Most of the information we have today regarding the nutritional needs of dogs comes from ongoing research being performed by commercial pet-food manufacturers. Manufacturers are continually trying to get a leg up on their competition, and one of the best ways to do this is to incorporate the latest and greatest research discoveries they've made into their dog-food products. Of course, it's the pet owners and their dogs that benefit the most from this research.
Despite the rapid gains that are being made in developing highgrade pet foods, you'll still find inexpensive, low-end products with poor protein sources, fill (indigestible roughage), and mineral and vitamin sources that can't be absorbed into a dog's system.
It's not easy to tell, however, if a dog food is made of highquality ingredients or is the equivalent of junk food. Each state regulates how ingredients must be listed in pet foods and what claims pet manufacturers can make on their packaging.
Ongoing research has helped develop specific formulas for a wide range of dogs, including puppies and adults of various sizes (toy/ small-breed, medium-sized, and large-breed), active/high-performance adults, overweight adults, and senior dogs. You can also find specialty formulas for improving skin and coats, strengthening immune systems, and preventing or improving joint degeneration.
In order to create more uniformity nationwide in feed regulations and as pet-food manufacturers grew from local to regional and national companies, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an association of state and federal feed officials, developed recommended nutritional minimums (and a few maximums) for two life stages: puppies and lactating dogs, and adult dogs. The AAFCO also provides methods by which petfood manufacturers can test their products to prove they meet the AAFCO's nutritional profiles. The AAFCO continues to review new studies and research, updating the nutritional profiles as needed.
Commercial pet foods must meet a minimum nutritional content, which is recommended by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). A food that is tested in a laboratory and shown to contain the recommended vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, and so on, can print the statement: “This food meets the AAFCO's nutrient profiles.” This statement only attests to the food's content. Even foods so labeled might be virtually indigestible.
A better food will be labeled “Complete and balanced,” and reference will be made to “animal feeding tests” or “animal feeding trials” using AAFCO procedures. Foods that contain this wording not only have the necessary nutrients, they have been shown to be palatable and digestible because dogs thrived on this food in feeding trials.
The most frequently used meats are chicken and beef. Lamb appears as a key ingredient in foods for sensitive stomachs or allergies; salmon is a favorite for those foods promising soft skin and luxurious coats.
Make sure your Chi eats nutritious foods everyday — and be careful that they don't pick up any bad habits when they're pups!
Deciphering the Label
The ingredients that are contained in a dog food are listed on the label according to the quantity with which they appear. So, if a particular pet food's primary ingredient is beef, “Beef” will be the first ingredient listed. For most puppies and dogs, it is best if the first ingredient listed in the food is a protein source, such as any one of several meats or fish.
Within the various protein sources that are used in dog foods, you want your Chihuahua to eat the highest-grade meats or fish possible. If commercial foods using human-grade ingredients are not available to you or are cost prohibitive, your next best option is to find a food using a premium grade of meat. Whether the meats contained in the dog food are all meat (premium) or are of a lesser grade of meat containing organs, such as livers and gizzards, the meat will be listed simply as “beef” or “lamb.”
What is human-grade meat?
Human-grade chicken, beef, lamb, and other meats must meet the standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for feeding, raising, and slaughtering. Human-grade chicken, for example, must come from chickens that were fed an alternative feed for a minimum of six to eight weeks prior to slaughter to ensure that the meat will have acceptable levels of growth hormones and steroids.
The lowest grade meats are listed as by-products. These meats include both digestible and indigestible parts. Indigestible parts could include hooves, claws, feet, or feathers. Unfortunately, how much of the protein source is digestible and how much is indigestible can't be determined from reading the label.
What a lot of dog people don't realize is that commercial dogfood manufacturers will vary the ingredients and their proportions in a food. The labels will always reflect what is in the bag, but if a savvy dog owner saves a few labels, you may find that the food you are feeding is inconsistent. The formula changes because the manufacturer takes advantage of the lowest market prices and substitutes ingredients. If corn is at a better price than rice one month, the manufacturer will use the less-expensive corn in its packaged food.
A dog food that varies its ingredients regularly can be upsetting to a sensitive dog's system, causing gastrointestinal distress. For many dogs, the variation in formulas is so subtle as to have no effects at all. However, if your Chi doesn't always seem to enjoy her food, or if you notice a change in her ability to digest her food, you may want to track the product's labels for a few months and see if there is any variation in the ingredients.
Dry foods can help improve your Chihuahua's dental health greatly. Crunching hard kibble slows the development of plaque and dental tartar that leads to periodontal disease, which is particularly prevalent in this breed.
Dry, Semimoist, and Moist
Commercial dog foods fall into one of three categories of textures:dry, semimoist, or moist. Dry foods are inexpensive to feed. They store well and have a reasonably long shelf life, but they do contain the largest amounts of preservatives. Semimoist foods (chewy morsels) have fewer preservatives and a shorter shelf life. They typically contain high amounts of sugars, as well as artificial coloring. Moist foods, such as canned dog food, have the least amount of preservatives and sugars but are the most expensive to feed. Additionally, once the wet food is placed in a dog's bowl, it becomes rancid quickly and must be picked up within thirty minutes.
Semimoist and moist foods, because of their high palatability, can induce a dog to eat beyond her normal capacity. It's similar to humans eating to satiation and then making room for dessert, except it's your Chihuahua at her dinner bowl. Dry foods — if not moistened with gravy or anything else enticing — are generally eaten as needed. Unless the Chihuahua perceives that there is competition for her food, she will rarely overeat dry kibble.
Many leading pet-food manufacturers have moved away from packing dog foods with synthetic preservatives. Instead, the preservative of choice is becoming such natural ingredients as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), rosemary extract, or citric acid. If possible, avoid foods that list the controversial synthetic preservative ethoxyquin. Though there have been no definitive studies that prove a link with cancer, it is still better to avoid chemicals when at all possible.
Some people believe they must add even more vitamins and nutritional supplements to their dog's diet, thinking that a lot of the vitamins and minerals are cooked out of the food in the manufacturing process. Manufacturers report that the nutritional content of a food is determined from the final product — the same as what your Chi would eat.
Vitamins are added to commercial dog foods to meet the AAFCO's nutritional minimum recommendations. Many dog foods, however, exceed these minimums and add additional vitamins and nutrients to their foods. How much a food is supplemented is determined by the manufacturer's research as to what the optimal nutritional requirements are for the food's targeted market. Since much of this research is proprietary information, buyers sometimes must trust the integrity of the manufacturer.
Can you supplement your Chi's diet with various vitamins, nutritional extracts, and powders? Yes, but be aware that too much of a good thing can be bad. Only supplement your Chi's diet under the supervision or advisement of your veterinarian. Excesses of some vitamins, for example, are flushed from the dog's body, whereas others are stored in various organs and can reach toxic levels.