Whether you have a puppy or a senior dog, a rescue or a show dog, most people would agree that it can be difficult to know which dog food is best at times. You may ask yourself questions such as:
- Does your dog need a grain free food?
- Should you spend extra money to buy GMO-free food?
- When should you feed your dog a special diet or a veterinary formula?
- And, how much protein does your dog really need?
If you find yourself thinking about these issues or wondering about the best food for your dog, you’ve come to the right place. Our guide can answer these questions and more.
Feeding your dog the right food is crucial to his health. Even if you’re feeding your dog a popular food that seems healthy, how can you tell if it is good for your dog’s long-term health?
In this guide we’ll discuss things to make it easy for you to choose the best food for your dog – things like:
- Your dog’s nutritional needs
- The kinds of dog food you can buy
- How to determine what kind of food your dog needs
- What to look for in a dog food
- What to look for if your dog has food allergies or sensitivities
- And, the best food to keep your dog healthy throughout his life
Your dog depends on you to choose the right food for him and meet his nutritional needs. In order to make wise choices for your dog, you can’t just walk into a pet store and pick up a bag of dog food that’s on sale – but that’s what many people do. Fortunately, Pawster can provide information about your dog’s nutritional needs, honest pet food reviews, and timely recall information to protect your dog. There are bad dog foods, bad ingredients, and companies you should avoid. We’ll provide all the valuable information you need to find the perfect recipe for your dog and feed him a healthy diet.
Your dog’s essential nutritional needs
If you ask your dog, he might say, with a woof and a wag of the tail, that he “needs” hot dogs and pizza. (Your dog’s veterinarian would probably disagree.) But when it comes to what your dog “needs” in a nutritional sense, it’s not very complicated. There are seven major kinds of nutrients:
These nutrients provide structure and energy for the body. Most foods contain a mixture of all of these nutrients in varying amounts. For example, we may think of a rib eye steak as a source of protein but if you look at the nutritional data for that steak, it shows that it’s 27 percent protein and 73 percent fat, with lots of vitamins and minerals. Dog foods typically contain lots of different ingredients that provide a variety of nutrients.
These are the basics that every dog needs in his diet.
Most of us think of dogs as carnivores, though there is some debate about whether they are carnivores or omnivores. Whatever the case, dogs do love meat protein. Even though most dog foods today are still grain-based, there are many good foods available that are grain free. You can find both grain-based and grain free foods that have good sources of meat protein. And, some foods include plant-based sources of protein from ingredients such as peas, lentils, and other foods. Some plant-based sources of protein can be less desirable for various reasons such as corn, wheat, and soy. These ingredients do provide protein but they have been so over-used in dog foods that they have become common allergens for some dogs. They are also used in some cheap dog foods in place of meat protein which makes them filler ingredients. Some of these plant-based proteins do not have as much bioavailability as meat proteins. We usually look for foods that do not contain these ingredients but that doesn’t mean that all plant-based sources of protein are bad for your dog. Even corn, used in small amounts, can be a good ingredient if your dog is not allergic to it.
Because of some of the issues with plant-based proteins, some dog owners prefer to feed dog foods that are “biologically appropriate.” These foods are typically high in animal protein such as various meats, organ meats, and eggs. You can expect these foods to be high in protein and have limited carbohydrate amounts. There are quite a few of these foods available today as more people have become interested in feeding this kind of diet. Expect this kind of food to be expensive since meat protein costs more.
Opinions vary on how much protein you should feed your dog. According to AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials) which publishes nutrient profiles for adult dog maintenance and reproduction, adult dogs need a minimum of 18 percent protein in their diet per day. This is for a maintenance diet. Growing puppies and pregnant mother dogs require a minimum of 22 percent protein in their diet per day. This 22 percent growth and reproduction figure is also considered the minimum for all life stage foods. The National Research Council provides similar information in grams per 1000/kcal in the dog’s and puppy’s diet. These are minimum requirements for dogs and puppies. Many dog foods today far exceed these minimum protein percentages. Some dogs do well on foods with moderate protein levels while other dogs will do well on foods with more or less protein. Good quality sources of protein are as important as the percentages. With good quality dog foods for healthy dogs you can usually consider protein percentages between 22-28 percent to be moderate. Some limited ingredient foods and foods for dogs with allergies have slightly lower protein percentages due to the fact that they have some exotic proteins or have to rely on plant proteins. We still consider them to be good quality foods.
Dogs can take energy from fat or carbohydrates or from protein. It’s considered preferable for energy to be used from fat or carbohydrates. However, if there is not enough dietary fat or carbohydrates in the diet, protein that is normally used for growth or maintenance of the body’s functions is (less efficiently) converted to energy. When this happens your dog can start losing muscle and can experience health problems. So, a moderate amount of fat in your dog’s diet is usually desirable, as long as your dog is in good health and isn’t overweight or obese. AAFCO considers 5 percent the minimum requirement for an adult dog’s maintenance diet. For growth and reproduction, 8 percent fat is considered the minimum. Virtually all dog foods available today have more fat than these amounts with the exception of very strict weight control dog foods. Most dog foods with moderate fat levels contain around 12-16 percent fat. Dogs with a heavy workload such as hunting dogs, sled dogs, or even some show dogs with a heavy travel schedule, can do well on foods that contain 20 percent fat (or more). Watch your dog’s weigh and condition and make adjustments as necessary. Many brands have similar foods available with different fat percentages so you can cut down on the amount of fat you are feeding your dog, depending on his energy needs at different times. If your dog is a couch potato most of the time, there is no need to feed him a food with 18-20 percent fat. He’ll soon be obese which can lead to a lot of health problems.
Most dog owners are concerned today about dog foods that contain too many carbohydrates, which is certainly possible. From the point of view of a dog food company, carbohydrates are usually a less expensive ingredient than meat proteins. For this reason many companies use quite a few carbohydrates which has led many people to view them as only a filler ingredient. They aren’t. They are a source of energy and other nutrients for your dog; but some companies overdo it. Some dog foods are made with as much as 50 percent – or more – carbohydrates. Dogs have evolved the ability to digest carbohydrates much more efficiently than their wolf relatives. However, this doesn’t mean that you should feed your dog a diet that is high in carbohydrates. Low to moderate amounts of carbohydrates are suitable for most healthy dogs.
Many foods naturally contain some carbohydrates, even if you are feeding a grain free diet. Popular replacements for grains in dog foods such as sweet potatoes, Bartlett pears, and even lentils, are all high in carbohydrates. So, your dog will likely be getting carbs in his diet whether you feed a food with grain or not. Even the “biologically appropriate” diets typically have some percentage of carbs.
Fiber is also important for your dog’s health. Some fiber can do double-duty as a pre-biotic and/or carbohydrate. Oatmeal, for example, provides 12 percent protein, 14 percent fat, and 74 percent carbohydrates. But it’s also an excellent source of soluble fiber for your dog. Beet pulp is another fiber that’s often used in dog foods. It’s an insoluble fiber, meaning that it adds bulk and moisture to a dog’s stool. It improves the health of the colon by providing beneficial bacteria with some volatile fatty acids. All balanced dog foods provide some kind of fiber for your dog. You can look into the kind of fiber your food uses to see what it does and how it works. Most kibbles today use between 4-6 percent fiber (guaranteed analysis). If a food has more fiber than this it is probably a weight control food since these foods sometimes use more fiber to try to make dogs feel “fuller” when they eat, even though the food has fewer calories. Too much fiber does have drawbacks since you will be picking up more dog poop.
Most dog foods use more or less the same vitamins and minerals in order to meet the requirements to be “complete and balanced.” There can be differences in where these nutrients are sourced. Many companies use vitamins and minerals obtained from China or other countries. To be fair, it can be hard to obtain some vitamins and minerals without buying them from certain specific countries. However, some dog owners are reluctant to buy dog foods that use any ingredients from China because of concerns about safety. If this issue is important to you, we urge you to contact companies directly and press them for information. Only by hearing from consumers will companies know that this is an important issue.
Many of us forget that water is an essential nutrient for our dogs. Make sure you provide plenty of clean, fresh water for your dog every day. Many dog lovers use filtered or distilled water for their dogs today.
Our checklist of 8 crucial things you need to know before you buy a dog food
Here are the 8 things you should look for in a good dog food:
- Look for good sources of meat protein in the first two or three ingredients.
- Whole meat proteins OR good meat meals are both good. (Whole deboned chicken, chicken meal, lamb meal, turkey meal, etc.)
- Avoid too many grains. You don’t have to feed a grain free food but we do suggest that you keep the carbs low to moderate. If you like some grains, we recommend oats, barley, and some of the less common grains.
- Grain free is good but not for everyone. Some dogs do well on grain free dog foods – but some don’t. We do suggest looking at how many peas and lentils are in these foods. Are you really getting as much meat protein as you think? If your dog is not digesting his grain free food well, it may have too much plant protein or fiber.
- Avoid vague, unnamed, generic ingredients. Look for foods that use ingredients that are specific so you know what they are and where they come from.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and colors. Artificial preservatives include BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin.
- We recommend that you avoid foods that contain corn gluten meal and wheat gluten meal. These ingredients are often used to increase the protein percentages in pet foods.
- Most healthy dogs do well eating dog foods with moderately high protein levels and moderate fat. There are exceptions, depending on your dog’s activity level, weight, health, and other factors, but we recommend foods with these levels. Fortunately, there are many very good dog foods today that fall into this category.
There are other things to consider when buying a dog food but if you keep this checklist in mind you should be able to find a great dog food!
What kinds of dog food can you buy?
If you have looked online or wandered through a pet store recently, you may be amazed at the pet food choices available today. It wasn’t that long ago that you only had to choose between dry and canned food. That’s not the case anymore.
Here are some of the kinds of dog food available today:
- Dry dog food (kibble)
- Fresh frozen
- Fresh raw
- Fresh refrigerated
- Gluten free
- Grain free
- High calorie
- High fiber
- High protein
- Large/giant breed dog food
- Lifestage: Adult
- Lifestage: Puppy
- Lifestage: Senior
- Limited ingredient (LID)
- Low calorie
- Low carbohydrate
- Low fat
- Low phosphorus
- Low protein
- Low Residue
- Low sodium
- Novel/exotic protein
- Prescription/veterinary diets
- Small breed
- Sensitive skin/stomach
- Super Premium
- Tartar control
- Toy breed
Along with traditional dry kibble or wet canned food, you can buy fresh or raw frozen dog food; dehydrated, freeze-dried, and air-dried foods; fresh refrigerated foods; and semi-moist foods. There are a vast array of options when you visit a pet food store. Or you can check for discount pet food online from some of the popular sites that will deliver dog food right to your door. You can find any kind of dog food from the number one selling dog food to hard-to-find brands that have your dog’s favorite recipe.
If your dog has a special health problem such as diabetes, allergies, skin problems, or stomach issues, you can also find many different foods that he should be able to eat. Is your dog overweight and he needs to go on a diet? There are all kinds of weight loss and weight control dog foods available today. Do you have a senior dog that needs to watch his weight? Or a senior dog that needs extra protein? There are foods for these dogs, too. Does your dog need a novel protein? You can find lots of brands that make foods using exotic proteins that your dog probably hasn’t eaten before.
Along with these different formulas, most pet food manufacturers also make foods for dogs of different lifestages and sizes. For example, you will probably find that a company makes a formula for puppies, adult dogs, and seniors. Very often they also make the formula for small dogs and large or giant breed dogs. In some cases they may also make the food for dogs of other sizes such as Toy dogs and medium-sized dogs. Toy/small breed dogs and large breed dogs have some special nutritional requirements so the vitamins and minerals in these foods, along with the protein, fat, and calories, can be different from regular dog food. The kibble size for these foods can also be adjusted to suit the smaller or larger teeth of the dogs, too.
With so many brands and kinds of food, you can also find foods available to fit most budgets. You can even find good quality foods that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Depending on where you purchase your food, you may be able to find dog food coupons or sign up for company newsletters to learn about pet food discounts.
How to figure out what kind of dog food your dog needs
With so many kinds of dog food, how do you figure out which food is best for your dog? Actually, it’s not as hard as it may seem. Start by thinking about your dog and asking these six questions:
- What kind of dog do you have?
- What size is he?
- How old is he?
- Is he very active or is he a couch potato most of the time?
- Does he have any special health problems like allergies or a sensitive stomach?
- Are there any ingredients that you know your dog can’t eat?
After you answer these questions you should have a much better idea about what kind of dog food your dog needs. For example, if he’s a medium-sized dog that’s 5 years old and he’s moderately active without any special health problems, you will have a wide variety of dog foods to choose from. If he’s a puppy (up to about a year old for most breeds), there are lots of good brands for puppies of all sizes (Toy, small breed, medium, and large-giant breed). The same is true for senior dogs. Toy/small breeds burn up more calories per pound than bigger dogs so these foods usually have slightly more calories per ounce. Large breeds generally need fewer calories than smaller dogs but they usually need some supplements for joint support in their food.
If you’re looking for dog foods online it’s a good idea to narrow down your search according to some of these parameters, such as your dog’s size or age or any special health problems. Otherwise you might be presented with 10,000 matches for “dog food” on a web site. If you’re looking at foods in a pet store they are usually arranged by brand so you will have stacks of Merrick, stacks of Taste of the Wild, stacks of Wellness, and other popular brands. This can make it a little more challenging to look at the different formulas and read labels but it can be done. At least it’s easy to find the foods if you’re looking for a specific brand.
Obviously, if you know your dog can’t eat a particular ingredient, you should avoid buying foods that contain it. Read the ingredients carefully to make sure a dog food doesn’t contain that ingredient. Some ingredients can be tricky. For example, some canned foods might say they use “broth” without specifying what kind of broth. It’s possible they may make the broth using a meat protein that your dog is allergic to. That’s one reason why it’s always good to look for named ingredients that are as specific as possible.
So, let’s say you have a small/medium-sized dog – a Poodle-mix. She is two years old. She is active and you do agility with her. She does have some food sensitivities but you’re not sure what they are so you’re not sure what to avoid in her food. What kind of food should you get for her? Since she’s small/medium and active she probably needs a few more calories than some dogs, even if she’s spayed. You probably want to avoid some of the common food triggers for dogs such as beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. These are the ingredients most likely to bother a dog with food sensitivities or allergies just because they are so common.
In order to find a food for your dog we would suggest checking a site such as Chewy.com or Amazon.com and ticking off the things that you need in a dog food. If you go to Chewy.com you can click on “Dog Food – Dry” then on the left side look for “Special Diet” and click “No corn, no wheat, no soy.” This still leaves you with more than 600 results. Next you can click “Small breeds” but this only brings the number down a little. If you look at “Food Flavor” you can see the options that remain: alligator, bison, boar, catfish, elk, kangaroo, pork, rabbit, and venison are all good possibilities if you are trying to avoid chicken, fish, and beef. If you click on “boar,” for example, there are four very good foods available that would likely meet your dog’s needs in this scenario: Orijen Regional Red Grain Free Dry Dog Food, Wellness CORE Grain Free Wild Game Dry Dog Food, Canidae Grain Free PURE Wild with Wild Boar Dry Dog Food, and Wellness CORE RawRev Natural Grain Free Natural Wild Game Duck, Lamb, Wild Boar & Rabbit with Freeze Dried Lamb Dry Dog Food. (This last food might not be suitable for your dog if she is sensitive to lamb or duck.) You could also try one of the other flavors your dog might like such as kangaroo, venison, or rabbit.
This is just an example of how to figure out the food your dog needs. Ask yourself the questions described here, and others like them, and they should point you in the right direction. You can also use the Google search box to look for specific kinds of dog food. Or you can ask a knowledgeable clerk at a pet food store; or talk to your veterinarian and get his/her opinion about what kind of food to feed your dog.
Whatever method you choose to select a food for your dog, be sure to watch your dog after you change foods. You will want to make sure that the new food agrees with him.
Here are five things to look for after changing food:
- Does your dog like the new food?
- Is your dog gaining or losing weight?
- Is your dog active and happy?
- Do bowel movements look normal?
- Do your dog’s skin and coat look good?
If you see anything that concerns you after changing dog food, talk to your veterinarian or consider returning to your old dog food until you can select a different food to try.
What’s the best dog food to buy for your dog?
People often want to know what’s the BEST food to buy for their dog. That’s always a hard question and here’s why.
- The “best” dog food depends on who you ask.
- Different dogs need different foods.
- Some people look at non-food issues when deciding on the “best” food.
- Dog food recipes change all the time.
My dog with lymphoma absolutely refuses to eat anything that contains beef. I have cooked a sirloin steak for him and he wouldn’t touch it. He certainly won’t eat dog food that’s made from beef. Yet there are marvelous, top-rated dog foods that contain beef. They are still excellent dog foods even though my dog won’t eat them. It wouldn’t be fair if I condemned all beef dog foods based on the fact that my (very picky) dog won’t eat them.
Yet if you read some comments online from dog lovers, they will base their views about dog foods on whether or not their dog likes a food. If a few people report that their dog wouldn’t eat a food, it’s probably not relevant. However, if hundreds of people report that dogs won’t eat a food, then it becomes an important issue. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when you read online comments about pet foods.
Some people also have grudges against certain companies for various reasons, whether they are related to pet food or not. Large companies like Purina, Eukanuba, Mars, and others have their fans but they also have some vocal detractors. If you spend much time online reading about pet foods you will certainly come across these debates. We think it’s usually best to judge the foods on their own merits and try to ignore the other issues.
Even some of the small pet food companies, often championed by bloggers, come in for their share of heat at times. They have been scolded for where their food is canned, for not using BPA-free cans, for not being green enough, and so on. Again, we think it’s best to judge the foods on their merits.
Some people give companies high marks if they donate to shelters or other charitable organizations. Again, we prefer to only look at the food they make.
One thing we think should be considered when judging dog foods that’s not in the bag or can is customer service and how companies respond when they have recalls. Granted, these issues don’t necessarily affect the quality of the dog food but they can have a lot to do with your buying experience and your dog’s health. They also say something about whether you can trust the company or not. Most companies, if they stay in business long enough, will have a recall at some point. We don’t hold one recall against a company. But how they handle the recall is important. Being honest and professional in dealings with customers is important.
As for dog food recipes, companies frequently make changes to them. This means that a food that was terrific two years ago may be very different today. Regulations allow companies to continue selling a food for up to six months using the old label after they have made changes to the formula so you may not even know there have been changes. Your dog probably knows. You may notice that he’s not eating his favorite food with gusto any longer and wonder why. It could be because of a change to the recipe.
Also, and we hate saying this because we like dog food companies in general, but some companies have not always been truthful about what goes into their foods. It’s hard to go out on a limb to claim a dog food is the “best” when some companies in the industry have not been honest with customers.
With all that said, there are some dog food companies that consistently, year after year, produce good quality dog foods. Here are some brands that we can recommend:
- Breeder’s Choice
- Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Dr. Tim’s
- Eagle Pack
- Earthborn Holistic
- Holistic Select
- Honest Kitchen
- Natural Balance
- Precise, Precise Holistic
- Pro Plan
- Taste of the Wild
There are other good brands of dog food but these foods are usually easy to find online or in pet food stores. They include kibbles, canned foods, raw, refrigerated, and freeze-dried foods. They include all kinds of recipes for dogs of every age, size, and activity level. Prices for these foods range from very reasonable to very expensive. For instance, 4Health is the Tractor Supply Co. brand. It is grain free with no corn, soy, or wheat, and is very similar to Taste of the Wild, another brand that is reasonably priced. Kirkland’s Signature/Nature’s Domain is the Costco brand and it’s a good food for a reasonable price. At the other end of the spectrum, Nulo, Acana, Orijen, and some of the other foods are quite expensive but they contain copious amounts of meat protein and many people consider them to be the very best dog foods made today.
Non-GMO, Organic and other Dog Food Terms
Some good quality foods today are non-GMO, gluten-free, or they use organic ingredients that make them desirable to dog lovers. These features do make foods more expensive but some dog owners find these points important. If you are feeding a dog food that is grain free, more than likely it is also gluten-free since glutens are found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, and their closely-related grains. (Note that corn does not have gluten in the sense that these grains do, though you will see and hear the term “corn gluten.” This is a misnomer.) It’s usually unnecessary to look for gluten-free dog food if you are feeding a grain free food, though dog food companies will point it out to you.
Non-GMO dog foods are not uncommon. The following genetically modified crops are currently approved to be grown in the United States:
- Sugar beets
- Yellow “crook neck” squash
- “Arctic” apple
- “Innate” potato
If the dog food you feed doesn’t contain any of these ingredients, chances are that the food is non-GMO. If you really want to be sure, you can buy organic dog food or look for dog foods that state they are non-GMO.
If you want to buy organic dog food, here are some things you should know.
The FDA doesn’t regulate the use of the term “organic” on human or pet food labels. However, the USDA does oversee the National Organic Program (NOP) that provides the regulations and standards for organically produced crops and livestock in the U.S. They regulate the use of the term “organic.”
In order to be labeled “organic,” products such as dog food have to meet strict requirements. Few dog foods can claim to be 100 percent organic but some foods are partly organic. For this reason there are different kinds of organic labeling.
Categories of USDA-Certified Organic Foods
Label statement and USDA requirements for organic certification of foods*
Can be labeled “100% organic” and display a Certified Organic seal on the front of the package.
Must be 95% to 99% organic ingredients; can display the Certified Organic seal on the front of the package.
Made with Organic Ingredients
Must be 70% to 94% organic, can say “made with organic ingredients” and can list up to three such ingredients on the front, but cannot display the organic seal anywhere on the package.
Less than 70% Organic
Can list organic ingredients on the information panel, but cannot use the word “organic” on the front of the package or display the organic seal.
*Source: USDA National Organic Program
At this time, as far as we know, there are no 100 percent organic dog foods. There are some foods that are 95 percent organic, such as Newman’s Own Organics. Natural Planet Organics also has some canned foods that are labeled “USDA Organic.” These foods appear to be at least 95 percent organic. Castor & Pollux Organix has a complete line of quality pet foods for cats and dogs that is USDA Organic. There are a few other brands that are at least partly organic; and some foods contain organic ingredients. Organic dog foods usually cost more. Raising organic crops and livestock can be more labor-intensive and that cost is passed along to the consumer.
You should be aware that organic is not the same as “natural” or “holistic.” “Natural,” as used by pet food companies, is a vague term. The FDA made a stab at defining the term in 2016 to satisfy requests from consumers but the agency has not produced any definition. They continue to use the following policy:
The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
In short, the FDA does not object to the use of the term “natural” if the food contains no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. That still leaves room for manufacturers to add a lot of things that dog lovers might not like. Some natural ingredients can be dangerous to humans and to pets.
AAFCO does define “natural”:
Natural: A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as may occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes.
That may or may not be clearer than the FDA’s non-definition but at least it’s something.
“Holistic” has no meaning at all from a regulatory perspective. It’s a marketing term. Any pet food company can use this term and it can mean anything they want it to mean. Consumers generally suppose that it has some vague connotations of health and goodness but it has no specific meaning as applied to dog food.
“Human grade” is another term that is often bandied around concerning dog food. As you might expect, the FDA and AAFCO take exception to most dog food companies applying this term to their dog foods. In the past FDA has taken some pet food companies to court for using this term. According to AAFCO there is no official definition for “human grade” pet food so using the term is false and misleading for pet food manufacturers. Many companies today claim to use “human grade” ingredients in their dog foods. They could, theoretically, use the same food that you or I buy at the grocery store. However, using these ingredients in their foods would not make their dog food “human grade.” Here’s why. In order for a dog food to be “human edible” or “fit for human consumption” a food would not only have to use human grade ingredients, but it would have to be produced in facilities that meet FDA and USDA requirements for producing, processing, and transporting foods for humans. Every producer of the ingredients would have to be licensed to do that work. If you think about it, this makes sense. Human grade ingredients handled in a facility that makes pet food are instantly exposed to every kind of bacteria that the pet food ingredients may carry, making them unfit for human consumption. Very few pet food companies can meet these requirements.
One company that does meet those criteria – and went to court to prove it – is The Honest Kitchen. The Honest Kitchen provides lots of information on their web site about human grade dog food and how their foods meet the standards. They won their case in Ohio in 2007 when the courts ruled that they had a constitutional right to truthful commercial free speech. On their web site they advertise that they are “the only pet food manufacturer in the United States to have proven to the Federal FDA that every ingredient it uses in its products are suitable for human consumption.” Some other companies advertise that they use human grade ingredients. When reading these claims you should be careful not to infer that the foods are fit for human consumption.
While using the “human grade” claim is somewhat rare on pet food labeling, companies do seem to use the term more freely on their web sites and in-store materials. The information is often presented in the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) sections of dog food web sites. For example, Newman’s Own Organics presents this information in a question-and-answer format: “Q: Does Newman’s Own Organics use human grade materials? Why isn’t that written on the bag? A: Newman’s Own Organics organic pet food uses human grade and fit for human consumption ingredients such as natural chicken and organic grains. The AAFCO Board … actually prohibits the printing of ‘Human Grade’ on pet food packaging.”
One last word about “human grade” dog food. Unless you are making food for your dog yourself in your own kitchen with ingredients that you buy, you really should not eat any dog food, no matter how great the quality. Even if the food is human grade, organic, non-GMO, natural, holistic, etc. It’s still dog food. We know people who love their dogs who, through curiosity or because they wanted to make sure the food was good, have tried eating some dog food. Just don’t do it.
Does your dog have a food intolerance?
Recent research suggests that the number of dogs today with food intolerances may rival the number of humans, and for the same reasons. Dogs can have the same allergic reactions that humans have. While food is just one of the allergies that can affect dogs, it’s one of the most problematic for dog owners because we have to feed our dogs every day. So identifying food triggers becomes crucial.
In general, food allergies will present as red, itchy skin, inflamed ears, hives, and lots of scratching. There is often an immediate response after eating a food that contains an offending ingredient. A food intolerance is more likely to result in gas, loose bowel movements or diarrhea, vomiting, and other signs of gastrointestinal discomfort. These signs may show up any time after your dog eats something that disagrees with him.
Considering the fact that dogs have historically been scavengers, able to eat all kinds of carrion and trash, it can be surprising that they can have food allergies and sensitivities to modern dog food ingredients, but that’s the case. Some dogs will react to certain proteins. (Note that proteins are also found in carbohydrates and fiber, so this doesn’t only refer to animal sources of protein.)
If you suspect that your dog has a food allergy or sensitivity you can do one of two things. You can work with your veterinarian to try to definitely identify the allergen(s) that bother your dog. This will likely involve an elimination diet and food trials. These food trials will have your dog eating foods that contain one protein and one carbohydrate. This approach can take several months but you will eventually know, with some certainty, the ingredients that affect your dog. The other approach is to try feeding your dog foods that he can eat, hoping you can guess the ingredient(s) to avoid. This is a hit or miss approach. It may or may not work for you and your dog depending on what he’s allergic to. If he’s allergic to a very common dog food ingredient you may end up buying a lot of different foods that you won’t be able to feed him. If he’s allergic to something that’s only used in one or two brands, you could get lucky and easily find foods that he can eat.
The most common dog food allergens today are:
- Dairy products
- Chicken eggs
Many dogs can eat these ingredients without any problems but because they are so common some dogs have developed allergies to them. However, if your dog has food allergies or sensitivities, you can’t assume that these ingredients are the problem. Your dog could be allergic or sensitive to something that’s not on this list like peas or rabbit or pork. Dogs have to be exposed to an ingredient at least once before they will have a reaction so your dog could eat a food for a long time without any problems then suddenly have a reaction to it. So, just because your dog has always eaten chicken dog food without any problems doesn’t mean that he won’t ever have an allergic reaction to it. Even an elderly dog can suddenly develop a food allergy.
There are some special diets for dogs with severe food allergies and sensitivities. In these serious cases veterinarians can prescribe foods made from hydrolyzed protein. The protein is typically made from chicken or soy but the protein molecules are so small that your dog’s immune system is unable to identify them as allergens so it doesn’t react to them. Hill’s, Purina, and Royal Canin currently make these veterinary formulas.
You can also try a commercial hypoallergenic dog food. These foods usually contain fewer ingredients so your dog is less likely to find an ingredient that might cause a reaction. Many limited ingredient diets (LID) fall into this category. You can also look for foods with novel or exotic proteins. Since your dog probably hasn’t eaten these meat proteins before, he hasn’t had a chance to develop an allergy to them. Some foods designed for dogs with food intolerances also contain less common carbohydrates so they are grain free.
If these approaches don’t appeal to you, you can try feeding your dog a BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) or raw diet. Many people swear by feeding raw food but even if you take this approach you may need to feed your dog a novel protein in order to avoid triggering an allergic reaction.
Some of the novel protein sources available to dog owners today include:
- Alligator – A lean meat that is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein.
- Bison – A lean source of protein, bison is nutritionally dense and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains plenty of selenium, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
- Boar – Lower in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and higher in protein compared or ordinary park. Even higher in protein than beef, lamb and chicken.
- Catfish – Provides a substantial amount of dietary fat that is enriched with essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, that are adept at reducing inflammation, arthritis and other joint problems.
- Duck – Duck is typically higher in fat that other sources of poultry, but 2/3 of it is healthy fat – it is also rich in iron, selenium, zinc, and Bi vitamins.
- Herring – This is a type of fatty fish, but most of the fat is healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Herring is also rich in protein, vitamin B-12, zinc, and vitamin D.
- Kangaroo – Another lean source of protein, kangaroo is also rich in zinc, iron, and vitamin B-12.
- Ostrich – Lean and rich in protein. Often found through raw pet food sites.
- Rabbit – Fresh rabbit is a more highly-concentrated source of protein than both chicken and beef. It is also rich in iron, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium.
- Venison – A lean source of red meat, venison is also rich in iron, niacin, riboflavin, and Vitamin B-6. It is also particularly rich in L-carnitine.
Most of these meat proteins are novel for most dogs but you will know what your dog has eaten in the past. If your dog has eaten some of these meat proteins in the past you may need to try a different meat protein. This is why most experts suggest that you don’t feed exotic meat proteins to dogs unless you really need to do so. Save them for situations – like allergies – where your dog may need to eat something he hasn’t eaten before.
Prescription and veterinary formulas – also known as therapeutic diets – are dog foods formulated for dogs with specific health problems. Most of the research for these foods is done by the large pet food companies such as Purina, Hill’s, and Royal Canin, though there are a few other companies that make these foods. In the case of the large pet food companies, some of their research can eventually find its way into their commercial foods. You generally need a prescription from your veterinarian to purchase these diets, even when you buy them online.
Veterinary formulas are available for conditions such as these:
- Allergies/food sensitivities
- Cardiac problems
- Dogs that need a low fat diet
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Glucose management
- Kidney care
- Liver care
- Urinary tract issues
- Weight reduction
Prescriptions diets are usually quite expensive. This is despite the fact that, when reading the label, you may think that the ingredients are not very good. These foods may contains grains and other ingredients that are usually panned by dog food reviewers. People who buy these foods are not buying them for the ingredients. If your dog needs one of these diets it’s usually because other options have not worked. You should think of them as medical diets. In fact, people have attempted to sue the makers of prescription diets with various complaints and had their case dismissed.
If your dog needs a special diet you can try to find commercial diets that suit his needs. You can try to cook or provide a suitable raw diet. Or you can buy a prescription diet. There are not always commercial diets available if your dog has certain health problems so your options can be limited. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) requires research and proof that a food can prevent or treat an ailment before it allows a company to put that claim on a label so prescription dog foods, in theory, have to provide some documentation that they can do what they claim. Commercial diets, on the other hand, tend to make more general claims about health. They may say that they “promote” or “support” your dog’s condition. Big difference. These commercial dog foods don’t have to prove anything, even if they have wonderful ingredients. You should keep this in mind if your dog has a serious health problem and you are trying to decide what to feed him.
You may not like the ingredients in prescription dog foods but there is evidence that they work. If you have a sick dog, that’s really all that matters.
How to read a dog food label (You knew we had to include it)
So, now you know your dog’s nutritional needs, what kinds of dog foods are available, and some of the best dog foods you can buy. You’re all ready to buy the best food for your dog, right? Well, not just yet.
You can know all of these things but unless you know how to read a dog food label and what to look for on that label, you’ll still be guessing about the food you buy.
Pet food labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They have established standards applicable for all animal feeds.
In addition, some states have their own labeling regulations for pet food. Many (most) states have adopted the model pet food regulations established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). These regulations are more specific in nature, covering other aspects of labeling.
Here is the information you should find on every dog food label:
- Product name
- Net quantity statement
- Manufacturer’s name and address
- Ingredient list
- Guaranteed analysis
- Nutritional adequacy statement
- Feeding directions
- Calorie statement
Some labels may include other information but it is not required. In fact, this is where you should remember that terms such as “holistic” and “premium” are used for marketing and they don’t have a meaning for the FDA or AAFCO.
All of this information is important and the FDA goes into detail about it on their web site. We’ll just touch on some highlights.
You do need to pay attention to the product name because pet food manufacturers can play games with it. Depending on how the name is worded, the food may have more or less of the big name protein you think you are buying, for example. If the food is labeled “Beef for Dogs,” for instance, it has to contain at least 95 percent beef (less water for processing and “condiments” — vitamins and minerals). Even when you include the added water, the food has to contain at least 70 percent beef.
However, if the name of the food is “Beef Dinner for Dogs,” that’s something different. In this case only 25 percent of the food has to be beef (not counting water for processing). If you remove the water for processing, the food still has to contain 10 percent beef. Other words besides dinner can be used such as platter, entree, nuggets, formula, and so on. You can see where this is going. If a product is labeled “Dog Food with Beef” the food only has to contain 3 percent beef. You will also find “Beef Flavor Dog Food.” In this case the company doesn’t have to include a specific amount of beef but it has to be detectable with testing. Companies can use beef meal, beef by-products, or beef digest to provide this flavor. We have used beef as an example but the same things are true for other ingredients.
The ingredient list is one of the most important things for consumers to consider when evaluating dog foods. Ingredients must be listed in order of predominance by weight before cooking. This means that they include their water content. This is important to remember when comparing foods that have whole meat proteins versus meat meals since whole meats have lots of water weight and meat meals have had most of their moisture removed. Dog foods made with lots of meat meals (chicken, turkey, lamb, etc.) often have as much or more meat protein than foods made with whole meat proteins.
AAFCO requires companies to use common or usual names for ingredients so they are easy for consumers to identify. You will usually be able to recognize most of the ingredients in a pet food label, at least until you get to the “condiments.” In today’s premium dog foods you typically see things like less common grains/cereals (oats, barley, millet, quinoa,), or grain-substitutes in grain free foods such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, Bartlett pears, lentils, peas, chickpeas. You will probably see added fiber, vitamins and minerals. Some companies use chelated minerals which are bonded to proteins so they are easier for your dog to absorb. Some natural preservatives (green tea extract, rosemary extract, vitamin E, mixed tocopherols, others), some pre-biotics such as chicory or other things, and sometimes some fermentation products or probiotics round out the formulas.
Foods may or may not contain ethoxyquin. This is a preservative that is sometimes used with fish meals. It is added on the boat, before the fish reaches the manufacturer, so it doesn’t have to be included in the ingredient list. The only way to really know for sure if your dog’s food contains ethoxyquin is to check with the company. Some dog food companies post this information on their web sites but you will probably have to contact most companies. Because companies change suppliers frequently, information can change.
The guaranteed analysis provides some of the most important information you need to know about a dog food. You should expect the guaranteed analysis to include the following information:
- Crude protein percentage (minimum)
- Crude fat percentage (minimum)
- Crude fiber (maximum)
- Moisture (maximum)
The “crude” term refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself.
Some companies may include guarantees for other nutrients but it is not required. For instance, dog foods often provide the minimum percentage levels of calcium, phosphorus, and linoleic acid. If the food includes glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support, the company may include these percentages.
The guaranteed analysis you see on a pet food label is the “as fed” or “as is” basis. This is not the same as the “dry matter basis” of the food with the moisture removed. This means that it’s easy to compare two foods that have the same “as fed” basis but if you want to compare foods with a different moisture content, it’s more difficult. For example, if you want to compare two bags of dry dog food – both with a moisture content of 10 percent – no problem. You are comparing two similar things. But, if you want to compare the protein percentage in a bag of dry dog food with the protein percentage in a can of dog food, you have to do a few calculations.
Let’s look at the guaranteed analysis of two sample foods given on an “as fed” basis:
Looking at these “as fed” percentages you might think that Food A, the dry kibble, is higher protein. But we need to do some calculations to figure out the dry matter basis for the foods.
To do the calculation:
- Locate the percentage of the nutrient (e.g., protein).
For Food A, this would be 26%.
- Determine the percentage of dry matter by subtracting the moisture percentage from 100
(100% – moisture content = dry matter). For Food A, this would be 100% – 12% = 88% dry matter.
- Divide the percentage of the nutrient (protein) by the percentage of dry matter and multiply by 100.
For Food A, this would be 26% ÷ 88% x 100) = 29% protein.
The number that you get should be higher than the number reported on the label because you’ve subtracted the moisture. Now do the same thing for Food B, the canned food.
Now compare the two foods again, this time on a DMB:
Tables from Modern Dog Magazine.
When you first looked at the foods, based on the guaranteed analysis or “as fed” basis, Food A appeared to be higher in protein. But when you convert to the dry matter basis and remove the moisture, it’s clear that Food B has a higher protein percentage. Of course, there are other factors to consider before making your purchase, such as cost and how much protein your dog needs. But knowing the dry matter basis of a food is important.
Even if you are simply comparing one canned food to another, it can be a good idea to convert to the dry matter basis. Canned foods can range from about 75 percent moisture to as much as 87.5 percent. This may not sound like a big difference but when it’s converted to the DMB it can make a big difference in how much protein your dog is getting.
Nutritional adequacy statement
Another important element you should look for on a dog food label is the nutritional adequacy statement. This AAFCO statement saying that the food is complete and balanced is one of the most important things on the label.
Dog food companies can meet the AAFCO requirements in one of two ways. They can formulate a product to provide levels of nutrients that meet an established profile. Dog foods that meet the requirements in this way will have a statement such as this on the label: “(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.” This means the product contains the proper amount of all recognized essential nutrients needed to meet the needs of the healthy animal.
The second way a dog food can meet the AAFCO requirements is by means of AAFCO Feeding Trial Protocols. This method is less common today because it is more expensive. In most cases only the big pet food companies use this option. This means that the product, or “lead” member of a “family” of products, has been fed to dogs under strict guidelines and found to provide proper nutrition. These products should bear the nutritional adequacy statement “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of product) provides complete and balanced nutrition.”
There is some thought that food trials are better than nutrient profiles because these foods have actually been fed to dogs. However, food trials only last for up to six months and normally include a small number of dogs that have to make it through the trial in good health. There is no long-term follow-up on their health. So, it may not be fair to assume that food trials are better than nutrient profiles as a way to evaluate dog foods.
The nutritional adequacy statement also states the lifestage of the dog the food is suitable for such as growth or maintenance. Dog foods that are intended for “all life stages” have to meet the tougher nutritional demands required for growth and reproduction. Maintenance foods are designed for adult dogs engaging in normal activities (non-reproductive). At the moment there are no rules for senior diets. These foods only have to meet the requirements for adult maintenance.
Dog foods are required to provide calorie information today though this is a recent change and not all companies have complied yet. The information has to be expressed as “kilocalories per kilogram.” Kilocalories are the same as “Calories.” A kilogram is a unit of metric measurement equivalent to 2.2 pounds. Companies also have to express calories in familiar household units such as “per cup” or “per can.” Be aware, however, that if you are comparing cans of dog food, different companies may use different size cans. So, if you are comparing a 3.3 ounce can of food from one company and a 5 ounce can from another company, it could lead to confusion about the calorie content. Make sure you are comparing the same amounts of food. When comparing calories you also need to adjust for the dry matter basis to get an accurate figure.
It can take some practice to learn to read dog food labels but it’s a useful skill to develop. The more you know about what’s in your dog’s food, the better for your dog. It will also help you, as a consumer, know how to choose the best foods. You can learn more about the best foods for your dog here on Pawster.