Monday, March 18, 2019

What Should I Feed My Dog?

Written by Dr. Gloria Ku, DVM

This is not a simple question, but one we often get, and struggle with just as our clients do.  As veterinarians, we should know more than the average person about how to feed your new puppy, or your mature dog, but that also makes it difficult because there is a lot of information to process in this question!

While ingredient lists are often the first place a consumer will look to assess a diet, it is not the last place one should look.  Ingredient lists can be misleading when we try to oversimplify what they are telling us.  Here is a “glossary” of terms used in the pet food industry:

There are several factors that must go in to deciding which diet is best to feed.  And the choices are plentiful.  Like us, the same diet is rarely the best diet for ALL dogs, but at the same time, there are guidelines that will help you figure out where to start, and it is highly possible that your dog will do well on a diet that the majority of dogs will do well on, statistically speaking.

Factors that I consider critical to the decision are nutritional support [e.g. does the diet meet minimum standards for nutrition established by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials)] which is an association of local, state and federal agencies that regulate animal feed sales and content.  It is a minimum standard that all diets should satisfy and ”AAFCO Approved” should be part of the label somewhere.  In the past, when generic dog food was first introduced on the market, these standards were not met and deficiencies surfaced causing serious health problems.  This should be the minimum you should ask of your diet.

Beyond the minimum nutritional value, the considerations become more subjective, assuming your pet does not have a specific medical condition dictating a “low fat” or "limited ingredient” diet for example.  For most of us, we are looking for a diet that is humanely produced, has some evidence based research that it will keep our dogs healthy, help them to have normal stools and a nice healthy coat, keep their teeth and bones strong and healthy, one that they will enjoy eating, and we will find convenient to buy and feed, at a reasonable price.  No small order! 

For some it is also important to avoid a lot of additives and preservatives, but there are trade offs to having commercially produced foods without adequate preservation.  With this comes a higher risk of spoilage which can drive up expense associated with how it is handled in manufacturing and delivery, storage, etc.  Raw diets in particular have the added risk of bacterial contamination that can be harmful not only for your dog, but for sensitive family members as well. 

A lot of diets now include supplements like glucosamine for joint health, or increased protein which we often associate as higher quality calories, or “natural” sourced ingredients, or more omega 3’s.  Many of these sound beneficial, and I won’t say they aren’t, but sometimes the marketing is more powerful than the evidence.  In the case of glucosamine, for instance, there is typically not sufficient concentrations to be helpful. Evidence based efficacy, such as actual feeding trials for dogs to prove any benefit, may be lacking altogether.  Often the value of an ingredient is inferred because people have heard that it could be helpful for themselves,  or there was one study that showed possible benefit in another species (like mice or humans) but not dogs.  One has to be a little cautious of this type of data.  “Grain free” is another popular marketing label that has recently been shown to potentially lead to heart disease in some dogs. 

Often larger, more established companies have the advantage of having the resources to do feeding trials and nutrition research. They utilize sophisticated scientific analysis as well as expertise from PhD nutritionists, food science experts, microbiologists and animal science research to help formulate diets that are designed to be nutritionally appropriate, palatable to most animals who are fed it, and convenient for consumers to use.   While there are a host of smaller, boutique companies that also make pet food, many of them do not have the resources to perform feeding trials over many years, or have laboratories that can help with quality control and nutritional analysis.  They will often rely on research performed by or funded by other companies in order to meet the AAFCO minimum standards and have a starting place from which to make other adjustments.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but just important to recognize. 
Finally there are many who feed home cooked meals to their pets.  While this may feel healthier to some than feeding processed kibble, it is not easy to meet all requirements in today’s world from grocery store ingredients.  UC Davis has a wonderful nutrition department that will help you formulate a balanced diet for your pet, but recipes can be expensive (on the order of $225/recipe) to have formulated.  Beyond that, it is difficult to create a balanced diet, despite the fact that there are published recipes online… As we all know, putting it out there is easy.  Taking responsibility for your pet’s well being is not as easy.

So, at the end of the day, what should you feed your dog??  There is no one answer!  How food is sourced in todays society will definitely affect your choice.  I try to look for a middle ground.  I like the convenience of feeding kibble and I think my dog’s stool is more formed and consistent on kibble.  I like that a trusted company has done feeding trials and has some scientific based evidence that I will be meeting her nutritional needs as a canine. But I confess,  I also prepare organic bone broth and sometimes add a little extra organically humanely raised meat  topper to her prepared food to increase her appetite, and complement her prepared diet.  When I cook for her I add a little black pepper to aid with digestion, celery to help her appetite, turmeric for her arthritis, and lots of love.  All in small amounts., except for the love of course.  I don’t worry about whether the bag says chicken meal or pork by products because as the glossary explains, that just means there is liver and intestines and not just “meat” which is actually more nutritious.  As one nutritionist pointed out, in many countries these are actually what humans also value and consume.  While  theoretically it could include feathers or other “by-products”, these aren’t intended ingredients because there isn’t nutritional value in them, and if you read the glossary, they are intentionally and mandated to be excluded.  If bone meal is her source of calcium that is no worse nor better than ground calcium carbonate from sea shells to me.  If there are preservatives to help her kibble remain fresh and prevent spoilage, I accept that as I often do in my own diet in order to avoid gastrointestinal upset.  Do I want her to live forever, you bet!!

I do encourage you to look at what you are feeding, read the labels and understand their limitations as well, evaluate your dog’s response to your choice and if necessary, change and re-evaluate again.  But do so gradually, with consideration, and with the help of your veterinarian.  We may not know everything, but we have studied this issue at length, and will try to bring perspective and guidance to our answers.  Because we want your dog to live forever too!  :)

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

What is a Bland Diet?

Written by Dr. Gloria Ku (with some collaboration from RVT Katie & Vet Assistant Danielle)

If you’ve had a pet that has been feeling ill, having stomach problems or diarrhea, there’s a good chance you’ve heard your Veterinarian say, “We are going to start your pet on a bland diet.”
But why is that?  And what exactly is that diet?

“A bland diet allows the pet’s GI tract to recover by being easy to digest.  We usually recommend feeding a bland diet until the pet returns back to normal (i.e., if the pet is having diarrhea, the stools return to normal).” 
                                        –Katie, Registered Veterinary Technician

At our hospital, we have several bland diet options.  The first being prescription diet brands formulated for GI upsets.  There are several veterinary diet brands that have special gastro-intestinal options, for example:

  • Hill’s Prescription Diet I/D
  • Royal Canin’s Prescription Diet GI Low Fat or GI Fiber Response
  • Purina’s Prescription Diet EN

These specialty foods are only available through your Veterinarian.

You can also make your own homemade bland diet using a combination of easy to digest protein and carbohydrate sources for dogs:
  • Baked or boiled skinless deboned chicken breast with no seasonings (salt, pepper, paprika, etc.). 
  • Cooked white rice with no butter, salt, pepper or other seasonings. 
  • Low fat cottage cheese (in lieu of chicken).

Brown rice is not usually recommended with GI upset because it has different fiber content compared to white rice.  This can make it harder for pets to easily digest brown rice. Sometimes we will suggest boiled potato or pasta as a variation for the cooked white rice, but it depends on the pet’s condition and diet history. 

Each pet is different and so it varies when it comes to how much to feed, how often, and for how long.  Generally, small amounts of the bland diet is offered throughout the day (for example: 1 tablespoon every couple of hours) and gradually increased until the pet is fed a normal amount of food (for example: a small 10 lb. dog could get 3 tablespoons of boiled chicken and rice fed three times a day). If your pet is vomiting, you will want to limit water intake to small amounts at a time as well, but offer if frequently enough to satisfy your pet’s hydration needs.  Hopefully, a few days later, once your pet is feeling better, it’s time to gradually mix the bland diet with the pet’s regular diet.

For smaller dogs and/or cats, we will sometimes suggest all meat chicken or turkey baby food, or a prescription diet like Hill’s a/d. Because cats are more strict carnivores, we usually will not add a carbohydrate.  But for most dogs, we will tend to balance the protein and carbohydrate ratio 1:1 during this period. 

Most passing gastrointestinal problems (e.g. vomiting or diarrhea) that will respond to a bland diet change should resolve within 24-48 hours.  If your pet’s issue continue for longer, your pet is very lethargic, painful, febrile or dehydrated, you should see your veterinarian as soon as possible.  Also, persistent vomiting can lead to dehydration quickly, especially if your pet is not holding down water, and you will need to seek veterinary care more urgently.  Monitor stools and urination to be sure they are still happening and notify your veterinarian if they are absent.   And finally, if this is a chronic issue for your pet, while a bland diet may be helpful, you will likely need to determine the underlying cause with your veterinarian to ensure a longer term solution and proper nutrition in the long run.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Is Your Cat Nervous?

Written by Dr. Gloria Ku

Anxiety in cats is not uncommon.  In nature, the instinct to be stealthy and able to react quickly is an advantage.  In domestic life, sometimes this can be a disadvantage.  Anxiety over changes in season, routine, dietary choices, litter preferences, and even sudden movements can make our kitty companions seem a bit jumpy sometimes. 

For the most part, cats can adjust their sensitivity to our lives by hiding and basically avoiding the “negative stimulus.”  When avoidance is not enough, some cats will express their anxiety in other ways.  Elimination issues are probably one of the most common ways that cats will express anxiety in the home, or perhaps it is the most noticeable as urinating on the rug or the toaster.  This will surely get our attention!
Just like with us, stress can actually create physiological responses in the body that alert us to a problem.  This can be increased acid production in the stomach, even to the point of creating inflammation and pain in the gut, vomiting or diarrhea.  Stress in cats in particular can cause inflammation in the bladder wall that can lead to something termed Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder (or “FLUTD”).  This inflammation can lead to increased urination and urgency or straining, often resulting in blood in the urine, and behavioral concerns that typically involve urinating outside the box, somewhere. 

Since our feline friends are not always as communicative as other species, subtle signs of stress can go undetected by their human companions until they reach a level of creating physical signs.  For example, Autumn is a common time for urinary problems to occur when indoor/outdoor cats feel the change in temperature and start to spend more time indoors.  Being indoors, they may have to adjust to litter boxes again. Cats may hold their urine longer because litter has a deodorizer in it they don’t like, or possibly another cat has also just used the litter box.  Because male cats in particular have a small urethra, they are often the ones that have the worst time with stress as the urethra also starts to swell, resulting in urine sediment or red blood cells (if there is accompanying bleeding due to inflammation) to have trouble passing.  This can cause the urethra to become plugged, not allowing urine to be eliminated, what is commonly referred to as a “blocked cat” and can result in an emergency situation.  If waste cannot be eliminated, the toxins will build up in the body, and the bladder could fill to the point of near rupture; the cat can become quite depressed and even unresponsive in a matter of hours.  This is an emergency situation and one needs to seek help as soon as possible or it can actually lead to death. 

Less critical but still very important stress responses can create chronic vomiting, diarrhea, or immunosuppression just like we experience.  Sometimes cats are forgiven for vomiting because we are expecting them to have hairballs.  But if you are consistently seeing vomit without hair, there is a clue that they may be vomiting for other reasons.
(Click here to read about cat hairballs:

If you think your cat is experiencing excessive stress, here are a few things you can try to help reduce stress for him or her:

  • Feliway is a spray or plug in diffuser with a pheromone that helps to calm cats.  It actually works pretty well.  (Feliway Website:
  • Often, knowing what the trigger is, helps us to know how best to counteract the stressor.  Occasionally, we also use oral medication to help with anxiety.  Once you recognize stress in your pet, it is often not too difficult to address their issues and it may help to avoid more serious health consequences later. 
Cats are sensitive but not always as obvious about their needs. As their human friends, it helps to be attentive to their clues.  Often they are subtle, until they aren’t! 😉