There are many commercial outlets for dog food. Dog food is sold at grocery stores, pet stores, health food stores, veterinary clinics, and by phoning your food order directly to the manufacture. Where you buy the food is not the point, as any of the aforementioned sources could carry both relatively inferior and superior commercial brands of dog food. Pet stores usually carry all the popular grocery store lines and grocery stores carry a few higher quality foods that compare favorably with many of the better pet store lines. So don’t choose your food simply by where or how it is sold. Secondly, don’t for a minute get sucked in by the marketing hype which uses the terms Premium, Super Premium, and All natural. These terms are misused. They are often deceiving and misleading. Also the fact that a food is sold at a veterinary clinic does not make it the best food for you dog to eat. Please understand that some veterinarians are very well versed in animal nutrition while others have not taken the time to go beyond the minimal nutritional training they received in veterinary school. The point I am making is that a dog food must be selected on its own merits and not based on marketing slogans or on where it is sold.

At this point I am sure you are asking yourself the question “Okay, then how do I determine what commercial diet is really best for my pet?” The answer is to educate yourself, as you are doing right now, on animal nutrition and commercial dog foods. Then, research the companies that appear to come the closest to providing the healthiest food. To make your job easier, I will give you some basic rules and guidelines so that you can hopefully narrow the huge choice of dog foods down to 2 or 3 possibilities. I will also provide a questionnaire that you can use when you interview a food company either in person or by mail.

By the way, evaluating a dog food is in no way an easy job, even for a veterinarian with an extensive science background. The reason for this is that much important information that is necessary for evaluation is not found on the bag of food. In addition much of what is found on the bag can be very misleading to the uneducated consumer and even to the well educated veterinarian. So don’t think this stuff is easy because its not.

So what are the major issues we are considering when evaluating a commercial food. We are looking for often subtle clues that tell us that one food is more nutritious than another. We are also, unfortunately, looking for clues that tell us which dog food is the least toxic. Okay lets begin…

Is the dog food a meat based or grain based diet?

The ingredient on the dog food package are listed in order by weight, from highest to lowest, The first three ingredients on this list usually make up the great bulk of the food. Generally speaking, a meat based diet is one where 2 out of the first 3 ingredients are meat and not grain. Unfortunately through creative labeling this list can easily be manipulated to read in such a way that the uneducated consumer is mislead into thinking there is more meat in the product than their actually is. Specific questions need to be asked to insure that an apparent meat based diet truly is just that. If we define a meat based diet as one where over 40% of its weight is made up of meat then it may be very hard to find and feed a commercial meat based diet unless you plan on uping the meat portion of the diet by adding either raw or cooked meat of your own.

What is the quality of the meat that is present in the food?

What we want to know is how close the meat is to human grade meat. Did the meat come from a rendering plant or from a USDA inspected slaughtering house and was the meat that is used healthy or was it rejected as human grade food because it was damaged or diseased. The worst type of meat that could be present comes from rendering plants. Animals that are destroyed at rendering plants are almost, without a doubt, the most sickly animals in existence and that is why they are classified as being one of the 4D’s “dead, diseased, dying and disabled”. The source of animal meat in a dog food is rarely printed on the bag, sometimes found in their literature, and may be difficult to ascertain over the phone. Of course, the optimal source of meat would be from healthy animals raised organically. This source is often too expensive for any pet food manufacture to consider. The next best source would be meat coming from USDA inspected carcasses that were okayed for human consumption.

Are animal by products used to supply the animal protein needs?

By products can be very unpredictable and inconsistent sources of meat protein. For example when the term poultry by-products appears on the ingredient list one load may consists of liver and gizzards and the next load of poultry by products used to make another batch of the same food may come from heads and intestines, and the next form hearts and feet. Some by products are actually very nutritious and would be a plus in the formulation of a commercial food but because the labeling does not allow us to distinguish the good from the bad we want to stay away from foods that use meat and poultry by-products.

Is the cereal portion of the food made up of cooked whole grains or does it contain mostly highly processed grain fractions where the most nutritious portion of the grain has been removed to be used in human food ?

Common grain fractions you may find in dog food bag ingredient lists include:

  • Middlings – Rice mill run, wheat middlings
  • Bran – Corn bran, rice bran, wheat bran
  • Peanut hulls
  • Flour – rice flour, wheat flour
  • Gluten
  • Germ

Using grain fractions is one way that the food industry can utilize human food by products and waste. Whole grains are very nutritious and can serve as sources of protein, complex carbohydrates, fats and fatty acids, minerals, B-vitamins, and fiber. When grain is processed into grain fractions the carbohydrates are refined into simple sugars , the vitamins and minerals are leached out, and beneficial fats are removed. Other examples of grain fractions include flour, germ, and gluten. Grain flours such as rice and wheat are nutritionally very much like simple sugar.

Are the grains used in the food those that are commonly allergenic?

Just as with people most dogs are not allergic to common allergens. Only certain people and dogs are genetically predisposed to becoming allergic and only those animals with a genetic weakness will develop an allergy to a specific allergen. However, since we don’t know whether a dog is likely to develop allergies why not avoid the most common allergens. Soy and wheat are the worst, so look out for and avoid them by feeding a commercial diet that contains other types of grain.

Are there any chemical preservatives, flavoring agents, coloring agents, or texturizers present in the food?

It is often hard to tell from reading the package ingredients list which are chemical additives and which are not. Below are listed the most commonly listed:

  • Fat preservatives – Ethoxyquin, BHT, BHA, propyl gallate
  • Moisturizers – These chemicals help maintain the proper amount of moisture Propylene glycol, calcium silicate, and sorbitol
  • Sequestrants – These chemicals are stabilizers of the odor, color, flavor and overall appearance of the dog food: tataric acid, citric acid, and salts of potassium, sodium and calcium
  • Texturizers – Chemicals which are used to maintain texture. Sodium nitrate and nitrite
  • Mold retardants Chemicals which retard growth of mold in grain: Calcium proprionate, sodium proprionate potassium salts, lactic acid, sorbic acid and sodium diacetate
  • Coloring dyes – Grouped in a single category – food coloring or dyes (Only reason for their presence is to make food more appealing to the pet owner)

Chemicals in dog food have been associated with both physical and behavioral problems. Behavioral problems such as over shyness, aggressiveness, reduction in learning ability, and obsessive and compulsive disorders have been shown to be related to improper feeding. Cancer and reproductive problems are just two of the physical illnesses that are associated with food chemicals. The most common healthy natural fat preservatives are vitamin E and C, however, these foods do have a shorter shelf life than those chemically preserved so check the package for an expiration date or date of manufacturing.

What is the source of the fat used in the making the diet? Does it contain chemical or natural vitamin preservatives? Does it contain the essential omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids?

Inferior fat can cause health problems in several ways. Fat that is not fresh and /or properly preserved will become rancid. Rancidity reduces palatability and leads to many a health problems. Fat is also a depot for many of the toxins that poultry, cattle, and sheep are exposed to. Therefore, it is best to get our fat from animals or plants that have been exposed to the fewest toxins (ie, those organically raised). The best type of fat should ideally be a combination of both animal and vegetable fat. The animal fat provides most of the energy whereas the vegetable fat provides most of the essential omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Fat should be preserved naturally with vitamin E and vitamin C and not with chemicals such as Ethoxyquin and BHA and BHT.

How fresh is the food?

Freshness is a very important criteria for picking a particular brand of food and even for picking an individual bag. Some dog food companies produce large quantities of dog food all at once. Much of this food is warehoused for extended periods. Other companies manufacture their food in smaller quantities on an “as needed” basis. Furthermore some companies will ship food directly to your house further reducing storage time.

Every bag of dog food you buy should have on it either the date of manufacturing or a recommended expiration date. These dates may be coded so you may have to call the company for help in interpretation. Buying your food from an outlet with a high turnover will also reduce the likelihood that the food is stale. If you see a bag of food that is grease stained do not buy it.

If after you open the bag there is a peculiar odor such as that of rancid fat or mold return the bag for a fresher food. If you see mold growing on the food or if the food looks in any way different from its normal appearance return the food.

Is it stated on the bag that the dog food is “complete and balance” or “nutritionally complete”?

To say this on the bag guarantees the food has been evaluated either by feeding trials or laboratory testing and meets certain AAFCO requirement. A quality dog food will always have an AAFCO statement of testing on it.

Have any beneficial food supplements been added directly to the food during the manufacturing process?

Chelated minerals are much more easily absorbed than non chelated minerals and therefore a statement on the package that chelated minerals have been added is definitely a plus when evaluating dog food. The addition of probiotics, antioxidants, and enzymes are other valuable supplements that add to a dog foods nutritive state.

Which is the best form to buy food in — dry, canned, semi-moist or frozen?

Commercially frozen meat or frozen meat and vegetation is as close to a prepared, fresh, all natural food as you can get. It is made up of fresh, raw ingredients which are then sold and distributed. Frozen dog food is not widely distributed at this time so it may not be available in your area. It is highly digestible.

Dry dog food has the advantage of being the most concentrated, least expensive most convenient and most widely distributed. Canned dog food is more expensive and less concentrated than dry dog food but has the advantage of being more palatable, and of not requiring any chemical preservatives. Mixing a quality canned and dry food together to add some pizazz to the dry food is quite okay. Semi moist food is easy for the consumer to use and is very well accepted by the dog but contains so many chemicals especially salt, sugar, preservatives and coloring agents that in my opinion it is very unhealthy for the dog to eat it.

If you want to compare the guaranteed analysis of dry, semi-moist and canned, you must convert the percentages of all to a dry matter basis and then proceed with the comparison. For example, dry food is 10% water, semi moist food is 25% moisture, and canned food is 90% moisture.

Is the food package information misleading?

Unfortunately, much of the information we need in order to make an intelligent decision about which commercial dog food to buy is not available on the label. To make matters worse much of what is on the label is highly misleading. Below are some things to watch out for when looking at a bag of dog food.

If the label states that the food is “complete and balanced” or “nutritionally complete that means that the food has passed certain tests or feeding trials establish and monitored by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). However this does not mean that the food can not be improved on nor that it provides the best nutrition. It simply is criteria for insuring that the minimal standards have been met (MDR or minimal daily requirement) and that dogs can grow and survive on it without developing obvious disease. It is not criteria for insuring that the food provides adequate nutrition for building a strong and resilient body with an immune system that can effectively handle most stress and disease threats it may encounter.

The guaranteed analysis on a pet food bag provides very minimal information when evaluating the health value of a dog food. The analysis percentages are based solely on the quantity of the crude protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrate, and moisture present in the food and it says nothing about how much of the food truly usable, that is digestible and absorbable. The guaranteed analysis simply gives minimums for the amount of protein and fat in the diet and maximums for fiber and water. Therefore a food with a high percent crude protein analysis could (because of poor digestibility) actually have less digestible protein than a food with a lower percent crude protein analysis.

Furthermore, the protein source or combination of sources (ie rice, meat, corn) determines the type of amino acids (amino acid profile) present in the ration. A food could have a high % crude protein and a high digestibility but because of a poor choice of protein sources the actual amino acids that were absorbed did not satisfy the animals essential amino acid requirements. A high protein (or fat) content is not necessarily an assurance of quality. The fiber in a dog food can comes from beneficial fiber that originates from whole grains and vegetables or it can mean filler that has been added such as peanut hulls or newspaper.

Dog food manufactures can manipulate the order of the listed ingredients on the package label in several ways. In order to move meat ingredients up on the list, it is legal to weigh the meat before the water is removed. Another way to move meat ingredients to the top of the list is to list the grain fractions separately rather than listing them in one spot under the grain that they come from. Finally manufacture can assay their food for their ingredient list before or after production. Of course assaying the food after production is a much more honest approach because heating and processing removes vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids.

Foods that claim to be all natural and free of chemical preservatives may in in fact still be preserved with chemicals. If the manufacturer buys fat already preserved with ethoxyquin from a supplier but does not add any additional ethoxyquin himself then the manufacture is not required to list the ethoxyquin on the label and can claim it naturally preserved.

The terms premium, super premium, and all natural can be very misleading. First of all there is no universally accepted definition for these terms and most manufactures use the term very loosely to the benefit of their marketing campaign. A number of supposedly “all natural” foods state that they do not add chemical preservatives to their food when in fact ethoxyquin has already been added to the fat before they purchase it. My advice is to disregard such terms and evaluate the food using the tools I have provided.

Finally remember it is unfair to compare the guaranteed analysis of a canned food with a dry food or semi-moist because of the differences in water content. The only way to compare apples to apples is to convert the guaranteed analysis percentages to “dry matter basis”. Here is how to convert the nutrient percentages on the guaranteed analysis to a “dry matter basis”

1. Subtract the stated % moisture from 100%

2. Take this figure and multiply it by the % crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber or crude carbohydrate as listed in the guaranteed analysis

3. The percentage you obtain from your multiplication is the percent of crude protein or crude fat or crude fiber or crude carbohydrate when converted to a “dry matter basis.

If you perform the above math on a canned dog food and then on a dry dog food you can use the figures derived to fairly compare the various percentages of nutrients.

Here’s what your dog can tell you about the quality and freshness of the food you are feeding. Do not feed you dog any food that causes him or her to consistently develop diarrhea, a semi-solid stool, a voluminous stool or an unusually odiferous stool. The ideal dog food should cause your dog to eliminate at least 2 relatively small, firm stools a day. If your dog won’t eat a new dog food or suddenly rejects a food that he has regularly been eating take this as a sign that there may be something wrong with the brand of food or with that particular bag. Of course it could be possible that your dog is not feeling well that day and just does not want to eat anything so try some table scraps and see how he responds. Any food that requires large amounts to be fed in order to maintain a normal weight should also be suspect of lacking quality. Finally, feed only dog foods that promotes a thick, lustrous, coat and healthy looking skin which produces a minimal amount of dander, odor, and itching.