The Dreadful New Feeding Scheme You'll Want to Avoid

small breed food

Story at-a-glance -

  • The processed pet food industry is zeroing in on small dogs as a way to expand their product lines and increase their profits
  • Smaller size kibble, smaller packages, and product names like “Mighty Minis” and “Wee Bits” are designed to appeal to small dog owners; however, it’s important to understand these diets are usually identical to formulas marketed for bigger dogs
  • Healthy dogs of all sizes and breeds are carnivores who require diets high in animal protein and moisture, with low- or no-grain content or carbohydrates
  • Small dogs can become obese very easily, so it’s important to keep them at a healthy weight by feeding an appropriate diet in carefully measured, portion-controlled meals, and ensuring they get plenty of exercise

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

I’m suddenly seeing a lot of articles about the needs of small dogs in pet food publications, which tells me the processed pet food industry is seeing big profit potential in creating “new and innovative” formulas to market to owners of small breeds. In fact, here’s a recent headline confirming my suspicions:

“Small breed dog food becoming a big pet food market: 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 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, “and can in some cases even be trained to be completely indoor animals, with litter or puppy pads ensburing they don’t need to go down an elevator or several flights of stairs to find relief in the nearest patch of grass.”2

For the record, 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 helping keep dogs exercised, socialized, mentally stimulated and grounded.

Pet Food Industry Pitch: Your Small Dog Needs Special Food

The article states unequivocally that:

“Small dogs have unique health issues and nutritional needs, and the pet food industry is rising to meet those requirements as the trend gains more and more ground — even if that means going against other current trends.”

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. The current trend the author refers to is the growing popularity of dog food that mimics the canine ancestral diet (which in my opinion is a pet food trend that is thankfully moving in the right direction).

It appears processed pet food producers are hoping 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, as are all dogs. Canines are scavenging carnivores, not omnivores as the processed pet food industry is so desperate to have us believe.

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 and packaging 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. 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, and sadly, many will fall for it. Hopefully all of you reading here today won’t be fooled.

Your Dog’s Size Alone Shouldn’t Determine What You Feed Her

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, additives and preservatives, is not species-appropriate nutrition for any dog, regardless of size. The fact is, when comparing a Saint Bernard to a Chihuahua, dogs of every size and breed are pretty much identical when it comes to their genetic heritage. They are all canine, specifically Canis lupus familiaris.

Sadly, humans have chosen to breed certain types of dogs down to sizes so small their organs often don't function normally. Since nature doesn’t design dogs to be that small, health problems are to be expected. 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 that 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 that are born with poorly functioning livers or kidneys that must be on customized diets their whole lives: This is a result of bad breeding, not an evolutionary adaptation from being small.

8 Recommendations 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.

  1. Ignore pet food advertisements that suggest healthy small dogs need special diets.
  2. Calculate how much food your dog needs each day, then scale that amount up or down, depending on activity level.
  3. Feed a nutritionally 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 food that is high in animal protein and moisture, with low- or no-grain content or starches/carbohydrates.
  4. Practice portion control — typically a morning and evening meal, carefully measured. A high-protein, low-carb diet with the right amount 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.
  5. Use small training treats. Tiny dogs need only tiny training treats. Otherwise, you’ll see 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Evaluate your dog monthly. If she is losing weight, adjust calories. If she is gaining weight, adjust calories.
  8. 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.