Building a balanced diet

From table scraps to kibble and back again


Fifty years ago, most dogs ate table scraps. Twenty five years ago, cereal companies cornered the pet food market in supermarkets and agricultural feed stores. Today pet owners drive to super-stores that cater to pets and face a puzzling array of colorful bags of dry premium foods, convenient semi-moist packets, and gourmet diets for puppies, adult dogs, hunting dogs, show dogs, lactating dogs, old dogs, and fat dogs.

Compounding the confusion is the barrage of advertising touting the benefits of this or that food: Itís all natural, itís real meat, itís non-allergenic, itís high protein, itís low protein, itís low-fat, it doesnít have by-products, your dog will love it . . . Add to these claims the crying of the nay-sayers: Itís cooked, it contains chemicals, it causes allergies, they use road-kill and animals not fit for human consumption, soybeans cause bloat . . . and itís a wonder that anyone can choose.

Yet, today, the commercially prepared dog foods made from a fixed formula of ingredients and preparation methods provides Buster with a balanced diet that rivals that available for humans. Pet owners can help themselves by doing a little research, by choosing a food that meets their needs as well as Roverís, and by demanding proof when told that so-and-so company uses roadkill, harmful chemicals, or rendered pets in its food or that a home-prepared raw meat and vegetable diet is healthy and commercial foods are making dogs sick.


The first prepared dog biscuit appeared in England after the US Civil War in the 1860s, and the industry in the US began shortly thereafter as a byproduct of breakfast cereal processing. American manufacturers included dried meat scraps in their dog meal for a balanced diet. The canning of horsemeat unsuitable for export began in the 1920s, and within 10 years, nearly 200 brands of canned food were available.

The pet food industry took an enormous leap after World War II when the consumption of meat increased and the availability of by-products led to development of the rendering industry and new uses for meat and bone meal. At about the same time, researchers at Ralston Purina developed a new method of cooking swine and poultry feeds, which led in turn to further production of dry dog food.

Dry foods gained in popularity and owners frequently top-dressed the kibble with canned meat. Thus the stage was set for an explosion in types of canned and dry foods and development of the convenient semi-moist foods and snacks now available.

Early kibble foods were made from a dough of grain flours, meat meals, dairy products, and vitamins and minerals baked in large pans and broken after cooking. The development of the extrusion method, in which the dough was pressed through a rotary machine that molded or shaped the pieces before baking, revolutionized the growing industry. Today, many kibbled foods are prepared in a mixing pressure cooker and the resulting dough is extruded through a die and expanded with steam and air into small, porous nuggets. These nuggets are coated with a liquid fat, carbohydrate, or milk product for added calories and palatability. These feeds must be at least 40 percent carbohydrates in order for the process to work and must be packaged in bags with a grease barrier of impermeable material such as plastic-coated paper.

Semi-moist foods are cooked combinations of soybean meal, sugar, fresh meat or meat by-products, animal fat, preservatives, and humectants (wetting agents that allow the product to stay moist but not spoil). The dough is extruded into a variety of shapes to resemble ground meat or chunks of meat to appeal to the buyer; the dog doesnít care. The coloring in semi-moist foods can turn the dogís manure reddish.

Canned foods come in four types: ration, all-animal-tissue, chunk-style, and stew. The ration foods are ground and cooked into a liquid, then canned. The animal-tissue foods are not liquefied before canning and may include chunks of identifiable by-products such as arteries. Chunk-style foods are ground and shaped into chunks to disguise the by-products, then covered with gravy before the can is sealed. Stews are designed to please the owner.

In each of these types, the filled cans are sterilized.

Finally, frozen dog food is available in limited distribution. This is a meat-based food with no preservatives, made with fresh meat. It generally contains a sweetener such as cane molasses that adds to the caloric content. It must be kept frozen until ready to use and the unused portion must be kept refrigerated.

As each improvement in shape, texture, or form is devised, more chemicals are added. For example,

In all, more than 200 different ingredients are used in pet foods, according to Petfood Industry magazine

Canine nutrition

Like all living creatures, dogs need a combination of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water in a balanced diet that provides sufficient calories to meet their daily needs for growth, activity, and repair. The claim on a bag of dog food that it is a complete food means nothing unless the nutrients are in a form available for absorption into the dogís systems. For example, since cellulose and hemicellulose of plant cells cannot be digested in raw form by dogs, food based solely on grains for a source of protein and carbohydrates must be processed in a manner that allows the dogís digestive system to extract these nutrients. Major dog food companies make every effort to not only balance their food but also to provide the ingredients in usable form.

Dog foods also must contain vitamin and mineral supplements in balanced concentrations. Too much of one mineral may interfere with absorption of another; too little of a mineral may interfere with vitamin use or other mineral use. Major dog food companies make every effort to provide balanced proportions of vitamins and minerals for maximum benefit to the dog.

However, slight differences in processing temperatures, in quality of the ingredients purchased, and storage humidity and temperature of ingredients and of the finished product can cause variations in the quality that may affect a particular dog, a particular breed, or a particular line of dogs within a breed. In addition, some breeds or groups of breeds may require slightly different percentages of particular nutrients. Therefore, all dog foods are not perfect for all dogs, a factor that leads to the production of a plethora of different foods, claims, and processing methods.


As people have become more conscious of the amount of meat in their own diets, they have also begun to wonder about meat in Busterís dinner. Some folks have switched from beef and are looking for a dog food with little or no beef, so companies have responded with chicken, lamb, turkey, or venison-based foods. Some owners want a vegetarian diet for their dogs, and a couple of small companies provide such a diet. Others have a bee in their bonnet about by-products or organic carbohydrate sources, and manufacturers have accommodated them, too.

By-products are frequently described as unfit for human consumption as if they were contaminated. By-products fall into several categories: parts of the animal that people prefer not to eat, such as organs, feathers, feet, beaks, and wool; parts that are forbidden to human consumption by the federal government, such as lungs; and parts that are impractical or uneconomical as human food, such as cheek meat, tongue, or tail meat.

By-products can be perfectly acceptable additions to the diet if prepared properly and if the nutrients they represent are usable by the pet. For example, chicken feathers and beaks are sources of protein, but that protein is not available to the dog without proper processing. Most people would prefer not to have chicken feathers and beaks, processed or whole, in their dogsí food because they prefer not to think of feathers and beaks as edible.

Some folks eschew the use of chemicals as much as possible and prefer a ďnaturalĒ dog food. Since there is no uniform definition of ďnatural,Ē it is difficult to ascertain if the food truly meets your requirements.

Some ďnaturalĒ dog foods claim no chemical additives, but they have a shorter shelf life than preserved foods and can spoil before they are used. Some require use of an organically raised meat source, that is, the chickens or beef were raised without the use of hormones and antibiotics and were fed grains raised without pesticides.

Some foods are touted as hypoallergenic, that is, they do not produce allergic reactions because they are made of lamb or turkey or venison or fish and include rice or barley as the major carbohydrate source. Since some dogs may be allergic to common dog food ingredients, they may do well on such a food. However, since there are more and more causes of allergy being identified, the idea that the dog is allergic to some component in his food should be examined carefully before placing the blame on the food.

The average house pet will do well on any of several dry dog foods, depending on his level of activity, his metabolism, and his individual body chemistry. If Buster is doing well on the food you are feeding and it falls within your budget and is easily obtainable, donít switch. If Buster has skin problems that cannot be traced to an obvious cause such as fleas, consider a food with a higher fatty acid content or one of the hypoallergenic foods.

Be aware that canned foods contain as much as 75 percent water and include color enhancers such as iron oxide and sodium nitrate, making them poor choices for a total diet. Semi-moist foods include chemicals such as propylene glycol, color enhancers, and lots of sugar, also making them poor choices for a total diet in spite of their convenience. Either, however, can be used to top-dress dry food or as occasional snacks.


Most nutritionists and veterinarians feel that a dog being fed a balanced diet that meets its requirement for nutrients does not need any supplements of vitamins or minerals. Some go so far as to say that supplements can unbalance the diet by disrupting the necessary relationship between vitamins and minerals. Some breeders disagree and regularly supplement their dogs with one of a variety of products promoted for healthy coats and skin, bone growth, reproductive capacity, etc.

Some owners who have dogs with dry skin may add a teaspoon or tablespoon of corn oil to their petís dinner, but this method of lubricating the skin has become passe since many dog foods and supplements now contain a mixture of Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids.

Some owners think growing puppies need extra calcium and add it in the form of bone meal. But this can do more harm than good, for calcium must be in balance with phosphorus and magnesium in the diet, and an overabundance of calcium can cause a myriad of problems. Some Omega fatty acid supplements contain additional vitamins and minerals to boost amounts that may not be readily available in dog foods.


A few years ago, a book by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst urged pet owners to turn away from commercial diets and prepare their own raw food meals for pets. Based on the knowledge that wild canids eat raw food, Billinghurst promoted BARF Ė a bones and raw food diet Ė as healthier for dogs than any commercial diet.

Ingredients in raw food diets include whole chicken or fish carcasses or parts (chicken necks and backs are popular); yogurt; raw eggs; and leftover fruit and vegetables. Grains are forbidden. Advocates assert that raw food diets increase energy, improve longevity, and fix everything from doggy odor to arthritis.

There is much controversy over raw food diets, including debate over the use of dairy products for adult dogs, the safety of feeding bones, and the potential for illness from parasites and high fat content of raw meat. Proponents of BARF and other raw food diets claim that many veterinarians do not promote home-prepared foods because they are uneducated about nutrition or they sell commercial foods in their clinics; detractors express fears about feeding bones and milk, about assertions that the raw diet prevents many diseases, and about claims that the ingredients in commercial foods cause health problems.

Books promoting raw meat diets for dogs include Give a Dog a Bone by Dr. Ian Billinghurst and The Ultimate Diet: Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats by Kymythy R. Schultze AHI. A plethora of information can be found on the World Wide Web as well, including, a site devoted to the drawbacks of BARF.


Feeding the family pet, like feeding the family, involves psychological as well as practical decisions. Somehow, the choice of food gets wrapped up in how much dog owners care about their pets. Commercial companies bombard owners with advertising in every media, and the natural food crowd makes good use of the Internet and a network of trainers, groomers, and others who already use home-made or ďall-naturalĒ diets. The over-riding message is that if pet owners donít choose this or that brand or donít relish the idea of preparing a diet at home, they donít care about their dogís health and well-being.

However, most pet owners will do well by their dogs if they buy a good quality dry dog food and dress it with some meat broth (no salt added), leftover vegetables, or lean meat scraps. Dogs with allergies or dry skin can often be helped with an Omega fatty acid supplement.

If a dog has a healthy skin and coat, is energetic, and gets good marks from the veterinarian on the annual checkup, pet owners can continue to feed the same diet no matter which they have chosen. If the dog is having problems, they can find out if the food might be a contributing factor and take steps to fix things by adding a supplement, switching to another food, or asking the vet to run some diagnostic tests.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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