I have fed a lot of different foods to my dogs over the years, looking for the perfect diet for the canine members of our family. I tried to educate myself on what a healthy food is — and why. When I was raising puppies, I knew I needed to provide the highest-quality dog food that our budget could sustain, because of the nutritional requirements of my pregnant and nursing mamas, as well as of the puppies. Quality food ensured that my dogs were healthy, which in turn produced healthier puppies.
After all of the research I’d done, I was happy with my dog food choices until last spring, when I discovered a world of dog foods while attending a pet conference. I was very impressed with one company in particular, as its food is chock-full of things like fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables. The dogs loved the taste, and I loved the healthy ingredients list, which included words such as:
I religiously followed the feeding guidelines on the box, mixing perfectly measured portions of powdered goodness with warm water, and felt happy about being able to give the dogs such a healthy meal.
We have always had a free-choice bowl for our dogs, simply filling as it was empty and allowing them to eat at will all day, and none ever had a weight problem. Feeding this new, healthier food was just as much a change for me as it was for the dogs. I fed each dog in a crate to keep the others from snarfing up their portions and then edging in on a neighbor’s bowl. I had to remember to feed the dogs twice daily instead of just randomly asking a kid to see if the dog dish needed to be filled. Once I got into a routine, however, it wasn’t much work at all, and the dogs were good about reminding me that breakfast or dinner needed to be served.
About two weeks in, I noticed Margo was frequently visiting the empty free-choice bowl still sitting beside the water dish. She seemed to be hungriest mid-afternoon. Bless her — I, too, get the munchies between meals. My sympathy ran high, and I decided to feed smaller portions at breakfast and dinner so that I could give a third portion midday. This lasted another week before I caught her checking the empty kibble bowl again between meals. This wasn’t Jill, the dog whose bucket list consists mainly of eating, so I knew Margo suffered real hunger. I felt that I had no choice but to increase the amount of food given at each meal. Not by much, of course, but enough to keep the dogs from wanting to eat their crate pads while trying to lick stray remnants of breakfast.
It took three months for me to notice the weight gain in the dogs. I realized that I was overfeeding them and cut back on their portions, but this only resulted in hungry dogs constantly nudging at the trash can. I have never had dogs eat from the trash before. This was not a good scenario that I’d created. I decided to consult my vet, which was what I should have done in the first place.
My vet, Dr. Stacey Sheahan, taught me a lot about dog food that I didn’t even know how to research, and she loaned me a book titled Nutrition Reference Manual, produced by Hill’s Pet Nutrition. The book taught me about the AAFCO, or Association of American Feed Control Officials. “This organization sets the nutritional standards for pet foods sold in the United States,” the book told me. While all pet food companies need to comply with these standards, there is a vast range within these standards that are acceptable.
Dr. Sheahan recommended looking for a dog food that offered different life stages. The AAFCO-recognized life stages are Growth (gestation and lactation), Adult, and All Life Stages. Many dog food companies offer further options such as a choice for weight control, one for active sporting dogs, or one for seniors. These choices have different needs based on the dog’s activity level, or what life stage she is in.
A puppy needs more nutrients to help her grow than an adult does, of course. What I didn’t know was that a food labeled All Life Stages must meet the highest nutritional needs required for any particular stage of a dog’s life. A pregnant or nursing dog requires even higher calories and more nutrients than a growing puppy does, so a food that is labeled For All Life Stages — like the healthy, organic option that I was feeding — is going to offer far more calories in a smaller portion than a food formulated for an adult dog, which does not require such high nutritional needs.
This explained why my dogs were getting hungry between meals. A high calorie content does not fill a stomach. If I eat a candy bar for breakfast, I may get enough calories from that to fill half my day’s requirements, but I’m going to be hungry far before dinnertime and I get to eat the other half of the day’s calories. Margo was suffering from this same problem. I was feeding correct portions to my dogs in the beginning, but they weren’t getting enough food to keep them satisfied.
They also weren’t working hard enough to burn off the extra calories from the higher nutritional content required in an All Life Stages food. When I increased the food, trying to keep them from feeling snacky midday, I only added to their waistline while trying to fill their stomach. I was feeding a very healthy food choice, but it wasn’t working to keep my dogs satisfied. In trying to keep them from experiencing constant hunger pains, I grossly overfed them. It was a vicious cycle.
My vet recommended that I go back to free-choice dry kibble, knowing that I had them on a good food before I changed to the “healthier” option. Unfortunately, my dogs were now in the habit of cleaning a bowl every time they were fed. They no longer self-monitored, but instead continued to overeat. I had to dole out small portions several times daily to keep them from more weight gain.
It took more than two weeks for the dogs to relearn to eat small portions until they felt full, and then walk away. We now have the free-choice bowl again, and my vet is happy that Jill is starting to show signs of having a waist again. She recommends that I continue with the free-choice bowl and monitor for a few months to be sure the dogs are continuing healthy habits. Healthy weight loss takes time, and as long as we’re both seeing waists being whittled down, we’ll be happy feeding my dogs free-choice kibble to help them maintain a healthy weight.
Read more about feeding your dog
About the author: Karen Dibert is a wife, mom, and dog lover living in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. She has five kids, three French Bulldogs, and a flock of useless chickens. Karen authors a pet column for her local newspaper, advocates for her son with Down syndrome, manages Louie the French Dog’s Instagram accounts, compulsively photographs everything, and lives in the sewing room, filling orders for her Etsy shops, The French Dog, The French Dog Home, and Collar The Dog. A snapshot of her life can be seen on Facebook.