The Truth About the ‘Special Food Needs’ of Small Breeds
By Dr. Karen Becker comments by Diane Weinmann
Those of you with small dogs may have noticed that the pet food marketplace is exploding with diets created for the so-called “special needs” of small breeds. Clearly, the processed pet food industry has found another cash cow: dog food formulas marketed to owners of small breeds.
According to the PetfoodIndustry.com, “… as smaller dogs appealing to both millennial and baby boomer lifestyles increase in popularity, the pet food industry is taking note.”1
According to the article, millennials (now the largest demographic of pet owners) aren’t moving as quickly toward home ownership as previous generations, instead choosing to remain in apartments or condos as city dwellers. Baby boomers are becoming empty nesters, downsizing to smaller living spaces, and doing more traveling.
Neither of these lifestyles is conducive to owning a large dog (or so the theory goes), but since both groups still want to be pet parents, small dogs are the solution.
“Small dogs, which are more portable, more likely to meet apartment weight limits,” writes the author of the article, “and can in some cases even be trained to be completely indoor animals, with litter or puppy pads ensuring they don’t need to go down an elevator or several flights of stairs to find relief in the nearest patch of grass.”
As an important point of clarification, no dog should be a “completely indoor animal.” Walks outdoors, visits with friends and family with yards, adventures to the dog park, and other pet-friendly outings are essential in keeping dogs of all sizes and ages exercised, socialized, mentally stimulated, and grounded to the earth.
Big Pet Food Wants Us to Believe Small Dogs Need Special Diets Simply Because They’re Small
The processed pet food manufacturers would like to convince you that small dogs have unique health issues and nutritional requirements that only they can meet. This is a red flag for me, because processed pet food isn’t the answer for the health issues faced by small dogs (or any size dog), and it’s certainly not the answer to small dogs’ (or any dog’s) nutritional needs.
Processed pet food producers want to position small dogs as so different from “real” dogs that they need specialized diets. In fact, one “global director — nutrition and technical communications” for a pet food company goes so far as to say, “They’re not carnivores.” Actually, yes, they are. All dogs are.
Canines are scavenging carnivores, and need to be, in order to maintain health. Making dogs omnivores or vegetarians creates metabolic disease; however, it’s the stance the pet food industry must take to sell the biologically inappropriate products they produce.
If Big Pet Food’s pitch is successful, it opens up limitless opportunities to expand their product lines and develop marketing plans to sell diets specifically for small breed dogs. Now, these diets will be, for all intents and purposes, identical to diets for every other size dog — it’s really only the marketing, packaging and kibble size that will be different.
And you can bet there won’t be any independent (or even company-sponsored) pet food research substantiating the claim that toy and small breeds have a totally different set of nutritional requirements than other sized dogs. There also won’t be any long-term studies determining the safety or efficacy of feeding these fast-food diets for the lifetime of a pet.
From what I’ve been able to tell comparing formulas for small dogs and regular formulas, the differences are primarily in package sizes, product names and the way they’re marketed, and in some cases, kibble size.
Obviously, repackaging standard formulas and giving them cute names like “Wee Bits” and “Mighty Minis” does nothing to address the supposed “unique health issues and nutritional needs” of small dogs as advertised by pet food companies, but they don’t expect dog owners to connect the dots.
So that’s Big Pet Food’s play for the hearts and minds of small dog parents. Hopefully all of you reading here today won’t be fooled.
Your Dog’s Size Shouldn’t Dictate His Diet
In an ideal world, processed pet food manufacturers would put their significant resources toward getting the basics of canine (and feline) nutrition right and focus less on finding ways to re-engineer existing poor-quality formulas to expand their product lines.
Dry pet food with little or no high-quality animal protein and minimal moisture, but plenty of grains, carbs, starches, allergenic ingredients, non-nutritional fillers, synthetic amino acids, vitamins and minerals, additives and preservatives, is not species-appropriate nutrition for any dog, regardless of size. The fact is, when comparing a Great Dane to a Yorkie, they are all canine, specifically Canis lupus familiaris.
What is becoming apparent, through new canine DNA studies, is that a dog’s evolutionary lineage can play into expressed behavior traits and may dictate dietary preferences. For instance, dogs that evolved from northern parts of the world (Akitas, Huskies, Malamutes, etc.) may crave a diet higher in fish (or omega 3 fatty acids), which was a part of their evolutionary nutrition many moons ago. Diane’s husky, Neko, loves all fish in his food.
In theory, customizing macronutrients and ingredients to a dog’s genetic lineage may prove to quite beneficial, but this isn’t what Big Pet Food is doing with their “breed specific” diets.
Sadly, humans have chosen to breed certain types of dogs down to sizes so small their organs often don’t function normally. And the AKC and other kennel clubs still condone (and paper) inbred animals. Since nature doesn’t design dogs to be that small, health problems are to be expected, including congenital organ problems which may require owners to feed a lower protein diet.
But assuming all small breeds require low protein diets is misguided. Certainly size, energy output and health problems are a consideration when determining any animal’s nutritional requirements, but a dog is still a dog — a carnivorous canine.
Those of you who have been readers for years know how I feel about this topic: unless breeders complete every possible genetic test for both parents and intentionally breed for “reparative conformation” (so the next litter may carry fewer genetic predispositions), they shouldn’t be breeding, and smaller isn’t better.
That being said, there are some small dogs who are born with poorly functioning livers or kidneys and must be on customized diets their whole lives: this is a result of bad breeding, not an evolutionary adaptation from being small.
Tips for Feeding Small Dogs
It’s very easy to overfeed and under-exercise any dog, and especially a small one, so it’s important to start out on the right foot and stay there.
Currently, AAFCO doesn’t link feeding instructions on dog food packaging to a dog’s energy requirements, so according to the bag or can, a super active 10-pound dog and a super lazy 10-pound dog should eat the same amount. Common sense says this can’t be true.
- Ignore pet food advertisements that suggest healthy small dogs need special diets.
- Calculate how much food your dog needs each day, then scale that amount up or down, depending on activity level.
- Feed an optimally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet to your little one. Regardless of her size, your dog needs the right nutrition for her species, which means real food that is made from healthful ingredients (not feed-grade, rendered, slaughter house waste), high in human-grade animal protein and moisture, with low or no grain content or starches/carbohydrates.
- Practice portion control — typically a morning and evening meal, carefully measured. A high protein, low carb diet with the right number of calories, controlled through the portions you feed, will help your small dog remain at a healthy weight. And don’t forget to factor in any calories from treats.
- Use small training treats — Tiny dogs need only tiny training treats. Otherwise, you’ll have a not-so-tiny dog in no time. Anything more than, say, a treat the size of a quarter of a pea, is too big. You can buy or make treats to break into very small pieces; you can also use your dog’s regular food as treats.
- Regularly exercise your dog — Daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes of consistent aerobic activity, will help your pet burn fat and increase muscle tone.
- Evaluate your dog monthly — If she is losing weight, adjust calories. If she is gaining weight, adjust calories.
- Small and toy breeds are prone to dental disease because 42 teeth in one tiny mouth leads to crowding, and crowded teeth get dirtier faster. A raw diet and recreational raw bones or nontoxic dental chews will help keep plaque and tartar under control, but small breeds also need to have their teeth brushed daily, as well as routine veterinary dental exams.
The key to keeping your small dog healthy has nothing to do with offering “wee” or “mini” sizes of biologically inappropriate pet food. Help your little one stay at a healthy weight and nutritionally fit with a high animal protein, moisture rich diet fed in controlled portions, and augmented with plenty of physical activity.