You asked, we answered. So you can get the real scoop behind dog nutrition and wellness, the Just Right experts answered questions sent in from our #DogsofJustRight blogger community. Celebrate Pet Wellness Month with some new information in your back pocket.
Meet Our Experts
Dog Nutrition: Help Your Dog Thrive
Expert advice from Dr. Chris Wildman, Nutritionist and Dr. Lauren Pagliughi, Veterinarian
1. When you’re looking at the ingredient label on dog food, how can you tell if it’s quality nutrition?
As you can imagine, determining the quality of dog food isn't the most straightforward process. However, there are several factors you could consider to help you make an informed decision:
- Ingredient label. Many dog owners first look to the list of ingredients to see if a dog food is "good" or not. However, looking at the ingredients list can actually be misleading if it's the only factor a dog owner considers. After all, it’s about the benefits that the total dog food formula delivers rather than the presence or absence of a particular ingredient.
- Guaranteed analysis. To get a slightly better perspective, dog owners can also look at the guaranteed analysis on the dog food label. This section is important because it tells you if the dog food is delivering the appropriate levels of nutrients for your dog.
- Formulation for the appropriate life stage. Is your puppy's food formulated for growth? Is your adult dog's food formulated for maintenance? It's very important to make sure that your dog is being fed a complete and balanced diet for his life stage. This information can be found in the AAFCO statement; two examples from Just Right by Purina bags are below.
- AAFCO statement. The AAFCO statement ensures that the diet has been formulated to meet the appropriate nutritional levels.
- 1-800 number for the manufacturer. Is it easy to get in touch with the manufacturer to ask them your questions? The World Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends asking pet food manufacturer a series of questions to help determine if the dog food you're considering is quality nutrition.
- Consult your veterinarian. In addition to your outside research on dog food brands and manufacturers, talk to your veterinarian to answer any lingering questions you may have.
2. What should you look for when reading the ingredient label on dog food when trying to determine if the brand is reputable? Why does it matter where the dog food is manufactured & by whom?
The ingredient label isn’t the only factor in choosing dog food. Ingredient sourcing and quality will vary from company to company, so the ingredient deck alone isn’t enough to determine a brand’s reputation. Some additional research into the pet food company is required. It’s important to select a dog food from a reputable manufacturer who has high-quality control standards on their products and can trace ingredients all the way back to their source if there is indeed a problem. An example we often use is that you can get steak at a fast food chain or steak at the fanciest steak house in NYC. Both ingredient labels will say steak; however, the quality of those steaks will be drastically different. The same goes for dog food. Reading an ingredient label tells you absolutely nothing about that manufacturer. Instead, look for a pet food company who follows AAFCO recommendations and who invests money in veterinary research to better the nutritional health of dogs and cats.
3. How much of an impact does the food you feed your dog really have when it comes to things like their skin & coat, energy level, long term health, etc.?
Great nutrition provides the building blocks for your dog’s wellness, so picking the right dog food for your dog can have a huge impact. This is why it’s so important to feed a diet that’s complete and balanced, offers appropriate feeding instructions, and focuses on support areas that match their individual nutritional needs.
4. What are some signs that the dog food you currently feed may not be the best option for them & it’s time for a change?
If you’re happy with your dog’s current food and it’s working for him – his activity level is up, his stool quality is good (learn how you can tell a wealth of information by the quality of your dog’s poop), his eyes are bright, his skin and coat are healthy, his body condition is ideal, and his food is appropriate for his life stage – then there probably isn’t a need for a change in his nutrition.
If your dog is experiencing greater problems such as vomiting (acute onset or chronic), diarrhea (acute onset or chronic), poor stool quality, weight loss, excessive flatulence, abdominal pain, dull coat, excessive shedding, or dental health issues, or ocular health issues…it’s time for a trip to the veterinarian. Some of these symptoms may be addressed by a change in diet, but many non-food-related reasons may be the cause instead.
At the end of the day, it’s important to make sure your dog is eating an appropriate diet for his life stage and lifestyle. If you are considering changing your dog’s food, learn how to transition your dog’s food properly to avoid stomach upset.
5. My dog struggles with weight control – how can his food help manage his weight?
There isn’t a magical solution for helping your dog manage his weight – It simply comes down to your dog using calories more than he takes in. Dog food formulas geared towards weight management can be a good start since they can be less calorically dense, but nothing beats high-quality nutrition fed in the appropriate amounts, combined with a regular exercise program. Get more weight loss tips for your dog from our infographic.
6. How important is it to stick to the feeding instructions on the dog food label?
It’s very important to look at the feeding instructions on the food label, but know that they’re guidelines that are best used alongside monitoring your dog’s body condition. A veterinary nutritionist can give you the feeding guidelines for a 5-year-old Labrador Retriever who weighs 70 pounds, but since each unique dog has a different metabolisms, not every 5-year-old Labrador Retriever who weighs 70 pounds is going to require the exact same amount of calories. Personalized feeding instructions like those offered by Just Right by Purina are better than a range, but they’re not the end-all-be-all. Start with the recommendation and adjust as necessary based on your dog’s body condition.
7. Why do dogs stop eating or don’t finish their food once in a while?
There are a variety of reasons why a pet might eat less or stop eating their food, but not all of them are cause for alarm. Every dog is unique, and some dogs don’t gobble down their food as quickly or readily as others. It may also come down to your dog’s age and size – a young dog who’s maturing may suddenly start eating less of his food, while small or toy breeds tend to nibble on their food throughout the day. Some other behavioral and environmental factors that may affect your dog’s appetite include:
- Your dog’s food may not be very palatable
- Your dog may be surprised by a sudden change in his diet.
- Your dog learned that you’ll give him new food or add something to it when he acts picky. (Don’t let your dog train you – get our tips for reforming picky eaters!)
- Something in your dog’s environment may have affected his interest to eat. Did he eat too many treats throughout the day? Are other people feeding him too? It’s important to know how your dog could be getting extra calories.
If your dog refuses to eat for more than a day or two, the best thing to do is to take a trip to your veterinarian to investigate any potential health issues. When you go, make sure to know what your dog’s been eating over the last several weeks, and bring your dog’s food with you (or at least a picture of the bag) so that your veterinarian can check for any pet food recalls. Your veterinarian will examine your dog to make sure that nothing serious is causing his decreased appetite. Some of the medical factors your veterinarian will look for when examining your dog:
- Oral pain such as a bad tooth
- Systemic illness such as organ failure or cancer
- Gastrointestinal upset
8. How can owners help promote good bone & muscle growth in puppies?
During puppyhood, you want to promote steady, healthy growth, so it’s important that he’s getting the proper nutrition from the beginning. Look at the mineral content in your dog’s food. Because your puppy’s bones are still young and growing, too much calcium in your puppy’s diet can cause skeletal abnormalities. This is especially important to know when you’re deciding what to feed your large breed puppy. Your puppy’s small frame is steadily growing to accommodate more weight, so too much weight and muscle too fast may have a negative impact on your pup long-term. In addition to nutrients that encourage healthy bone growth in puppies, you should also look for DHA in dog food to help promote good vision and brain development.
9. How can I keep my athletic dog at the top of his game for as long as possible?
Highly active dogs need nutrition that’s able to support their high energy needs. Look for the appropriate levels of protein and fat in dog food, and always monitor your dog to make sure he’s staying at his ideal body condition throughout his life. Be sure to adjust the recommended feeding instructions for his unique needs and help him prevent excess weight gain, which can lead to some significant health issues down the line. Nutrients like EPA and glucosamine can support your dogs’ joint health and mobility, while the appropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus can help support strong bones. Antioxidants in your dog’s nutrition help promote a healthy immune system. Look for vitamin C (sometimes called l-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate), vitamin E, and selenium to help keep your athletic dogs at the top of their game.
10. What are some nutritional considerations owners should look for to help their dogs move into old age & become seniors?
Older dogs are traditionally considered senior dogs once they’ve reached half their life expectancy or on average, 7 years of age. One of the common challenges senior dogs face is maintaining their lean body mass and avoiding excessive weight gain as their metabolisms change. As always, pay attention to your dog’s body condition to make sure his weight stays ideal even as his activity level begins to slow down, then adjust his food intake accordingly. You can look for a diet with an appropriate protein level for your aging dog that also includes guaranteed levels of EPA and glucosamine to help support his joint health and mobility. And though not a nutritional consideration, be sure to do what you can to keep your dog’s mind sharp with mental stimulation. (Turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks.)
11. How can owners help promote good bone & muscle growth in giant breed dogs, especially giant breed seniors?
For large and giant breed dogs at every life stage, it’s crucial to feed a diet that is formulated with the appropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus to support healthy bones, as well as nutrients like EPA and glucosamine help support joint health and mobility. After puppyhood, good nutrition focuses less on growth and more on maintaining the system that’s already there. It’s extremely important to feed a diet with an appropriate protein to fat ratio to help your dog maintain his lean body mass. As dogs get older, their metabolisms change and their activity levels may slow down, so they tend to be more prone to excessive weight gain. Dog food formulated for seniors may be lower in calories, but you should always monitor your dog’s body condition and adjust according to his unique needs. Remember, all senior dog food is not created equally. Make sure to consult with your veterinarian if you’re considering transitioning your senior pet to a new diet.
Dog Wellness: Help Your Dog Live Happy & Healthy
Expert advice from Dr. Lauren Pagliughi, Veterinarian and Cynthia Bolte, Animal Behaviorist
12. How often should my dog to go the veterinarian?
Your dog should go to his veterinarian every 6 months. Pets age much quicker than people; therefore, biannual visits help to identify any potential health problems. Of course, your pet should also go to the veterinarian when they are sick or injured, but it’s important not to wait until it’s too late – preventative care is effective care.
13. How much exercise does a dog need per day? What are some of the most effective activities to keep our dogs active?
Physical exercise is a very individual recommendation for dogs due to the variety in dog size and athletic ability, but the average dog benefits from at least 30 minutes of daily exercise and can be accomplished simply by taking your dog for a walk. Walking is a low-impact exercise that most dogs thoroughly enjoy. If you dog has orthopedic problems, swimming might be a better option. A sporting breed might require several hours of intense exercise per day, while a toy breed dog might require shorter bouts of activity. Make sure to consult with your veterinarian if you have specific questions about exercising your pet. And don’t forget that dogs need mental exercise as well! Take them to new places with new smells or play a game of hide and seek or tug-o-war.
14. How and how often do I need to brush my dog’s teeth?
In a perfect world, you should brush your dog’s teeth daily or even twice daily. (It’s not as hard as you might think – watch How To Brush Your Dog’s Teeth for tips.) Dogs can develop plaque and tartar on their teeth just like us. Certain breeds, such as small breed dogs, tend to develop tartar more quickly, which can lead to periodontal disease. Did you know that 80% of dogs have some sort of periodontal disease by the age of 2 years? The best way to prevent periodontal disease is to brush daily and to have a dental assessment by your veterinarian 1-2 times per year. Most dogs will require a prophylactic cleaning under anesthesia several times throughout their lives. Regular dental cleanings help to identify underlying dental disease and minimize the risk of tooth and bone loss.
15. Why is my dog allergic to everything? Even the grass?
If your dog has an allergy, you’ve likely seen him experience allergy symptoms such as pruritus (itchy skin), frequent skin infections, and ear infections. Certain breeds and breed groups such as Terriers, Dalmatians, Retrievers, Boxers, herding breeds, Shih Tzus, Beagles, Schauzers, Bulldogs, Bichons, and German Shepherds are more prone to developing an allergy at some point in their lives, though any dog can experience an allergy.
It’s hard to tell the difference between an allergic reaction to flea bites, environmental allergies, and food allergies since most of the symptoms are so similar. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
- Fleas: Fleas are the number one cause of itchy skin in dogs. Dogs that react to flea bites are actually allergic to a protein in their saliva! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian about putting your dog on the appropriate flea control medication. For the most part, dogs with fleas tend to be itchier on the back half of their body; however, this is not always the case.
- Environmental allergies (atopy): Environmental allergies are the second most common allergy found in dogs, with 10-15% of dogs experiencing a form of atopy. Dogs can be allergic to anything including grass, pollen, and even human dander!
- Food allergies: When a their dog starts showing signs of sensitivities, many owners immediately assume that the dog food is to blame and start searching through the ingredient label. While food allergies in dogs certainly aren’t out of the realm of possibility, food allergies in dogs aren’t nearly as prevalent as many people believe: Food allergies and intolerances account for only 10-15% of all diagnosed allergic skin diseases in dogs. When dogs do have a food allergy, they’re allergic to the protein in an ingredient. The most common food allergies in dogs include dairy and beef. Many dog owners also believe that their dogs are allergic to corn, but veterinarians and researchers have concluded that corn is not a commonly known allergen dog owners should worry about.
Consult your vet if you suspect that your dog may have an allergy. The only way to currently identify allergies is by doing a skin or blood test for atopy and a diet trial for food allergies. These tests are not perfect and they do require a significant amount of client compliance; however, identifying the potential allergen(s) can be very helpful in managing disease.
Treatment of allergies includes removing the allergen (if possible), treating secondary skin/ear infections, and managing clinical signs. Antihistamines, steroids, antibiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and other newer immune altering drugs are commonly used in the treatment of allergies. Diet is another very important factor. Obviously, if the pet has a food allergy, a hydrolyzed diet such as the Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed formula might be a great option. The protein in this diet is hydrolyzed into such tiny pieces that the body doesn’t recognize it as an allergen. If the pet has atopy, he may benefit from increased dietary levels of omega-3 fatty acids for their anti-inflammatory effect, such as the Pro Plan Veterinary Diets DRM Dermatologic Management formula. Your dog could also benefit from zinc and omega-6 fatty acids for general skin health.
16. What is the best way to help a dog with anxiety?
If your dog is already anxious, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian, a certified animal behaviorist, or a certified dog trainer to see if they can help. If it’s not possible to simply avoid the stimulus that triggers the anxious behavior, the aforementioned experts can work with you to develop a behavioral plan that helps alleviate your dog’s fears. There are also several great online resources you can read for helping your dog with anxiety. However, even with the best behavioral intervention, sometimes dogs require special medications known as anxiolytics to control their anxiety. These work best in tandem with a behavioral plan.
To help prevent anxiety, it’s important to provide a structured and consistent routine for your dog that includes socialization, exercise, and feeding habits.
17. How do dogs develop picky habits & what can owners do?
Changing a dog’s diet often can cause dogs to develop picky eating habits and they will sometimes “hold out” waiting to see if they’ll get something better. Giving your dog table food can also cause him to stop eating dog food and contribute to excess weight gain. To help prevent this, owners should stick to a diet that’s suitable for their dog’s needs, introduce them to a regular feeding schedule, and not switch dog food too often. Get additional tips for how to help your picky eater through a regular feeding schedule, by adjusting his snacking habits, and more.
You play the largest role in promoting the wellness of your dog. Now let us play ours with personalized nutrition tailored for your dog’s nutritional needs.
Periodontal disease: McFadden, T., & Marretta, S. M. (2013). Consequences of untreated periodontal disease in dogs and cats. Journal of Veterinary Dentistry 30.4: 266.
Breeds prone to allergies: Roosje P. (2005). Canine atopic dermatitis: new concepts. Eur J Comp Anim Pract 15.2: 189-95.
Environmental allergies: Hillier, A., & Griffin, C. (n.d.). The ACVD task force on canine atopic dermatitis (I): Incidence and prevalence. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology: 147-151.
Food allergies: Greenhalgh, S. (2013). Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline - by Larry P. Tilley and Francis W.K. Smith, Jr. J Small Anim Pract Journal of Small Animal Practice: 219-219.