I was speaking with a friend recently about working on this article. My friend is not just an experienced dog owner and trainer, but also someone who used to work in the pet food industry. We were discussing the fact that once another dog owner learns that you know something about foods, they almost always ask, “So what’s the best dog food?” My friend said, “Yeah, most people want to buy the best foods they can for their dogs – until you tell them what the best foods cost! Then they change the subject!”
You might not think that is funny, but my friend and I laughed for a solid minute, because we have both experienced that exact conversation countless times.
It’s an inescapable fact that quality foods cost money – and the highest quality food cost a lot of money. You simply cannot sell steaks at hamburger prices. And as much as we may want to buy “the best” food for our dogs, most of us have a number – unique to each of us, based on our financial status, the size and number of dogs we own, and perhaps even our relationship with our dogs – to which we will respond, “No, forget it; that’s too much.”
We’ve never made cost a part of WDJ’s dog food selection criteria, and have barely mentioned it in past reviews, precisely because of the fact that one dog owner’s “No, forget it” price may be another person’s food selection starting point. What you can afford or feel comfortable spending on dog food is a personal matter. But the conversation with my friend made me reconsider this particular elephant in the living room. It occurred to me that perhaps it would be helpful to help people identify the higher-quality food in any group of identically prices products.
Initial Selection Criteria
In order to recognize a superior product in a group of food, you have to know what specific attributes indicate quality in a dog food. We look for the following hallmarks of quality:
- Lots of animal protein at the top of the ingredients list. Ingredients in pet food are listed in order of the weight of that ingredient in the formula, so you want to see a named animal protein or named animal protein meal first on the ingredients list. (“Named” means the species is identified: chicken, beef, lamb, etc. “Meal” means a dry, rendered product made from an identified species.)
- When a fresh meat is first on the ingredient list, there should be a named animal-protein meal immediately or closely following the meat. Fresh meat contains a lot of moisture (which is heavy), so if meat is first on the list, it acts like a diluted protein source; while it adds an appealing flavor and aroma to the food, it doesn’t actually contribute that much protein. That’s why another named source of animal protein should appear in the top two or three ingredients.
- When vegetables, fruits, grains, and/or carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, chickpeas, or sweet potatoes are use, they should be while. Fresh, unprocessed food ingredients contain nutrients in all their complex glory, with their vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants intact.
- Some of us are also looking for products that are made with organic ingredients, and/or humanely raised sustainably farmed ingredients. It may also be meaningful for some of us to buy from companies who support shelters or rescue, manufacture in “green” plants, participate in recycling and waste reduction programs, and so on.
There are also some things to look out for – undesirable attributes that indicate a lower-quality food:
- Meat by-products, poultry by-products, meat by-product meal, and poultry by-product meal. Many of the animal tissues that are defined as animal by-products are nutritious, but may be handled indifferently.
- “Generic” fat sources. “Animal fat” can literally be any mixed fat of animal origin. “Poultry” fat is not quite as suspect as “animal fat,” but “chicken fat” or “duck fat” is better (an traceable).
- Watch out for a practice commonly called “ingredient splitting,” whereby two or more very similar food “fractions” appear on the ingredients list. Because the ingredients are listed in descending order of their weight, a manufacturer can make it appear that a higher-quality ingredient is presented in the food in a higher amount than it really is. This is accomplished by using several fractions or versions as ingredient as separate ingredients (i.e., rice, brewer’s rice, rice bran, rice protein meal). If all the iterations of that ingredient were combined or reconstituted, they would outweigh the higher-quality ingredient, pushing it down on the ingredients list.
- We don’t recommend foods that use animal plasma or blood meal as a protein source.
- Added sweeteners. Dogs, like humans, enjoy the taste of sweet foods. Sweeteners effectively persuade many dogs to eat foods comprised mainly of grain fragments (and containing less healthy animal protein and fats).
- Artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives (such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin). The color of the food doesn’t matter to your dog. And it should be flavored well enough with healthy meats and fats to be enticing. Natural preservatives, such as mixed tocopherols, can be used instead.
* Excerpt from “What Price Is Right” by Nancy Kerns published in the Whole Dog Journal, February 2018 edition.
Shopping for pet foods can be a very frustrating process, especially when there are numerous aisles of variety. There are also the claims of how their food will benefit your pet. However taking the time to read and understand the ingredients list in your dog food purchase will help you to purchase the best diet possible for your pet. Here are some tips.
Take a look at the actual ingredients and you will be surprised at what you find. Take a look at the word “real”, since when has chicken or beef not been “real?” Flavoring can be made from a natural or a chemical substance and the manufacturer may or may not list more detailed information about it. Flavoring agents can also be made from animal digest which is a cooked down broth made from unspecified parts of unspecified animals. The animals used can be obtained from any source, so there is no control over quality or contamination. These animals can include “4-D animals” (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying), road kill, or even euthanized animals.
Most of the grocery store brands have a high economic value (cheap) and contain a large amount of grain or starchy vegetables to provide texture. These high carbohydrate plant products also provide a cheap source of “energy” which also means “calories”. Gluten meals are high protein extracts from which most of the carbohydrate has been removed. They are often used to increase protein percentages without using expensive animal source ingredients. Corn gluten meal is most commonly used for this purpose and offers very little nutritional value and serves mainly to bind food together. In most cases, the foods containing vegetable proteins are the low quality foods.
Meat by-product meals are inexpensive and less digestible than muscle meat. The ingredients of each batch can vary drastically such as head, feet, bones, etc. This in turn means that the nutritional value is not always consistent. By-products consist of parts of the animal other than meat.
Animal fat is obtained from the tissue of mammals and/or poultry. Note that the animal source does not have to be specified and is not required to originate from “slaughtered animals.” The rendered animals can be from any source, so there is no control over quality or contamination. These animals again can be “4-D animals”, road kill, and euthanized animals. Another thing to be aware of is what the animal fat is preserved with.
Preservatives that can be found in pet food are BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin, propylene glycol and Propyl Gallate.
BHA and BHT have been banned from human use in many countries, but are still permitted for use in the United States. There are certain oxidative characteristics and metabolites that may contribute to carcinogenicity or tumorigencity. Ethoxyquin was originally developed as a stabilizer for rubber and later used as a pesticide for fruit and a color preservative for spices. It has never been proven to be safe for the lifespan of an animal. It has been linked to thyroid, kidney, reproductive, immune related illnesses, and cancer. Propyl Gallate is used as an antioxidant to stabilize cosmetics, food packaging materials, and foods containing fats. It is suspected of causing liver disease and cancer. The preservatives that you want to see in dog food are mixed tocopherols, citric acid, and rosemary extract.
NOTE: Some ingredients, usually fish products, may contain artificial preservatives that are not disclosed on the ingredient list; if they are not added by the manufacturer, they are not required to be listed. Look for assurances by manufacturers using ocean fish products that their foods do NOT contain any artificial preservatives.
Coloring agents have no nutritional value and do not need to be in pet food. They are added mainly to look good to us so in turn we think our dog will enjoy eating it. The reason is that the color of food speaks to humans’ innate perceptions about the value of food items. Coal tar and petrochemicals are the main sources of artificial colors. More than one artificial color has been banned and pulled off the market over the last several decades because it was ultimately found to cause cancer. The safety of those still allowed on the market is highly questionable. Artificial colors contribute to all sorts of health problems, the most notable of which are the symptoms diagnosed as (ADHD), a behavioral pattern often brought on by Yellow #5 food dye. Children are being fed these chemicals in such large quantities that they begin to have nervous system issues such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or violent behavior.
Makes you wonder when our pets are fed these chemicals, if it doesn’t contribute to some behavior problems such as aggression and hyperactivity.
Beef & bone meal and pork & bone meal are common protein sources found in low quality pet foods. They are a byproduct made from beef or pork parts that are unsuitable for human consumption. It can incorporate the entire cow or pigs, including bones, but the quality cut of meats have already been removed. These ingredients are an inexpensive and low quality way to boost the protein percentage in the food. Meat & bone meal can consist of animal parts obtained from any source, so there is no control over quality or contamination. It can also include pus, cancerous tissue, and decomposed tissue.
Salt is a necessary mineral and is generally present in sufficient quantities in the ingredients pet foods include. Just like for us, too much salt intake is unhealthy for them. In low quality foods, it is often used in excessive amounts to make the food taste more flavorful.
Sweeteners may also be added to pet foods. Examples of them are molasses, corn syrup, fructose, sorbitol, sugar, and dl-alpha tocopherol acetate. Sugars and sweeteners are an unnecessary ingredient in pet foods, added to make the product more attractive. It can cause obesity, nervousness, cataracts, tooth decay, arthritis, and allergies. Fructose when used in small quantities, serves as a nutrient for probiotics, specifically bifidobactera. It will eventually ferment it and produce beneficial enzymes.
Menadione Sodium Bisulfate complex is a source of synthetic Vitamin K3 in dog food. Menadione is added as an inexpensive vitamin K supplement in commercial foods. The common statement as to why it is added is “to help with blood clotting”, yet it is scientifically proven that the effectiveness of menadione on blood clotting is inferior. Veterinarians will administer vitamin K1 as an antidote to dogs who have for example ingested rat poison, which causes internal bleeding and serious clotting issues. The synthetic version of Vitamin K3 has not been specifically approved for long term use and has been linked to many serious health issues in humans. It has been banned from use in food and supplements for human use in many European countries due to serious side effects, including permanent damage and deaths. It can cause cytotoxicity in liver cells, has possible mutagen effects, damages the natural vitamin K cycle, causes hemolytic anemia and hyperbilirubinemia, irritation of skin and mucous membranes, allergic reactions and eczema are just some of the health issues associated with menadione.
Ingredients need to be labeled and listed in order according to their weight before processing on the food label along with the guaranteed analysis of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture. A pet food manufacturer could make a mock product that has an acceptable guaranteed analysis of 10% Protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber and 68% moisture, similar to what you `would see on many canned pet food labels. The only problem would be that the ingredients were old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water.
Contrary to what many people believe, meat sources in “meal” form are not inferior to whole, fresh meats as long as they are from a specified type of animal. Meat meal consists of meat and skin with or without the bones, but exclusive of feathers/hair, heads, feet, horns, entrails etc. Meat meals have had most of the moisture removed, but meats in their original, “wet” form still contain up to 75% water. Once the food reaches its final moisture content of about 9-12%, the meat will have shrunk to sometimes as little as 1/4 of the original amount, while the already dehydrated meal form remains the same and you get more concentrated protein per pound of finished product. This means that the food may only be left with 4 ounces of actual meat content per pound of fresh meat. Many foods already contain less than one pound of meat per 2-3 pounds of grain to begin with. It is best to pick a food that contains quality meat meal as well as some fresh meat.
The food bag will have a nutritional adequacy statement listed on it. It may state either of the following statements: “(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO.” This means the product contains the proper amount of protein, calcium, and other recognized essential nutrients needed to meet the needs of the healthy animal. “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.” This means that the product, or “lead” member of a “family” of products, has been fed to dogs or cats under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition. These two statements do not really tell you anything about the product, except that it contains the minimum of nutrients the AAFCO deems appropriate to keep your dog alive and that he will survive while eating it.
Pet food labels may also contain the words “premium”, “ultra”, “gourmet”, “natural”, “human grade”, “human quality”, “table quality”, etc. enticing us to believe that there are higher quality ingredients contained in it. They are not required to contain any different ingredients nor are they required to have higher nutritional standards than any other “complete and balanced” product. The word “natural” does not have an official definition either. “Natural” may be used when there is no use of artificial flavor, artificial color, or artificial preservatives. “Natural” is not the same as “organic.” The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised. While it is true that many terms used to market a pet food are not legally defined, the manufacturers of quality brands go out of their way to supply their customers with additional information, such as using hormone free animal products, pesticide free grains, providing the USDA grades of ingredients, avoiding genetically modified products and so on.
Manufacturers are not required to include substances in the ingredient list that they did not add to the product themselves. Products they obtain from their suppliers may still contain undesirable ingredients such as synthetic preservatives or other additives. An example is fish meal, which, according to US Coast Guard regulations, must be preserved with Ethoxyquin if it is not intended for human consumption.
Keep in mind that there is no “best” food for all dogs, as each dog is an individual. What works well for one dog may not work as well for another. In addition, it is better for a dog to eat a variety of foods, rather than just one food for its whole life.
Can you imagine as a human eating the same diet every day! When we humans try different kinds of foods, it keeps life interesting and lessens the boredom factor and gives us balanced nutrition. Feeding your dog different 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. The cliché “Variety is the spice of life” very much holds true to dogs also. Saving healthy human leftovers and periodically mixing that healthy human food (see Ingredients to Avoid below) with your dog’s healthy dog food will help keep your pet healthy and happy.
- Kneuven, Dr. Doug, “Natural Pet Nutrition”, Misty Pines Dog Park Co., April 26, 2009
- Contreras, Sabine. “Ingredients to Avoid” [Online] Available
- “Ingredients Dictionary” [Online] Available
- Newman, Dr. Lisa. “Pet Food Ingredients Revealed” [Online] Available
- Kerns, Nancy. “What Price Is Right?” Whole Dog Journal, February 2018 edition