Q+A with Leith Henry, COAST+RANGE Nutrition Expert
Q. In your job as a functional food specialist and global expert on canine nutrition how often do you get asked this question (what to feed my dog)?
A. I get this question a lot. Since the FDA announcement on DCM last summer it seems like this question is getting asked with even greater frequency these days!
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what makes a “good” or “bad” dog food, and the process of finding the right food can be overwhelming for many pet parents. To be honest, there is no one “right” dog food. There are definitely better-quality foods and lesser-quality foods, but the right food is really based on each dog’s unique and individual needs. When I evaluate a food, I look at each specific ingredient and how they work together in a formula, the sourcing of those ingredients, the manufacturing processes involved, and how that all comes to together to meet your dog’s unique nutritional needs.
Q. What are some (good) things pet parents should look for in a dry dog food?
A. Before evaluating a food I always start by determining the dog’s unique nutritional needs as every dog is different. I ask questions like:
- Are there any known trigger ingredients (food allergies) or dislikes that need to be avoided?
- Is the dog a puppy? If so, we need to focus on calories and energy expenditure needs, as well as ensuring calcium and phosphorus are in the proper balance for controlled rate of growth.
- Is it a senior dog who requires really clean proteins and more ligament, tendon, and joint support from whole food sources of glucosamine and chondroitin?
- Does the dog have any known health conditions that would affect the diet?
Once you know your dog’s unique needs, you can begin to look at the food itself. I look at the following when evaluating a food:
Processing – I prefer foods that are baked vs. extruded because of the lower temperatures used in baking. The high temperatures required in extruded foods kill the nutritional integrity of the ingredients often resulting in the need for supplementation with synthetic vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Protein quality – Look for foods that contain lots of quality, named animal protein: beef, salmon, chicken, duck, chicken egg, etc. A dog is designed by nature to eat meat and process animal protein, as is evidenced by the jaw and tooth structure, length of GI tract, lack of salivary amylase, and acidic pH stomach environment.
Carb quality and quantity – I prefer dark leafy greens and carbs from whole vegetables that are lower in starch and sugar. Fruits are a great source of nutrition – but also sugar – so they should be included as a smaller part of a dog’s diet.
Omega Fatty Acids – Omegas are an important part of a dog’s diet. I look for foods where the Omega 3’s are 1% of diet or higher and Omega 6’s are 3.5% of diet or higher. The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 should be between 2:1 and 4:1. Anything higher than 4:1 may lead to inflammation.
Q. What are some things pet parents should avoid in their dog’s food?
A. Unlike the “good things” to look for in a dog food – which can vary based on the unique needs of the dog – the “what to avoid” is universal for ALL dogs. Here are some things to avoid in dog food:
Processing – Avoid dog food made using the “extrusion” process because it uses high heat that destroys the nutritional integrity of the food and often requires the use of synthetic vitamins, minerals, and amino acids made in a lab.
Protein quality – Avoid foods with high amounts of low-quality proteins sources like pea protein, whey protein, and dried egg product (which comes from animals but can contain hatchery waste).
Carb quality and quantity – Avoid foods with carbs that are by products from the human food supply chain with low nutritional value like tomato pomace (by-product of ketchup making), beet pulp (by-product of the sugar industry), and Brewer’s Yeast (by-product of the brewing industry).
Sourcing – Avoid pet food companies that won’t guarantee they do not use ingredients sourced from China, and stay away from all foods that contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives (i.e. BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin).
Q. What are some signs that your pet food company is trustworthy?
A. I go to the label on the package and see how it reads. If I see ingredients to avoid noted above, then I’m on the defensive. If the label reads clean, the next step is I make a phone call to the company to check for the following:
- Transparency – do they answer your questions without hesitation, or do they withhold information?
- Customer service – are their reps available (weekends/evenings) and are they knowledgeable about their products?
- Satisfaction guarantees – do they stand behind their products and offer a guarantee if something is not right?
Q. Anything else you’d want pet parents to know about finding the right food for their dog?
A. Some pet parents are looking for a magic bullet but, unfortunately, there is no such thing. We need to start with simply showing up and being present, paying attention to our dogs and understanding there is no stasis in dietary requirement. Just as we vary our nutritional needs based on a variety of factors throughout our lifetime, the same needs hold true for our dogs. It’s important to rotate their foods based on seasons, age, activity level, body condition, medical conditions and don’t forget, what they like or dislike too.
About Leith Henry
Leith is a Functional Food Specialist and a global expert on canine nutrition. She helps pet parents and Veterinarians with some of their most difficult canine nutrition problems and is often the last hope for dogs with severe digestive issues. Leith has been working with COAST+RANGE since early 2018 where she advises on the selection of functional ingredients for our foods and the benefits of rotational diets. Leith is also a member of the COAST+RANGE Nutrition Council.
Leith studied at The College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies, UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, the Chi Institute, and UC Davis, and is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Natural Health Consultant, published author, public speaker, Industry Formulation Consultant, and fierce Animal Rights Advocate. Her areas of special interest and study include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) principles of food therapy, Ayurvedic principles of food therapy, biochemical nutrition, and Eastern and Western herbology.