Chasing the Chuckwagon: The Basics of Feeding

Love Dog

 In This Chapter

  • Understanding the basics of canine nutrition
  • Identifying the types of food available
  • Knowing what to feed your mixed-breed dog
  • Looking at special diets for special dogs
  • Getting tips on treats

Your mixed-breed dog needs a balanced diet for optimum physical and mental health. If you’ve been in a pet store recently, or even just the pet-food aisle of your local grocery store, you know how many commercial foods are available — and you may have been overwhelmed by all the options. In this chapter, I tell you what to look for in a dog food, based on your dog’s individual attributes.

You don’t want to let your dog become overweight, so you need to know how much to feed him as well as how often. If you do some research into this subject (as if you have time!), you’ll find varying schools of thought on this topic. I’ve read the research, but in this chapter, I cut through all that and give you tips based on my own experience with dogs.
As your dog ages, or if he develops allergies, you may need to remove certain foods from your dog’s diet or add certain foods to it. In this chapter, I explain how to recognize these special needs, as well as what to do to maintain your dog’s health through appropriate nutrition.

All dogs love treats. But you can’t give your mixed breed treats all the time — no matter what he tells you. In this chapter, I help you find the right times and places for treats and guide you toward the right treats for your mixed-breed dog.

The Basics of Nutrition

Your dog has a few important needs when it comes to his nutrition. Following is a list of guidelines to keep in mind:

Give your dog plenty of water. Your dog needs to have plenty of water available at all times. Refresh your dog’s water twice daily — don’t just wait for your dog to finish his bowl. Puppies and their moms tend to drink more, as do working dogs. If it’s hot out, you can bet your dog will tend to drink more than usual.

If you need to change your dog’s food, do so gradually. Some dogs have very sensitive stomachs. This is why you don’t want to feed your dog table scraps or whatever food happens to be on sale that week. Your dog’s digestive system takes time to adapt. Over a period of two weeks, gradually increase the amount of the new food, and decrease the amount of his old food, until you’re feeding only the new diet.

Feed your dog consistently. Dogs are happiest when they know what is going to happen and when. The number of times a day to feed your dog depends on your dog’s age and overall physiology. If your dog is between the ages of 3 and 5 months, feed him three times a day. Most adult dogs do well with two meals each day. But in some situations an adult dog may need to be fed more often; for example, if your dog has a digestive disorder, or a tendency to bloat, you’ll want to feed him three or four smaller meals each day. (If you’re not sure, as always, check with your vet.)

Don’t free feed your dog (leave food out for him to eat whenever he wants) — control the amount he eats. If you control how much he eats and when, you’ll be able to control his weight better.

Remember

Pay attention to your dog’s waistline — to be blunt, he should have one. Dogs can develop fat rolls all over their bodies, which not only hinders their ability to exercise but decreases their hearts’ efficiency. Reevaluate the amount of food you feed your dog periodically — your dog’s needs will vary as he ages, as his activity level changes, and as his lifestyle changes.

Feed your dog a balanced diet. I cover the kinds of foods to find your dog in the following section.

Make sure your dog’s food is clean and free of contaminants. Commercial foods are typically packed to keep contaminants out, but after you open the food (whether a bag or a can), be sure to securely fasten it, refrigerate canned or raw food, and store dry food in a dry location. After your dog has finished a meal, if he’s left anything in his dish, throw the food away, and clean his bowl after each meal. (You wouldn’t eat off the same dirty plate over and over without washing it, so why should your dog?)

Consult your vet if your dog experiences any abnormal conditions. Changes in appetite, thirst, or behavioral changes may be signs of serious health issues.

Tip

A shiny dog means a healthy dog. You’ll know you’re feeding your mixed-breed dog correctly if he has bright eyes, and a shiny coat, and if he maintains a good weight and energy level.

Types of Dog Food

There are more brands and variations of dog food than I can count. You can find many of them at your local grocery store, discount department store, or pet store. Where you buy your mixed breed’s food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better (or worse) food than any other. The only way to know for sure is to read labels.
Most store-bought dog food comes in two varieties — dry and canned — so in this section, I go into more detail on what to look for and what to avoid with these two types of foods.

Warning!

“Wait!” you say. “What about the semi-moist variety?” You may be tempted to go that route, thinking it’s the best of both worlds, but here’s a serious warning: Stay away. There’s a reason that the food is semi-moist — in a word: preservatives. If you feed your dog a food that contains preservatives, you may as well be pumping poison into him. Over time, preservatives affect your mixed-breed dog’s liver, heart, and other organs. The result is organ malfunction, organ breakdown, and growth of cancerous tumors.

Commercial dog foods aren’t your only options. You can cook your own food for your dog. Or you can prepare a raw diet for your dog, or have one delivered to your door. Homemade and raw diets offer many benefits, but you have to be careful with how they’re prepared, stored, and given to your dog. I cover homemade and raw diets in this section as well, to let you know what to watch for.
On the subject of being careful, I include a list of specific foods and plants that can be poisonous to your mixed-breed dog.

Commercial dog food: Canned or dry

The brands of dog food most advertised in the media aren’t necessarily the best ones for your mixed-breed dog. You can be sure, however, that the least expensive foods are of the poorest quality, because good quality costs more.

Warning!

Pet-food labeling regulations are poor, so you’ll rarely get full disclosure of all the included ingredients and nutrients that a commercial food contains. You also won’t know all the preservatives either. In fact, although some foods might claim to be preservative-free, that only means they didn’t add anything, not that they didn’t obtain ingredients that already had the preservatives in them.

Most of the lower-quality commercial dog foods are high in grains (such as corn, wheat, rice, and barley), which are used as fillers. Although small amounts of rice and barley are healthy, corn and wheat can cause allergic reactions in some dogs. Symptoms of allergic reactions include runny eyes; dry, itchy skin; lick granulomas (hot spots); and ear infections.

Tip

When reading dog-food labels look for meat proteins, vegetables, vitamins, and as few grains as possible. The first three ingredients should be healthy proteins — not grain, by-product, or a preservative. You should see lamb, turkey, beef, or chicken. After those first three ingredients, you shouldn’t see more than three types of grain within the food. Any more than three and the food is mostly grain filler, not protein-based.

Technical Stuff

You’ll probably see meat by-products and meals in the ingredient list. By-products are often the organs and other tissue of the protein meats used in the foods. Digest is another popular ingredient, especially in chicken-based foods. Chicken digest is the content of the chicken’s stomach — often grains. Neither the by-product nor the digest are bad for your dog, as long as the food is meat-protein-based and low in grains and preservatives.

So what should you feed your dog? I recommend a mixture of dry and canned. Here’s more on each of these two types of food and why I recommend each of them:

Dry: It’s less expensive, easy to store, and easy to feed. Many people claim that their dogs do better on dry food than they do on canned; the dogs have less loose stool, less gas, and better breath. Dry foods are also good for your dog’s gums and teeth. Dry food doesn’t spoil or attract ants as badly as canned food. However, dry food also has very little moisture and not a lot of flavor. It’s far more processed than canned food, which means it has fewer vitamins and nutrients for your dog. If your dog is at all finicky, he’ll likely turn down plain, dry food.

Canned: Canned food is more expensive than dry food, especially the premium, holistic brands. It can sell for upwards of $2 per can! But canned food is easy to store.

Canned food is not processed as much as dry food, so it contains more of the whole foods that comprise the ingredients and fewer preservatives. This also means more vitamins, nutrients, and flavor.

Canned food contains a lot of moisture. Dogs don’t get all their moisture from merely drinking water — they also get it from the foods they eat.

Remember

Both dry and canned food offer benefits to your dog. The dry food is good for his teeth and gums, and it gives him more bulk to fill him up. The canned food contains more of the nutrients, moisture, and vitamins he needs to remain healthy, but it is more expensive. To give your dog the best of both worlds, give your dog some of each type of food at every meal. 

Homemade food

If you have the time, and a couple good recipes, you can create a healthy, balanced diet for your mixed-breed dog. You’ll need to mix together the correct amount of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Your dog requires a consistent diet, so if you’re going to go the homemade route, be sure you’re willing to stick with it.
If you want to give your dog a partial raw diet, add some raw vegetables, fruit, and supplements to your dog’s commercial diet.
Here’s a basic recipe that you can give your dog without causing him intestinal distress:

1. Cook some turkey, beef, chicken, or venison until it’s no longer pink inside.

2. Add some chopped vegetables, such as peas, carrots, and/or green beans.

Use raw vegetables for optimum vitamin availability. Cook the veggies slightly if your dog is less than 20 pounds.

3. For roughage, add cooked brown rice.

4. Add some doggie vitamins and a sprinkle of garlic as a parasite repellent.

Tip

If you cook up a bunch of the above, with variations in the meat base, you can freeze it for future use. This will make homemade meals for your dog a little more convenient for you. Frozen into meal-sized packets, you just heat it up a bit in the microwave before giving it to your dog. (Dogs really do prefer warm meals.)

For dogs who need to go on a low-calorie diet, restrict the grains to a bare minimum, if you include them at all, and add more green vegetables. Vegetables such as green beans offer a lot of fiber, making your dog feel fuller without all the calories.

Tip

For an entire chapter devoted to the pros and cons of homemade diets, along with recipes for adult dogs as well as puppies, check out Dog Health & Nutrition For Dummies, by M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD (Wiley).

Raw diet

You may have heard about the raw diet called the BARF diet. In this case, BARF is short for biologically appropriate raw foods. Proponents of this type of diet claim that it is closer to what dogs would eat if they were out in the wild and that it makes them healthier (illustrated by their shiny coats and clean teeth).

Warning!

The drawback to feeding your mixed-breed dog raw meat is that it often harbors deadly bacteria, such as salmonella or botulism. These bacteria can be fatal to humans, and many veterinarians say it’s dangerous to dogs as well. Due to these dangers, I stay away from feeding my own dogs any raw meat, though I often feed them raw vegetables and fruit as between-meal rewards.

Feeding the BARF diet requires more of your time and energy than just a homemade meal. You’ll have to store the raw foods safely and also soak the meats in specific bacteria-killing substances such as grapefruit seed extract. As with the homemade diet, you need to add fresh raw vegetables, fruit, and bone meal, as well as fish and/or flaxseed oil to include all the nutrients your dog requires.
Because most vegetables contain cellulose, which dogs cannot digest, raw vegetables will need to be blended so that the dog receives the full vitamins from them.
Cook all grains that you add to your dog’s food. Even in the wild, canines rarely eat uncooked grains. They get their grains from the stomach contents of their prey — and that grain has already been chewed and digestively processed.
When feeding a raw diet, your dog will need raw meaty bones every day. You’ll also have to alternate the meats so that he gets organ meat as well as muscle meat.

Tip

To ensure you always have a consistent raw diet available to your mixed-breed dog, prepare a week’s worth of meals ahead of time, place each meal portion in a freezer-safe storage container and then into the freezer. In the morning, take out enough for two meals, heating one in the microwave prior to feeding your dog, and placing the other in the refrigerator for his evening meal.

Warning!

Raw diets must be frozen for safekeeping. Because raw foods often harbor bacteria, poor food-preserving practices will increase the potency of these bacteria and spread them. Always wash your hands well after handling the raw meats and vegetables and make sure you wash your dog’s dishes immediately after he finishes eating.

Don’t touch! Foods and plants that are poisonous to dogs

Warning!

Some plants and foods are dangerous for your mixed-breed dog, and you need to know what they are so you can prevent dangerous accidents. The following is a list of indoor and outdoor plants to avoid. Make sure that you don’t leave these items anywhere that your dog can get to them, either indoors or in his outdoor play area.

  • Autumn crocus
  • Azalea
  • Caladium
  • Castor bean
  • Cyclamen
  • Daffodil bulbs
  • Elephant ear
  • English ivy
  • Foxglove
  • Holly berries
  • Hyacinth bulbs
  • Hydrangea
  • Iris
  • Kalanchoe
  • Laurel
  • Lilies
  • Lily of the valley
  • Mistletoe berries
  • Oleander
  • Philodendron
  • Poinsettia
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb
  • Sago palm
  • Tulip bulbs
  • Wisteria seeds
  • Yew

Warning!

Here are foods to be sure your dog never eats (whether by being given the food by someone in your family, or by digging through the garbage and finding it on his own):

Chocolate: The most dangerous of foods to dogs is chocolate. Never, ever feed your dog candy or other sweets that contain chocolate or cocoa. Too much is often fatal.

Grapes: Grapes cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, lethargy, and vomiting in dogs.

Coffee: Coffee causes not only abdominal symptoms but also seizures, labored breathing, heart arrhythmia, coma, and, in some cases, death.

Onions: Onions cause intestinal distress, liver damage, convulsions, and sometimes death.

Mushrooms: Mushrooms cause the same symptoms as onions.

Nicotine: Nicotine is dangerous to dogs so be sure to watch what he picks up on the sidewalk or street, and if he’s picked up a cigarette butt, get it out of his mouth before he swallows it.

If your dog does eat any of these poisonous foods, watch him carefully for any severe reactions, such as diarrhea, gagging, or vomiting. If he does have a reaction, take him to the vet immediately.

How Much to Feed

You can’t find the right amount to feed your mixed breed on a box, bag, or can of commercial dog food, though feeding guidelines are clearly printed there. In my experience, if you were to follow those directions, your dog would be a rolling tub of lard in short order, and the dog-food company would be a little bit richer.
Each dog is an individual, with his own needs. In the following sections, I give you some guidelines to go by.

Remember

If you read the following sections, and you still have absolutely no idea how much to feed your dog, you can ask

Your veterinarian: Veterinarians can make an educated guess on the amount needed to give your dog appropriate nutrition.

A canine nutritionist: This person can give you an even better idea of what to feed your dog, because she specializes in proper nutrition for animals.

The dog’s breeder or foster guardian: This person has been feeding your dog for a while and can give you some advice on what worked while the dog lived there.

After you’ve had your dog for a few weeks, you’ll know whether you’re giving him the correct amount of food. You can tell by looking at his body. Search for your dog’s waistline — it’s just above his hipbones and below the rib cage. That waistline should not protrude wider than your dog’s hips or ribs. When running your hands along his abdomen, you should be able to easily feel his ribs. On the other hand, you shouldn’t see his ribs protruding either. You shouldn’t be able to count his ribs or see the ridges of his backbone; if you can, it’s a sign that he’s underweight.

Tip

A dog with a good energy level is usually of normal weight. This dog can play for a half-hour or more without tiring; whereas a dog who is overweight rarely exercises for more than ten minutes before needing to rest. An overweight dog will pant heavily and take a long time to recuperate. Watching your dog during and after exercise is a good way to judge how much you should be feeding him.

Feeding according to your dog’s age

Younger dogs have a faster metabolism than older dogs do, so they require more food, more frequently. Younger dogs are also more energetic — they play more than older dogs.
If you have a puppy between the ages of 4 weeks and 5 months, feed him three times each day — morning, noon, and evening. The morning meal should offer the most nutrition and the most food. The noon meal can gradually decrease in size as the dog ages. The evening meal can be a similar amount to the morning meal, though you may want to offer just a little bit less as the dog ages.

Tip

When your dog reaches 5 months of age, he might naturally decrease his midday intake, preferring a biscuit to a full meal. Giving him a biscuit is a great way of weaning him away from three meals a day.

From the ages of about 6 months to almost 4 years, two meals a day will be enough, as long as he gets appropriate nutrients and high protein.

Technical Stuff

After sterilization (neutering or spaying), reduce your dog’s food intake by 25 to 30 percent, because his metabolism will automatically slow due to the lack of reproductive hormones. A popular myth is that sterilization causes dogs to become fat and lazy. The reality is that dogs become fat due to too much food for their metabolism, and they become lazy because they’re too fat to exercise. If you monitor his food intake and give him enough exercise, he won’t become fat or lazy. 

When dogs reach middle age (as young as 4 or 5 for extra-large dogs, or closer to 10 for the tiniest of breeds), their energy level decreases, and their metabolism slows, so they don’t need as many calories. At this point, your mixed-breed dog should be fed half what he got as a teenager (when he was 5 to 10 months of age).
Senior dogs sleep most of the time. You’ll need to put more effort into involving him in exercise activities and decrease his food allowance a little bit more, because he won’t burn many calories and has a very slowed metabolism. His diet should be rich in fiber and protein, and very low in fats and carbs.

Feeding according to your dog’s size

Toy-sized dogs (those weighing less than 15 pounds) rarely eat more than 1⁄4 cup of food per meal. Regardless of how much exercise your Toy-sized dog gets, don’t offer much more food than this. Be sure that each meal is high in nutrients, however, so that your little dog gets the most out of the little bit he consumes as possible.
Small dogs (those weighing 15 to 25 pounds) should get approximately 1⁄3 cup of food per meal.
The food requirements of medium-size dogs (those weighing 25 to 55 pounds) vary more according to their age and breed combinations. Whereas the younger Sporting, Herding, and Terrier breeds have a faster metabolism and higher energy level, the older ones are far more sedate — with the exception of several Herding breeds who are highly energetic most of their lives. I suggest feeding the younger dogs up to 1 cup of food per meal; for dogs older than 5 years of age, reduce the food to 3⁄4 cup per meal.
Large dogs (those weighing 55 to 90 pounds) should receive at least 1 to 2 cups of food mixture per meal. Some very large dogs need 1 1⁄2 to 3 cups per meal until they reach their senior years, which unfortunately come earlier for large dogs; many by the time they reach 5 years of age. As they slow down, reduce the amount you feed.

Special Dietary Needs

Not all foods are right for all dogs. As dogs age, or even due to genetics, some dogs need special diets to stay healthy and happy.

Tip

Here are a few signs telling you that what you’re currently feeding may not be right for your dog:

  • Your dog is scratching a lot.
  • Your dog tends to get frequent ear infections.
  • Your dog has really bad gas.
  • Your dog has loose, light-colored stool or diarrhea.
  • Your dog has lick granulomas on his legs.
  • Your dog’s coat is dry, dull, and coarse.
There’s really no way to know for sure which specific ingredient is causing your dog distress without narrowing it down by feeding fewer ingredients. Because the most common allergy is to specific meats, that’s the first item you should change. The most common switch is from chicken or beef to lamb, duck, venison, or fish. Another common allergy is to grains, such as corn and wheat, common fillers in commercial kibble. Many dogs have allergies to these grains, which manifests itself in an itchy coat, watery eyes, ear infections, and lick granulomas. Rice can be another culprit; you can easily remove rice from your dog’s diet to see if this was the cause of his allergic reactions.
Try eliminating some of these common allergens before giving your dog prescription medications, which treat the symptoms but not the source of the allergies.

Warning!

Dogs suffering from physical ailments such as cancer, diabetes, or organ malfunction need prescription diets from a veterinarian. For example, you may need a low-sodium prescription diet if your dog suffers from heart disease, a prescription diet high in complex carbohydrates for a dog with diabetes, or a low-protein prescription diet for a dog with liver problems. Only a veterinarian can test for these disorders, so you’ll serve your dog best by getting the correctly formulated diets that your vet provides.

It’s My Treat: Giving Your Dog a Little Something Extra

Everyone likes giving their dogs special treats. My dogs get one whenever they do something especially well, such as sitting on command, coming when called, or after performing a special trick. They don’t receive a special treat without first earning it. In fact, they must sit prior to receiving their regular meals.
I try to keep all treats wholesome and free of fillers, preservatives, and other contaminants, so I take the same cautions when buying treats as I do when choosing my dogs’ regular food: I read labels.

Tip

Freeze-dried liver is the treat of choice for most of the dogs I’ve known. It’s what I call “puppy candy.” But just like candy, it’s also high in calories, so I don’t recommend feeding your dog a lot of it, even during training sessions. I alternate freeze-dried liver with lamb, venison, or buffalo jerky that has been dried and preserved with vitamin E. These types of treats tend to be expensive to buy, but you can make them for not much money (if you’re willing to spend the time). Another alternative is to take luncheon meats, microwave them for a few seconds until they’re crisp, and serve these as training treats.
On rare occasions I also give my dogs hard edible treats such as gourmet health chews (of various flavors, especially the mint for their breath), Booda dental bones, and raw vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and green beans. When I’m chopping apples for an apple pie, the dogs get the apple cores. After dinner, they each get a small morsel of leftover meat or vegetable. (Remember: I’m stressing small morsel because I wouldn’t want to give them enough of anything to cause an allergic reaction, especially for my dogs with beef and chicken allergies.)
Though many people like to give their dogs pizza crusts, bread heels, and commercial dog biscuits, I steer away from these things because they contain grains, which may cause an allergic reaction.
As for special-occasion treats, keep it minimal. After holiday meals, you can give your dog a bit of lean meat, but none of the fixings because those contain spices, which might cause stomach distress.

Tip

On hot days, or if you have a teething puppy, bouillon popsicles are a real treat. Here’s the recipe:

1. Boil 2 cups of water.

2. Dissolve 2 bouillon cubes in the boiling water.

You can use any type of bouillon that is low-salt and free of spices. I usually prefer to use the chicken variety, because it’s less messy.

3. Allow the bouillon water to cool for an hour.

4. Pour the bouillon water into an ice-cube tray and put it in the freezer.

5. Serve your dog a frozen cube.

To prevent a mess inside your house, give it to him outside or on an easy-to-clean surface such as linoleum.

by Miriam Fields-Babineau

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