The National Research Council (NRC) – who it is and why you should care

Anyone who has read my blog before is likely have heard me speak about the National Research Council (NRC) at some point.

But what is the NRC, and why should you care about what they’ve got to say about your dog’s diet?

The National Academies

Across the globe there are different societies, institutions and academies dedicated to driving progress in science, medicine, literature etc.

From the world-renowned Royal Society of Medicine in the UK to the Conservatoire de Paris in France, these institutions not only help develop and shape future leaders in their respective fields of interest, but they also often create and hold evidence-based standards for their respective fields.

The National Academies are no exception. Comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine, the group of academies is a private, non-profit organisation which provides expert, scientific-based advice on all things science, engineering and medicine.

They provide this advice through the National Research Council which is the operating arm of the National Academies and which is comprised of members from each of the distinct academies.

But what has this got to do with dog nutrition I hear you ask? Well, it’s this group – the National Research Council (NRC) – which are part of the National Academies, that provide expert support and advice relating to your dog’s nutritional requirements.

Specifically, they do this via a consensus report entitled ‘Nutrient Requirement of Dogs and Cats’ which forms part of the animal nutrition series developed by the NRC’s Committee on Animal Nutrition.

This ‘handbook’ of requirements was developed using evidence from years of scientific studies and literature and follows on from the previous version developed in the 1980s. The report looks at everything from how nutrients are broken down by cats and dogs and stage of life (puppy vs adult) to activity levels and nutrition-related disease and from this, develops a set of nutritional requirements for cats and dogs at various stages of growth and in various stages of health. It’s described on its website as being ‘a valuable resource for industry professionals formulating diets, scientists setting research agendas, government officials developing regulations for pet food labelling and as a university textbook’.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s also intended to act as a guide for cat and dog owners when they’re choosing what to feed their dogs. For those who choose to feed their dog a commercial-based diet, it can help with understanding food labels, while for those who choose a home-prepared diet, it helps when creating and developing food plans.

Put simply, this report from the NRC set out what nutrients your dog needs at both the macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates etc.) and micronutrient (amino acids, fatty acids) level in order to remain in good health.

Now that we know who the NRC are, let’s look at why you should care what their nutritional report says.

Why the numbers matter

There is a school of thought out there that dog owners don’t really need to worry about this report or take its recommendations into account when it comes to feeding their dog.

Some believe that a dog will receive a balanced diet simply by eating a diet with a good variety of food included.

Others still think that we don’t use a calculator, report, recommendations or a formulated diet when preparing meals for our own families so why is it necessary for the family dog?

Then of course there’s the argument that street dogs and wolves don’t eat a complete, balanced diet every day and they’re fine. And the classic ‘my dog lived off table scraps and didn’t follow a strict diet and lived to be 20 years old’.

But are these people right? Do we really need to follow these nutritional requirement guidelines from the NRC when feeding our dogs?

The short answer is, if you want your dog to the be healthiest it can be then yes. You absolutely should.

Let’s unpick the above arguments one at a time.

A varied diet provides a dog with all the nutrients they need:

Some dog owners mistakenly think that if they simply ‘mix things up’ and vary the proteins they feed their dog it will give them the nutrients they need and prevent deficiencies.

This isn’t the case. Changing the food ingredients you include in your dog’s diet is by no means a guarantee that they’ll get the nutrients they need. Unless you analyse the diet it’s impossible to know if the liver you use provides enough copper or even too much. Will the chicken provide enough linoleic acid or the lamb enough zinc? Where is your vitamin E coming from?

An unbalanced diet can cause a lot of health issues which can escalate if not addressed and be life threatening. Please don’t rely on variety or feeding guidelines based in percentages. Use the NRC numbers and add supplements as needed.

It is also worth noting that too high a levels of some nutrients can be as detriment as a deficiency.

We don’t consider our own food this much, so why do it for our dog?

The simple fact of the matter is that as people we should be thinking more about what we eat – both in terms of its nutritional value and how much we’re eating. For example, in the developed world, obesity is a huge health problem that often leads to more serious illnesses, like cancer and arthritis. This is happening because people aren’t following nutritional recommendations set out by organisations like the NRC and the government.

It’s also important to note that some people are very considerate of their nutrient intake. From the Olympic athlete striving for gold, to the person with high cholesterol trying to reduce it, to the man next door trying to lose 10kg. Many people can, should and do follow a diet built on a specific set of nutritional guidelines, be that the standard government recommendations or one that’s bespoke to them and their aims.

So maybe the real question is, if we are doing this as humans, why aren’t we doing it for our dogs too?

Wild dogs and wolves are fine without nutrients guidelines:

Many people argue that domesticated dogs don’t require a diet based on the NRC’s nutritional guidelines because wild dogs and wolves are all ‘just fine’.

In some ways, they’re not wrong. The diet that wolves and wild dogs have is just fine – for them and their needs. These animals tend to be far more active than domesticated dogs and also have higher rates of reproduction. On top of this, they have to source their own food. This means that they typically require a diet that’s high in protein and energy in order to be able to survive, thrive and reproduce regularly.

On the other hand, domesticated dogs tend to be less active than their wild counterparts and reproduce at a far lower rate (which, incidentally, can also increase their lifespan). This means that the diet they require is different to wild dogs and wolves. Of course, many domesticated dogs are very active, but nonetheless, this doesn’t mean they need – or would thrive on – the same diet as a wild dog or wolf.

The guidelines produced by the NRC are tailored to a domesticated dog’s age, health status, size and activity levels and aim to keep them healthy and alive for a long time. Wild dogs and wolves scavenge for food that keeps them alive from one day to the next. It’s not the same thing.

‘My dog lived for 20 years off scraps’:

We’ve all heard these anecdotal tales of people with a family dog that lived for 20+ years and didn’t eat anything except scraps from the table. They certainly didn’t follow an NRC-recommended diet.

For some people, this will absolutely be true. But there’s some things to keep in mind when you hear these stories:

  • While a dog may have lived for 20 years in the 1980s, he would have been the exception at the time, not the rule. It’s a fact that more dogs are living longer today than ever before. Part of the reason for this increased life expectancy is better diet. We also know it’s the case because the number of dogs presenting with ‘old age’ diseases (e.g. cancer, osteoarthritis) has increased dramatically in recent years. And finally, survey results show that with the development and integration of ‘prepared’ food (i.e. not just scraps, but a nutritionally balanced diet), longevity of life also increased.
  • Just because a dog lived for 20 years, it doesn’t mean it lived a healthy life. A long life doesn’t always mean a better or a healthier life. The dog might have had underlying health problems, many of which would have caused euthanasia today.

One more thing…

Generally, a healthy dog will have nutrient reserves stored up. For example, they may have mineral reserves in their bones and liver. If this same dog is then fed a diet lacking in minerals, they will draw upon their reserves to compensate, giving the impression that they’re fine and healthy.

However over time, these reserves will diminish and eventually run out at which point problems can start to happen. And because diet doesn’t appear to have been a problem (due to drawing on the reserves), it may not be considered as a contributing factor to the underlying problem. This means a lot of time – and money – may be spent trying to rectify a problem that is in fact, relatively simple to solve. Change the diet to include the mineral / nutrient that’s lacking, which will also help replenish the stores.

In conclusion

It’s easy to think of the NRC nutritional guidelines as something trivial, not relevant to you or your dog, and in some ways, time consuming.

However, after reading this you should hopefully be convinced that there is a lot of merit to following this guidance.

In general, it’s fair to say that dogs who are fed a diet that follows the NRC guidelines – including those with an underlying health problem – far better than those who don’t. This is because they are being fed food that meets their needs, not just the needs of ‘dogs’.

They’re eating food that at a young age will help them grow, throughout life help them stay lean and fit, and in old age, help prevent them developing issues. So, while it might seem like a lot of work, for those who feed their dog a home-prepared diet, you should absolutely keep the NRC nutrient guidelines in mind.

Because if these numbers keeps your dog fit and healthier – and around for longer – then surely the math worth it?

Learn more 

Analysis of a generic home-prepared dog diet

Beware of dog food recipes found in books or online

Home-prepared dog diets

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