How do you choose the right dog food for your pet?

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By Dr. Parker T. Barker

I get this question a lot. And my answer is simple. It is very important to get the right dog food for me just as it’s important for you to eat the right things. There are healthy diets and unhealthy diets and you will have a happier pet if you give them the “good” food as opposed to the bad food. McDonalds for three meals a day, seven days a week, may taste good but isn’t the healthiest of diets.

We are seeing a current trend that is fueled by owners to provide “natural” and “added vegetables” to the dog foods we choose. But that is based on what our owners are looking for themselves and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more nutritious for us. Dogs and cats have different nutritional needs than humans. Please keep that in mind as you do your research.

In the US, there is very little government regulation of what is deemed ok to feed pets. As a responsible owner, you should start your search for a good food for Fido by reading the nutritional adequacy statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the can or bag. This will insure the formula at least meets minimal nutritional requirements. But it is hardly the end of the research you need to do. And remember, there are dog foods out there that do not meet the nutritional guidelines set up by AAFCO.

Definitions for ‘holistic,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘natural’ pet foods have not been established by AAFCO, so interpretation of what those words mean in terms of formula ingredients is left up to the manufacturer of the product. And their ad agencies.

I believe that there is nothing you can buy in a can or a bag that is entirely natural, organic or holistic. The stuff is processed. How can it be ‘natural’? Marketing ploys are the mainstay of the pet food industry and they are very good at making you feel that by buying their new improved “natural” kibble, you have done your part in providing a nutritious and balanced food for your pet. That, my friend, is a bunch of hooey designed to assuage your conscience. Don’t get sucked in.

Now having said that, how can you figure out what is good for old Fido that won’t break the bank? Most authorities on canine nutrition think it’s impossible to feed your pet a biologically appropriate, relatively natural diet from a can or bag unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune on grain-free formulas made with true human-grade ingredients.

These brands are less than 10 percent of pet foods available on the market. They are hard to find and well beyond the budget of most pet owners. In fact, if you’re buying pet food made with true human-grade ingredients, you should be spending about three times as much as you would for a non-human grade formula. And even most of the highest quality commercial pet foods still contain additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers and/or extra fats, which hardly qualifies them as holistic, despite clever labeling. After all, they must be able to sit on a shelf for six months to a year after being manufactured, without growing mold.

So how do you read a pet food label like a pro? As a general rule, the longer the ingredient list, the more potential for filling your pet full of “stuff” that is biologically inappropriate, probably allergenic, and maybe toxic. There are many dog food recalls out there at the moment. You should check.

The first listed ingredient on the can or bag is the one that is the predominant ingredient in the food. Look for meat, more meat, and more meat again. Way back, I was a carnivore that thrived on a diet based on meat. I don’t need carbs (aka. grains) and other stuff that are typically added to pet food. Grains are there because they’re cheaper than meat, and they hold the kibbled bits together. They aren’t added for the sake of proper nutrition for your meat-eating dog.

The source and quality of protein in the formula is crucially important for your pet’s health. Look for whole food sources at the very top of the ingredient list like ‘beef,’ ‘turkey,’ ‘lamb’ or ‘chicken’ — one-word descriptions. Meat and fat ingredients should be identified by species (turkey, lamb, beef, fish, etc.). Avoid any formula that uses unidentified sources, described non-specifically as ‘meat,’ ‘animal’ or ‘poultry.’

The next ingredient of better quality foods will probably be a meat source followed by the word ‘meal.’ Meat meal (with the meat source identified, as in ‘chicken meal’ or ‘turkey meal’) is considered a relatively high-quality protein source by processed pet food standards.

Ingredients three and four should be vegetables (avoid corn, wheat or beet pulp) and unless the formula is grain-free, a whole grain source like brown rice. Avoid formulas with ‘grain fragments’ — these are non-nutritive fillers. Grain-free formulas will frequently use potatoes as the starch, which holds the food together during processing.

Walk away from foods containing “by-products” in any way shape or form as this may include a whole laundry list of totally unmentionable parts of animals none of us want to know about that are being put into the food. As that little old lady once said on TV, “parts is parts” and I couldn’t agree more.

Avoid pet foods containing artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, especially those known to be carcinogens. In dog food, these usually go by the names BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate. When considering foods containing fish, look for manufacturer assurance on the label that states the formula contains NO artificial preservatives. Look for foods preserved with vitamins E and C, often called tocopherols.

In addition, it’s also important to be aware of a labeling practice known as ‘splitting.’ Splitting occurs when different components of the same ingredient are listed separately on the label to improve the look of the ingredient list. For example, rice makes up 50 percent of a formula and meat only 25 percent, it’s possible to list the rice as three or four individual ingredients all under 25 percent each, for example, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, and rice gluten meal. Listing the ingredient ‘rice’ in this manner allows the manufacturer to list the meat — at 25 percent — as the first ingredient. Sneaky but done all the time by pet food manufacturers.

It is not easy decoding a label to determine the good food from the bad, but it can be done. Just keep doing your research and reading those labels and in the end, it will prove good for both of us.

There are many websites out there purporting to be the “experts” on dog food and making recommendations as to which foods are the “good” ones. Some are really good and thorough and others are a little biased one way or another. So when you find a website you like that talks about the “best” dog food for Fido, do some additional research on what other people say about the website itself. Basically, check out the source of your information. WWW.Petfoodadvisor.com is probably the most read source for information but if you take a look at how others rate the site, you will find a mixed bag with some people recommending it and others are nay-sayers. Like with most things, my recommendation is to take everything you find on the Internet with a big grain of salt. Except for me of course. Nobody is paying me to say anything so you can take it as gospel from ol’ Dr. Barker!