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Feeding Dogs of the Arctic

By: Gary Wynn Kelly

One activity that requires so little time out of your dog’s day is one of the most important to and for your dog–feeding time. While your dog may demolish that meal with gusto in a surprisingly small amount of time, unless it is a picky Siberian Husky, it should require a substantial amount of your time to plan and choose the right diet for your dog, and become informed on what dogs need to eat, and how they need to eat it.

If you own a dog of the arctic breeds, or are thinking of adopting one, you may be wondering what to feed the dog, how much should it eat, and what to expect. There is much more to know about feeding dogs of the northern breeds than the typical dog in American homes. These dogs range from the super chow hound, to the Siberian Husky who is many times so picky that it drives owners to distraction.

The first fact to learn is that northern dogs have extremely efficient metabolisms. This is a requirement for arctic living. Food is precious, and each meal needs to last. Northern dogs have such metabolisms in part, because of their coats.

The double coat keeps them warm even in extreme temperatures. This reduces the amount of calories a dog requires. Even working sled dogs can manage on far fewer calories than a human can. A working 50 pound husky, for example, can manage on 2500 calories a day, while pulling a sled, and working every day for many days on end. Most Americans eat that much or more, with far less physical activity.

The northern dog in your home, in a relatively warm climate, needs far less calories than a sled pulling dog. Few dogs ever get such a great amount of exercise while living with people as companions. Even if your dog is out of doors for hours each day, it probably uses very little energy during a day. Your Siberian Husky of 50 pounds may only use 800 calories a day.

This means that northern dogs should have measured meals. Buy a couple of measuring cups for your dog. Keep them in the storage container where you keep the dog food. Use them for every meal.

We recommend stainless steel pans for feeding your dog, or even for water. They are easily cleaned, can be run through a dishwasher safely, and do not risk your dog’s health. Aluminum is not a good choice, as small amounts of the metal get into your dog’s system. This element is suspected of causing neurological disorders, so it is best to avoid using it as a dog feeding or watering dish. Plastic bowls may absorb food odors and tastes; resulting in the dog chewing up the bowl later. The ones that are heavier and better made do not fit in a dishwasher very well.

The next item on your shopping list is the dog food itself. It is best to avoid most grocery store foods. They are uneven in nutritional value cup for cup. What this means is that 1 cup from one bag, is not nutritionally equivalent to another cup from another bag, or even a cup from a different part of the same bag. This results in an uneven diet for the dog. Also, most are formulated for more common breeds–breeds that may need more calories than a northern dog, so this can result in unexpected weight gain, obesity, and health complications for your dog.

It is best to buy your dog’s food at a pet store, a feed store, or directly from a distributor. Most dog foods that are premium brands, can be bought online, or by an 800 number. The food is then shipped directly to your home. A good diet starts with good food.

The brand of food is less important that what is in the food. A simple way to choose a food for a northern dog is to read the label of ingredients. If the ingredients look like something you might use in your kitchen, then the food is probably a good food for your dog, too. If it reads like a chemistry book, with mostly additives and chemicals, it is more likely to cause an allergic reaction in your dog.

We recommend that dog foods that are natural, have a good balance of ingredients, such as chicken and rice, turkey and rice, or fish and rice, are likely to be better than grocery store choices of dog foods. Dog foods containing high amounts of hydrogenated fats, meat byproducts, or ingredients like corn, wheat, and soy, are more likely to cause a health problem for your dog. The 3 most common ingredients that cause a food allergy are corn, wheat, and soy.

Think about the fact that northern dogs came from the arctic. They lived for hundreds and possibly thousands of years with people who had no corn, wheat, or soy. This is not a food any northern breed ever ate before modern times. Northern dogs ate mostly meats — fish being one of the preferred, but also reindeer, seal, and elk, or similar game. Northern dogs do like some vegetables, and many will willingly eat vegetables that came from your own table. These are good as supplements to the diet. It is best to avoid the ones most likely to promote an allergic reaction.

While it makes sense that a vet is a good source for diet information, we find that most have a limited knowledge of dog foods. Many recommend a diet that is less than optimal, because it is the one that is known to them, and not necessarily as good as another diet. Vets do well at helping animals that are ill or injured, but often not as well at helping your dog eat the best diet.

The best way to choose the diet for your dog is to become informed on the choices. Read labels, ask questions, review articles, and websites. The more you know about good nutrition, the better you can manage your dog’s diet.

Most premium dog foods do have feeding recommendations on the label. This is a helpful guide in figuring out how much to feed your dog. It will vary, and possibly be very different for your dog. Dogs are different, much like people are different.

Young dogs often need more food than the recommendations indicate — perhaps twice as much, especially if your dog is active. Older dogs may eat far less, and an inactive dog may eat only a small amount. In order to know precisely how much to feed your dog, it is necessary to weigh your dog regularly at first.

If your dog is young, it may still be putting on weight. Northern dogs do mature quickly. Most of them are fully grown at 1 year, and only gain a small amount of weight by age 3. After that, their weight should be stable for a lifetime. One of my male huskies weighed about 44 pounds at 1 year, and 47 at 3 years. He stayed at 46 and 47 until he died at nearly 12 years of age.

A neutered or spayed pet may have more difficulty regulating its weight. Sometimes, the hormone imbalance caused by altering the dog causes the dog to eat more, gain weight, and not be able to regulate its diet successfully. This happens in as many cases as 60% for females that are spayed, and possibly 40% of males.

Many dogs do retain their ability to regulate their weight. Many a Siberian owner has called Rescue distraught over the fact that their Siberian refuses to eat most of its meals. Siberians are notorious for this behavior. If you have one, and it is a picky eater, it must surely be a true Siberian! The answer is to not worry about it. The dog will likely regulate its diet to maintain its own weight. If it is too thin, and some are, try using one of the foods for active dogs. These foods have more calories per cup, and the dog can eat the same amount, but gain weight to reach its proper weight for its size. Our alpha female has been this way for 9 years. She still is on a higher energy diet than other dogs her age, because she will skip meals to maintain her weight.

Because northern breed dogs do eat less per meal than many regular dogs, it is important to have a premium dog food with consistent nutrition per cup of food. When a dog eats 6 cups a day, the nutrition averages out, such that the dog is getting a relatively balanced diet over time. When a dog eats only 2 cups a day, it is best to have nutrition formulated to be sure it gets the right amount of nutrition in those 2 cups to meet its needs for vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional factors besides calories.

It is possible to make your dog food yourself. There is a considerable amount of information available on the Internet, and from other sources on doing this. It takes time, costs just as much, and it is not so easily stored or transported as commercial diets, but it is a way to give your dog good nutrition, and know what your dog is eating. If you have the time, like to cook, and want to be certain your dog has an excellent diet, this is an alternative to commercial dog foods.

If your dog is having consistent problems with digesting its food — loose stools, gas, discolored stools, etc., then it is good to get the advice of your vet. It may be that your dog has a food allergy. This is rare, but it does happen. We have had about 1 dog in every hundred that had a proven food allergy that required a special diet. Fortunately, modern veterinary medicine has made it possible to help your dog easily.

It is possible to have your vet run a blood test that can determine to what foods your dog is allergic. The profile comes back with specific recommendations on what foods to use, the manufacturer, an 800 number for each, and a profile for your dog that shows the most likely causes of the allergic reaction, and the secondary foods that might also cause a minor reaction.

We had one dog in rescue, that could not eat chicken, wheat, corn, and about 3 other additives found in dog foods — sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soy.

Even then, there were foods that this dog can eat, and she is living happily in a good home that makes sure she gets her proper diet. She even gets some special treats that are formulated for her dietary needs.

Remember that treats are food, too. They must be counted as a part of your dog’s diet, if you feed treats, or table scraps. This means that extra calories are being added and consumed by your dog. It may be necessary to reduce your dog’s regular food by a small amount, or to eliminate the treats if your dog is gaining weight.

It is good to remember if an allergic reaction is suspected, that the dog may be eating substances other than food that are causing the reaction. We have seen cases where it was the treats that caused the allergy, and not the primary dog food.

Your dog will have a changing diet over the course of its life. Young dogs need more fat and calories than older dogs. It is usually necessary, or at least advisable, to change dog foods as the dog ages. Northern dogs may need a lite, or “senior” diet by age 4 or 5 if they have a tendency to gain weight due to spaying or neutering. If not, it may be advisable to change them over by age 8 or 9, to reduce the demands on the kidneys. A vet can advise you of the need to do this.

Families often have difficulty in controlling the weight of their family dog, because one or more of the family members insists on feeding the dog extra tidbits, snacks, treats, or even an extra meal. It is desirable to have the family all meet, and set out the facts. Get the dog’s current weight, the vet’s opinion on how much weight the dog should lose, and get an agreement from all the family members that all will work to see that this happens. One family member should take responsibility for *all* feeding, and begin by measuring all food given to the dog.

An obese family dog is a dog in danger. Obesity in dogs is much like obesity in people, only faster in terms of the negative impacts. A person might get away with being obese for 20 years without getting diabetes, but your dog will likely not live that long. Obesity in dogs leads to diabetes, and other complications including heart disease, high blood pressure, and the risk of a stroke or heart failure. Your family pet will suffer a loss of at least 10% of its life, if not far more. The ADRTC library has an article on obesity in dogs, and recommendations on coming to grips with the problem.

Obesity in pets follows social patterns. It is far more likely for a dog to be obese when a family member is obese. That is a truth that many readers will not want to acknowledge, and one that prevents many vets from speaking openly about the dog’s obesity.

You may not mind that your dog is obese, but you probably do mind that it may well suffer poor health, and a tragically early death with suffering, because you permitted the dog to be obese, and failed in your responsibility to provide the care for your dog that will give it the happiest and longest life.

Dogs are not happy when they are obese. They do enjoy those treats and extra food — they feel biologically compelled in many cases to eat them, but a dog that cannot play, take walks, or interact comfortably with other dogs, or enjoy the outdoors, because it is obese, is not a happy companion.

Because the readers of this paper are anonymous, we can be completely frank about this problem, and ask, on your dog’s behalf, that you help your dog. Start now by acting responsibly in the feeding and care of your dog. You may well reap the benefits in unexpected ways — taking that fat old dog out walking daily, buying less treats, and getting more exercise yourself, may make you happier, wiser, and better off financially.

If you feel that your dog gets too hungry as a result of a strict diet, then consider making sure your dog gets multiple meals a day. Even 2 meals a day can help your dog to feel less ravenous. If you can manage 3, then the benefits increase.

When a meal is eaten, it is digested. This process takes energy. The digestive system itself requires that muscles work, and that energy be expended in processing the food. It is far less efficient to get 1000 calories in 2 meals than in one. If the dog eats that same caloric intake in 2 meals and not just one, it will lose weight at a faster rate than if it ate all the food in one meal. If the same amount of calories are divided into 3 meals, then the loss is greater, and the dog will benefit even more quickly.

An excellent balance is to have even 2 meals — one at night, and one in the morning, and to make sure the dog gets walked each day in between meals. I do this with my own dogs, and find I can manage their weight easily, and do much better at managing my own, too.

When feeding your dog, it is good to make sure it does not have to compete with another dog, cat, or other animals for its food, and that it has a quiet and secure place in which to eat. Dogs develop eating disorders — such as becoming food protective, or even food aggressive, as a result of having to defend their food. This is unfortunate behavior that is hard to treat, and constitutes a danger to the humans of the household, or visitors. People can be bitten by a food aggressive dog, and often it is a child that is bitten. That usually means the end of the dog.

Crate training is one excellent way in which to provide a safe and secure place for the dog to eat. Feeding in a crate also produces positive associations for being crated, and the dog will have another skill that is valuable to the family. The ADRTC Library has an article on crate training your dog.

If a crate is not chosen as the best method of providing a secure location for feeding your dog, then consider alternatives such as a quiet room alone, the garage, or a kennel. If you own multiple dogs, then either supervise feeding to be absolutely certain that they all get a chance to have a peaceful meal, or make certain that the dogs are separated prior to feeding them, during that dinner time, and until after the last pan has been retrieved.

If dogs become insecure about eating, they can develop behaviors such as gulping their food. This can have long term impacts, as the dog will tend to overeat given a chance. This same pattern is true of people, too. People who eat slowly, talk while eating, will generally eat less than a person eating in a hurry.

There is yet one more advantage in feeding your dog regular meals of measured quantities, and skipping those treats except on very special occasions. When a dog eats, it activates an entire digestive sequence. Food is digested, and the intestinal system prepares for elimination of waste products. Eating can stimulate this process.

If your dog is on a regular diet, eating at regular times of day, it will learn to have regular elimination periods. This means that you may benefit in one more way — your dog companion will start eliminating like clockwork. Elimination patterns will almost become so predictable that you can set your watch by them. I control my dog’s meals that way, and they stay on a regular pattern for years at a time. I have to do this, as my Siberians are guide dogs. A guide dog has to have regular elimination patterns to go out in public, and do the job of guiding without unexpected elimination patterns for which I might be unprepared. Few people realize that a few treats can throw off a dogs normal patterns so completely.

If you are in the process of trying to housebreak a dog, this is an excellent place to begin. It is far easier to do that kind of training when the dog has a biological level of cooperation.

If you elect to feed your dog table scraps, or portions of food you cook for your dog, then be sure to only *add* it to a meal. It may be desirable to subtract some of the regular commercial food when adding extra food you have prepared, unless you are trying to encourage your dog to eat and gain weight.

By making sure your dog only eats food from the dog dish, and at regular times of feeding, you will also be helping yourself. The dog will be much less likely to ever be interested in your food, or food you serve your guests. A dog that becomes a food thief, or begs for food, is a dog few people want to have around them.

Some foods people eat can be good for dogs — many vegetables are good for dogs to eat, too. I have one dog who loves tomatoes, and another who likes green beans. It is best to avoid giving your dog too much food that has fat — hamburger, steak and pork left-overs, sausage, etc. Dogs do develop pancreatitis, which can kill them. If it does not kill them, it can result in a very expensive stay in the hospital.

In planning and implementing a diet for your dog, it is good to remember that a dog is a carnivore. It is not like a human. Humans are omnivores. The difference is that a dog requires a meat diet. That is the diet that fed dogs and the ancestors of dogs for thousands and millions of years. Because you can function as a vegetarian, does not mean that your dog can successfully do so. Some people who are vegetarians try to put the family dog on a vegetarian diet. There are commercial vegetarian diets, but all responsible vets and canine nutrition experts agree that vegetarian diets must be supplemented with meat protein and vitamins. Attempting to put a dog on a purely vegetarian diet is likely to endanger the dog’s health — especially the northern breed dogs, who as members of the primitive breeds, have ben living in a more natural relationship with nature for far longer than other breeds.

It might seem desirable to put your northern dog on a commercial fish-based diet. This is attractive, but has an unfortunate downside. There is apparently a federal regulation that requires that ocean fish for animal food production be preserved with ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin has been banned from any food that humans eat, or from livestock food that livestock will be fed, as those livestock are then eaten by humans. This prohibition is because ethoxyquin is a cancer-causing substance. It is common in many dog foods — especially those grocery store varieties. Pay attention to the additives on the label, too. If the food is preserved with natural agents, it is likely to be far safer for your dog’s health. There are excellent commercial dog foods made from farm fish, such as trout, that are free of ethoxyquin.

The federal agency that regulates human food is the Food and Drug Administration. It is this agency that forbids ethoxyquin in any human food, since 1959. The agency that regulates animal food is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA is more interested in what livestock eat than what your family pets eat. Livestock gets eaten by humans, so it must not be contaminated with substances that can cause harm to humans. Since most animals regulated by the USDA are livestock, pets matter little in terms of political policy. It is up to you as the owner, to become educated in the dietary needs of your own pets.

Bones can help your dog’s diet, too. We have successfully used large “dinosaur” bones to occupy a dog during the day, and had the dog eat less at meals, or be content with eating less. The dog also expends energy while chewing on a large bone. Those “dinosaur” bones are usually femur bones from livestock, and while they do have some nutritional value in the marrow, they mostly take more calories to chew than the dog can possibly gain from the effort. They are excellent for young dogs that are into chewing, especially destructive chewing, as they do satisfy the need the dog has to alleviate “tingling teeth”.

Be careful when giving dogs bones on which to chew. Be sensible, and use large bones like those “dinosaur” bones. There is far less chance of an accident. They are more easily managed, too. Avoid giving the dog chicken, or pork bones — especially after cooking them, as these can result in a medical emergency, or death of the dog due to a sharp bone penetrating an intestine. Raw bones do not do this, but those are messy, and may stimulate a dog’s natural proclivities as a hunter.

Copyright© 2007, by Gary Wynn Kelly
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