Decoding Puppy Food Labels

You are what you eat -- and so is your puppy. If your puppy is eating well, you’ll be able to see it in its energetic play, its curious approach to life and its beautiful, healthy coat.

What you’re seeing is an external articulation of what’s happening inside: Its skeleton is developing properly, muscles are building and neural pathways in the brain are expanding. High-quality commercial foods are best, as they can guarantee the antioxidants the puppy needs for its developing immune system, which helps its body combat common canine diseases like distemper and parvovirus.

A Recipe for Your Pup’s Health
Your puppy’s food should include a carefully calculated blend of protein, carbohydrates and fat necessary to ensure good health. A quality commercial food should include:

  • Digestible carbohydrates, such as corn and grain sorghum (to meet energy needs)
  • Fermentable fibers, such as beet pulp and the prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a type of fiber found in certain fruits, vegetables and grains (to support digestive health)
  • Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (to keep skin supple and coat shiny)
  • Antioxidants, like beta-carotene and vitamin E (to boost immune system)

Decoding Dog Food Labels
Read labels carefully so you know exactly what you’re putting into your puppy’s system. Here’s what you should notice:

  • The food’s name can tell you how much of a particular ingredient is in it. Brands that mention an animal protein source in the title (e.g., “Beef formula”) indicate that at least 25 percent of the product is beef. Names that include “With” in the title (e.g., “With chunky chicken”) or “Flavor” (e.g., “Turkey flavor”) contain as little as 3 percent of the ingredient.
  • Labels on the back of puppy food can also clue you in on the primary ingredients in the food. Those listed first, second and third are present in higher quantities than those listed fourth, fifth and sixth. (Though this is according to weights taken before cooking.)
  • The law requires manufacturers to list their names and addresses on their packages. If you ever have a question about a product, you should be able to call the company’s consumer affairs line to receive a thorough, researched response from a company representative.
  • The label should include a statement from an organization called the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

“I prefer to see that most, or all, of the ingredients are wholesome,” says Dr. Bruce Silverman of Village West Veterinary in Chicago. “I love to see if the ingredient list makes me want to eat it myself! You shouldn’t freak out too much over natural preservatives and ethoxyquin (an antioxidant used as a preservative). There hasn’t been any known health risk to dogs and cats, and it’s even found in human foods.”

Feeding Tips
Once you’ve purchased your puppy’s food, it seems it would be simple to feed him -- just open the bag and pour, right? But take as much care in feeding your pup as you do in selecting the right food.

Measure portion sizes, avoid letting him graze between mealtimes, offer fresh water, and don’t mix things such as cottage cheese, egg or hamburger in with your puppy’s chow.

Buy the right food and follow proper feeding requirements, and your puppy’s food will meet all its dietary needs.


Are You Prepared for Dog Emergencies?

We take CPR lessons before our first child is born, and water safety classes before we learn to sail. We know preparation makes all the difference in an emergency. That’s true when it comes to your dog too.

Knowing what to do in common dog emergencies can determine whether or not a dog survives. Increasingly, dog owners are educating themselves through dog-oriented first-aid classes, such as those sponsored by the American Red Cross, which also sells a dog first-aid manual. Visit to order the manual or to find a class in your area.

Pet Tech -- a Carlsbad, Calif., company -- also offers pet first-aid classes around the country. “We teach you how to be proactive in your pet’s health,” explains owner Thom Somes. Visit for more information about Pet Tech classes and the Pet Tech smartphone app, which offers first-aid information.

A Guide to Common Scenarios
More often than not, our dogs get into trouble in predictable ways. Here’s a look at some common difficulties -- and tips to produce the best possible outcome.

Scenario No. 1: Your dog storms through the baby gate and into your bathroom. Before you can even move a slippered foot, he jumps on the countertop and scarfs down the ibuprofen you were about to swallow to ease your back pain. Should you be worried?
What You Should Do: A single dose of ibuprofen (often packaged as Advil or Motrin), tranquilizers, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or even a birth control pill won’t hurt your curious friend. Multiple doses, however, could be problematic. Call a veterinarian immediately if he chews more than one pill. The ASPCA also operates a 24/7 animal poison-related emergency hotline at 888-426-4435. (You might be charged a $65 consultation fee.)

Scenario No. 2: Lucky, your Border Collie, couldn’t help himself: He had to chase the neighbor’s Volvo. But he got hit this time. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be hurt. Is veterinary assistance required?
What You Should Do: Your dog needs to be checked by a veterinarian, as many injuries aren’t immediately obvious. Of course, breathing difficulties are especially critical. So if your dog appears to be having any trouble inhaling, go to your vet or an emergency clinic ASAP.

Scenario No. 3: You’re camping and you take your dog on a romp. He loses his ball and goes to search for it in the thick brush, returning to you with a deep gash on his leg. Is it important to head back to the lodge?
What You Should Do: If the cut continues to bleed after a half hour or if his gums are pale (pale gums indicate excessive blood loss), you’ll need to seek medical attention.

Scenario No. 4: Your dog was so interested in the new dog next door that he tried to jump your privacy fence to get to her. Now, he’s limping. Do you allow him to learn a love lesson, or take him in to be checked?
What You Should Do: If his limp goes away immediately or soon after the incident, he’s probably fine. But if he refuses to put pressure on it or if the leg looks like it is bent out of shape, contact your dog’s health care provider.

Scenario No. 5: Your aunt Georgia says your Miniature Pinscher looks skinny and gives her several pieces of Godiva chocolate. Are they a threat to his health? 
What You Should Do: That depends on what kind of chocolate your aunt gave your dog and how much your dog ate. The darker it is, the more dangerous for canines. Only 1 ounce of baking chocolate is toxic to a 10-pound dog, though he can get away with consuming 10 ounces of milk chocolate. (He still might suffer from severe tummy troubles.) You shouldn’t guess. Always call your vet and report what you’ve seen.

Scenario No. 6: You’re playing catch with your dog and he keeps missing the ball, despite your detailed tutelage. Then he finally catches it -- but it goes down his throat. Does he need to see the vet?
What You Should Do: Most dogs yak up anything that gets stuck in their mouths, but on occasion their airways can become obstructed. If he doesn’t seem to be able to breathe, or if his breathing is labored, take him immediately to an emergency clinic. Never try to yank out the object, as it might get pushed further down the airway.

Emergencies are never planned. But since they do happen, it is important that you know how to handle them. Furthermore, you can prepare for the worst dog emergencies by programming your vet’s number into your cell phone and printing out directions to his office -- as well as a map to the after-hours clinic -- and keeping them in the glove compartment of your car. After all, you never know when a squirrel will fight back.

Do Dogs Need Vitamin Supplements?

People are crazy about vitamins. Open up medicine cabinets around the world, and no matter the culture, you’ll often find an entire alphabet soup of products designed to round out our diets. So do dogs need vitamins as well?

You might think what is good for us will work for our dogs. But quality dog food is carefully balanced to fulfill all of your dog’s nutritional needs. Scientists have proven that additives often interfere with the balanced nutrition in dog food. In fact, they can stop the absorption of some important nutrients, leaving your dog with an upset stomach or even skeletal problems.

“As we all know from studying our own health, it’s not just the amount of vitamins that we take that matter; it’s the quality of the nutrients and the proper balance of vitamins and minerals that make the difference,” explains Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. “When a food has been deemed balanced, then that means that vitamins and supplements are already added to the food. Giving additional vitamins can greatly throw off the proper ratio.”

The Thinking Behind Vitamin Supplements
We humans take vitamins because our modern-day meals often don’t include all we need to stay healthy. We also eat a variety of foods instead of a single item. We’re therefore sometimes tempted to add a dollop of yogurt to a bowl of dog food because we think it will make for a shiny coat. Or we ladle on a bit of gravy to increase palatability or add variety.

Nelson cautions that you’ll be doing your dog a disservice if you supplement his meal with human foods. “People food and other things purported to give shiny coats often contain large amounts of fat and possibly sodium and other unhealthy ingredients,” she says. “Highly fatty foods not only can cause weight gain, but they can also lead to health problems as simple as vomiting and diarrhea, all the way to severe issues like pancreatitis.”

Don’t worry about variety, says Nelson. Simply feed your dog what is healthiest for him. “Dogs are scavengers,” she explains. “Their taste buds are not necessarily sophisticated. Think about it: If your dog will eat rotten meat from the trash, the nuggets out of the litter box, and chase it all down with a little muddy water from a puddle, do you really think their palates are all that discerning?”

Good Minerals Gone Bad
Certain foods given to dogs in excess can produce adverse results. For example, meat contains 20 to 40 times more phosphorus than calcium, but your dog’s body needs a specific ratio of phosphorus and calcium to keep him healthy. Therefore, your dog’s system will attempt to right that ratio by stealing calcium from his bones.

Dogs, like the rest of us, need a balanced diet to thrive. Lucky for you, you don’t need to do anything more than open your pooch’s bag of food and pour. If you want to play chef, cook for your mother-in-law. She’ll probably appreciate it more than your pup.

Is Your Dog Obese?

Amy L. Fiedler has no doubt her Pomeranian needs to lose weight. And while a couple of pounds may not sound like a lot, it’s one-quarter of his total body weight!

Fiedler suspects her overindulgent parents were sneaking their grandpup human food -- a no-no -- when they puppy-sat each evening. So now she packs carefully measured bags of dog food dinners and the occasional snack pack for her dog’s stays with her parents. That careful diet, along with regular trips around Fiedler’s large backyard, is helping her Pomeranian manage his weight.

Just like humans, more dogs these days could stand to trim down a bit. The fourth annual Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) study, released in February, found that an alarming 55 percent of dogs are overweight or obese. Since the organization began its surveys in 2007, the number of obese dogs has steadily increased. A dog is considered obese if his weight is 30 percent above the ideal.

If your dog is obese or even simply overweight, you’ll find it more difficult to enjoy outings and adventures together. But more important is the fact that overweight and obese dogs suffer more health problems and may live shorter lives.

Evaluate Your Dog’s Weight
So how do you know if your dog could stand to lose some weight? Before you begin a weight-loss plan, make sure your hunch is correct by assessing him. Don’t depend upon “average” sizes for his breed to determine whether or not he is obese, as a dog’s individual height and bone structure must factor into the equation. Instead, try to objectively look at him. Place your hands on either side of his rib cage and carefully run your palms along it:

  • If his ribs are protruding, he’s too thin.
  • If you can feel his ribs individually and his abdomen is slightly tucked up when you view him, he’s at a good weight. “If you stand over your dog and look down at his body outline from an aerial view, the abdomen should narrow before the hips, not be in a continuous line,” explains Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a Knoxville, Tenn., veterinarian and a regular blogger for Exceptional Canine.
  • If you can’t discern his ribs easily, or if he lacks a waist and his belly drags, he needs help.

If you have doubts, your veterinarian can help you assess your dog’s weight. You can also find a helpful chart to score your dog’s shape on the APOP website.

The Cause of Canine Obesity
The same variables that cause people to pack on pounds can contribute to a dog’s weight gain. Your dog may eat more calories than he burns. He might not get enough exercise. Does he indulge in too many doggie treats? In addition, as your dog ages, his metabolism can naturally slow.

But dealing with your dog’s weight problem needn’t be painful. Premium dog food brands offer formulas that maintain a proper ratio of protein, fat and fiber and allow your dog to feel full -- without overeating. Some foods also contain the nutrient L-carnitine, which can help your dog's body burn fat into energy. And finding ways for your dog to increase his activity levels will simply mean more time together.

Look for our veterinary expert Dewhirst’s recipe for weight loss in her Exceptional Canine blog next month.