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Feeding what’s best for each dog...

01 March 2013, at 12:00am

ZARA BOLAND discusses what is important in dog food and how an appropriate choice has to take into account the different requirements of animals and the many ingredients available

ANYONE involved with dogs and who lives in the UK can’t fail to be aware of Crufts. It’s the world’s largest dog show, advertised as the “biggest and best celebration of dogs”, and takes place this year at the NEC on the outskirts of Birmingham from 7th to 10th March.

This isn’t an article to discuss the pros and cons of Crufts or indeed the contentious issue of dog showing and breed genetics.

It is instead an article aimed at cutting through the myriad of dog food options that anyone attending Crufts will be faced with and getting to the heart of the matter: what’s important when it comes to dog food and how do we make an appropriate choice?

Pet food is a huge industry today and despite the current economic recession remains fairly robust.

Certain segments will be seeing changes in consumer preference and whilst there may be more volume moving through the budget end of the market, the majority of dogs are still being fed a commercial dog food.

What does a commercial dog food mean?

It must comply with all pertinent legislation and there are currently over 50 different pieces governing the manufacture of pet food in the UK.

All the legislation originates from the EU in the form of Regulations, Directives and decisions. These are then implemented into UK national law.1

It should also meet the minimum nutritional requirements as decreed by FEDIAF and/or NRC.2

It should also be clearly labelled and above all safe for consumption and handling.

Nutrients v. ingredients

All commercially produced “complete” dog food products begin with a nutritionally balanced recipe.

So the first step in the process is to identify the appropriate raw ingredients.

Ingredients, however, are not the same as nutrients and for healthy growth and maintenance dogs need to obtain varying levels of 37 “essential” micro-nutrients every day from their food.1

The actual number of raw ingredients containing these nutrients can vary hugely from recipe to recipe

and it’s only by combining different ingredients together that the right balance of nutrients can be obtained.

Fundamentally, they must also be obtainable by the dog during the process of digestion and that’s where ingredient quality comes in.

Advanced nutrition

Clearly, not all dogs are created equal and consequently their nutritional requirements differ.

Furthermore, continuing advances in research are ensuring the dog food is now tailored for optimal nutrition rather than simply meeting basic minimum requirements. 

There are numerous definitions for what “advanced nutrition” means, but essentially it accounts for everything from lifestage to lifestyle and beyond. 

We all know that puppies have very different nutritional requirements to senior dogs, but in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of breed specific and lifestyle diets.

After all, it makes sense that a working dog will have higher calorific requirements to a pet Labrador. Likewise a Chihuahua has a very different metabolic rate compared to a Great Dane, as well as unique breed attributes that may also be supported nutritionally.

However, are there other specific nutrients that may prove beneficial to individual dogs?


Functional ingredients (sometimes referred to as super-nutrients) are becoming increasingly common in dog food.

This term incorporates scientifically proven beneficial ingredients such as EFAs, anti- oxidants, pre- and probiotics and even natural antibodies. It also includes the slightly greyer area of nutraceuticals, but what exactly do any of these ingredients do?

1. EFAs

Omega 3 and 6 are two groups of essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in either fish or plant-based ingredients. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) are the most well known and have been scientifically proven to help support brain and eye development in puppies (DHA) as well as provide an anti- inflammatory effect in dogs of all ages (EPA).

2. Antioxidants

We’ve all heard of the damaging effect of free radicals and know that the body produces its own antioxidants to combat this effect.  Inflammatory, infectious and neoplastic disease, environmental pollutants and even exercise can all increase oxidant production. However, by supplementing with powerful food antioxidants we can help to boost the body’s natural defence mechanism as well as help fight against many disease processes.

3. Pre- and probiotics

Essentially, prebiotics are a food source for gut-dwelling bacteria and probiotics are sources of actual bacteria.  Both are scientifically proven to promote intestinal health by helping maintain a pH environment that favours beneficial bacteria, but the challenge is to get them intact to the large bowel where they do their work.

4. Antibodies

This is a relatively new area of research that demonstrates the beneficial effect of providing natural antibodies (in the form of colostrum) to help strengthen puppies’ immature immune systems. 

5. Nutraceuticals

Nutraceuticals encompass everything from cartilage to green-lipped mussel, i.e. foods containing substances such as glucosamine and chondroitin. However, most of the beneficial evidence on nutraceuticals to date is anecdotal rather than scientific.

1. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) is a great resource for information relating to the pet food industry as well as pet population statistics. 2. NRC is the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and FEDIAF is the European Pet Food Manufacturers Association. Both have produced nutritional guidelines, the FEDIAF version from a comprehensive review of NRC data and other existing science. The guidelines are also peer-reviewed and revised as appropriate by independent veterinary nutritionists globally. 

Key points

  • To be labelled as a “complete” dog food the final product must contain 37 specific and essential micro-nutrients. It should also be in a form that is nutritious, digestible and tasty for a dog.
  • Advanced nutrition means optimal nutrition formulated according to lifestage, lifestyle and individual requirements.
  • Functional nutrients can provide great added beneficial value to a dog when incorporated into a commercial dog food.
  • Don’t consider supplementing a complete pet food without doing the appropriate research. Some supplements can result in toxicities (e.g. certain vitamins) or growth deformities (e.g. certain minerals).
  • Whichever product is chosen, it should be appropriately tailored to each dog’s unique requirements as well as to their taste preference.