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Commercial Dog Foods

Photo of dog surrounded by bags and cans of dog food

Selecting the best commercial foods

Here are the things that I look for in a commercial food:

No generic fats or proteins (e.g., animal fat or meat meal) -- instead, look for named sources such as beef fat, chicken fat or lamb meal (the generic term indicates a mixture coming from a number of sources, a sign of a very poor quality food). I don't consider poultry fat as bad as animal fat, but chicken fat is better. Never feed a food that uses the generic ingredients "meat meal", "meat and bone meal", or "animal fat".

Human grade ingredients (USDA approved). This item is somewhat controversial, as dog foods by law cannot be labeled human grade, but I look for companies that use human grade meats (not meats that were rejected by the human food industry). For even higher quality, look for hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, especially those that are free-range or pasture-raised (note that all poultry is hormone-free, as it is against regulations to give hormones to poultry).

Avoid foods that use corn gluten meal, a cheap waste product from the human food industry that provides incomplete protein for dogs. I consider this ingredient to be one of the hallmarks of poor quality foods. Wheat gluten meal, one of the ingredients that caused illness and death due to contamination in the recent Menu Foods recall, is similar -- a cheap source of poor quality protein used primarily by the lower-quality foods. Rice protein concentrate, which was also involved in the pet food recalls, is a little better quality than the other two, but still provides incomplete plant protein rather than the more desirable animal protein. Soy protein has the same problem.

No meat by-products or digest (meal is OK). There is some disagreement whether whole meat is preferable to meal. Meal has been rendered, but it is also dried, so if a meal is listed as the first ingredient, there is greater likelihood that the food contains more meat than grains. When whole meats such as chicken, lamb, turkey, etc. are listed as the first ingredient, there may actually be much less meat due to the weight of the moisture in the meat. Both whole meats and meals are considered acceptable as long as they are identified and not generic (e.g., not "meat meal" or "meat and bone meal"). By-products may be OK if the company specifies that they are human-grade organs such as liver and kidney, but otherwise they usually signify parts not considered fit for human consumption.

No BHA, BHT or Ethoxyquin (artificial preservatives), another sign of a low quality food. Ethoxyquin is banned from use in foods for human consumption except for the use of very small quantities as a color preservative for spices. Note that ethoxyquin is used to preserve fish meal, which will not be disclosed on the dog food label since it is added before the fish meal reaches the manufacturing plant. In general, unless the manufacturer provides a statement on their web site that the fish meal in their food does not contain ethoxyquin, you can assume that is does. Contact the manufacturer if you are unsure.

See Risk Ingredients Not Listed on Pet Food Labels for more information.

Keep in mind that natural preservatives are not as powerful as these chemical preservatives are, however. It's best if the foods have an expiration date that is no longer than six months from the date of manufacture. Protecting food from light, heat and air will help keep fats from becoming rancid.

No artificial colors, no sugars and sweeteners (such as corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin), no propylene glycol (added to some chewy foods to keep them moist, toxic in large amounts).

As few grains as possible (a whole-meat source should be one of the first two ingredients, preferably two of the top three) -- watch for splitting, such as listing ground yellow corn and corn gluten meal as separate ingredients which together might add up to more than the first ingredient. Note that canned foods often have fewer grains than dry.

Added taurine. Taurine was added to cat foods in the 70's when cats began going blind and dying due to taurine deficiency. Taurine is thought not to be an "essential" amino acid in dogs because they can convert carnitine to taurine. However, links are now being found between problems such as dilated cardiomyopathy and taurine deficiencies. Some dog food companies have begun adding taurine to their foods, and this is probably a good idea. Taurine is affected by heat, so there would not usually be enough natural taurine in processed dog foods, though foods that have a lot of meat will have more natural taurine. See the following for more info:

Meets AAFCO Specifications. Although I do not consider AAFCO to know everything there is to know about nutrition, if a food specifies that it meets AAFCO specifications, it should be a complete diet. It is fine to use foods that do not meet AAFCO specifications as part of the diet, but you cannot rely on these foods as the sole source of nutrition without adding other foods and supplements to the diet.

There is some question as to whether it's best to look for foods that have done feeding trials rather than just relying on a nutritional analysis to meet AAFCO guidelines. I think that the feeding trials done for adult maintenance foods are pretty much meaningless. The number of dogs included is so small (8), the feeding trial so short (26 weeks), and the qualifications they have to meet so limited (not too much weight loss or other physical signs of deficiency) that even foods with some pretty glaring problems would likely pass. In this case, a nutritional analysis might be more likely to show many problems with food than a feeding trail would.

The same trials done for food approved for all life stages, however, are far more pertinent. Nutrient deficiencies (or excesses) are much more likely to show up with puppies or pregnant and lactating bitches. For them, six months is a long time. Therefore, I think that feeding trials done on foods approved for all life stages are more reliable than nutritional analysis alone.

High Protein, Moderate Fat. Most dogs do best on a diet that is high in protein with moderate amounts of fat. Look for foods where the percentage of protein is about twice that of fat. Dogs that are very active may need more fat, while some dogs with digestive problems do better on low-fat diets.

Note that I am not overly concerned about menadione, a synthetic form of vitamin K that has many people worried (see The Dog Food Project, for example). See the section on Menadione in one of my articles on homemade diets for more information on this topic.

See Also:

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Best Diet?

There is no "best" food for all dogs, as each dog is an individual, and what works well for one dog may not work at all for another. In addition, it is better for a dog to get a variety of foods, rather than just one food for its whole life. Feeding different commercial diets can help fill in nutritional gaps that a particular food or brand might have, as well as making it less likely that your dog will develop food allergies.

Rather than trying to find a single, "best" food, I recommend that you choose at least two or three different brands, using different protein sources, and rotate between them, anywhere from a daily basis to every few months. Variety is always better than feeding any single food, as it helps to guarantee that all of your dogs' nutritional needs are met and is more interesting for your dogs. The only warning I have about feeding a lot of variety is to not feed every exotic protein available (duck, rabbit, venison, etc.); always reserve one or two in case you ever need to do an elimination diet using a food your dog has never had before to test for food allergies.

In addition, I suggest adding some fresh foods to the diet, no matter what you feed, including eggs and meat (raw or cooked), canned fish with bones (jack mackerel, pink salmon, sardines), dairy (yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese) and healthy leftovers (see Adding Fresh Foods for more info). This can be used to improve the quality of whatever diet you feed.

When you feed the same food continuously for a month or more, be sure to make the switch gradually to avoid digestive upset, but dogs that are used to getting different foods all the time rarely have any problems with it.

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Exotic proteins

Just a note about using foods with exotic proteins, such as duck, venison, buffalo, rabbit, trout, kangaroo, ostrich, emu, beaver, goat, quail, pheasant, eel, etc. These foods are formulated to be able to offer proteins that a dog has never had before for dogs with food allergies. I do not recommend feeding them to healthy dogs who have no allergies. If you feed these foods routinely, then if your dog does develop food allergies in the future, it is going to be very difficult for you to find a protein that he has never had before in order to try an elimination diet.

I would reserve most of these exotic protein foods for dogs who  have food problems and need a special diet. Also, if you have a dog with digestive problems, don't just keep trying different foods, as they are more likely to become allergic to new ingredients while problems are occurring. If the first new diet doesn't work, you'll need to talk to your vet about using medications to get the problem under control before introducing any more new foods.

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Corn, wheat, soy and other so-called common allergens

Foods considered to be "common allergens" for dogs are simply the foods most commonly fed. In other words, dogs are not inherently more likely to be allergic to corn, wheat, soy, rice, beef or chicken, etc., but they are more likely to be allergic to common ingredients in foods that they've been fed. Food allergies are also more likely to develop if the dog is fed the same food all the time.

There can be other problems with certain foods, especially grains. Gluten intolerance can cause digestive problem for some dogs. Sources of gluten include wheat (including Kamut and spelt), barley, rye, and triticale; oats are considered questionable (oats are gluten-free but processed oats can be contaminated with gluten), while buckwheat, corn/maize, and rice are gluten-free. See Is Gluten-Free Dog Food Better? for more information.

Certain grains can contain molds or storage mites that can cause an allergic reaction. I don't believe that grains should ever be a large part of a dog's diet, but I don't consider corn or wheat to be worse than other grains, unless your dog has a specific problem with these foods. Corn is especially likely to be contaminated with aflatoxin, however, a toxic fungus that is found occasionally in dog food and which can cause severe problems in dogs. Problems with aflatoxin are expected to increase in 2013 due to drought conditions last year (see Corn-Containing Dog Food at Increased Risk of Aflotoxin and Grain Handlers Wary of Toxin Lingering in Corn Harvest for more information). Keep in mind that corn gluten meal is a waste product from the human food industry used as a cheap source of low-quality protein and is a hallmark of a poor quality food (wheat gluten is similar).

I also don't consider it necessary to avoid using products that contain soy, as long as it is a small part of the diet, and used in place of grains or other plant products, rather than as a primary protein source in place of meat. Again, if your individual dog has a problem with soy, then you should avoid foods that use it.

Grain-free foods have become popular in recent years. They are worth trying if your dog suffers from allergies or other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, but we don't really know if the substitute carbohydrates, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, and peas, are really better for your dog than grains. If you don't see improvements when feeding a grain-free food to your dog, there may be no reason to avoid grains in the diet.

The following web sites have some interesting information on food allergies and intolerances:

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High-Protein Diets

Contrary to many myths and popular beliefs, there is no harm in feeding a high-protein diet to dogs of any age, including puppies (see Large and giant breed puppies below) and seniors (see Senior and overweight dogs below and my article on Diet and the Older Dog for more information). Studies have proved that protein does not cause orthopedic problems in puppies, nor lead to kidney disease in older dogs. In fact, protein is extremely beneficial: it supports the immune system and the central nervous system, contributes to wound healing, helps build lean muscle, and is required for skin and coat health.

Even most dogs with kidney disease benefit from a moderate-protein rather than low-protein diet (see my Kidney Disease web page for additional info). There are very, very few health conditions where a lower-protein diet is needed, and even then, it's extremely important to feed adequate protein, as protein malnutrition will cause the body to break down its own muscle tissue to get what it needs, leading to muscle wasting and other serious problems. Even mild protein deficiency can significantly impair immune function. Dogs who get too little protein are also more susceptible to stress, including stress from injury or infection.

Dogs thrive on protein, the more the better. There is absolutely no reason to limit the amount of protein you feed your dog. Look for foods that are high in protein, rather than the typical high-carbohydrate diets that are more commonly available. Dogs have no nutritional need for carbohydrates; they are used in dog food mostly as an inexpensive source of calories (grains are also used to supply low-quality protein in some foods), and to help bind dry food together into kibble. Studies indicate that high-protein, low-carb foods with moderate amounts of fat also help dogs lose weight better than the traditional high-carb, low-fat (and often low-protein) weight loss diets.

There are a number of newer, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets now being offered, for both adult and senior dogs. Some of these are also OK for puppies, if approved for them or for all life stages, but be careful of any with very high calcium percentages (best to stick to 2% or less calcium on a dry matter basis for large-breed puppies under the age of six months). Some of the high-protein diets are also quite high in fat (20% or more), which is appropriate for very active dogs, but not for those who aren't. Look for foods where the protein percentage is double the fat percentage.

You can also increase the protein levels in whatever diet you feed by adding some fresh, high-protein foods, such as meat, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, and canned fish with bones (jack mackerel, pink salmon, sardines). See Adding Fresh Foods to a Commercial Diet for more info.

If you have a dog that is hyper-reactive to outside stimuli, you may be interested in How High Carbohydrate Diets Can Affect Some Dogs by noted behaviorist William Campbell suggesting a possible cause being a high carbohydrate diet.

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Large and giant breed puppies

Large and giant breed (or any breed prone to hip dysplasia) puppies should be fed a restricted diet to slow growth. Overfeeding encourages them to grow too fast, resulting in most of the bone and joint problems common in large breeds, including dysplasia, osteochondrosis, etc. Limit the amount you feed to keep your pup lean and slow-growing, which will not affect his eventual adult size.

Never give supplemental calcium of any kind when feeding a commercial diet. Excess calcium is another factor that has been linked to hip dysplasia and other developmental problems in large-breed puppies. Large Breed Puppy Formulas are usually designed to be lower in calcium and fat (calories) than other puppy foods, which can help to prevent these problems. They are sometimes lower in protein as well, however, which is not desirable. Protein and carbohydrates provide similar calories per gram, so reducing protein in favor of carbohydrates provides less needed nutrition without reducing calories. Look for formulas that are high in protein without being high in fat. See What is Large Breed Puppy Food? for more information.

You should always feed puppies foods that are approved  either for puppies or for all life stages until they are full grown. If you feed a food that is approved for adult dogs only, there could be inadequate amounts of protein and fat, and improper levels of calcium and other nutrients.

High protein diets are preferred, as puppies need protein to thrive and studies have shown that high protein does not lead to developmental problems, but high fat diets may contribute too many calories, leading to rapid growth. See the following articles for more information:

Developmental orthopedic disease in large-breed puppies “For large-breed puppies, overnutrition or rapid growth—with weight more than height—along with excess calcium and genetics are the primary risk factors for DOD [developmental orthopedic disease] . . .
"In studies thus far, the differences in protein intake have not been shown to affect the occurrence of disturbed skeletal development in young Great Danes, and an etiologic role for dietary protein in the development of osteochondrosis in dogs is unlikely. . . .
"Switching to an adult food to avoid excess calcium may actually result in the puppy receiving as much or more calcium than if fed a growth diet because of the low calorie density. A diet formulated for large-breed puppies is our way of avoiding these issues.”

"Effects of limited food consumption on the incidence of hip dysplasia in growing dogs", by RD Kealy et al., in JAVMA, Vol. 201, No. 6, Sept. 15, 1992 (pp 857-863), "On the basis of our findings in the long-term study reported here, limited food intake has a beneficial effect on development of the hip joints in growing and adolescent dogs. Labrador Retrievers fed 25% less food than those fed ad libitum had less hip joint laxity when they were 30 weeks old than their ad-libitum-fed counterparts. Furthermore, by maintaining the dogs on the same feeding regimen until they were 2 years old, this beneficial effect was still present at that age, as demonstrated by the significantly lower frequency of hip dysplasia in the limit-fed dogs."

Feeding the Large and Giant Breed Puppy "Genetics aside, scientific studies have led to the present conclusion that rapid growth of the long bones in puppies is a risk factor for developing these joint and bone conditions. Rapid bone growth can be caused by two methods; overfeeding and calcium supplementation."

Are high calcium diets related to bone disease? "While feeding a special formula large breed puppy food to your puppy is not bad, there are no concrete studies that show it is better than a balanced puppy food formulated for all puppies."

Overfeeding During Growth "Overfeeding during the phase of rapid growth after weaning is linked to a variety of multi-factorial skeletal diseases including osteochondrosis, hip dysplasia, hypertrophic dystrophy and wobbler syndrome. A high protein diet (30% on a dry matter basis) does not increase the frequency or severity of skeletal abnormalities in giant breed dogs. So the excess weight during the period of rapid growth, rather than the protein content of the diet, is probably the factor which alters skeletal development.

Relationship of Nutrition to Developmental Skeletal Disease in Young Dogs "Excessive dietary energy may support a growth rate that is too fast for proper skeletal development and results in a higher frequency of skeletal abnormalities in large and giant-breed dogs Because fat has twice the caloric density of protein or carbohydrate, dietary fat is the primary contributor to excess energy intake. . . . Unlike other species, protein excess has not been demonstrated to negatively affect calcium metabolism or skeletal development in dogs. Protein deficiency, however, has more impact on the developing skeleton."

Dietary Mineral Levels Affect Bone Development in Great Dane Pups "Controlling skeletal growth is considered critical in decreasing the expression of developmental bone disease in large and giant breed puppies. For these puppies, intake of calories and calcium should be restricted to a level that supports an adequate, but not excessive growth rate. If large and giant breed puppies are given unrestricted access from weaning to a puppy food with usual mineral and energy content, high mineral intakes may quickly result in bone mineral changes that could contribute to persistent skeletal problems."

The optimal growth of large breed puppies "Excessive food intake (calories) during growth results in a higher risk of developing HD. . . . Research into the growth of Great Danes (Nap RC, The Netherlands,) has shown that the protein level of a diet has no significant influence on skeletal development. High protein intake does not result in increased risk for OCD or HD, and there is no effect on the development in the longitudinal growth of the bone."

See Also:

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Senior and overweight dogs

Senior and overweight dogs are often fed foods that are lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates, which is a bad idea. Recent research indicates that older dogs need MORE protein than younger dogs, not less. Carbohydrates provide less nutrition than protein and can lead to weight gain. Feed senior and overweight dogs a diet that is high in protein, with low carbs and moderate amounts of fat (too little fat leaves your dog feeling hungry all the time, which can make it harder for them to lose weight). I have notations in the lists of recommended foods about which companies offer higher-protein senior and weight loss foods.

See my articles for more information:

Also see the following for more information on this topic:

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Prescription Diets

Did you know that "prescription diet" is an unregulated marketing term? No prescription is required to buy these foods, nor do they have to meet any special requirements or get approval from the FDA or AAFCO.

Certain health conditions do require dietary changes, though prescription diets are not always the best option (they are often formulated based on outdated and disproved hypotheses). One example is Hill's Prescription u/d, prescribed for dogs prone to forming calcium oxalate stones. U/D is low in protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium and high in carbohydrates. Newer recommendations for dogs prone to forming CaOx stones say that diets should not be restricted in protein, calcium, or phosphorus. One study found that canned diets with the highest amount of carbohydrate were associated with an increased risk of CaOx urolith formation, and concluded that “canned diets formulated to contain high amounts of protein, fat, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and moisture and a low amount of carbohydrate may minimize the risk of CaOx urolith formation in dogs.” See my article on Calcium Oxalate Stones, published in the WDJ in May 2010, for more information..

In other cases, no dietary changes are needed for health conditions for which prescription diets are used, or any necessary changes can be more easily and effectively done using regular commercial foods and/or supplements. Examples:

See my Shopping page for where to order prescription diets. Confirmation that your vet has recommended a particular food may be required.

Just Food for Dogs offers a line of cooked and frozen prescription foods called JustVetSupportDiets. These diets use high-quality, human-grade foods along with customized supplements for each recipe. The company will also develop custom formulations for a one-time fee of $195; you then have the option of having them make the food and ship it to you, or you can get the recipe along with a custom supplement blend to make yourself at home. The company does not currently offer the option of making the food at home for their JustVetSupportDiets, but may do so in the future. See my article about this company in Whole Dog Journal's December 2013 issue.

Rayne Clinical Nutrition offers therapeutic diets, including custom diets. Most are cooked and frozen "peel and serve" varieties, but several limited-ingredient diets are also available in dry form. In comparison to JustFoodForDogs above, most foods have no organ meats, fruits, or vegetables (other than starchy carbs), supplements are not customized for each recipe, and they don't offer the option of making custom diets at home. Dry foods are approximately two-thirds carbs and relatively low in protein. Kidney diets are overly restricted in protein.

Wysong has introduced a line of freeze-dried prescription dog food for a variety of conditions. These foods can only be ordered through veterinarians. Note I don't recommend their Nephreon diet for dogs with kidney disease as it is high in phosphorus.

See Why do you really need a prescription for your dog’s food? … just follow the money! for more information.

Email me if you have questions about the diet your vet has recommended for your dog.

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Melamine and Cyanuric Acid

As everyone must be aware by now, there was a massive recall of pet foods beginning in March, 2007, due to contaminants that caused kidney failure in death in thousands of pets (see my Recall page for more information). Eventually, the cause was determined to be contamination with melamine and cyanuric acid, ingredients that are often added illegally to foods in China to artificially increase their protein level. Contamination was found first in wheat gluten, then in rice protein concentrate, then in corn gluten (in South Africa), all coming from China (chicken jerky from China has also been implicated in kidney problems and death, but the cause has not been identified). Since that time, most of the better dog food companies have instituted testing for these two substances, and have taken steps to eliminate ingredients sourced from China. Unfortunately, there are a few ingredients that simply cannot be found elsewhere in quantity, including taurine, glucosamine and most B vitamins. Note that companies who say that all of their ingredients come from US companies are being disingenuous, as the original source of some parts could still be China.

Eagle Pack, whose foods are EU (European Union) certified, which requires disclosure of the country of origin of all ingredients, has this to say: "Due to the global economy and worldwide outsourcing, some ingredients or supplements are not made in the U.S. or are not made in sufficient quantity. Most pet food and human food companies and makers of supplements most likely source some supplements from China. Most B vitamins for human and pet consumption come from China. In our supplements, U.S. vitamin maker BASF sources some vitamins from China. This will be true of the vitamin content for most pet foods you buy and for many pet or human vitamins you use. The Glucosamine we humans take as well as the Glucosamine in your pet’s food most likely is sourced from  China. The same is true for human grade Taurine. Some pet food makers seem unaware that some ingredients of necessity must be sourced from China; scary they don’t know."

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Dental Disease

Contrary to popular belief, hard kibble does not  keep teeth clean, though chewing on bones, chew toys and whole pieces of meat, etc. helps to reduce calculus and gingivitis, and there are certain types of oral hygiene kibbles designed to be chewed that can help to slow calculus accumulation, though they won't remove it. The best thing you can do to prevent periodontal disease is brushing your dog's teeth at least three times a week. This is especially important for small dogs, who are most seriously affected by periodontal disease due to the small size of their mouths which leads to crowding of the teeth and reduced bone for anchoring teeth. Existing calculus can only be removed by cleaning under anesthesia (not the type of scaling done by groomers, which does not get under the gums where the real problems lie). See the following articles for more info:

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10, or ubiquinol) is a supplement that has been shown to help with gum health, and is also good for the heart and kidneys. Give 1 mg per pound of body weight once or twice a day. Supplements made for people are fine to use.

There are many products that claim to help control plaque, but very few have been studied and most do not work. Even those that have shown to reduce tartar may have only minimal effects. See the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Care) site for products that have been awarded their seal of approval. Note that this does not mean the products are safe (Greenies, for example, have been implicated in dog deaths due to esophageal and intestinal damage), and the dental foods are all low-quality. Again, best to feed a better quality food and brush your dog's teeth if at all possible. Also, many water additives contain xylitol, which is dangerous for dogs, though the one water additive listed on the VOHC site, Healthymouth anti-plaque water additive, does not and should be safe to use.

There are also some (usually expensive) oral care products that may be helpful. Some people report good results at first, but I rarely hear anything from anyone who has used these products long term, which makes me think the products don't work all that well or are too much trouble to use. Examples include:

OraVet makes a sealant that vets can put on the teeth after cleaning, then you apply weekly topcoats (available at Amazon) at home, but you can't use the topcoat if the sealant wasn't applied when his teeth were cleaned. See Ora Vet:  a Dental Sealant for more information.

I don't recommend "anesthesia-free teeth cleaning," which is usually done by dog groomers, not trained veterinary technicians. There are two problems with this approach: first, they do not get the tartar under the gums, where it causes the most problems, and second, without polishing after the cleaning, the surface of the tooth is roughened and will accumulate plaque even more quickly in the future. See the following for more information:

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If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me, but I have less time to answer questions than I used to, and it may be several days to a week before I can respond. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or

   


Rocky is a Yorkie-Poodle mix who had suffered from digestive problems his whole life. Click on his image to read about the diet his owner finally found to help him.
Pashoshe Fisher, a Chihuahua, was a wonderful, joyful companion to his owner for 19 & a half years. He was on a high quality raw diet for over half his life.
This is Ella, my Norwich Terrier.