What should you feed your foster dog?
Food is one of the most contentious topics in dogdom. A lot of people have very strong feelings that the diet they give to their dogs is the One True Way and all dissenters are heretics who must be burned at the stake. Some rescue groups mandate specific diets for their dogs and require their foster homes to abide by those rules.
I am not one of these people. WAGS is, thankfully, not one of those groups. You are free to decide what diet you think is best for your foster pup. But there are some things I would ask you to consider.
First, provide high-quality food. A high-quality diet is of paramount importance. As the cliche goes, "you are what you eat," and it's just as true for our dogs as ourselves. Good food leads to a healthier, happier, younger-looking dog with brighter eyes, a shinier coat, cleaner teeth, and less "doggy odor." Poor-quality food causes myriad problems ranging from chronic ear infections to foul breath to irritable moods and behavioral issues. Please feed your dog well. It's true that good food costs more, but what you spend on healthy food, you don't have to spend fixing the problems caused by a lousy diet. Ounce of prevention vs. pound of cure, and all that. And, more importantly, your dog will be happier for it.
Second, it's best not to stress your foster dog's system too much immediately after arrival. The shock of traveling to a new place and adjusting to a new life is plenty for the dog to deal with already. On top of that, many foster dogs are underweight on arrival (all of mine have been, sometimes severely so) because they were malnourished before getting to the shelter and/or lost weight at the shelter because they were too frightened and stressed to eat properly. And, finally, it's very very common for foster dogs to be carrying a load of parasites, especially worms. Because of all these factors, their immune systems are already stretched very thin. So, for this reason, I do not advocate putting your foster dog on a raw diet right away. If you want to transition the foster dog to a raw diet gradually, starting a week or two after arrival, that's fine. But I would not do it on Day One.
Third, you should provide a rotation of foods that you might reasonably expect the dog's forever family to provide.
Here's what I mean: I, personally, am a dog food nut. I obsess over this stuff to the point of being a Saturday Night Live character. But most people are not that crazy. I cannot expect an adoptive family to start smashing up eggshells and buying organic calf livers for their dog (although it did happen once, I'm pleasantly amazed to say). So when I have a foster dog, I rotate through the high-quality kibbles that can be purchased at PetSmart and PetCo, since those are the major retailers that most people can get to in our area, and I make notes about which kibbles seem to work the best for that particular mutt. Then I have some useful recommendations that the adopters might be willing to follow -- and I can be a little more confident that my foster dog won't spend the rest of her life eating Beneful.
When to Feed
I'm a strong advocate of feeding dogs two regular meals a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, rather than allowing free access to food whenever they want. Feeding two regular meals makes it easier to prevent overeating, helps with house training (regular meals lead to regular poopy times), and allows you to see exactly how much your dog is eating. If your foster pup loses his appetite, you'll know right away -- no small consideration, given that foster dogs occasionally harbor illnesses that don't show up until after they arrive at your house. That doesn't happen often, but it's not something you want to miss when it does.
Regular meals are also important because they help create a sense of routine for your foster pup. Dogs like routines. Letting your foster pup learn the rhythms of the household -- including more-or-less consistent breakfasts and dinners -- will help him gain a sense of security and stability. This doesn't mean you have to schedule dinner and breakfast for 6:30 on the dot, morning and night, but it does help to set general mealtimes that might vary within an hour or so each day.
And, finally, regular meals are one of the primary ways that you can reinforce your foster pup's good manners and establish a quick, strong bond with the dog. I'll talk more about this in the Socializing and Training sections, but tasty meals are a powerful reward, and mealtimes are a golden training opportunity. It's a waste to give that up by free feeding your foster dog.
What to Feed
I'm going to preface this section by saying that, while I feel strongly about the importance of feeding your dog a healthy diet, I also recognize that it's not always feasible for everyone to provide premium kibbles for all their dogs all the time, let alone nutritious home-cooked or raw diets. Premium kibble doesn't come cheap, dogs (especially underweight foster dogs) eat a lot of it, and money's tight in rescue. Donated food is frequently of types that I'd consider sub-optimal. But a lot of times, that's what there is, and as a result it may not be possible for you to follow the standards outlined below.
If it is feasible, however, the best practice is to provide the highest-quality food you can afford. This will not be the same food for every dog. You will most likely have to experiment with several different brands and flavors to find one that seems to suit your foster pup. Please be aware that results in the first week or so can be misleading: foster pups often have stress-related indigestion and diarrhea, which may cause you to think that they're not doing well on a particular food when, in fact, it's just the stress of their long journey catching up with them.
So how do you identify a good, healthy food? It is unlikely that you'll be able to find a high-quality food in a supermarket or big-box store; you will probably have to go to a specialty retailer or order online. Fortunately, even if you don't have a local pet supply store in your neighborhood, big chains like PetSmart and PetCo are rapidly expanding their stock of premium brands, and online retailers such as Amazon carry just about every good brand in the U.S. and Canada, so it's easier than it has ever been to obtain quality food.
Don't rely on the price tag to tell you what foods are good. While there aren't any good cheap foods, there are some crappy expensive foods (hello, Science Diet!). Read the label and the ingredients list carefully.
- Look for named animal proteins supplemented by named animal meals. High-quality foods use clearly identified protein sources: beef, chicken, lamb and so forth instead of unspecified "poultry" or "meat." The first ingredient on the list should be an identifiable meat, and if it's a dry food, somewhere in the top three to five ingredients should be a supplementary meal, such as "chicken meal" or "lamb meal." A "meal" means dehydrated, ground-up meat and bone -- not something you'd want to eat yourself, maybe, but definitely desirable in dog food. Because so much of meat is actually water, adding a meal is necessary to get adequate levels of protein, fat, and trace minerals.
- Look for whole vegetables, fruits, and easily digestible grains. Again: simple labels are the best. "Carrots" and "apples" are good; "corn gluten meal" is bad (it is essentially the refuse left over by the milling of corn meal and the extraction of corn syrup -- i.e., another garbage ingredient). Grains are a little trickier, as not all grains are equal in dog food. Barley, oats, and rice are fine for most dogs. Corn, wheat, and soy are indicators of low-quality dog food.
- Avoid "byproducts," "digests," and unspecified ingredients like "animal fat." A heavy reliance on "byproducts" is a surefire indication of a low-quality food. That's slaughterhouse waste. Not only is that a substandard ingredient in and of itself, but "byproducts" are often handled sloppily, and are thus more likely to be contaminated with things you don't want your dog eating. A "digest" is even worse -- that's just chemically- and heat-treated "materials" (the FDA doesn't require them to be specified) used to create a meaty flavor with zero actual meat content. As for deliberately vague labels like "animal fat," that encompasses everything from rendered roadkill to the remains of euthanized shelter pets... yes, other dogs and cats who suffered the same fate your own foster pup narrowly escaped. Please avoid these ingredients. The "food" in that bag is literally garbage.
- Avoid foods containing corn, wheat, and soy high on the ingredients list. These are also sure signs of cheap, poor-quality food. Corn, wheat, and soy are extremely cheap ingredients: their production is heavily subsidized in the U.S., and their byproducts can be obtained for almost nothing. Dogs do not digest corn, soy, or wheat well, and the inclusion of these ingredients in their diet has been implicated in a wide range of allergies, dietary intolerances, skin problems, and yeast infections. While food containing a small amount of these ingredients might be fine, food that relies on corn as its primary ingredient (anywhere in the top five, especially if it's listed multiple times, such as "corn, corn meal, corn gluten," etc.) is an ultracheap food with minimal nutritive value to your dog.
- Avoid artificial colors, sweeteners, and "palatants." These foods are the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs of the dog world. Sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup, etc.) and palatants (artificial flavorings and fats sprayed on the the surface of the kibble) are used to trick your dog into eating a food that would be totally unappetizing on its own. Artificial colorings are included to make the food more visually appealing to the human buyer. Your dog doesn't care, and they are unnecessary chemical additives that have been implicated in the doggy equivalent of ADD and other behavioral problems.
- Be aware of labeling tricks. If you're following the guidelines above, this should become apparent on its own, but dog food companies use a lot of tricks to make their foods sound more appealing than they are. FDA regulations have four basic rules:
- A product labeled "Beef for Cats" or "Tuna for Dogs" must be at least 95% the stated ingredient.
- A product labeled with a "qualifying descriptor," such as "Beef Dinner for Cats," or "Tuna Nuggets for Dogs," only has to be 25% of the stated ingredient (and 75% anything else, usually corn, wheat, or soy for dogs, assorted "byproducts" and "digests" for cats). This is usually even further diluted by adding a grain to the 25%, so you end up with something like "Lamb and Rice Formula for Dogs" that is 25% lamb and rice combined, meaning that what you're actually buying is probably 75% corn, corn byproducts, animal byproducts, and fake flavorings, 15% rice, and only 10% lamb.
- A product labeled "...with Beef" only needs to be 3% beef. So "Grandma's Country-Style Dinner for Dogs! With Beef!" is only 3% beef and 97%... other stuff.
- A product labeled "Chicken Flavor" does not have to contain any actual chicken at all.
If keeping all this stuff in mind seems excessive, or you just want to double-check your own analysis, there are several good dog food rating sites on the web. Dog Food Analysis and Dog Food Advisor are two that I use a lot. And if you really want to dig into home-cooked or raw diets, Whole Dog Journal has a wealth of information to satisfy the obsessive. They publish a list of the best dog foods every February (in fact, as of this writing, the newest one just came out) and it's just a great resource in general.