you for offering this service.

I have spent the past few months learning about new cancer therapies involving diet, herbs, and vitamin supplementation. Based upon the results of my research, I have been trying a novel therapy on a boxer dog ("Max") with a large primary lung tumor. So far the dog's condition has steadily been improving, so I am optimistic that the treatments is working. The main focus of my treatment has been:

  • A high fish oil diet with minimum Vitamin E.
  • Sodium Ascorbate with Menadione sodium bisulfite and low dose Ionic copper given four times per day.
  • Ampicillin 250 mg/3 times per day along with sho-saiko-to, a Chinese herbal anti-inflammatory.

I have been doing weekly blood tests and everything has been normal except for consistent elevation of Amylase and Lipase which have been as follows:

8/3 Amylase 1677 (Normal Range: 276-1007)   Lipase 1438 (Normal Range: 117-578)

7/31 Amylase 1478   Lipase 1017

7/23 Amylase 1386   Lipase 701

7/19 Amylase 1476   Lipase 503

7/7 Amylase 1302   Lipase 761

The dog exhibits no symptoms of pancreatitis, so I am unsure whether the elevated lipase/amylase levels are simply a reflection of the high fish oil diet, or if they are a warning sign. Also I am not sure what if any other tests I should perhaps do to ensure that this diet is not harming the pancreas.

Please let me know what you think I can best do to protect the pancreas, and let me know if you think the numbers above mean something is going wrong with the pancreas, or if you think the elevated levels simply reflect the change in diet and should not be of concern (Unfortunately I don't have any levels taken before the special diet was begun.)

Thank you very much for your time. If you are interested in a copy of the cancer research review I am preparing, please let me know, and I will e-mail you a draft when it is ready.



Answer: Jeff-

Corticosteroids and heparin can cause increases in lipase levels when they are being administered but usually these are very slight rises, or increases for an individual patient that don't even put the level out of the normal range. It is reasonable to presume that some other medications could also cause rises in this enzyme level, including herbal preparations. However, I have not seen any specific reports of this occurring with any of the medications or preparations that you are using. This doesn't seem to happen with amylase levels based on searching the literature, but I am not sure that it can be totally ruled out.

The most common causes of rises in both amylase and lipase levels are pancreatitis and chronic kidney failure. It is a good idea to check the lab work carefully for signs of either of these conditions and to look for clinical signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite or increases in drinking and urinating.

Amylase and lipase can increase when pancreatic cancers are present but do not always do so. In addition, there is some evidence that intestinal obstruction or decreases in intestinal motility might also lead to increases in serum amylase and lipase levels. Finally, there are individual case reports of several different types of cancer leading to increases in amylase and lipase levels in the blood stream, so these rises may be due to the cancer that you know to be present.

I couldn't find any evidence that fish oils led to increases in amylase or lipase as a direct result of supplementation if pancreatitis doesn't occur. There are some reports of pancreatitis or gastrointestinal disturbances in dogs being supplemented with fish oils but this doesn't seem like a common problem.

My best guess is that the increased levels of amylase and lipase are either related to the disease process associated with the cancer and are therefore not a problem on their own, or that they are not indicative of a current problem. It is reasonable to be cautious if you want to be, though. An ultrasound examination to try to rule out pancreatitis and continued monitoring of kidney function would be worth considering if you wished to try to rule out these conditions.

 From a dietary standpoint, the best diets for control of pancreatitis are low fat diets but the best diets for cancer control are moderate fat, moderate to high protein and low carbohydrate (along with increased n3 omega fatty acids and possibly arginine supplementation based on Dr. Ogilvie's work). In the situation in which cancer is known to be present and pancreatitis doesn't seem likely based on clinical signs, I would opt to go for the diet that is most likely to help with the cancer.

I would appreciate a copy of the cancer research review that you are working on. Thank you for offering this.

Mike Richards, DVM



Feeding Duck


Question: Dr. Richards,

Are you familiar with the brand name of dog food called "Wellness," manufactured by a company called "Old Mother Hubbard."? If so, they offer a wide variety of both canned and dry dog foods, including DUCK as the main source of protein. My (finicky) dog finds it quite palatable, but I have no experience feeding a Duck based food to my dogs. Other than it being greasy (which may prove bene- ficial to my dog's dry coat), is there any reason for me to NOT continue to feed this food, when I have the option of feeding Chicken, Beef or Lamb instead? Vox

Answer: Vox There is no reason not to feed duck as the protein source. If it works, switching to another protein source could cause problems if the dog you are feeding it to is sensitive to the protein source you choose. So if you decide to change, you should think about what protein sources the dog has eaten previously and try to avoid them.

Mike Richards, DVM



Puppy diet questions and coprophagia (stool eating)


Question: I have a 12 year old Shep mix that eats feces. She is allergic to many foods so she is fed a lamb and rice food which works well. I have a 9 month old lab puppy (approx 60 lbs) that I got at the age of 7 weeks. I feed the puppy Eukanuba Large Breed Puppy food. Unfortunately, the puppy food has chicken which is one of the foods that my older dog is allergic to. So when the older dog eats the younger dog's feces, the older dog has itching, etc.

  1. Do you know if there is any problem feeding the puppy something like Forbid or meat tenderizer to see if it will deter my older dog from eating the feces?
  2. When should I switch the puppy to an adult food? What would be the recommended daily calcium level for a lab puppy to help reduce dysplasia problems? How does the calcium level recommendations change with age?

Thanks for your help. Gladys  

Answer: Gladys

1) There is no reason that I know of that you could not feed the puppy Forbid (tm) or meat tenderizer, to see if it would discourage your older dog from eating the puppy's feces. Our experience with using these things has been variable, with some successes and a lot of failures, but we have not seen any harm from using them so we still try them despite the fact that they only work in a small percentage of dogs. And because we don't have a better suggestion.

2) Calcium requirements are a difficult subject to really get a firm understanding of, so if the following explanation doesn't make sense, please let me know. Most of the following information involving specifics of requirements comes from "Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th ed." by Hand, et al.

There is no clear guideline for when to switch from puppy food to adult food, but the switch should be made about the time that the puppy's bone growth (including increasing bone density) stops. This varies from breed to breed but probably is somewhere between 10 months and a year of age for most Labradors.

The most common mistake made in feeding puppies is to feed too much calcium. This is easy to do. The second most common mistake is probably feeding foods with improper calcium/phosphorous ratios. This isn't usually due to a problem with the commercial food, it is usually due to feeding supplements or snacks that contain either calcium or phosphorous and unbalance the ratio found in the food.

The first thing that you have to understand about feeding calcium is that the percentage of calcium required in the food is very dependent on the amount of energy that the food provides. A food that provides a high degree of energy will require a higher amount of calcium and a food that provides smaller amounts of energy should have lower amounts of calcium. I have not seen a figure for the maximum amount of calcium in very high energy foods but if a dog food provides less than 3.8 kilocalories of metabolizable energy per gram of food (< 3.8kcal/g ME)  then the calcium level in the food should not exceed 1.5% on a dry matter basis.

To convert the calcium percentage in dry dog foods to a dry matter basis, multiply by 0.9 (90%) to convert to dry matter from the label (as fed) percentages.

For canned food it is reasonable to multiply the percentage of an ingredient on an "as fed" basis to a dry matter basis by multiplying it by 4. This is not as precise as subtracting the percentage of water to figure out the dry matter and then dividing the percentage on the label by the percentage of dry matter but it is easier.

The new big breed puppy foods have higher calcium levels than adult dog foods. They also have a lot more energy per gram (or cup, or any other measure). So the puppy eats less of the food to meet its energy requirements. This is important to realize, because if a puppy is fed an adult dog food that has a lower amount of calcium, but it has to eat two or three times as much of the food to meet its energy requirement, it will actually consume more calcium from the adult food, even though it has a lower calcium content on a percentage basis. Puppies need about 1% calcium, on a dry matter basis, for foods that provide 3.5kcal /g  ME (about the average).

You might have to call the dog food company to get the number of kilocalories per gram of food, or you can check out Ohio State's web site on nutrition, which might have your dog food listed  (I think we have a link to this on our link page).

Now that I have confused you, it has occurred to me that you asked the wrong question. It might be possible to cause problems with hip dysplasia, or other orthopedic disorders, by feeding excessive calcium, but the biggest problem is feeding excessive calories. You want to keep your Lab puppy thin while he is growing up. If you haven't done this, it may be too late now -- but it still wouldn't hurt to cut back on the food if he is overweight.  The reason that the large breed puppy foods are a good idea is that they have enough calcium and energy to allow you to feed adequate amounts of calcium while meeting the puppy's energy needs, without making him overweight. So it was good to choose one of these foods.

Once the growth phase is over the calcium requirements drop. On the other hand, the risk of feeding too much calcium and causing orthopedic problems also drops some. Adult dogs only require about 0.6% calcium on a dry matter basis for foods providing 3.5 kcal/g ME

In your situation, in which the puppy's food causes problems in the older dog, I think it would be reasonable to make the transition to an adult food anytime between 10 months and a year of age. You should make the transition gradually, taking a week or so to switch entirely.

Hope this helps some. Good luck with the coprophagia (stool eating) behavior problem.

Mike Richards, DVM


What constitutes a complete and balanced meal for adult Giant Breed dogs  

 Question: Dr. Richards,

I've studied AAFCO regulations and other sources of K9 Nutrition as to what constitutes a complete and balanced meal for adult, Giant Breed dogs (with low levels of exercise), but I'd like YOUR opinion as to what YOU would recommend to be desirable levels in the following categories (in canned food) to be fed on a daily basis (I feed a combination of canned food and dry kibble, twice daily, but that's irrelevant to my question, as I am looking for your reply as to total daily percentages).

  Total daily % of Protein: ?                            Fat       : ?                            Fiber    : ?                            Carbs    : ?

      Thanks,   Vox

Answer: Vox-

You feed a mixture of canned food and dry food. This does make a huge difference when figuring out the appropriate protein levels, based on mixing canned food with dry food.

To give you an example of this, which has more protein on a dry matter basis, a canned food containing 8.5% protein or a dry food containing 21.5% protein?  To figure this out it is necessary that you know that canned food is usually about 75% water. So when the water is removed, all the other ingredients increase dramatically as a percentage of the dry matter in the can. In general it is assumed that the protein percentage on the label of a canned food can be multiplied by a factor of 4 to get the amount of protein that is present on a dry matter basis. So the 8.5% protein in the canned food becomes 34% protein on a dry matter basis. On the other hand, the amount of water in dry food is only about 10%, so it is reasonable to increase the protein level on the bag by 10% to get the amount that would be present on a dry matter basis. So the dry food is only 23.7% protein on a dry matter basis.

In order to figure out how much protein you are feeding, you have to figure out the amount of protein in each type of food, on a dry matter basis. The minimum protein requirement to sustain life is pretty low. It is estimated to be about 6% on a dry matter basis for adult dogs and about 10% for puppies. However, this assumes that the protein is high quality and that adequate caloric intake is occurring so that the protein is not used for energy by the body but for the specialized jobs that protein has in the body.  Since this assumption may not be valid, it is usually advisable to give  more protein than is required, which is why the AAFCO standards call for 18% protein for adult dogs and 22% for growing dogs. My opinion is that a good quality food only needs to meet this requirement and that more protein is unnecessary.

Carbohydrate and fat percentages also have to be compared on a dry matter basis. The same factors apply to them --  multiply by a factor or 4 for canned food and increase by 10% for dry food. In dogs, carbohydrates serve several purposes but the most important one is energy production. In this function, the amount of carbohydrate necessary is influenced by the amount of protein in the diet. Very high protein diets allow proteins to be broken down and used as an energy source, lessening the need for carbohydrates. However, there appears to be less problem from high carbohydrate levels than from high protein levels in dogs, so most dog foods are high in carbohydrates and lower in protein. I think this is best.  Carbohydrates can be as much as 60% of the diet.

Fat is necessary as a building material for hormones and other active substances in the body, as well as serving as an energy source. Very little fat is actually required in the diet to meet metabolic needs in dogs, so there really isn't a published minimum fat content that I am aware of. Dogs like fat in their diet and fat is a good source of energy, which can make it possible to meet energy requirements without having excessive protein. I have heard that if a food gets much below 8% in fat, on a dry matter basis, it starts to get less palatable and this effect is worse the lower the fat percentage goes. It is important when looking at canned foods to remember that the fat percentage is also multiplied by a factor of 4. Canned foods often have 6 to 8% fat on an as fed basis, which is 24 to 32% fat on a dry matter basis.

So, if you convert the protein amounts on the can and bag to a dry matter basis and then average them based on the amount of canned food fed and dry food fed, the percentages that I would be comfortable with are:

Protein: 18% for adults, and 22% for puppies on a dry matter basis Carbohydrate: 30 to 60% on a dry matter basis Fat: at least 10% on a dry matter basis

Mike Richards, DVM



Veggies in diet


Question:  The UK Cancer Research Campaign says humans should eat at least five portions of fruit or vegetables a day to reduce the risk of human cancers. Is there any reason not to feed the dogs one and a half human portions of cooked vegetables a day in the hope this will reduce their cancer risk? I am thinking of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and the like. Dogs are about 45 to 50 pounds in weight.

Answer: I would lean towards green beans (string beans), carrots and peas, personally, but I don't see any problem at all with feeding dogs some vegetables. We commonly recommend this as a way of giving more food to dogs on diets without adding many calories. One of my dogs really likes raw potatoes and it doesn't seem to bother her to eat them.

Hope this helps some.

Mike Richards, DVM      



Restricted diet


Question: Mike,

Following his endoscopy we were told Zeus's vomiting was caused by food intolerance. For six weeks we fed him white fish and white rice. This worked very well; the vomiting stopped. Now we have added chicken to the white fish and rice, and in the coming weeks we are going to add cooked beef and lamb. I am worried whether he will get all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients he needs on such a restricted diet. How safe is this diet? Zeus is seven and looks fine now. We were told that the most probable cause of this reaction is wheat products in the dried complete food we were feeding him.

Thanks, John  

Answer: John-

It is usually OK to feed a restricted diet, even without vitamin or mineral supplementation, for about 2 months. After that point, there is the potential for deficiencies in vitamins or mineral balance to exert an effect starts to become pretty worrisome. There are commercial diets available that are balanced  (Waltham, Hill's, Purina, Innovative Diets and other manufacturers all have these diets). It is also possible to use home made diets and have a veterinary nutritionist help with the formulation --- but I wouldn't pay for the nutritionist's services until you know what foods you have to avoid, so the food trial has to be complete.  In most cases of food sensitivity there will not be a reaction to vitamin or mineral supplementation as long as you don't use flavored vitamins or mineral supplements. So you could ask your vet about this. We usually just add a multi-vitamin tablet and a calcium supplement for the short term and then try to get a formulated diet for the long term.

Mike Richards, DVM      



Necessary Protein in dog food


Question: How much protein should be in her food? What % is enough? Wicker is not fixed yet.. Will that make a difference in the urine discoloration of my lawn? Thank you again! Alicia  

Answer: Alicia-

The AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) standards call for a minimum of 22% protein for a growing dog and 18% for an adult dog for foods using the most common ingredients. Most dog foods tend to contain higher protein levels than these minimums. Dogs can actually do well with much lower protein levels if the protein is of high quality.

I didn't answer the part of your question about whether or not spaying or neutering would help with discoloration of the grass by urine. I have not found any information that suggests that spaying or neutering makes any difference.

Mike Richards, DVM  



Enzyme deficiency, special diets and supplements


Question: Dr Mike,

Hey, it's me again! Do you know of any companies that sell prescription dog food and/or prescription medicines for pets that have really good prices?

My boyfriends' dog, Dusty (a golden retriever) was just diagnosed with an enzyme deficiency. According to his vet, she'll need to eat prescription dog food (Hill's Science Diet ID) sprinked with a few teaspoons of Viokase-V twice a day for the rest of her life. He's currently paying about $135 for a 12oz container of the Viokase-V. I'm not sure how much he's paying for the dog food, I just know that it's a lot more expensive than the Iams he currently buys for his other dog.

If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears! Lynn  

Answer: Lynn-

I don't know of any source for the prescription diets but it is likely that there is some online source by now.

It might be a good idea to get a second opinion on the enzyme deficiency, since this is a lifelong illness that requires expensive therapy. Confirming this type of illness is worth the cost.

It is sometimes possible to get beef pancreases and use them as a source of enzymes rather than using Viokase (Rx) or Pancreazyme (Rx). Of course, it is easier to get beef pancreas if you live near a beef processing plant. It takes some experimentation to figure out the dose a dog needs and it is inconvenient and messy but it is usually a lot less costly than the enzyme supplements.

At the present time, I do not know if there is a significant advantage to using a bland or low fat diet but if your boyfriend's vet has had good experience with doing this I don't see any reason not to give it a try. However, if cost is a really important factor, the dog food is much less important than the enzyme replacement therapy, whichever one you use.

Mike Richards, DVM



Diet problems in new puppy


Question: Dr Mike, I recently acquired a little Rat Terrier puppy from a breeder. He is 10 weeks old and weighs 5 pounds. I am having a difficult time getting him to be interested in eating HIS food. It appears that the breeder would let the dogs gather around their table, and the adult dogs would get handouts. The little ones now seem to think that is the only way. I have purchased a big bag if 'IAMS' puppy food, but he really doesn't want anything to do with it. The breeder had him on 'Sportmix--for adults', which is made from byproducts. My vet thought the IAMS puppy was a much better alternative and I agreed. Now the little guy seems to boycott the IAMS, hoping that he will break me.

He has been to the vet 2x and he is checking out fine. I think he just likes people food more than his own, and he is just stubborn enough to hold out for it. Can you think of a way that I can get this guy back on his food? Even if it is little by little. Or can you point me toward a list of ingredients so that I can make him something that is nutritionally sound.....that he might eat?  I just lost my other dog of 16 years in April, so I am an easy target for the little furball to push around right now. I think he knows it too.

I should mention that he had a reaction of sorts to his 8 week shots. Was constantly itching the area. So, the vet put him on something called 'clavamox' (I don't have the box right here, so I may be off a little) anyway, do you think that might be causing his fussy eating issue? I know it seems to make him kinda tired for about 2 or 3 hours after I give it to him. If his appetite problem is because of the medication, he only has tomorrow yet to take his last dose. I just don't know what the typical side effects of that drug are. I asked the vet and they said that 'he'll eat when he's hungry--puppy's sometimes forget to eat entirely and then they catch up the next day.' I would like to believe that, but when the little thing is only 5 pounds to begin with, I get nervous.

Thanks for your help, any suggestions are very much appreciated.


Answer: JoAnne-

Clavamox (Rx), like most antibiotics, will sometimes cause gastro-intestinal discomfort which could be leading to the variable appetite that your rat terrier is exhibiting. If it is the cause, his appetite should improve within a day or so of stopping the antibiotic.

It is likely that you are correct in your assumption that he has developed a food preference at this point which is different from the one that you would like to encourage. There are a lot of different approaches to this kind of problem. It can help to add warm water to the dog food a few minutes before feeding it. This makes the food softer and seems to enhance the flavor some. If water won't work, beef broth or chicken broth might help to make the food more palatable.

Canned food is more attractive to many dogs than dry food. There is no reason not to feed canned food from a nutritional standpoint. It is more expensive and less convenient, but those aren't nutritional issues. It is possible to get some dogs that eat primarily human foods to switch to canned food and then to gradually switch to dry food, over time.

If he likes "Sportmix" because he is used to it, you might find that it is best to go ahead and use this particular food for a few days to a few weeks and very gradually introduce the Iams food that you would prefer he eat, a few pieces at a time. Kellogg's cereals had a slogan a few years ago that said "No food is nutritious until someone eats it.", which I think applies to a lot of things other than breakfast cereals. If that is what he likes, feed it for now and work with him to get him on a better food, over time.

It is possible to make home made diets that meet the nutritional needs of puppies and adult dogs but it is actually fairly hard to be sure that the diets meet the nutritional needs entirely without excesses that might be harmful, such as excessive calcium or excessive phosphorous. If you do wish to take this approach, the best thing to do is to find a nutritionist who can help make the formula. Dr. Remillard, a veterinary nutritionist, has plans to establish a website for this purpose (dietary formulation), if she has not done so already.

I worry about small dogs that skip an entire day's meal, due to the higher rate of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) among the small and toy breeds when they do not eat consistently. This conflicts with the need to train them to eat what is offered, since it isn't as easy for me to tell a client just to wait until the dog is hungry and it will eat, even though I do think that is an acceptable approach for bigger dogs. So I have a few patients in my practice whose owners have not converted them from hand feeding of table scraps. For these dogs, I advise feeding a well balanced diet by trying to roughly follow the "food pyramid" and supplementing vitamins. It isn't a perfect approach but sometimes it seems like a reasonable alternative, to me.

Mike Richards, DVM     



Adding oil to diet


Question: Mike, Our last vet recommended we feed the dogs one desert spoonful of vegetable oil a day. I changed it to olive oil because this seems to be recommended for human health in preference to corn or sunflower oil. Is there any reason not to feed the dogs one desert spoonful of olive oil a day? Do you have any thoughts about what oil is best?

Dogs are well.

Thank you. John  

Answer: John-

The only reason I can think of not to feed dogs a spoonful of oil would be the caloric content, if they have a tendency to be overweight. Oils are high in calories. Otherwise, there is are no harmful effects that I am aware of to this practice.

The idea is usually to provide essential fatty acids that may not be found in high concentrations in the diet. Currently it is probably easiest to achieve this effect by using one of the dietary supplement products, such as DermCaps (tm) or EFA-Z (tm) that contain the essential fatty acids in high concentrations. There are a lot of these products on the market so your vet may prefer, or carry, different brand names. Fish oils are a good source of these fatty acids, too.

If adding calories is the idea, I don't think it makes a lot of difference which oil is used.

Dogs do not get the athlerosclerosis (cholesterol plaque) problems that humans get, so I am not sure there is any advantage to olive oil in dogs but it does have a nicer taste, at least in my opinion.

Mike Richards, DVM 



Puppy diet problems


Question: Dear Dr. Richards,

I have a black lab puppy (18 weeks) who has been having some dietary problems, and am wondering how to proceed. We were feeding her Eukanuba for large breed puppies, and she developed diarrhea about 2 weeks ago. Our vet recommended feeding her chicken and rice until her system settled down, and then gradually introducing her food again. She did well on the chicken and rice, and then we began easing her regular food back in. As we increased the amount of eukanuba, she began to get diarrhea again; however, if we kept the amount about 50/50 eukanuba to chicken and rice, she was fine. My questions are, Does this sound like a food allergy? Are labs predisposed to these kinds of allergies? Also, do you think we should have our vet test her, or should we just continue with the chicken/rice diet? I worry that since she's a puppy, that there are supplements in the commercial food that she needs.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts about this! Susan

Answer: Susan-

It does sound like your lab puppy may have a sensitivity to one of the ingredients in the Eukanuba. Usually this would be a food allergy but sometimes there are specific problems with digestion of certain nutrients (like wheat gluten or milk) that occur, too.

It is going to be necessary to come up with a nutritionally balanced diet soon. It is generally OK to feed a diet like chicken and rice for two to three weeks even though it is not balanced for some nutrients and does not contain all necessary nutrients. When it is obvious that a longer term solution is necessary it is important to use a more complete and balanced diet. The easiest way to do this is to feed a commercially available limited antigen diet. A number of companies make these now, including Innovative Diets, Hill's, Purina and Waltham. These diets contain unusual protein sources, like duck, venison, salmon, egg or even proteins altered to be less antigenic. It is OK that these are not puppy foods as long as they say on the label that they meet the needs for all stages of life. Most adult dog foods can make this claim.

If a limited antigen (one protein source) diet works well it would probably be a good idea in a puppy this age to try to figure out which specific ingredients cause problems. The method for doing this is to add them back into the diet, one at a time and evaluate the response. If you add beef to the diet and the diarrhea returns, that may indicate a problem with beef. If you stop  it and the diarrhea stops, it would be enough confirmation for me. If beef is OK, then you can try corn, wheat and other ingredients until you find the ones that are a problem.

An alternative, since chicken seems to be OK, is to find a diet that only contains chicken. This can be hard to do, but there I think there are some commercial diets with chicken and poultry by-products only. Usually if the label just says "animal byproducts" there will be beef in the by-product source. Just read the labels carefully.

If you discover over time that the diet isn't the cause of diarrhea, because it keeps coming back despite dietary limitations, then a different approach to the problem is necessary. For now, though, it does look like diet is likely to be the problem.

I do not know of any studies that show an inherited tendency towards food allergy in Labrador retrievers but they do seem to have a slightly higher tendency towards this problem. Many (maybe most?) cases of food allergies in dogs have itching as a sign, especially itchiness affecting the feet or ears but diarrhea and/or vomiting can be the only clinical symptoms in some dogs.

Good luck with this. Remember that just switching brands of commercial food randomly isn't going to work well because the basic ingredients are often the same. You need to feed a food with protein sources the puppy has not been previously exposed to and then figure out the ingredients that are causing problems.

Mike Richards, DVM



Feeding options for cats and dogs


Question: hi im a student studying animal sciences in australia i was interested in you site and i wanted to know the diffrence between free will feeding, time restricted feeding, and quantitive feeding and there advantages and disadvantages for dogs and cats you help would be appreciated thankyou anne  

Answer: Anne-

Free will feeding is leaving food out (available to the dog or cat) at all times.

This type of feeding works pretty well in cats but often leads to obesity in dogs. If there are multiple dogs in your household free feeding can keep the whole group calmer and may allow less aggressive dogs more access to food, though.  Some cats will become obese if they are fed free choice, though. Other feeding methods will be necessary for these cats.

Time restricted feeding is feeding all that a dog or cat will eat within a specific time period, like ten minutes to fifteen minutes.

The current thinking (from "Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th Edition" by Hand, Thatcher, Remillard and Roudebush), is that there isn't much advantage to timed feeding in dogs because most of them will eat more than they need to eat within a short time period. I think that this method is helpful in puppies, sometimes, though. Puppies need more energy so if they eat a little extra it usually isn't a disaster and they don't eat quite as much as they do if fed free choice. Cats sometimes do not eat enough if they are fed by a time restricted method, since they tend to eat slower and to eat smaller quantities at one time. If a cat is being fed using this method and it is losing weight, this should be a concern.

I am not sure what quantitative feeding means for sure. I am assuming that it means measuring the amount of food that the dog or cat receives and feeding that specific amount daily. This is the preferred method of feeding for dogs because it keeps them from becoming obese if done correctly yet still provides the necessary amount of calories for their lifestyle. It isn't a bad way to feed cats, either.  Many dogs will still want more food and it takes some resolve on the part of their humans to resist feeding a lot of additional calories in the form of treats, though.

Hope this helps.

Mike Richards, DVM



Dietary concerns for older dog kidney and liver function


Question: Hi Dr Richards:

How are you? It is the first time I write and ask questions, so please be patient with me!

2 of my dogs are quite old. One is 13-1/2, Baby, male - a mongrel and Gwei Gwei, male,a silky terrier, at least 12 years old. Gwei Gwei has been having kidney problems for the past 5 years (on k/d diet) and recent blood test showed it is getting worse,and I just found out Baby has both kidney and liver problems too. Their recent blood tests are:


A/G Ratio   1   Albumin    38   Alk. Phos 177   Urea (BUN)        15.9   Calcium    2.82   Creatinine    178   Prot(T)    78   ALT (SGPT)    205

Gwei Gwei

A/G Ratio   0.6   Alk. Phos     55   Albumin        28   Urea (BUN)        32.3   Calcium    2.39   Creatinine    243   Prot(T)    74   ALT (SGPT)    35

Judging from the above, can you please tell me if their problems are serious or just moderate or minor.  My vet is kind of  busy and would not have all the time to explain to me. I am really worried as they are quite old.

My vet asked me to put them on low protein diet, Hills U/D diet. Gwei Gwei has been on K/d for the few years, but Baby is starting just on the U/D now. The following are my questions:

  1. Is it true that there are good and bad protein, and that good protein are fine for kidney and liver problems? My vet said I can give my dogs cottage cheese or yogurt (good high protein stuff). Is it true?
  2. Which is better, canned food or dry food? I notice the U/D canned food is just 2%, while the dry food is 8% (By the way, why are all the dog food ingredients say min - %. If it says min 2%, it could mean 80% too!). However, people told me usually canned food are more salty and dry food are always better and healthier. Right now I give Baby (36 lbs) a can each day plus some dry food.
  3. I have been told by a nutritionist that the preservatives BHA and propyl galate may cause danger to a dog's health. I just got a big bag of Hills U/D dry food and found out that they have these 2 items as preservatives. I want to return it. Do you know anything about these 2 preservatives being hazardous to animal health?
  4. My vet also gave me a home-made low protein recipe - rice, hard-boiled egg, vegetable oil, salt, calcium carbonate, and balanced minerals/vitamins. What is balanced mineral/vitamins? I got a Sold Gold Seameal - mineral & Vitamin supplement which contains Vitamin D, E, B12, phosphorous Biotin, folic acid, calcium, magnesium sulfur, copper,iodine, iron, zinc, niacinr, ioflavi, thamine, ascorbic acid. Are they balanced and sufficient? Is calcium the same as calcium carbonate, which means I dont have to put in calcium carbonate separately (because I cant get this power at health or pet stores). Also, is brown rice better than white rice, and is flexseed oil better than vegetable oil? Should I replace them with these two items?
  5. Baby loves muchy sticks (made of raw hide). Are they high protein too. I give them 6 sticks each day. Is it too much?
  6. If I mix some fish or meat with canned food, Gwei Gwei will eat much more. My vet told me maybe fish is better protein than chicken or pork, however, the other vet told me fish is too much mineral, I should use chicken. What would you suggest?
  7. I have been giving them some herbal tea (Flora Essence) for the past 3 weeks (for detoxification & cleansing). It seems Gwei Gwei is more alert and much hungrier than before and asking for food frequently. Is this normal? Is the herbal tea good to the kidney and liver problems? Will there be any side effects? Can I give them on a daily basis. Right now I put in 2 tablespoons in the water bowl.

Thanks Dr Richards for the patience. Look forward to your reply soon.

Take care. Lily

Answer: Lily-

I think it might be easiest to explain what is known about protein and kidney disease first and then try to apply that to your questions.

The kidneys are filters for the blood stream. This would be an easy task if it was acceptable just to remove everything that wasn't water or a blood cell from the blood. If the kidneys did that, though, then there wouldn't be protein to repair the body, there wouldn't be adequate amounts of potassium to make muscles work, no nutrients for energy, etc. So the kidneys have to be capable of removing substances that do not belong in the body and preserving substances that do belong. This is a very difficult task.

Proteins are among the substances that must be preserved. Doing this is a lot of work for the kidneys and when they are damaged it is even harder. Due to this, a theory was developed that limiting the total quantity of protein a pet eats but making sure that the protein is high quality would be better for the kidneys, since they would have less work to do.

One of the problems with proteins is that they are all broken down in the digestive tract into their separate amino acids, or short combinations of these amino acids. Then they are reconstructed by the liver into proteins the body needs. The liver uses individual amino acid "building blocks" for this process. The right amino acids must be present in order for proteins to be built. If there is a great excess of some amino acids and small quantities of another, the body can only produce the amount of protein that the smaller quantity will allow. The rest of the amino acids that can't be used right then are converted into energy. This conversion process produces the waste by-products that are harmful to the body and that the kidney must filter out.

High quality proteins are ones that closely match the proper mix of amino acids the body needs. Ideally, there would be exactly the right number of every amino acid and no excess of protein material, making both the liver and the kidneys happy.  In general, animal source proteins, such as meat, milk and eggs are higher quality than plant source proteins. This is because the animal that produced these items already made the proper proteins and so they are already in the proper mix. That is why cottage cheese is  considered to be a higher quality protein source then soy, for instance.

There has been a lot of controversy in veterinary medicine about the validity of the theory that lowering protein levels is beneficial to the kidneys, for chronic kidney disease. At the present time, I believe that the general consensus among researchers is that there probably is not much benefit to the kidneys in protein restriction, except in acute kidney disease. However, there is some benefit in phosphorous restriction in the diet and low protein diets are usually also lower in phosphorous than normal diets. In addition, there is very good evidence to support using lower protein diets when liver disease is present.

Now on to your questions. I may miss one or two, so please feel free to ask for clarification.

Dogs do not tolerate loss of kidney function as well as cats do. So I consider almost any rise in kidney values to be worrisome in a dog, unless I am convinced it is occurring due to dehydration rather than real kidney problems. In older dogs, this is not usually the case. It is best to monitor kidney values closely and to use supportive treatments, such as fluid therapy, potassium supplementation, calcitriol administration, low phosphorous diets and possibly even angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors) early in kidney disease. There is information on these medications on our web site.

Your questions:

1) There are proteins that are better quality than others. However, the idea is to give limited quantities of the high quality proteins. If there is more protein in the diet than the body needs, the liver still has to convert it into energy, making its job harder and then the kidneys have to filter the by-products of this conversion process out of the blood stream. So there isn't a "safe" protein source that can be fed in unlimited quantities.

2) Canned food is better for patients with kidney disease. The reason this is true is that canned foods contain a great deal more water.  Water is the kidney's best friend when they are not working well. The more water the dog drinks or gets in its food, the better.  It is acceptable to use dry foods and just add water to them, though. In fact, I would add as much water to either canned or dry food as your dogs will tolerate and still eat their food.

The difference in protein percentage is due to the water. That is why it is better to compare protein levels in foods on a "dry matter basis".  This is the percentage of protein in a diet calculated as if all the water has been removed. Unfortunately, most dog food cans don't list protein amounts in this manner so you have to call the manufacturer to get this information.

You are right about the problem with listing "minimum" and "maximum" allowances rather than exact analyses of the amount of ingredients. Since protein is expensive to add to the diet it is usually reasonable to assume that it will be close to the listed minimum, though.

There is some evidence to suggest that very low protein diets, such as u/d are not a good idea in chronic kidney failure. I would lean towards moderate protein restriction and stick with Hill's k/d or l/d diets, Purina's NF diet or one of the other available moderately restricted diets, personally. Perhaps your vet has a reason for this recommendation that I am not aware of, though..

3) One of the problems with nutrition is that it is almost impossible to say that a particular ingredient will never cause problems. This is true of the preservatives. I am not aware of any scientific studies that really support the worries over preservatives but when the words "might cause harm" are used it is nearly impossible to deny.  My personal belief if that the preservatives found in most dog foods do not cause problems. If this worries you, though, you do have the option of making appropriate diets at home or buying commercial diets with other preservatives or without preservatives.

4) When using a published recipe for making a dog or cat food it is really important to follow the directions. The diets are formulated to meet the needs of the pet and changing ingredients can lead to imbalances. This is particularly true of calcium. So the best approach would be to find a source of calcium carbonate or to find a recipe that has ingredients that are available to you. If you read the labels on calcium supplements available from your pharmacy you might find that one of them is composed of calcium carbonate. I have ordered a new nutrition book which is supposed to come in the next two to three weeks. If you haven't found a diet that works for you by then there may be one in the new book, so check back with me in a couple of weeks and I'll see.

Human multi-vitamin supplements are usually the best available balanced vitamin sources. If you are already adding a calcium source to the diet it is best to find one that doesn't have additional calcium, if possible.

5) Rawhides do contain protein.  It would probably be best to give Baby a smaller number of rawhides per day.  Something like two a day might be a good compromise between making her happy and limiting protein.

6) Unless you are feeding the whole fish (bones and all) I don't think that there is a significant difference between feeding fish and chicken and I'd just use the one that Gwei Gwei likes better.

7) I will have to check on the herbal tea question when I get back home but I don't know of a problem from memory. It is good to add water to the diet any way possible, in general, though. Since Gwei Gwei appears to feel better it seems reasonable to me to continue this practice for now.

The best thing that you can do for a dog with spinal disc problems is weight control. Since it is a lot easier to control weight in a pet that is getting adequate exercise, I would favor letting your Peke run some.  It is a good idea to avoid jumping and high impact activities but running should not be a big worry.

I hope this helps some.

Mike Richards, DVM


Calcium supplements and puppies  

Q: Hi, I am a new subscriber. I very much appreciate and enjoy your responses to questions and your advice.

My question: our breeder has recommended Cal D Tron Cal/Phos tabs for our 4-1/2 month old Doberman male pup. Mfr recommendation: 1tab/5# body wt, which means Pele is getting 8 tabs/day. Per Tab Dosage: 135MGmin-150MGmax Cal; Phos 105MG. Vet says not to do...maybe one tab per day. What do you say?

Also, what about yogurt? Should I give it as a preventative to anything? Is it ok as a treat....we do not give Pele any table food yet (difficult, since our 12yr old cat cleans our dinner plates), but I hear yogurt is good.

We love this pup (our first) so much that, of course, we want the best...I could spend a fortune on supplements but don't want to be stupid. I have been solicited to provide him with Super Blue Green Algae, Hokamix 30, whatever. Should we turn to supplements or rely stricly on his food...right now he is on Purina One Puppy 2.5cups 2x day...he is about 42lbs now and is almost 20 weeks old.  

A: Michelle-

I think that it is unnecessary and potentially harmful to supplement calcium in a puppy. I would not even recommend using one tablet.

I see no harm in giving your dobe yogurt if you want to do that, as long as you don't give too much. Yogurt is recommended by many veterinarians as an aid in the treatment of diarrhea on the theory that it adds beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. In general the recommendation is to give around a tablespoon full of yogurt per day.

There are all kinds of dietary supplements that are recommended by various breeders, veterinarians, dieticians and other "experts". I can't say that some of these products do not provide some sort of benefit but there isn't much reliable information on them. I don't use any supplements but I do feed them table scraps in small amounts (and in great variety). I try to keep the amount less than 10% of their total calories.

Mike Richards, DVM



Tasha's chicken and rice diet


Q: Hi! Found your site by accident but glad I did. I am now cooking for Tasha and make her a mixture of five cups of rice (uncooked), but boiled with 11 cups of chicken stock, two whole chickens, (boiled for 1 hour, skinned and deboned, and no cartilage, etc), mixed with carrots, celery and peas. Tasha weighs approximately 32 pounds now (used to weight nearly 50 pounds in her youth), she has terrible hips but still can walk. How much of this food mixture should I give her per day? Do you think the 3 cups a day is enough for a 32 pound dog? She really likes the mixture and I think is very happy that she can finally eat "human" food!

A: It is hard to figure out from recipes exactly how much of a food should be fed. Three cups sounds like a good starting point. From there, I'd recommend adjusting the dosage based on weight gain or weight loss. Decrease if weight gain gets excessive and increase if weight loss continues -- and also check with your vet in this case.

It is nice to spoil our older friends when the time comes!

Mike Richards, DVM    


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...