Imagine going to the grocery store to shop for a month’s worth of groceries for your family, stopping in the first aisle and loading your cart with the first on-sale item you see. Never mind checking the nutritional value, reading the ingredients or considering whether or not your children will even like what you’re planning on feeding them for the next 30 days—you just want to get as much food as you can for the lowest price possible.

While budget constraints are always part of the reality of raising children, most parents find a way to give their kids the best of everything at the lowest possible price. That’s part of being a responsible mother or father. Being a responsible dog owner should be no different. You want to provide your dog with the healthiest meals possible while staying within your budget but how? It’s a question I’m asked all the time: what kind of food should I feed my dog?

Do your homework

If you’re raising a dog, you already know it requires some research. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go to the library and check out 30 books on raising your border collie. Instead, grab your phone or laptop and figure out the recommended diet for your dog, based on his or her breed and age.

While there are numerous variations for breed, weight and diet, most dog food varieties are based on age—puppy food, adult or active dog good and senior food—and differ by calories. Similar to food for your children, dog food varies in calories and nutrients, based on your dog’s needs. When they’re young and active, their diet should pack more energy. As they age, the need for energy-enhancing nutrients begins to fade.

Dog food also varies on the amount of filler that’s used to enhance existing portions. Fillers can include cornstarch, wheat, corn, rice, soybean meal and other ingredients your dog doesn’t need. A good rule of thumb: If your dog is going to the bathroom often, his food probably contains a lot of filler.

It’s easy to avoid buying filler-heavy food. Just look at the ingredients. In addition to the ingredients mentioned above, you may find a list of words you can’t pronounce. That’s not a great sign, especially if you want to feed your dog’s the healthiest diet possible.

Grain, grain, go away

Regardless of the type of dog you’re raising, it’s likely that you’ll find one consistent piece of advice: Go grain-free.

So what do dog’s have against grains? Well, you might want to check with their ancestors. Consider that dogs and wolves share a common one—and feel free to go down the internet rabbit hole that looks at the shared ancestry—it makes sense that their genetic makeup means they’re more likely to enjoy eating meat—or food derived from meat—and to benefit from that particular diet.

Still, it’s important to read the label as some breeds have a predisposition to dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, which weakens a dog’s heart’s ability to pump blood, which can then result in congestive heart failure. Grain-free dog food sometimes includes ingredients, like peas, lentils, potatoes and other vegetables, that can help agitate DCM in certain breeds, including a handful of large breeds, like Great Danes, Doberman Pinschers, Saint Bernards and Irish Wolfhounds, and in some cases, medium to small breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Bulldogs, Whippets and Shih Tzus. The FDA is currently looking into the matter. If you have any concerns or questions, you should check with your veterinarian.

Other considerations 

Wet vs. dry vs. refrigerated: Dry food, commonly referred to as kibble, is best because it strengthens their teeth. Wet food can be very rich, which may upset your dog’s stomach. Most refrigerated food is raw, which makes sense considering your dog’s ancestral history but requires more attention than wet or dry food. Kibble, in particular, can be bought in bulk, stored without refrigeration and kept for an extended period in a sealed container in a cabinet or closet or in a bin that can easily fit in with your kitchen decor. 

Switching food: If you want to change your dog’s diet, change his food slowly since their stomach will need some time to get used to the change. I recommend switching food over four weeks.

Week 1: 25 percent new food and 75 percent current food

Week 2: 50 percent new, 50 percent current

Week 3: 75 percent new and 25 percent current

 Week 4: 100 percent new food 

What about the food my vet sells? Your vet may make recommendations or sell food for specialty breeds but you’re not required to make that purchase should you choose to use the recommended brand. Also, check the labels of any brand, even those sold by your vet. You might be surprised at their ingredients, which in some cases are similar to what you’ll find at the “lowest marked price” in your grocery store.

Therapeutic diets: If your vet recommends a therapeutic diet for your dog’s ailment, find out why the diet is necessary and what would happen if you choose to continue feeding your dog her regular diet. Also, ask about alternative foods you can serve in a pinch in case you run out of the specific food

Regardless of what you decide to feed your dog, know that it’s your decision. And know that your dog is counting on you to make the best choice for his and your situation.

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Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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