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The Ultimutt Q&A on Designer Diets for Dogs

Approx. 17 minutes read

Dogs – like people – have basic nutritional requirements that their daily diet needs to fulfil. We’ve laid down the paw with our (Almost) Complete Guide to Dog Nutritional Requirements, which informs dog owners like you about what your furry friend should be eating for good health and a long, happy life. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to choose the best dog food for your dog’s needs and voila! – healthy, happy, active pup!

But sometimes life throws a spanner in the works and your dog’s health determines that her nutritional requirements need to change. In this instance (and with the guidance of your veterinarian), you’ll need a designer diet based on your dog’s medical needs. Your pup may be taking medicine and having vet check-ups to keep her healthy, but you’ll see why it’s critical that she eats the optimal designer diet to maintain her health – no matter what challenges she may be facing.

Q: What are designer diets for dogs?

A: Designer diets are specially designed dog food recipes that are created to meet a dog’s specific dietary needs. For example, a sensitive tummy may require a grain free diet for dogs; an upside-down gut may need the bland diet. A diabetic dog needs to eat dog food that won’t spike their blood sugar – ideally consisting of high-quality protein, low levels of carbohydrates and low fat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a dog with renal issues will need a low-protein diet to ensure their kidneys don’t work too hard processing amino acids from proteins. Read on for more detail.

Each designer diet is planned with the dog’s individual health challenges in mind; with the intention to offer maximum nutritional benefit without causing more harm in the process. Your dog still needs to eat and thrive – even if she’s got a health condition.

Q: What do you feed a dog with arthritis?

A: Many dogs will experience arthritis (also referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD)) either in old age or even prematurely. It involves the breaking down of the cushioning between their joints, making their joints inflamed and very painful, which affects their mobility. Arthritis cannot be cured or reversed, but diet and supplements can slow down the progressive damage to the cartilage.

An arthritis diet for dogs will focus on two things:

  • eliminating inflammatory foods
  • including supplements to stimulate cartilage repair and improve joint health

The arthritis diet should be packed with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fibre, coconut oil, lean protein and healing herbs like turmeric, ginger and cinnamon. Lean protein can include chicken and fish, while fish will also give dogs a heap of joint-lubricating fish oil.

The arthritis diet should exclude inflammation-causing foods such as grains (rice, wheat, soy), corn (in corn-sensitive dogs, this can cause inflammation), high-fat proteins, as well as indiscriminate snacking. High sugar and salt can negatively contribute to your dog’s inflammation levels, so rather leave out the low-quality snacks and give your dog a treat that will contribute towards her healing. The pawfect treats for arthritic dogs include natural snacks such as beef trachea, chicken necks and chicken feet, which are packed with collagen and cartilage.

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Omega-6 fatty acids are somewhat controversial for arthritic dogs. They are beneficial for dogs in general, but any excess omega-6s can cause inflammation in the body, which is terrible for arthritic dogs. Omega-3s are meant to balance this out, but it’s impawtant to be aware of what could be triggering your dog’s arthritis.

Supplements can be added to a dog’s arthritis diet – the best supplements for arthritis are glucosamine and chondroitin, as well as green-lipped mussel extract and MSM. These come already mixed into dog food for joint problems, or you can purchase them separately to add to your arthritic dog’s meals.

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Dogs with arthritis should NOT be allowed to gain weight. Manage their body condition to ensure no extra stress is placed on their already painful joints.

Q: What do you feed a dog with diabetes?

A: Diabetes in dogs is very serious because they have no way of telling us how they feel when their blood sugar is too high or low. Along with a diagnosis and treatment plan from your vet, your furry friend will also need a diabetic dog diet plan. Feeding your dog a healthy diabetic diet relies on high-quality proteins for slow-release energy, and low-fat, low-carbohydrate foods with extra fibre to help stabilise her blood sugar.

Two other mechanisms that go hand-in-paw with a low-carb diabetic diet are sufficient water (since dogs with diabetes experience excessive thirst and may pee a lot) as well as regular exercise. Exercise will keep your diabetic dog fit and healthy, and it helps to keep her weight under control while also stabilising her blood sugar.

No matter how much information you gather from Pet Hero and/or Google, remember that your diabetic pup will have unique needs when it comes to her individual condition, so always follow your veterinarian’s guidelines and recommendations.

Q: What do you feed a dog with epilepsy?

A: We’ve covered this topic in detail in another article: What not to feed dogs with epilepsy or diabetes, which discusses why certain foods are not good for our canine companions with epilepsy.

While some macronutrients and other supplemental ingredients may be beneficial for healthy dogs, they can be downright dangerous for dogs with epilepsy. This is why it’s so important for pet pawrents of dogs with epilepsy to very strictly follow a dog epilepsy diet with their furry friend.

The epilepsy diet focuses on healthy proteins that are low in the amino acid, glutamate. Low-glutamate proteins include grass-fed beef, lamb, and oily fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs found in coconut oil) as well as animal fats are essential for an epileptic dog’s brain and body health. Glutamate occurs naturally in grains, soy, corn and rice, so a grain-free diet for dogs would be a good option. It’s also recommended to avoid preservatives, flavourants and colourants in your epileptic dog’s food. Ask your veterinarian to give you a detailed list of what to include and avoid in your dog’s epilepsy-friendly diet.

Q: What do you feed a dog with stomach ulcers?

A: You’d think that a dog’s life doesn’t come with the kind of stress that causes stomach ulcers, but some dogs are just high anxiety canines who need extra help calming down. Stomach ulcers can also be caused by certain medications like anti-inflammatories or corticosteroids, mast cell cancer, poisoning or injury. Once your veterinarian has determined the presence of a stomach ulcer, your poor pup may need a change in her food while the ulcer heals and/or her other medical issues have been resolved.

This is where a bland diet for dogs with ulcers is highly beneficial, as it comprises easily digestible ingredients that help to soothe your dog’s tummy while she still enjoys good nutrition. Skinless chicken breast meat is a wonderful lean protein to include in the bland diet. While rice has often been given along with chicken, rice is a grain, which can trigger allergic dogs. Rice needs to be overcooked if it’s included in the bland diet, but it’s pawfectly okay to leave it out altogether and feed your dog an alternative carbohydrate like soft, skinless sweet potato or bland, boiled pumpkin puree.

Q: How do you help an overweight dog to lose weight?

A: Dog obesity is quite a sensitive subject because you as pet owner are completely responsible for what goes ‘down the hatch’ when it comes to your dog’s eating habits. But if you’ve recognised your dog’s need to lose weight, it doesn’t have to be a difficult road – just a consistent one. Pudgy pups can suffer from a range of obesity-related health problems such as fatty liver, joint pain, pancreatitis, difficulty breathing and even a reduced lifespan. They need a specially-formulated metabolic diet for dogs as well as regular exercise and lots of activities to prevent boredom. Hunger + boredom = a frustrated and even depressed dog.

The metabolic diet does a few beneficial things: it delivers low-density energy (is low-calorie food), enough fibre to help your dog feel fuller for longer, while also helping her to burn more fat. Just like humans trying to lose weight, dogs can go through the same experience: lethargy, frustration and constant hunger. A beneficial metabolic diet for dogs will help to alleviate these issues and ensure a happier, more energetic pup while she’s dropping her excess weight, and exercising her way back to a healthy, happy hound.

Q: Can a keto diet help my overweight dog to lose weight?

A: Briefly, the ketogenic diet helps the body to shift from burning glucose/glycogen (from carbohydrates) to burning fat (ketosis) to supply its energy needs. People on a ketogenic diet eat very little by way of carbohydrates, which have to only come from vegetables (so no bread, pasta, biscuits or wheat of any kind), moderate levels of proteins, and high fat. When their bodies go into fat-burning ketosis, they lose weight because their fat reserves are used for energy.

There is currently more research being done on the benefits of a keto diet for dogs – both to help them lose weight and to help manage diseases like epilepsy, diabetes, cancer and canine dementia in old age. If this diet comprises moderate protein and high fat, we assume it’s close to a dog’s ancestral diet. But keep in mind that there are around 40,000 years of evolution and about 300 years of modern dog development in between then and now. This means that not all dogs will automatically benefit from being on a high-fat, low-carb diet just because they are dogs. However, it’s promising that more research is being done into the specific benefits of the ketogenic diet for dogs. The results of a small study published in the 2015 British Journal of Nutrition showed the positive effects of a ketogenic diet reducing seizure activity in epileptic dogs. These dogs also did not gain weight on this high-fat diet, but…

Overweight dogs have a higher risk of pancreatitis, which means the ketogenic diet is not appropriate for them, since pancreatitis is triggered by fatty foods. Many veterinarians are still sceptical about the long-term effects of a high-fat diet on dogs, including complications like gastrointestinal upset (constipation or diarrhoea), lethargy and potential nutrient deficiencies. Get your veterinarian’s advice on your dog’s weight loss and discuss keto as one of your options. They should be able to provide you with more information, especially relating to your specific dog’s condition.

Q: What dogs need a low-protein diet?

A: Some dogs are prone to kidney problems or genetic conditions that affect the proper development of the kidneys (this may be prevalent in breeds like the foxhound, Bracco Italiano, shar-pei, basenji and shih tzu, among others). When kidney disease, bladder stones, or liver disease become a problem, it’s vital to take a load off of these organs so that they don’t have to work so hard. The kidneys and liver are responsible for metabolising proteins, so by reducing the dog’s protein intake, their internal organs aren’t overtaxed and their risk of prematurely going into failure is minimised.

A low protein diet for dogs should never be taken lightly and you must consult with your veterinarian about a low-protein diet as part of your dog’s treatment for chronic kidney or liver problems. Healthy dogs would normally eat around 25% protein in their diet, whereas the loosely-termed ‘dog kidney failure diet’ calls for around 15 – 20% protein. If the dog has liver disease, their protein intake should be even less (around 10 – 15%). Dog foods for dogs with renal problems are usually prescribed and should be followed under your vet’s supervision. A low-protein diet should only be followed as part of your dog’s medical treatment – it is not advised for healthy dogs and a lot of damage can be done by unnecessarily reducing a dog’s protein intake.

Since chronic kidney and liver disease cannot be cured, you may be tempted to follow a homemade renal diet for dogs as part of your dog’s nutritional management strategy. Whether you choose prescribed pet food or a homemade diet, always follow your vet’s advice and help them to better understand your dog’s condition and habits by keeping a diary of your dog’s appetite and symptoms.

When is a high-protein diet good for dogs?

Under normal circumstances, all dogs need a lot of protein in their diet for healthy growth and functioning. It’s not just about building muscle to support their daily activities, but protein is also essential for maintaining strong bones, wound healing, optimal nerve functioning, shiny coat and healthy skin, and for protecting internal organs.

A high protein diet for dogs is especially beneficial during puppies’ growth spurt between the age of a few weeks old to 18 months old. This is a time of extremely rapid development for which puppies need amino acids from high-quality proteins to support their growth into healthy young dogs. A high-protein diet is also good for pregnant and lactating bitches, giving them all the right nutrients to support their own nutritional needs while growing their babies and producing enough healthy milk for their nursing litter. Dogs who herd livestock all day long or compete in agility competitions have very high energy needs and can benefit from a high-protein diet to keep them energised, repair and maintain muscles, and keep their brains functioning at optimal levels.

Older dogs also need a high-protein diet to help them maintain lean muscle. Be wary of giving them too much protein, though, as ageing kidneys may not be able to handle it too well. This highlights the fact that, even for younger dogs, there is such a thing as too much protein for dogs’ needs. When dogs’ bodies are overloaded with protein, it puts a lot of strain on their liver and kidneys, and it can also affect their bone development. Generally, normal dog diets should contain no less than 18% protein, and most adult dog foods offer between 20 and 25% protein. Growing puppies’ life stage food should contain around 27-29% protein, after which their protein should be appropriately reduced to meet their daily nutritional needs.

Q: What should dogs with heart disease eat?

A: There are many dog breeds known for their susceptibility to cardiomyopathy (heart disease characterised by a weakened heart muscle) and other cardiovascular diseases. These diseases are usually progressive – meaning that they can go undetected for years until the heart begins to falter and fail, and other symptoms present, leading to a diagnosis of heart disease. Cardiomyopathy in dogs can be managed with medication and diet, but it cannot be reversed, and can eventually lead to congestive heart failure. Dogs diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy may still have many months to years ahead of them, but changing their diet and lifestyle is critical to preserving their quality of life.

When a heart problem is diagnosed, it’s imperative to implement a low sodium diet for dogs, since salt intake has a direct effect on blood pressure. Salt also causes water retention, so by lowering a dog’s salt intake, it reduces the workload on the heart’s already compromised capacity. Other aspects of the congestive heart failure diet for dogs include:

  • high protein, low fat – while the protein helps to maintain the dog’s muscle mass, a low-fat diet will help to keep the dog at a desirable weight (since added weight can worsen the dog’s heart condition)
  • omega-3 fatty acids – these help the heart with their anti-inflammatory effect
  • high antioxidants, vitamin E – protect the heart
  • taurine, L-carnitine – support heart function

It’s impawtant to work with a veterinarian when managing a dog’s heart health through diet and lifestyle changes. The vet will recommend which supplements and dietary changes are most needed – depending on what type of heart disease is affecting the dog and at what stage she may be.

Q: What do you feed a dog with teeth problems?

A: By the age of three years old, up to 90% of dogs will experience periodontal disease – or at least some form of it. No matter how good their teeth look on the outside, the culprit in periodontal disease – plaque – occurs beneath the gumline and is not visible until it starts affecting the teeth and gums directly. Small breed dogs are more susceptible to dental issues because they have a normal number of teeth stuffed into their small mouths, so over-crowding can compromise their dental health.

The best diet for small dogs is one that takes small breeds’ dental condition into consideration. It should offer kibble that’s shaped and sized to provide optimal chewing without leaving too much debris to get stuck in the multitude of tiny spaces between their many teeth. Dental dog food is formulated to contain ingredients that support dental health, such as chelated calcium, which keeps tartar at bay. Keep in mind, however, that dental diet dog food is not a substitute for having a proper dental hygiene routine in place. You should brush your dog’s teeth every day and make sure you are feeding them the best dog food for their teeth and for their health in general.

Q: My dog has cancer. What should she eat?

A: Cancer in dogs is not a death sentence. Not only have many canine cancer treatments been proven to be effective, but dog nutritionists, veterinarians and pet pawrents have discovered that the secret to assisting a dog with cancer can be found in their food bowl. As with cancer in humans, so too is cancer in dogs treated on a case-by-case basis. One thing that has been found to be universal is that carbohydrates feed cancers, so the first place to begin when managing your dog’s cancer is to lower the amount of carbs she eats and then to focus on healthy fats, proteins and plenty of antioxidants.

Dog cancer diet recipes all have one thing in common: food is treated as medicine, not just part of your dog’s daily routine. Working alongside your veterinarian and the prescribed cancer treatment on offer to your dog, think about her food as a boost or an assistant to the cancer treatment. For example:

  • Restrict simple carbohydrates in your dog’s diet – that means, no rice, sugars, high-GI fruit, bread or anything that would normally spike your dog’s blood sugar.
  • Include high-quality proteins – this would be meats like chicken, turkey, pork, eggs, and fish, which are somewhat fatty (for energy), but still offer your dog enough good protein to support her muscle maintenance and normal body functioning.
    • Be aware that some dogs may have cancer and reduced kidney function, in which case, protein will need to be restricted. Always follow your veterinarian’s advice.
  • Focus on omega-3 fatty acids – the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties of omega-3s are highly beneficial to dogs, especially those receiving chemo and radiation treatments. Omega-3s offer an immune boost that will come in handy to canine cancer patients whose immunity may be low due to illness and chemotherapy.
  • Feed plenty of beneficial fruits and vegetables – some fruits are high in antioxidants (strawberries, apples, oranges, blueberries), as are vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, asparagus, baby marrow and sweet potato. Green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach are also packed with essential vitamins and minerals, which are great for cancer patients. Vegetables are not easily broken down by a dog’s digestive process, so it’s beneficial to cook veggies until they are soft in order for your dog to digest the most nutrients from them.
  • Add herbs and spices – turmeric is known for its anti-oxidant properties; ginger root, fresh garlic (minced), basil, parsley, and oregano are also some great anti-cancer natural herbs and additives to give your dog’s immunity a boost.

There is a lot of research and veterinary assistance required before you jump right in and manage your dog’s cancer treatment with her diet. However, it’s important to understand that it can be done effectively and that dog owners have experienced great results using food as cancer medicine alongside their veterinarian’s treatment protocol.

Q: Is a raw diet healthy for a dog?

A: We’ve all heard the popular belief that dogs should eat a raw diet because that’s what their wolf ancestors would have survived on in the wild. Did their wolf ancestors all live long and healthy lives, get their rabies shots, enjoy treat time after walkies, and sleep on the couch too? Modern-day dogs are not wild wolves. Their nutritional needs are different because their lifestyles could not be more opposite each other on the spectrum of canine function. That being said, there are benefits to the raw diet for dogs, but there are also very real dangers.

The hypothetical benefits of a raw diet would be that your dog is getting all the nutrients of fresh meat, organs and bones with none of the preservatives used to keep commercial dog food fresh in the bag. However, unless you’re a canine nutritionist, there’s a very real danger that your dog will not get the right balance of vitamins and minerals, nor the right ratio of macronutrients from a raw diet.

The biggest danger of feeding your dog a raw diet is the risk of bacterial infection from listeria, E. coli and salmonella, which can be life-threatening and are easily transferred to humans too. A cooked diet for dogs is the best way to remove any potentially dangerous microbes from your dog’s food bowl. However, when it comes to bones – which form a major part of the raw diet for dogs – cooking bones just makes them more dangerous! Even raw bones can crack or break your dog’s teeth; bones can splinter and injure your dog’s mouth, oesophagus and stomach, and can perforate their bowel. Bones are best kept away from domestic dogs – with or without supervision! There are plenty of safe and durable substitutes if your dog needs something to chew.

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A few raw vegetables won’t do any harm to your dog’s digestive system, but even so, plant nutrients are more accessible to humans and dogs when the vegetables have been softened and are more easily digested. If you are interested in the merits of a raw diet for your dog, speak to your veterinarian and ask for their guidance in the best way to meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

Q: Can dogs be vegan?

A: The question about dogs eating a vegan diet has the ability to instantly polarise pet owners into two camps: for and against. The simple answer to whether dogs can eat a vegan diet (free of all animal meat proteins and byproducts like eggs and dairy) is yes… but. Feeding dogs a vegan diet has its benefits and some studies have shown that dogs on a vegan food regimen can live longer than dogs on a meat-based diet. However, their diet needs to be heavily supplemented to ensure they are getting all their nutritional requirements met.

Dogs have evolved to be omnivorous – meaning that they thrive on meat and plant material, but they need both in order for their bodies to function optimally. When dogs have food allergies, they are most often allergic to an animal protein such as beef, chicken, eggs or dairy (as well as wheat and soy) – or a combination thereof. In these instances, it may seem like a safer option to feed the dog a vegetarian or vegan diet, but then a few conditions need to be met.

According to Board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist Dr Caitlin Heinze (who is also an expert in home-cooked pet diets for medically compromised pets), dogs can eat a vegan diet, but it needs to be very carefully designed by a pet nutritionist to ensure it meets their nutritional needs.

Dogs on a vegan diet are most susceptible to:

  • protein deficiencies (they need at least 18% complete proteins in their diet, but optimally it should be 25%)
  • not getting the right balance of protein and fats
  • deficiencies in essential proteins like keratin (for skin and hair health), collagen (for connective tissue and joint health) and elastin (for ligament, arterial and organ health)
  • vitamin and mineral deficiencies (specifically B-vitamins, iron, calcium and phosphorus, which are found in animal protein)
  • an imbalance of amino acids that mostly affects their internal organs and can lead to heart problems

Vegan dog diets need to be supplemented with vitamin B-12, taurine and L-carnitine, which are essential for brain, heart and metabolic function, and are naturally found in meat. Deficiencies in these vitamins and compounds can severely compromise a dog’s health.

DO NOT FEED GROWING PUPPIES A VEGAN DIET. Growing puppies need all the essential vitamins and nutrients from a complete diet, including meat, fats, fibre, omega-3s, and the right balance of minerals for optimal growth.

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