How to Choose a Dog Food That’s Actually Good for Your Dog
Anyone who has recently visited their neighborhood pet store has had a surprise in recent years. Gone are the days when Ol’ Roy’s and Purina were the mainstays of the dog food aisle. Instead, prospective consumers need to face the wall of food, where variety and brand names range for over twenty feet of shelf space. Now, consumers have a choice of pet food with as much variety as they find in their own grocery store. Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely to the benefit of the pet as it brings with it many pitfalls of an overabundance of choice. Read up on the many ways you might be doing a disservice for your dog through their food bowl and how to choose a pet food that will do some good for your dog:
Beware of Food Trends and Marketing Terms:
At some point, pet food companies became aware that people were buying products based on their own desires rather than the need of their dogs. This resulted in an explosion of products as companies realized a niche consumer audience wasn’t being taken advantage of. Instead of dried cow bones being the only product on offer in pet stores, companies started producing and marketing dog toys that had little to do with the direct needs of the pets and more to do with the needs of humans. Dog toys now are made to resemble hamburgers, dolls, stuffed chickens, and movie characters, often from ingredients that are unhealthy for pets. On the other hand, dog treats can also be found for vegans, vegetarians, paleo diets, and others, although it is unlikely a dog has an opinion on these trends.
Due to this shift in consumer focus, you’ll see many food brands labelled with phrases like organic, natural, low-carb and holistic despite there being no governing body ensuring these qualities are needed or regulated in pet food. These terms are only used to appeal to a persons’ attention, not the benefit of the dog. Essentially, we’re buying a lot of foods that are offering benefits that are not needed or even necessarily present in pet foods. Your dog doesn’t really need to have a rabbit-based, all natural, holistic weight loss kibble, they just need a selection of basic nutrients that promote healthy living and they are happy.
Consider the recent controversy with the grain-free pet food trend. This trend arrived on pet store shelves in 2007, but has since been found to be linked to heart conditions in dogs who were fed this specific diet due to a lack of specific nutrients present in grains (according to a NYT article this year). While further research is needed to confirm this possible link, vets and pet professionals alike are examining whether a more careful process for approving new pet food ingredients is needed before it hits the shelves. Moreover, pet parents should take into account what their dogs need in their kibble rather than what we’d like to see on our plate.
Consider Their Natural Food Source:
Unfortunately, we are comparing our human diet with a completely different evolutionary cycle. Canines, from the moment they started hunting with humans centuries ago, evolved from an omnivorous diet that gained all its nutrition from hunting grazing animals. While dogs need to eat a combination of micronutrients, carbohydrates, and some source of protein (historically meat-based) to be healthy, they obtained these nutrients from a diet of killing animals that mostly dined on produce. Dogs would eat the intestines, still containing traces of the animals’ dinners, and digest certain amounts of minerals from vegetables that way. This varied diet is reflected in their kibble in modern times, often containing a certain mix of carbohydrates, vegetables to obtain trace-minerals, and protein, but varying on their source for a complete meal. While dogs can exist and be healthy on a vegan or vegetarian diet (unlike their feline companions), they require more nutritional support to make up what an omnivorous diet would provide, and often need supplements to stay healthy.
This doesn’t mean you should break out the bow and arrow when dinnertime comes around, but that you should always keep in mind what a dog’s palate has evolved from, not with what you have become accustomed to. Marketing hot-phrases like low-carb, sugar-free, and high-protein is what you should look for in your own dinner, not in Fido’s.
How to Read the Ingredient List:
Unlike with veterinary care or our own food sources, pet food is not a highly-regulated industry. While the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCA) does monitor certain aspects of food production and the ingredients in companion pet food, it is a widely unregulated market and what you buy in your pet food is not an exact science. That said, your pet food does have to maintain certain standards to be sold and cannot contain any medications (only one medication has ever been included in pet food, and it is not currently marketed today). The basic foundation of any food is fat, protein, carbohydrates and a mix of vitamins and minerals. The AAFCO only regulates the base ingredients of food able to be sold and the terms they can use on the ingredients list.
For a full ingredient run-down, you should go straight to the source and read up on the language at the AAFCO site here, but the key takeaway is to examine the language carefully. Ingredients in a pet food bag are listed in order of percentage, with the first ingredient on the list making up the largest amount of the food, but exact percentages are rarely listed. What is important is to take all ingredients listed with a grain of salt. For instance, ‘meat’ is any combination of flesh and skin of an animal without any other part of the skeleton, but can contain any amount of nerve, muscle, cartilage and sinew the producer cares to include. ‘Meat-by-product’ is a catch-all term for anything that has come off the animal during slaughter and can include anything from muscle to ground bones. Bones, while an important source of calcium, can cause health issues when too much is included and ‘meat-by-product’ is often a signal of lower quality feed. Often, products may sound good for your pet but can include all manner of other things which you may not want to be giving your pet (such as ground beaks). Consumers, used to being separated from the ugly truth of what is happens during a slaughtering, might find this part of the investigation an unfortunate necessity of pet-parenting.
When reading an ingredient list, equally as important is the job of reading the label to make sure all parts of a healthy diet are included. Make sure that protein accounts for the largest part of your pets’ diet, preferably from mostly muscle and no other connective tissue, but also make sure a healthy blend of carbohydrates, fat from animals and micro-nutrients are included. Dyes should be avoided, as well as sugars, as these often mask unsavory production standards or poorly made foods.
When It’s Ok to Buy Store Brand:
Your veterinarian will know when it is time to start giving Fido a special diet that can only be bought in-office, such as when a high-protein diet is needed or when you should start looking for a fish-based feed, but otherwise, your pet will do best on whatever they are happy eating and which is affordable for you. Boutique blends, like that boar and wild rice combination that is marketed as a cure-all to everything from a dull coat to kidney disease, will only serve to break to bank rather than cure your pooch. Essentially, if your dog is doing well and has energy with enough energy throughout the day, don’t switch your pets’ food unnecessarily and don’t fall for the guilt-trips of an overzealous pet store attendant.
Homemade foods, recently made popular by pet owners tired of overpriced kibbles and mysterious production lines, come with a raised eyebrow from the veterinarian field. While it is true that food made from scratch, either served raw or cooked, can be an excellent diet for pets, the truth is there are many ways you can go wrong and cause serious health issues for your pet. Salmonella, strictly monitored in food brands, is easy to introduce when serving raw dog food in a cause kitchen. Nutritional deficiencies, especially in the micronutrient areas, are easy to miss but can have serious side effects. If you choose to go the homemade food route, do your due diligence, control your production standards, and always follow the recipes or instructions of a certified veterinarian to make sure your pooch is getting all the goods.
With a little bit of caution and knowledge of what your pet needs from their food (rather than what you’d like to see in your own), you can be a savvy shopper. Instead of reaching for the food trend of the pet aisle just because it sounds healthy, research and choose items that are actually beneficial to your pet. When in doubt, always consult your veterinarian before purchasing or switching foods, especially when your pet is already doing well on their current kibble.
By Lauren Pescarus