If you have a dog, you’ve probably already noticed there seem to be more brands of dog food every week. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Dog ownership is near an all-time high in the United States. While the top pet food corporations – Mars, Nestle Purina, Big Heart Pet Brands, and Hill’s – remain basically the same from year to year, there has been a major increase in small, holistic companies entering the market. Many health-conscious pet owners, concerned about the food their dogs are eating, are drawn to these pet foods. Some of these foods are outstanding while others sound good but may not really use natural ingredients.
How can you tell the difference? What should you look for in a good brand of dog food? Should you automatically reject foods made by the larger companies? Does it matter if a small company uses a “co-packer”? Which ingredients are really good for your dog? Are grain free foods the only healthy foods for dogs? There are so many questions. We can help you with some of the answers.
Big company or small company?
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If you look online very much you will probably find that there is some bias against the large pet food companies, at least among dog lovers who are very health conscious. There are probably lots of reasons for this bias. One reason could be due to the fact that these companies have, for many years, made mediocre foods (or even poor quality foods) using some undesirable ingredients. Rightly or wrongly, the companies often receive blame for all kinds of health problems dogs have had in the past from eating these foods.
However, if you look at some of the foods made by these companies today you will see that they, too, are trying to appeal to dog lovers who care about ingredients and the health of their dogs. Customers are demanding better quality ingredients and better quality dog food. We believe that you can find some good dog foods made by these companies today. We don’t automatically reject foods made by these companies or discourage people from considering them. We think foods should be considered on an individual basis, regardless of the company that makes them. In addition, foods from the large companies can be a little less expensive than some of the foods from small holistic companies. This can be an important consideration for many dog lovers, especially if they have large dogs or multiple dogs to feed.
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On the other hand, you can certainly find many very good dog foods made by small companies. Lots of these companies are family-owned or they started with a couple of friends trying to create a more nutritious food for their dogs. They are the little guys and we all love to cheer for the underdog. Some of these companies have been around for several decades now and we have seen them grow, adding formulas and products. In some cases their foods have also increased in price. Some of these small companies now sell their foods for enormous amounts. If you can afford to buy some of the most expensive holistic foods, good for you. Not everyone can. If the most expensive foods are out of your price range, don’t feel bad. There are plenty of excellent holistic foods in the middle price range.
One point we should mention about all holistic foods – but especially foods made by some of the small companies that make high protein grain free foods – pay attention to the animal vs plant protein content. In some cases we have seen the animal protein content decrease as more peas and lentils are added to the foods. The protein percentage may look the same but dogs digest animal protein much more easily than plant protein. We feel you are not getting your money’s worth when there is less meat protein and more plant protein.
If you’re not sure what a co-packer is, it is a company that manufactures a pet food for the company that puts its label on the food. Many grocery stores and pet stores use co-packers so they can sell their private label pet foods. Some manufacturers specialize in co-packing for other companies. Some pet food companies that make their own foods also manufacture foods for other companies. For example, Diamond has been a co-packer for many other brands.
Using co-packers has become very common in the pet food industry, especially with so many small companies that do not have their own manufacturing facilities. Large corporations such as Mars and Nestle Purina have their own plants (multiple plants in the U.S. and around the world) where they manufacture dry and canned foods as well as treats. But small companies may not be able to afford such facilities, especially in their early years. Or, they may invest in equipment to make dry dog food but outsource their canned foods to a co-packer.
So, should you buy a dog food made by a co-packer? At one time there was something of a stigma if a company used a co-packer, especially right after the 2007 pet food recalls when many people seemed to learn of co-packers for the first time. Even today many companies don’t like to admit they use co-packers and it can be hard to find this information, even if you ask the company. However, using a co-packer has become so common that we don’t think it should be held against a company. It can be important to know which co-packer a company uses. Some co-packers have better reputations than others. Some have had multiple recalls while others are highly respected. If you have concerns about the food you are buying, we suggest you check out whether the company uses a co-packer and what kind of reputation they have.
The exact ingredients your dog needs in his diet can vary depending on his age, health, activity level, weight, and other factors. There are some basic ingredients that most dogs need.
Meat protein: While dogs are not obligate carnivores like cats, they do need meat protein in their diet. Healthy adult dogs need a minimum of 18 percent protein in their diet; puppies need at least 22 percent protein. Most good quality dog food today exceeds these levels. Most experts agree that you should look for foods that contain two or three meat proteins in the first several ingredients of a dog food. Ideally, the first ingredient will be a meat protein since ingredients are listed on the label by weight before cooking. You should look for named whole meats or named meat meals (such as whole chicken or chicken meal). Some people debate whether whole meat or meat meal is better for your dog but both ingredients are generally accepted as good ingredients.
Named fat: Good dog foods should have named fats such as chicken fat. You should avoid foods that contain generic fats such as “animal fat.” Dogs need good quality fat in their diet. Fats and oils can be a good source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids which are good for your dog’s skin and coat, for example. Some vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they require fat for your dog to be able to absorb them.
Low to moderate carbohydrates: Many experts today recommend that dogs have low to moderate carbohydrates in their diets. Dogs, like humans, have no specific need for carbs in their diet but they do serve the purpose of helping your dog feel full between meals. Some kinds of carbohydrates can provide dietary fiber which can be beneficial for the gastrointestinal tract. And you will virtually always find some carbs/starches in kibble because the food needs a binder to hold the dough/batter together as it works through the machinery. However, it has been suggested that diets high in carbohydrates are linked to some kinds of cancer since too much sugar in the diet can be unhealthy. Dog foods that are high in carbs may also be more likely to put extra pounds on your dog. Many dog foods have carb percentages of 40 percent or higher – even well-known, holistic brands – so it’s important to look at the carbohydrate percentages of foods when you are considering them.
Added taurine: Pet food companies began adding taurine to cat foods in the 1970s when it was discovered that cats needed this amino acid in their diet to avoid blindness. They make very little taurine in their own bodies. It was thought at the time that dogs could make enough taurine in their bodies that it wasn’t necessary to add it to their food. However, it was discovered that Boxers and a few other dogs could have heart problems if they had a taurine deficiency so dog food companies began adding it to dog foods. (Lamb and rice dog foods seem to be associated with low taurine in dogs, along with high fiber foods, dog foods that are very low in protein, and vegetarian diets.) Many good quality dog foods today add extra taurine to their foods.
AAFCO-approved: You should also look for dog foods that are AAFCO-approved (Association of American Feed Control Officials). This statement of nutritional adequacy should appear on the dog food label. While some people criticize AAFCO for not being strict enough with their requirements, it is the best we have right now. They can approve food for growth and reproduction, maintenance, or all life stages. Approval depends on nutrient profiles submitted by the dog food company for a line of foods or on feeding trials.
High in protein/Moderate fat: Most healthy adult dogs will do well eating a diet that is high in protein with moderate fat. In general, the fat percentage should be about half of the protein percentage, though you can’t always find this ratio in foods you like. So, if you like a food that has 30 percent protein, the fat percentage would ideally be about 15 percent. Most people buying food in a pet store will just glance at the guaranteed analysis to see these figures. If you really want to know what the percentages are, you can figure the dry matter basis for the food (DMB) or ask the company for their analysis which will be more precise. If you feed your dog wet/canned food you will probably have a hard time finding foods that have a 2:1 protein to fat ratio. Most wet/canned foods have a higher percentage of fat than kibbles but that’s one of the reasons that most dogs like them so much.
Optional ingredients: Some high quality dog foods use “human grade” ingredients. At one time this term could not be used for pet foods but it seems to be more common today (or the FDA is not enforcing regulations against using it). By law, as soon as ingredients enter a pet food facility, they are no longer human grade, no matter their original source. However, there are pet food companies today that use USDA foods and their dog foods are made in human grade facilities. They are able to legally state that their dog food is human grade. You can also find quite a few dog foods today made with meat that is hormone-free and antibiotic-free. Some dog foods use free-range and pasture-raised animals. You can usually find this kind of information on a company’s web site.
Note that ALL poultry raised in the United States is hormone-free and has been since the 1950s.
Many dog foods today add chelated (“proteinated”) minerals in which the mineral is bonded to a protein. This makes the mineral easier for your dog to digest, especially in foods that contain lots of carbs or fibers that could interfere with its absorption.
Many good dog foods today will also contain added omega 6 and 3 (hopefully in the correct ratio – somewhere around 5:1) for good skin and coat. You may also see added pre- and probiotics, though it is often questionable whether the probiotics actually survive the pet food manufacturing process, shipping, and storage before they are fed to your dog. (A few dog foods claim to have overcome these issues.)
We have called these “optional” ingredients but added omega 3 and 6, chelated minerals, and meats that are free of antibiotics and hormones are widely available in many dog food brands.
Ingredients to avoid
There are also ingredients you should try to avoid. If you go browsing online you will find that people have their own ideas about other ingredients you should not let your dog eat, but most people concerned about their dog’s health agree about the ingredients below.
Avoid generic ingredients such as fats and proteins: These ingredients include items such as animal fat and meat meal. Essentially, with generic ingredients you don’t know the source and in many cases you would be feeding your dog low quality ingredients.
Avoid gluten meals such as corn gluten meal and wheat gluten meal: Corn and wheat are no worse than any other grains but glutens (in the pet food sense) are a by-product of the food industry. They are a plant source of protein that can be used to artificially boost the protein percentage of the pet food. You will mostly see corn gluten and wheat gluten used in lower quality foods. The same is true of “protein concentrates” such as rice protein concentrate.
Avoid meat by-products and digest: Here is the basic AAFCO definition for Animal Digest:
“Material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue. The animal tissues used shall be exclusive of hair, horns, teeth, hooves and feathers, except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice and shall be suitable for animal feed.”
So, just about any part of the (unknown) animal is used, with a few exceptions.
Here is the AAFCO definition for Meat By-Products:
“The non rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves.”
Your dog might enjoy eating some of those parts but you might be less happy about it. And, again, you don’t know what kind of animal it is.
It can be all right to buy a dog food that uses some by-products if they are specified (lamb lung, beef kidneys, etc.), but you should avoid foods that use generic by-products since you don’t know their source. We do not recommend foods using digests with rare exceptions.
Avoid BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin: These ingredients are artificial preservatives. We recommend foods that use natural preservatives such as mixed tocopherols, Vitamin C and E, rosemary, and others. BHA and BHT will be listed on dog food labels if they are present. Ethyoxyquin is harder to pin down. Few if any pet food companies add this ingredient to their foods today. However, this ingredient is used to preserve fish before it reaches the pet food company – so pet food manufacturers are technically not required to list it as an ingredient. You should check company web sites to see if they state they are ethoxyquin-free, especially if they use fish or fish meal as an ingredient.
Avoid artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners: Dogs do have a sweet tooth but you should not buy dog foods that have artificial sweeteners. Likewise, avoid artificial flavors and colors in pet food. Some artificial colors/dyes have been linked to cancer. Artificial flavors can be a form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Avoid propylene glycol, especially in large amounts: Propylene glycol is used in some pet foods as a humectant. It retains moisture and companies use it in foods that are supposed to be chewy or have chewy bits. Of course, most people know propylene glycol because it’s the non-toxic anti-freeze. You really just don’t need to feed your dog food that contains this ingredient, even if it’s not toxic. In large amounts it would be harmful.
Grain free or not?
There is also the question of whether you should feed your dog a grain free dog food or not. Until a few years ago, all kibble contained grains such as corn and wheat. Grain free dog food was developed as a specialty food for dogs with allergies to these grains. Somewhat surprisingly, lots of people began wanting to feed it to their dogs. Now it’s a mainstay of holistic dog foods.
Obviously, not every dog with a skin problem or even with a food allergy or food sensitivity has a problem with grains. However, grains such as corn and wheat are among the leading dog food allergens. The most common dog food allergens are: beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. You can find plenty of grain free dog foods today without corn and wheat (and soy), but some of them may contain other grains/cereals such as rice, oats, or barley. Grain free dog foods may also contain starches such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tapioca. You can find some grain free foods that rely on vegetables for a starch component such as pumpkin or pears. Your dog may not be allergic or sensitive to these ingredients but are they really good dog food ingredients? Yes, you can read all kinds of positive things about these ingredients on dog food web sites. No doubt some of these ingredients are beneficial. Whether or not they should completely replace grains if your dog is not bothered by small amounts of grain in his food is another question.
If your dog is allergic or sensitive to corn or wheat or another particular grain, we recommend a grain free food. Otherwise, we suggest feeding whatever works for your dog, whether it’s grain free or grain inclusive. There are some low grain dog foods today (Farmina), along with grain free foods. If your dog is not allergic to grains, we think it’s probably more important to feed a food that is low to moderate in carbs instead of worrying about whether the food is grain free. Avoiding dog foods that are high in carbohydrates is probably the best thing you can do for your dog.
This is just a quick glance at what to look for in a good dog food brand. If your dog has a specific health issue or you are looking for a special kind of food, there is definitely other information you will need to consider. You may need to look at the ash and mineral content for foods, calories, the dry matter basis, where ingredients are sourced, and more. But the information provided here should get you started, especially if you have just begun looking at foods for your dog.