Chicago — The newest gourmet in your family may well have four legs and a bark. If you've glanced at the dog food shelves in your supermarket lately, you may have noticed that Fido is being offered everything in food flavors from turkey and giblets to cheese and egg, with a wide variety of dry snacks for between-meal chews. Lest boredom set in, there is even a variety pack of flavors not unlike the cereal variety pack available to humans. One can even buy dog food specially tailored to the age and activity level of his pet, and just as there are low- calorie foods for humans watching their weight, so too for dogs.
Just within the last year manufacturers put out 75 new dog foods and promoted them with ad budgets of as much as $25 million each. Pet owners, who rarely sample the food personally but want the best for their four-footed friends are considered receptive to ad claims and such label touts as "new, improved" and "preferred by vets."
The production of dog food is a highly competitive business. Just as there are test kitchens for experimenting with recipes tailored to humans and equipped with expert testing panels, so the nation's largest manufacturers of dog food keep kennels of hundreds of dogs who have no more important daily activity, aside from normal exercise, than picking and choosing among a variety of food flavors, textures, and chunk sizes.
Three of the largest of these are located in the Midwest -- not far from either the grains used as the base of much of the food or the manufacturing sites. At the Gaines Nutrition Center in Kankakee, Ill., more than 20 varieties of purebred dogs serve as the resident experts. Veterinarians keep close watch over which food offered is selected first and, by a computer weight analysis of the food bowl before and after eating, over just how popular each variation in size, flavor, and texture is.
It is cats, rather than dogs, that have -- and deserve to keep -- a reputation as fussy eaters, according to most veterinarians. Dogs do not need as much change as many of their owners seem to think. On the other hand, they can easily become accustomed to change.
"Dogs don't really need a lot of variety -- it's more of a human thing," says Dr. James Von Druska, staff veterinarian for Quaker Oats Company (makers of Ken-L Ration) kennels in Barrington, Ill. "And you have to be introduced to something, whether it's kiwi fruit or steak tartar, before you really develop an appreciation for it. Given variety, dogs, too, can develop behavior patterns whereby they enjoy and expect it."
Most dog foods must meet a strict nutritional standard set by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council in order for manufacturers to make their respective label claims. Manufacturers insist that even snack foods can be fed to a dog exclusively with no need for nutrition from other sources. Indeed, many experts now recommend against offering a dog meat bones on grounds that, other than helping the dog keep its teeth clean, bones offer no nutrients other than those he gets in his regular food.
Like many of their owners, dogs do enjoy sweets and occasionally are offered ice cream and candy in moments of indulgence. Some authorities advise against such snacking because it can make Fido fat. It also makes Fido a more fussy eater -- unnecessarily.