When it comes to keeping your pup healthy and energized, simply choosing a dog food with “wholesome!” on the label may seem like enough. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. “Just because a dog food is labeled ‘holistic’ or ‘all-natural’ doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any better than anything else out there,” says Andi Brown, author of The Whole Pet Diet and a pioneer of holistic pet products. (Back in the ‘80s, she created the world’s first line of human-grade pet food and treats.)
And, as with humans, dogs are what they eat. Many commercial dog foods are the equivalents of burgers and French fries, Brown explains. “If you’re eating a steady diet of fast food every day, you’ll look and feel one way, and if you eat healthfully and thoughtfully from your own kitchen and garden, you’ll look and feel a whole lot better a whole lot longer,” she says. “It’s the very same thing with animals on a commercial diet.”
So what makes a canine diet healthy? It’s an important question to ask, since 95 percent of homemade dog diets studied by UC-Davis researchers didn’t meet dog’s needs. “You need a meat and vegetable diet, generally a 50-50 blend, with little to no grains or starches,” Brown says. “No byproducts, no fillers, no preservatives, no artificial chemicals.” Freshness, she adds, is hugely important: “It provides more flavor and more nutrients. After just a few days, your pet will look and feel much healthier,” she promises. Here are some of the benefits you can expect from a natural, fresh diet:
It prevents (and even helps treat!) disease
“In my 30 years of experience working with thousands of animals, I’ve seen that many disease symptoms can be turned around very quickly when the animal is given the right nutritional support,” she says. Just like with humans, a diet rich in antioxidants and high-quality protein helps ward off a number of ailments. In fact, one study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found a link in dogs between lower rates of urinary bladder carcinomas and eating green, leafy and yellow-orange vegetables three times a week.
Many commercial dog foods made in pet food plants, on the other hand, contain super-low-quality ingredients—stuff rejected for human consumption. Says Brown: “Why was it rejected? Well, the animal came to the slaughterhouse dying or disabled, or the grains are dirty from falling on the floor and can’t be used in human plants, so they’re immediately sent to the pet food plants. They’re garbage.” And when you couple inferior ingredients with dyes, fillers, preservatives, and synthetic vitamins, “you’re setting the pet’s body up for warfare,” she says. “They have to battle those foods just to process them.”
It helps manage your dog’s weight
Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is well within your control, for the most part. In fact, in one survey published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine, vets reported that just three percent of obesity cases they saw could be attributed to dog-specific factors (say, a genetic quirk or illness); 97 percent of obesity cases could be traced to how owners fed and played with their pets. So how does commercial dog food fatten up dogs? Simple: It’s too heavy on starches, Brown explains. “Many pet foods contain fillers so that the manufacturers can make more money; corn, wheat, rice, potatoes are very inexpensive,” she says. “It’s exactly the same as for humans: A diet heavy on starches leads to weight gain.”
It increases your dog’s lifespan
In one paper, dogs fed a homemade diet lived for 13.1 years, on average, while those fed commercial, canned dog food reached an average of 10.4 years. The starch, dyes, preservatives, and synthetic nutrients in many commercial dog foods eventually take a toll on a pup’s health, while steering clear of them sets a dog up for many years of health, Brown explains. “People could live on potato chips and beer alone, but not long or well,” she points out. “It’s the same thing with animals on a commercial diet—sooner or later, it catches up with them. She adds that it's especially true with age: "When you’re young, you can eat anything. But as the body gets older, you need to support it with the right food.”
It gives your dog a happier GI tract
Think of it this way: Out in the wild, a dog would take down a small animal—say, a rabbit, bird, or squirrel—and consume the contents of the prey’s stomach, too, Brown explains. The small animals are generally herbivores, so the dog would be consuming meat, plus vegetables that provide nutrients and fiber, which helps keep the digestive system humming smoothly. “When you switch from commercial pet food, the digestive system will be clean and clear,” she says. “When the pet moves it bowels, you’ll see well-formed stool, and you’ll notice that the quality of what goes in will reflect what goes out.”
Another surprising side effect of a not-overly-taxed digestive system: Your dog will sleep better at night. “If your animal gets up in the middle of the night, sighing, breathing, switching positions, that’s a sign that the digestive system is upset,” Brown says. “When you’re putting the right ingredients into the body in proper proportions, the dog’s rest is pure and restorative.” And—just like you after a good night’s sleep—your dog will feel better and be healthier overall if she’s getting a good night’s sleep.
It makes your pup smarter
A healthy diet can actually improve cognitive function: In one study, old, cognitively impaired dogs who were fed an antioxidant-enriched diet had higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which may slow cognitive decline. The logic is analogous to how a diet rich in antioxidants (i.e., fresh, colorful produce) seems to help prevent cognitive decline in humans. Even in younger dogs, a fresh, wholesome diet fuels learning and alertness, Brown adds. “When you feel good, you’re sharper, you have more energy, and you can tackle more tasks,” she says.
It improves your dog's skin and coat quality
Skin problems are prevalent in dogs, from itching to rashes to scabs. Often, dogs with itchy or scaly skin are treated with cortisone shots and reaction-reducing steroids, which come with their own side effects. “Pet owners are told it’s an allergy when it’s often just a deficiency,” Brown explains. Blame commercial pet food’s unbalanced, filler-loaded formulations that don’t give pups the nutrients they need. Because of the way it's cooked and processed, dry food especially can deprive dogs of the healthy fats and oils dogs need for a lustrous, moisturized coat and skin. Within a few days of switching your dog to a fresh, natural, balanced diet, “shedding, itching, scratching, dry skin, a rough coat, and other skin problems will start to correct themselves,” she says. “You’ll really notice a difference.”