Why We Need To Pay Attention To Calcium In Dog Diets


Dinner prep assistants in my kitchen (photo credit: Vanessa Andrews)

Dog Food Industry Is Revising Calcium Requirements

From Pet Industry blog post by David A. Dzanis, DVM, PhD, DACVN: “After eight years of deliberation and somewhat contentious debate, the revisions to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles have almost made it through all the hoops. Assuming the recommendations of the expert panel (having now passed out of the Pet Food Committee and the Model Bills and Regulations Committee) are accepted by the board and approved by the full AAFCO membership at its annual meeting in August, the revised Profiles will appear in the 2016 AAFCO Official Publication”.

What is the change Dr. Dzanis is taking about? Minimum calcium requirements in dog food have been adjusted up. Before you panic about how badly your dog might be calcium deficient, let me remind you that there is a very wide range of quality in dog food. Chances are that readers of this blog are not using low grade pet food that barely meets the skimpy minimum requirements. Even as the current calcium profile is understood as inadequate, hopefully your dog’s food exceeds that failing minimum standard.

Still, there is a legitimate concern over snowballing effect on generations of dogs. Over the years, has the dog population fed commercial food been receiving inadequate calcium? And more to the point was the form of calcium used easily absorbed, or just passing through the dog? Wouldn’t bio-availability of calcium be something we also have standards for? Let’s take a look at the facts.

How Is Dog Food Industry Regulated?

Actually, it isn’t. Not the way you expect it to be, with legal regulations. In the USA, the only regulatory body for pet industry is voluntary and is formed by the industry itself. You heard it right. AAFCO is a voluntary member association of pet food industry. From AAFCO website: “AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.” (emphasis by the author)

The pet food industry created an organization to set standards, to provide in their own words “a level playing field of orderly commerce for the animal feed industry”. Forming industry standards is not a bad thing, but having them be the only rules is bad. You can easily see the steepness and glistening of that slippery slope, where quality is destined to slide down under the weight of profit goals.

AFFCO voluntary industry standards are being perceived by the public as solidly fact based and enforceable. They are not. The nutritional profiles have been deficient (pun intended), and there is zero compliance enforcement. I am not even going to start discussing fillers and questionable ingredients. What is in your dog’s bag of kibble depends on the manufacturer’s voluntary honesty, while the nutritional value of the food is set to less than ideal requirements. Even with loosey-goosey accountability , AFFCO felt compelled to revise the calcium minimum.

How important is calcium anyway?

Calcium Is A Big Deal


Truman (Dignpop True Gentleman), a pup fed fresh balanced diet

You know about the bones, the teeth, the nails, the whole skeletal thing. If you are a breeder you know about calcium’s role in pregnancy and whelping. But did you realize there is no heartbeat without calcium? Muscles cannot contract without it, cells cannot communicate, blood cannot clot, nerves cannot function. Indeed, calcium is a big deal and keeping its levels within optimum range affects the functioning of the entire tail wagging engine.

When the only organization that establishes pet food standards  revises calcium requirements, which they set among friends,  we’d better pay attention. Those of us who prepare our dogs’ meals need to pay attention as well.  Were we told our dogs need less calcium than they really do? The simple answer is yes.

I am not the type to be attracted to conspiracy theories, and I certainly do not want to create one. But I am asking myself whether inadequate calcium intake has been at least partially responsible for higher rates of difficult whelping (especially uterine inertia), rampant dental disease  and increase in skeletal issues in dogs. Of course we have a stronger culture of seeking  specialist veterinary care for our dogs’ illnesses than decades ago, and so we have more reported cases of various diseases that could be linked to chronic calcium deficiency. Still, even if you take that cultural shift into account, there is an exploding number of cases of skeletal, dental  and whelping problems. The trend is eerily coinciding with the switch to commercially prepared dog food in the last decades. Food that over years might have been shortchanging our dogs on calcium, among other things.

Calcium and Phosphorous – The Perfect Match

Before you rush to buy calcium supplements, consider this. Too much calcium is as dangerous as too little. Kidney stones, heart problems, hip dysplasia, you don’t want to go there.

What your dog needs is the sufficient calcium intake and the perfect balance of calcium and phosphorous (C:P). The perfect ratio of those two minerals regulates the absorption of calcium. Guess what? The perfect C:P ratio is the one found in diet with animal bones, animal cartilage, egg shells, whole small animals, in other words calcium sources our dogs evolved on. What the food industry is learning from research is that calcium derived from sources foreign to natural dog diets throw the calcium/ phosphorous balance off. It is not enough to provide calcium to our dogs but to provide the right, bio-available calcium source that includes phosphorous.

When comparing foods, or calcium supplements, do not look just for calcium content. Look for both calcium and phosphorous, and their ideal ratio of 1.2 calcium to 1 phosphorous in the overall diet, or close to it. For example, Bone Meal has that ideal mineral pairing. Beware of heavy metals in Bone Meal though, and look for products tested for lead and other heavy metals.

I should add a disclaimer that the ideal C:P ratio is slightly different for puppies and aging dogs, but for the purpose of this article I am talking about an adult dog’s nutritional needs)


Typical dog meal I prepare includes cartilage, ground egg shells and is supplemented with Bone Meal

Natural Calcium Sources

I had mentioned in my earlier articles Dr.Pitcairn’s Healthy Powder, as my supplement of choice. One of the ingredients is calcium derived from ground egg shells, a wonderful source of C:P perfect dance. Raw meaty bones, chicken necks, whole fish, are other examples of a match made in heaven for C:P balance in canine nutrition.

Milk products have also both calcium and phosphorous but cow’s milk products are less ideal for another reason. In their book Canine Nutrogenomics – The New Science Of Feeding Your Dog For Optimum Health,  the authors Dr. Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure warn against protein in cow’s milk, beta-casein A1, which some dogs do not tolerate. Instead, use goat’s milk and goat’s milk products.

Incidentally, an NIH study published in September 2015  (Sebely Pal et al) also linked cow milk intolerance in people to A1 beta-casein, widening our understanding of cow’s milk intolerance syndrome in addition to the usual suspect – lactose.

I believe that optimum nutrition is paramount, which means constant learning and improving my dog food prep skills. And who knows, maybe the fact that my girls consistently have smooth natural births in a breed plagued with uterine inertia is in some part connected to my obsession with proper nutrition. In this case calcium that is absorbed and utilized in the body. “Bio-available” is the word of the day.


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4 Responses to Why We Need To Pay Attention To Calcium In Dog Diets

  1. Brilliantly written and straightforward explanation – thank you!!!


  2. I appreciate your all sides approach to any subject you discuss. (The downsides of too much calcium) I am constantly looking for a better diet and changing up the diet so I meet all of Digby’s needs. I’m embarrassed to say he turned his nose up to MY HOMECOOKED after having his two legged’ MOM’S version!


  3. dignpop says:

    Dig is a character. Gotta love him!


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