For Susan Lauten, a pet nutrition consultant in Knoxville, the problem of poor diet in dogs starts with a perfectly natural human impulse.
"It's in our nature to think that you can't possibly just open a bag of dog food and it be the best you can do," she says. "Everybody feels like they have to add something, and then they feel better because they did."
The problem, say Lauten and other experts on the issue, is that we tend to feed our pets the same way we eat, which results in large numbers of both humans and pets being overweight. As always, it comes down to portion control, exercise, not enough balance, and too many starches and sugars.
Richard Patton, another nutrition consultant and the author of several books, explains it in a historical context: "All mammals, including our pets, are exquisitely honed by evolution to deal with the environment they found themselves in, where food was very low in starch and sugar. It was about 10,000 years ago, which is just a few minutes in evolutionary time. The agricultural revolution meant that there's a lot of sugar and starch available."
To get just a little technical, Patton says a proper mammal diet would have about 6 to 7 percent soluble carbohydrates, but typical dry kibble pet food has about 40 percent. So a diet of only dry kibble greatly raises the risk of obesity.
It doesn't help that the pet food industry is now a $50 billion business, meaning that large, profit-driven corporations are in on the game and might not care as much about balance and quality.
Shawn McGhee of Hollywood Feed in Memphis says it's "a bit overwhelming to wrap your head around" the variety of choices. "The number of brands is enormous, but there's a lack of transparency about what is actually in the product." Hollywood Feed, he says, doesn't sell "99 percent of the grocery-store brands."
So what should we feed Fido? McGhee says he starts with age, size, and overall health. An old dog shouldn't eat the way a puppy eats, for example. Then there are the "add something" and table scraps impulses, which Lauten and Patton both applaud, with reservations.
"If you're eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and giving a standard percentage of it to your dog, that dog will be fed quite correctly," Patton says. "If you're using the dog as a cleanup for all the carbs you're leaving behind, it isn't going to work. You want to give him pork chop bones, some vegetables, and maybe a corner of your hamburger."
Again going to a historical reference, Patton points out that "coyotes have been eating entire sage hens for 10,000 years. Bones are a great source of calcium." Many products available today include ground bone, and he says chicken necks and backs can be eaten whole.
The idea of tossing veggies to a dog may surprise some, but Lauten insists on it. "It's a great idea to give them fruits and vegetables as treats in between meals," she says. "There are a lot of nutrients in there, especially if you do different colors. My dogs will knock me down for cantaloupe."
Cooking for dogs or buying frozen or freeze-dried meat are also becoming popular, but Lauten cautions that "most of what I see on the Internet is not a balanced diet. There are a lot of people doing pet nutrition who don't know what they're doing. What I do is ask people what their dog likes to eat, then build a balanced diet around that."
Dogs, of course, will always beg for food, but Lauten says this is often misunderstood by people.
"They are begging, but they're not hungry," she says. "In the wild, a puppy would be hiding in the corner, not allowed to eat. Being fed in a pack is about rank, and we elevate our dogs above us from Day 1. If there's an uninformed party in the relationship, it's not the animal."
The other big obligation we have to keep our pets healthy is to give them plenty of exercise. Patton says that hunting hounds wearing GPS devices have been shown to run as many as 25 to 30 miles a day, two or three times a week. "So you can imagine that taking a dog for a 20-minute walk in the park isn't beginning to tap that dog's ability to exercise," he says. "There's no such thing as too much exercise."
Of course, in choosing foods, cost is an issue. Most people will have to depend on more affordable kibble to some extent, especially if they have a larger dog. But more high-quality products are appearing in the marketplace to cater to a growing demand.
"I admonish everyone, to the extent their finances permit, to reduce kibble with the inclusion of raw, fresh, frozen, freeze-dried, table scraps, and even canned food," Patton says.
McGhee says the commercial food industry is offering better products, as well.
"Years ago, and with most grocery-store brands today, the source was leftover human food," he says. "But now a lot of natural products are going into our food chain, and the pet food makers are drawing from that." He points to a company called Champion Petfoods, which uses whole, fresh, free-range chickens and also processes entire fish. "It's about your priorities," he says. "Is your dog a member of the family or just an animal out in the backyard?"
Ultimately, all three experts say that's the real point: You want a healthy and happy dog, so feed it a balanced diet with reasonable portions and give it plenty of exercise.
Says Lauten, "I've picked up many a dog from flat in a cage to running around the room, just on nutrition."