A few days ago I told Jim that we needed to cut down on Tootsie’s food because she was getting pudgy. Easy and obvious, right? Dog getting fat, feed less food. Less obvious, but equally important, is that if we cut back too much on her food she might not get the level of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that she needs for optimal health. As a couch potato dog, she needs not just less food than my active, working sheepdogs, but different food altogether. That isn’t earth shattering news to most of us either, but what IS new—refreshingly so—is a readable, fact-filled book that explains exactly what “different” should mean. That important piece of information comes from Linda Case’s book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, published by Dogwise. I haven’t even finished the book, but I am already a huge fan. One caveat: This is NOT a book that tells you how to home cook for your dog. It indeed has a thoughtful section on feeding raw versus cooked, but the book’s strength is in helping those of us who still use at least some commercial foods, no matter how niche-friendly or expensive, instead of being the sole provider of food for our dogs. (Even if you do cook for your dogs, I suspect you’ll learn a lot by reading this book.)
Linda Case is canine nutritionist, dog trainer and science writer, with a warm and breezy writing style that is chock full of information without being as dry as an old bag of kibble. Full confession: When I first picked this book up I wasn’t thrilled with it. Too much chatting about things that didn’t feel all that relevant to me. Where was the editor, anyway? As I was impatiently thumbing through the book I realized that what I wanted from it was simple. “What should I feed my dog, Linda? Please answer this question in two or three paragraphs.” Ha! Imagine my amusement when one of the blurbs on the back of the book begins by saying “Don’t read this book if you want someone to tell you what to feed your dog.”
Okay, take a breath. I looked at the Table of Contents and found (A ha!) Appendix 5—Choosing Smart: A Dog Food Choice Flow Chart. It’s worth the price of the book by itself, because it tells you what questions you need to ask and answer before deciding on a food. For example, not just “how active” is your dog, but how frequent is the activity and how intense? What ingredients do you want to include? Exclude? Why? What is the scientific evidence that supports your attitude about any particular ingredient?
After reading through the Flow Chart I was hooked. I looked again at the Table of Contents and selected an especially relevant chapter: “Canine Athlete or Couch Potato?” I have two of the former and one of the latter, and the sheepdogs are working especially hard right now, while Tootsie, the 9 year-old Cavalier, is doing less and less. I should insert a confession here: I’ve always been someone whose eyes began to glaze as soon as I read something like ME requirement = 95 x (kg to 0.75th power) = kcal ME/day. I can’t explain that, because I thought algebra was a great game and calculus was next to godliness, but for some reason the math related to nutrition has always left me cold. But along came Linda (cue the white horse) and within a few minutes she had me running downstairs to check how many calories per cup is in my dog’s kibble. (I am not going to bore you with exactly what my dogs eat, but I will say it is a combination of a high protein, high fat, fish-based kibble, commercial canned food, cooked organic vegetables, and selected additions or substitutions of eggs, meat, etc.)
It turns out that the kibble I feed my dogs has 417 kcal/cup, which is a good caloric load for dogs who work relative hard (they often work sheep twice a day, and although the sessions are short, it is very, very hard work.) Tootsie, on the other hand, could be doing well on food that has only 2/3 of the calories per cup, which means I could feed her more food and ensure that she was getting the level of other ingredients that she needed. But, of course, the decision of what food is best for her shouldn’t be based on “active” or “not-active” or “complete and balanced,” or just about anything else on the package we’ve all learned to ignore on the front of the package. (Linda lists some great, meaningless phrases, like “Protein-focused nutrition!” What does that mean?) What is most important, related to activity levels, is the amount of calories per cup, and percentage of fat and protein. She includes a chart (oooh, I love the charts!) that list 12 brands of food marketed for “active” dogs. Look at the range of percentage of ingredients: The Kcal/cup ranges from 382 to 475, the protein content from 26 to 40% and the fat content from 12—eeps! too low!—to 25%). For those of you with working dogs, Linda cites a study done by Shay Hill on working sheepdogs, and found that a diet high in protein and fat but low in digestible carbohydrate was best for them. Note, however, that the “working dog” I got to know best in New Zealand, where the study was done, ran behind our four-wheeler for about 4 miles and THEN went to work herding sheep. These dogs were awesomely fit and redefined what “working dog” means to me forever after.)
The next chapter I bounced to “What’s So Special About a Dog’s Nutritional Needs,” where we are reminded to pay no attention to the word “no fillers!” in advertising. It means nothing.), then the chapter titled “Age Matters.”(Please don’t feed a large-breed puppy regular “maintenance” adult food in order to prevent structural problems later on in life. Food made specifically for large-breed puppies contains fewer calories/cup and reduced calcium, all modifications that have good, solid science behind them.)
I haven’t finished the book yet, although I now admit to having to force myself away from the book to feed the dogs (oh the irony) and write this blog. I’ve done a complete 180 from “argh, this book needs to be shortened” to “can I please just stop the world so that I can finish reading this book?” I will admit that a bit of editing might still be in order, especially in the beginning. (I found myself wanting to edit the blurbs down by half.) But I am now a huge fan of this book. Ms. Case has waded through the beliefs, prejudices and passions of dog lovers, along with the best and worst of dog food company research and marketing, with an objective but benevolent eye. We all owe her a debt of thanks, along with Dogwise for publishing it. Now, can I go back to reading it? I can’t wait to read “Pet Food Marketing (Where Science Goes to Die)”.
If you’re interested in other pieces I’ve written on food and diet, go to the Reading Room on my website and dig in. Meanwhile, have you read Dog Food Logic yet? What did you think? Another question: Why do you think what we feed our dogs is such an emotional issue for some people? (Linda has an answer, but I’m curious about your response.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Two and a half inches of rain this morning. That is hard to report to those of you in the drought-stressed western U.S. (other countries? Australia?), but it was welcome here. We had a month or so without rain, and things were getting really dry. We might have needed the rain, but it’s been so hot and humid that it’s been damp outside all week. This weekend it was sprinkling and Jim suggested that I stop gardening and come inside and I said “What’s the difference? It feels equally wet out here whether it’s raining or not raining.” Our downstairs bathroom is a collage of wet and muddy clothing; it seems I changed clothes three times a day this weekend, and took an endless amount of showers. The Border Collies and I work early morning or just before dark, and either way, it’s still feels like a sauna.
The farm kept us busy this weekend with gardening, farming (mowing the pasture, cleaning out water tanks), moving busted up cement to make a new wall behind the house, training sheep dogs (Willie on longer outruns, Maggie learning to flank off balance) and food, food, food. Our CSA is providing us with a bounty of vegetables, so much so that sometimes I look in the frig and groan. Last night the only groaning was over a tomato pie. It was yummy, and just as important, it used up 3 whole tomatoes. Whoo hooo! (This time of year I judge recipes by how much corn/tomato/onion/zucchini they use. One that uses at least 3 of those ingredients is a blue ribbon winner.) We also tried, for the 4th time, to kill the two ground wasp nests that are most likely to get us stung. (I’m on sting #2, and it was a doozy. Looks like it might be time for an epi-pen.) We tried 3 doses of super soapy water (lots of detergent + hose stuck into the hole at night) and one dose of commercial wasp killer (hate using it, but there are times one has to bite the bullet). Every morning the wasps come streaming out as if we’d given them magic wasp food. Now there is also a new nest in the pasture. Yesterday Maggie must have stumbled over it while working the sheep and suddenly they began biting at her flanks. I ran over to her and saw that several wasps were working themselves down into her fur. I finally got them out, (and I don’t think she got stung) but they chased us for 30 yards or so. It’s one thing to be stung by them (usually only if you get close to their nest, but that is unavoidable in some cases), but it’s another to watch them attack your dog. Game on Yellow Jackets, game on.
One last thing, from the zoologist in me: Please don’t call them ground bees. Bees are very different than wasps, and only sting you if they have little choice. Most bees die if they sting you, while wasps can sting you repeatedly and are much, much more aggressive. I love bees, worked with them in graduate school, and feel the need to defend them constantly, because everyone keeps calling Yellow Jacket wasps “bees.” Poor things. Okay, thanks, I feel better now.
Here’s the last of the tomato pie: I thought I could get several meals out of it, but this is all that was left from last night. Please no one analyze the calories per cup versus the amount of exercise I got today. (4 walks up the long, steep hill and 4 sessions working dogs–but I did not run behind a four-wheeler for four miles first. Just so you know.)