No matter how happy you are with your dog’s food, chances are that at some point you might have to transition your dog to a new food. ”What is the best way to switch my dog to a new food?” is a question that I am asked on a weekly basis. This guide will walk you through the steps to take so you can learn how to switch dog foods properly, whether because of illness, a pet food recall, or just for the sake of variety.
The first thing we need to address is why you are changing your dog’s food, because there’s a difference between a change made to introduce variety or because a pet owner has found a new food that looks appealing, and a change made because of illness or allergies. We’ll examine both.
Transitioning Cold Turkey – Saving Dogs in Distress
Sometimes, we decide to transition our dogs onto a new food for health reasons. You need to know how to switch dog food when there’s little time to waste.
Your pet may have developed a dietary intolerance to his current food, and is experiencing dietary upsets – diarrhea, upset stomachs, or even pancreatitis. In this case, we’re dealing with an emergency transition – it’s important to get your pet off of the old food, and on to the new food, as rapidly as possible.
For situations like this, where your pet’s health – and possibly even life – might be in danger, I recommend a ‘cold turkey’ transition t0 a new food – specifically, raw dog food. This might seem counter intuitive, if you’re not currently a raw feeder. After all, isn’t raw food ‘dangerous’? The truth is that a well made raw food diet will be free of most of the ingredients that have been causing dietary stress to your dog’s system.
A basic diet that I call a “detox diet for dogs” is the most beneficial, instantaneous change you can make for your dog’s health. Essentially, we transition your dog to a very simple, bland diet consisting of 5% canned or home cooked pumpkin, 1% kelp and a meat/bone/organ pre ground, frozen raw food. I usually suggest a novel protein, at least initially – something the dog has not commonly been exposed to. On top of this, we add a good Probiotic Paste, like Best in Show. After a week, if your dog is showing signs of improvement, we introduce a 10 day regimen of raw green lamb tripe as part of his diet, in an attempt to repair some of the damage caused during his gastrointestinal distress.
In almost every case where I’ve done this personally, or counseled doing changing dogs using this method of transitioning, the dogs have not only recovered, but have thrived on their new feeding routine.
If you are not comfortable feeding raw for the rest of this dog’s life, you can consider transitioning him back to either a new dry food, or to a dehydrated raw. Be aware that, in my experience, once a dog has gone through this kind of intestinal distress, they tend to be vulnerable to recurrences. In other words, once a dog has a sensitive stomach, they’ll always have a sensitive stomach. The best thing we can do for such dogs, diet-wise, is to continue feeding a fresh raw diet. If you choose to introduce a new dry dog food or dehydrated raw, follow the transition regimen outlined below, under ‘normal transitions’.
Itchy Pets – Getting to the Root of the Problem
In another scenario, your pet may have developed allergy or sensitivity to his current dog food. This can be because a new food allergy, or because the pet food manufacturer has changed ingredients, ingredient suppliers, or manufacturing processes. In this case, we’re not just transitioning our dog to a new food – we’re playing detective, and attempting to determine what he is reacting to.
My first suggestion, especially when dealing with dogs who are experiencing severe allergy symptoms, is to suggest investing in Dr. Jean Dodd’s Nutriscan Test. We can help you to order the kit, obtain the sample, and interpret the results. From there, we will know which food additives or ingredients to avoid.
In the meantime, while we either await test results, or because you don’t want to order testing at this time, we can use an elimination diet for dogs to try to determine the underlying cause of his issues.
An elimination diet simply attempts to eliminate as many ingredients from your dog’s diet as possible. For fourteen days, your dog will eat only a pre ground and mixed, frozen raw Meat/Bone/Organ combination. We can introduce this MBO (as it’s called) ‘cold turkey’ – in other words, there’s no need to transition your dog off their old food and onto the MBO. It’s important to make sure that all three components are from a novel protein source for your dog. In other words, if your dog has been eating chicken, we can’t feed chicken. It’s not necessary to go to truly exotic proteins like Llama or Bison unless your dog has been exposed to all routine proteins on a regular basis. One meal of duck at sixteen weeks of age does not constitute ‘exposure’.
For 14 days, your dog should eat nothing but the elimination diet. The key word there is NOTHING – no cookies, no snacks, no table scraps, no dietary supplements or even vitamins. If they are on life saving prescription drugs, you can continue these, but your dog should not be on either prednisone or antibiotics during the elimination diet, as either can mask the true results of the new diet. I suggest keeping an allergy diet – doing so can help owners to pinpoint allergy triggers for their dogs. In one case, an owner I was counseling was insistent that she had kept her dog on the elimination diet rigorously, but that the dog still experiencing one or two itchy outbreaks per week. With her allergy journal, we were able to see that these outbreaks coincided with trips to “Grandma’s House”, where Grandma was giving the grocery store dog cookies.
At the end of 14 days on a well followed elimination diet, we should have seen the beginnings of real improvement in the allergy issues your dog has been suffering from. Not recovery – that takes significantly longer than 14 days – but less itching, less ear infections, less raised bumps and skin lesions.
If we do not experience any kind of improvement, we change proteins. We then repeat the 14 day cycle, watching for improvement. You can repeat this three times, using a protein from each of these categories: fowl (duck, chicken, etc), fish (salmon, whitefish, catfish, etc), red meat (bison, beef, buffalo, etc), neutral meat (pork, lamb). If you’ve tried one of each protein, with no improvement, then we can say almost conclusively that your dog is dealing with environmental allergies, and not food allergies. Keep them on a low residue, neutral raw diet, and consult with a naturopath or other holistic specialist for suggestions on treating environmental allergies.
Changing for the Better – Transitioning the Healthy Dog to a New Food
There are many reasons why owners change their dog’s food. In some cases, it’s due to education – a food that you found acceptable ten years ago, before you learned about pet food ingredients, no longer looks acceptable. Perhaps your dog has lost interest in their food, or perhaps you’ve just been swayed by a food company’s advertising claims. No matter the reason, transitioning a healthy dog to a new food is fairly simple, in most cases.
Transitioning to Raw
Moving your dog from a dry dog food diet to a diet of fresh, frozen raw dog food is as simple as one, two, three.
- Purchase a complete and balanced raw diet – or – learn to make your own homemade raw diet
- Adjust feeding amounts according to your dog’s energy levels, weight and age
- Watch him dig in!
I’ve personally transitioned dozens of dogs from dry food to raw, and I’ve always done it almost instantly. Unlike dry diets, dogs don’t need to develop dietary defenses to digest raw food. You’ll see improved skin, coat and stool quality almost instantly when you switch your dog to raw.
For a dehydrated raw diet , like Honest Kitchen, introduce the new food 20% at a time, until your dog is eating 100% of the new food. You can back up the amount of new food at any time, if your dog isn’t adjusting well.
Transitioning to a New Dry Kibble Diet – Voluntarily
A voluntary transition assumes that you’re changing your dog’s food simply because you want to, and not because you have to do so. This is not the same thing as an emergency food switch, where a dog must be changed almost immediately to a new food.
I suggest having the following on hand before you start:
- Enough of the previous dry food to last five or so days
- Small bag of the new diet
- Good quality Probiotic, like Best in Show
- Canned or home cooked pumpkin
The regimen I suggest is 20% new food, 5% pumpkin per day, in addition to the current food you are feeding. Increase the ratio of new food every day, until you are at 1oo% new dry food. Once you are at 100% new dry dog food, you can discontinue feeding the pumpkin. Continue giving the probiotic for at least fourteen days.
If at any time during the transition your dog experiences digestive distress or allergy symptoms, roll back the amount of new food you’ve introduced.
At the end of fourteen days after the transition, if your dog is thriving on the new food and has normal, formed stools, you’ve had a successful transition. If stool is still loose, or there is any other kind of lingering digestive upsets, you may need to consider a different dry dog food.
Transitioning to a New Dry Dog Food Kibble Diet – Emergency Method
Situations such as recalls or discontinuation of a food brand might someday require you to switch your dog over to a new brand literally overnight. This is never ideal – dogs really do need at least a few days to acclimate to a new dry food – but we can make the change as seamless as possible.
Please note that we’re assuming here that we are transiting a healthy dog to a new food. If your dog is ill due to a recalled food, follow the steps listed above on how to switch dog foods for a dog in immediate distress.
As mentioned above, the supplies to have on hand are:
- Small bag of the new diet
- Good quality Probiotic, like Best in Show
- Canned or home cooked pumpkin
First off, choose a new dog food brand that is similar to your old one – look for a brand with the same protein source, at minimum. Your dog should receive four to six small meals per day, with 10% of those meals consisting of canned or home cooked pumpkin. It’s essential to give a good, quality probiotic during this transition phase. Stop feeding all other treats, snacks and cookies for the first week – your dog’s gut needs time to acclimate to his new diet, without any other foods to process.
If your dog experiences any signs of digestive upset during this transition, especially vomiting, diarrhea (not just loose stools) or abdominal swelling, discontinue the new dry food, and follow the emergency intestinal distress transition regimen listed above. If you do decide to switch your dog back onto dry, use a new food (and remember, grain free dry dog food ONLY!).