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Feeding Your Dog: Kibble, Homecooked Meals, or Raw Food Diet?

What to feed your dog Meal times for dogs is a much-anticipated time of day. Aside from the obvious need for nourishment, meals are also a great source of enjoyment for most pets. Pet owners, in turn, want to choose the tastiest, healthiest, most nutritious food they can find - but with so many choices out there, it can be hard to figure out what to feed your dog. Here are some pros and cons of feeding commercially-prepared foods (like dog kibble, canned food, even dehydrated or freeze-dried foods), a homecooked diet, and a raw food diet for dogs.

Commercially Prepared Dog Food

Pet store shelves are filled with bags upon bags of pet food: all sorts of kibble marketed to all sorts of dogs, ranging from small to large breed, puppies to seniors, active dogs to couch potatoes. Bags of kibble are often imprinted with beautiful photos of happy, healthy dogs, or photos of an array of fresh ingredients like chicken breast and colourful veggies. Claims of "grain-free" or "human-grade ingredients" adorn the bags. It's all meant to entice us, the pet owner, to buy their food. It's no wonder that kibble is so popular and so widely fed.

Disadvantages of Commercial Pet Food

  • Possibility of contamination. In recent years, there have been a number of recalls of dry pet food (kibble) due to salmonella or other contaminants. To be fair, vast quantities of kibble are sold and the recalled amounts are probably only a tiny fraction of the whole. However, you wouldn't want your pet to be one of the unlucky few who ingested the contaminated food.

  • Dental problems. The highly processed carbohydrates in kibble can more quickly contribute to the formation of plaque on a dog's teeth. Regular dental care, such as brushing the teeth, is important to prevent the plaque from becoming tartar. Tartar can only be removed with professional cleanings at a veterinary clinic.

  • Difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. Dogs often scarf up a bowl of kibble quickly, typically within a few minutes and sometimes even within seconds. It's not a particularly interesting or satisfying meal, and many dogs still want to continue to eat. It can be tempting to give in to their pleading looks and give them a little extra. It is easy for kibble-fed dogs to gain a little extra weight unless owners are diligent about measuring out their food and sticking with the correct portion size to keep the dog at a healthy weight.

  • Boredom. A bowl of kibble, day after day, doesn't provide the most satisfying eating experience.

Benefits of Commercial Pet Food

  • Convenience and ease-of-use. This is probably the biggest selling point for the pet owner. What could be easier than simply scooping up some food and dumping it into a bowl? Plus kibble is easy to store and easy to transport.

  • The promise of complete and balanced nutrition. Pet food companies spend a great deal of money researching the types of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that pets need. Commercial pet foods that meet AAFCO standards can be fed as a sole and complete meal for pets (note that the quality and the digestibility of the ingredients used can vary significantly from one food to the next).

  • A vast array of flavours and textures are available. Kibble comes in many flavours, the most common being chicken, red meat (typically beef), turkey, rabbit, and salmon, or any combination of these. Kibble size can be small or large. Canned foods come in even more flavours and combinations, and can be "pate-style" or a stew-like texture. There are even dehydrated and freeze-dried foods which can be compared in many ways to raw-feeding, even though these are commercially-prepared diets. Pets who like variety can get it (providing their digestive systems can handle it).

Homemade (Cooked) Diets for Dogs

Many pet owners look to home-cooked diets in an effort to provide fresh, wholesome food to their pets without all the unpronounceable stuff they see in the ingredients list on commerical pet food bags.

Disadvantages of Homemade Diets

  • Balance of nutrition. It's not as simple as throwing some together some chicken and rice and placing this delicious-smelling concoction under your dog's eager nose. Our dogs have very specific nutritional needs, just as we do. An unbalanced diet can lead to serious health consequences. Preparing a balanced meal ideally requires the help of a veterinary nutritionist. Many books are available to help pet owners figure out how to balance meals.

  • Time commitment. People who feed homemade diets typically prepare several days' worth, or even a couple of week's worth, of meals in one batch. Preparing and cooking the food can require a significant amount of time. Then the food still has to be portioned out and refrigerated or frozen.

  • Not easily portable. Traveling with batches of homemade pet food isn't the most convenient. It takes up space and requires refrigeration. If your accommodation has cooking facilities and a refrigerator, the other option would be to shop and prepare the meals once you arrive at your destination.

Benefits of Homemade Diets

  • Knowledge of what you're feeding. Many people prefer to know exactly what goes into their pet's food. Preparing a homemade diet means that you no long have to scrutinize those long ingredient lists on the back of commercial pet foods.

  • Ability to customize. Many commercial pet foods contain blends of various proteins so even though a food is marketed as "chicken flavour", for example, it might also have other proteins mixed in with it. This can be an issue for pets with specific food needs, such as the need to avoid a certain protein due to allergies. When you're cooking the food yourself, you can easily change the protein or add the types of veggies that will benefit your pet the most.

  • Ability to add variety. Since you are the one doing the cooking, you have the opportunity to add whatever fresh ingredients your dog prefers. Each batch of food can contain a different protein (or blend of proteins) and a different veggie mix. Even texture can be varied with different sized chunks of protein.

  • More interesting at meal-times. Homemade diets, with fresh, fragrant ingredients, can have much more "nose-appeal" for pets especially if they are varied from time to time. They can also be a real blessing for pets who are experiencing inappetence for any reason; the smell of a homemade diet can be more enticing than that of a bowl of kibble, and they may be encouraged to eat.

Feeding a Raw Food Diet to Your Dog

The idea of feeding a raw diet is to mimic what wild dogs would naturally eat - that is, a whole, prey diet that is considered more biologically-appropriate.

Disadvantages of a Raw Food Diet

  • Balance of nutrition. Once again, it comes down to figuring a nutritionally balanced and complete diet. Simply throwing a hunk of meat to your dog, day after day, will cause nutritional deficiencies and health problems. A wild dog would eat the entire prey; this includes not just the muscle meat, but also organs, blood, fur, the tongue, stomach (and contents), smaller bones, and more. Learning how to balance a raw food diet is essential to the good health of your pet. Many raw feeders add a vitamin and mineral supplement to their pets' meals. A holistic vet or veterinary nutritionist can help pet owners learn how to feed raw. Several books are also available to help give pet owners a head-start.

  • Time commitment. Feeding raw can take more time than initially anticipated. Part of it is sourcing a place to buy what you need, such as a local butcher shop. Once you get everything you need, then it all needs to be portioned out and the individual portions frozen. Every night you would take the next day's meal portion out of the freezer and place in the refrigerator to thaw in time for feeding.

  • Cost. Depending on what source you can find for your pet's food, the cost of feeding a raw diet may be prohibitive. Many butchers and meat departments are starting to realize that more and more people are turning to raw-fed diets and they're putting aside certain cuts of meat specifically marketed to dog owners.

  • Potential for injury. There are potential choking hazards from bones, as well potential for broken or fractured teeth. Learning what types of raw, meaty bones are safe for your dog is essential. Some dogs may also suffer from intestinal blockage or obstruction.

  • Not easy to travel with. Feeding raw means you have to either pack what your dog needs in a cooler and get it right into the freezer when you get to your destination ... or you need to shop for and prepare his food when you get there. This isn't always the easiest if you're traveling to a smaller town which may not carry the same selection as you would find in larger cities. Even bigger cities may be a challenge because you may not necessarily know where to find the foods that your dog normally eats.

  • Care in handling. Just like handling and preparing raw foods for our (human) families, precautions have to be taken when preparing raw food diets for our dogs. Proper hand-washing, cleaning of surfaces, and the feeding itself is important. Some owners will put down a towel or a blanket where their dogs can enjoy their meals. This can then easily be thrown into the washer.

Benefits of Feeding Raw to Your Dog

  • Knowledge of what you're feeding. You pick and choose the foods. There's no unknown, unpronounceable substances in what you feed.

  • Easy to vary meals. Keeping a freezer full of a variety of meats and pureed veggie mixes to easily 'mix-and-match' from day-to-day. It helps to keep meal-times interesting!

  • Helps to keep teeth clean. The mild abrasiveness of chewing on a raw, meaty bone helps to prevent plaque from forming. A healthy mouth is an important part of overall health.

  • Better ability to manage allergens. Food allergies aren't uncommon. Some dogs are allergic to various preservatives or additives in commercial food, or are allergic to certain proteins. With a raw diet, the pet owner can choose what protein(s) to feed and avoid the use of any types of fillers. Many pet owners have reported that their dogs have found relief from their allergies after being switched to a raw diet.

  • Less waste. Picking up after the dog is one of those responsibilities that we have to deal with, but it's more tolerable when there's less of it to pick up. Raw-fed dogs generally produce smaller poops

  • It's more satisfying. Chewing a raw, meaty bone is a great workout for the dog's jaw muscles, shoulders, and neck. It's also a mentally stimulating and relaxing. Many dogs find it a highly satisfying experience and will happily go to sleep afterwards.

Some pet food stores now sell commercially-prepared raw food diets. They are often ground-up muscle meat mixed with organs, bones, and a fruit/veggie mix. Read the packaging to see if the food is nutritionally complete to feed pets on a long-term basis; not all are, and may need to be supplemented.

It's also interesting to note that commerically-prepared dehydrated and freeze-dried foods are also available now. These types of foods start from raw ingredients; some people consider them to be a type of raw-feeding, just in different form.

Choosing a Diet

Whatever type of diet you choose to feed your pet, be sure it is nutritionally complete and balanced to help ensure your dog is as healthy as he can be. Also make sure to consult with your vet especially if your dog is young, old, pregnant, or has a health issue. Some diets are not appropriate for dogs who have specific medical needs. Consultation with both a traditional and a holistic veterinarian can provide pet owners with a balance of opinions.

" I feel sorry for people who don't have dogs. I hear they have to pick up the food they drop on the floor."

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