As seen in: Dogs Naturally Magazine

About this column: There are many diverse opinions on what’s best to feed a dog. This column takes a ‘moderate’ approach to nutrition with an emphasis on treating each dog as an individual. There’s no single ‘best’ diet for all; what’s right for one dog isn’t always perfect for the next. Debates about raw versus cooked and grain versus no grain (among other things) abound. My goal with this column is to provide an over-arching look at the basic principles of nutrition for those just getting started with the move away from highly processed diets such as kibble and cans to a fresher and more varied way of feeding.

A commonsense look at what your dog eats

Your dog’s diet is comprised of several different categories of food. In this article, we explore what those categories are, what value they hold for your dog, and what emphasis should be placed on each of them as you select what to offer for dinner.


Meat and fish should form the lion’s share of most canine (and all feline) diets. They are the most important sources of protein and the most biologically appropriate sources of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life.

The dog’s teeth and jaws are designed for gnawing on meaty bones and the mouth is where digestion begins for most components of the diet (except for kibble, which tends to be ‘gulped’ and swallowed whole). Most protein digestion takes place in the stomach, where protease (the digestive enzyme that digests protein) is secreted, along with pepsinogen which is ‘activated’ by the stomach’s hydrochloric acid. In addition to muscle meats, many owners incorporate organs such as liver and kidney into their dogs’ diets. These contain rich sources of nutrients which are not present in muscle meat but most holistic vets recommend only feeding organs a couple of times each week. If possible, try to feed only organic organs, since the liver especially can be contaminated with toxins from pesticides, medications and other chemicals which conventional animals are exposed to.

While organ meat is a good source of nutrition, there’s a difference between that type of offal and meat by-products, which are used in many well known, poorer quality brands of commercial food. Such by-products lack decent nutrition, are difficult to digest and often laden with chemical preservatives because they are off-shoots of other industries and not prepared with care. Animal by-products may include beaks, feet, hooves, feathers and viscera.

Eggs are another good source of protein and can be added directly to your pet’s food, raw or lightly scrambled.

Many pet owners prefer to feed only one species of protein at each meal, which is a more biologically appropriate approach and also helps to uncover food intolerances in more sensitive pets. However, most dogs will benefit from a variety of different proteins throughout the week. Non-stop consumption of one type of food (especially lamb, which is a warming meat according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and cause excessive itching in many dogs) can actually make a dog more predisposed to food sensitivities over the longer term.

Contrary to conventional thinking, even animals with kidney problems (except for more advanced renal failure) should have quite plentiful protein in their diets and should not have their protein intake restricted excessively.

Meat can be fed raw or cooked according to your dogs taste preferences, your vet’s recommendations and your own comfort level. Bones should never be fed cooked as they are more prone to splintering and have the potential to cause intestinal damage. Many owners offer whole raw meaty bones such as chicken backs and others prefer to feed the bones ground (many commercial raw products contain finely ground bone and cartilage). Again, this is a matter of preference.

Always try to feed pastured, free-range or grass-fed meats, even if you cannot obtain organic. Wild caught fish should also be selected, over farm-raised fish. Selecting natural alternatives in this way is better both for your dog and the planet.

Fats and oils

Fat is an important source of fuel and energy, and provides essential fatty acids. Fat is supplied by meat and raw meaty bones as well as some types of oily fish such as salmon and sardines. Extra fat can be supplied into the diet in the form of a supplement.

EFA supplements can be derived from oils such as evening primrose, flax or borage, as well as from fish (which many pet owners and holistic vets prefer); fish body oils are preferable to fish liver oils, since the liver is the organ that removes toxins that the fish may have absorbed from the ocean, and it can remain contaminated with those toxins, which in turn pass into the liver oil.

Carbohydrates & fiber

Carbohydrates and fiber can be derived from grains, as well as vegetables and fruits. Dogs do not produce salivary amylase and therefore, unlike many other mammals, carbohydrate digestion does not begin in the mouth. However, they produce amylase in the pancreas and digest starches in the small intestine, using that pancreatic amylase.

Vegetables & Fruits provide the diet with fiber, some carbohydrates, and most importantly, vitamins and minerals. Many of the brightly colored pigments in fruits and vegetables are actually antioxidants (carotenoids), which help to slow the signs of aging by cleaning up the product of cellular oxidation. Antioxidants can help to protect against cancer, heart problems and other age-related diseases. Green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach and green beans, as well as herbs like parsley and basil, are rich in chlorophyll – the life-blood of plants and contain the antioxidant lutein. Red and orange vegetables and fruits such as melon, sweet potatoes and carrots are rich in carotene. Lycopene provides the red pigment in cranberries, cherries and pomegranate.

Carbohydrates in general and grains in particular, should not form the major component of canine diets and in fact should be completely eliminated from the diets of many, because they have such sensitivities to gluten which can cause ear-infections, diarrhea, itching and a host of other problems - but grains do have their place in the diets of some pets. Carbohydrates provide energy and help to maintain a healthy bodyweight in many dogs who seem to become too skinny on a very low-carb diet. Whole organic grains are a rich source of B-vitamins as well as silica and fiber, for healthy digestion. Wheat, corn and soy are thought to be the top three causes of allergies in pets and should be avoided. Rice and beet pulp are also problematic for a lot of pets. If you do choose to feed grains to your dog, make sure they are whole and organic if possible. Wheat, corn and soy are among the most commonly genetically modified grains in the United States and utilizing certified organic grains ensures they are also, by definition, non-GMO.

Dogs can tolerate higher dietary carbohydrate content than cats because they produce three times more amylase than cats do. Root vegetables should be pulped or steamed and pureed before serving, to assist with digestion; leafy vegetables can be fed finely diced. Nightshade family vegetables such as peppers, eggplant and potatoes should be fed in moderation to pets with arthritic conditions. Onions, grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs and should not be fed at all.

Dairy products, nuts and seeds form a relatively minor component of most diets but do provide valuable fat and protein. Live culture plain yogurt is an excellent addition to the diets of most dogs, even those who are sensitive to milk. The reason is that live yogurt is unpasteurized and contains the ‘good bacteria’ necessary to facilitate its own digestion. Some pets are sensitive to dairy, but for those who are not, raw goats or cows milk (preferably grass-fed) and also cottage cheese may be added to the diet occasionally to provide extra protein and calcium. Kefir is a fermented milk product that’s very popular among many raw feeders. Nuts and seeds like sesame and quinoa provide protein and fiber. However, macadamia nuts are toxic and should not be fed to dogs.

Whether you feed a home-prepared or commercially produced, cooked or raw type of food to your dog, it’s important to have a broad understanding, of what a good quality diet should include. That way, you can feed a diet that more closely resembles what nature intended for your dog and avoid the pitfalls of feeding a diet that isn’t well balanced (for example insufficient meat) or one that’s laden with inappropriate ingredients that offer little or no real nutritional benefit (such as wheat middlings). As a general guide, variety is the spice of life, so try to incorporate several different sorts of ingredients over time. Remember whole foods are always better than ingredient fractions, and the less processed the food you offer, the better off your dog will be.

© 2013 Lucy Postins & The Honest Kitchen This article may only be copied with prior written permission from the company. Reproductions must include credit to the author and a link to this website.