Choosing The Right Dog Food (hint: not Purina)
In the interest of front-loading my conclusion:
Read the ingredients in your dog's food! If the first 4 are not meat or (begrudgingly) whole grain, then use up that bag and start over. The brand I, personally, recommend are Innova and Canidae.
What are you feeding your dog?
I bet it says that it's "vet recommended" and has been tested to ensure that it's nutritionally complete. You probably chose it with the best intentions, wanting to give your dog only the best you could provide.
But with all the pet food recalls in the recent past, you must've realized that something is going on in the dog food industry. I hate to tell you, but what you're feeding your pup may be slowly killing him.
Problems in the Industry
Rat poison is not the only problematic ingredient in brand name dog food, though it's one that got a lot of publicity after all the recalls. Some other foods were recalled because of Aflatoxin, which is poisonous and secreted by fungi that grows on grains like corn.
But it's not the ingredients making the recall lists that concern me. Obviously if something has been recalled, you're not going to feed it to your dog. The problem is that the pet food industry has been trying to convince you that they are carefully formulating the highest quality food possible for your pet, when most of them have been using substandard ingredients.
Companies use fillers like lard, corn husks, and blood meal to make food more appealing to dogs and cheaper to make. Many foods have "poultry fat" as a listed ingredient, which includes fat from poultry found dead and birds that had been put down in shelters. I'm not making this stuff up! I wish I were.
Unfortunately, you cannot trust what the companies tell you. Even more unfortunate is that you cannot trust what most veterinarians will tell you about what to feed your dog. This means that you'll have to do the research yourself. But there are lots of people out there who can steer you in the right direction!
What Do Dogs Need?
Dogs are opportunistic carnivores. They are scavengers (this as opposed to the purely carnivorous cat, whose diet must consist of animal protein). This means that their diet need not be entirely meat-based, but it definitely can be.
Dogs need protein and fat, and their diets can often be supplemented successfully by fruits and vegetables. They don't need grains or artificial additives, and they certainly don't need unnamed byproducts like chicken feet and beaks.
It is a myth that giant breed dogs need different food from small dogs (though their growing period needs more attention to ensure what they're eating is right) and that puppies need different food from adults. For the most part, these different foods are marketing schemes by the dog food companies to convince you that their food is the right food. But a generic high quality diet will outperform any of these "special formulas" easily.
My Dog Seems Fine on His Current Dog Food...
Well, many dogs are not doing fine on their substandard (but highly marketed) kibble. This is because of the overabundance of corn and other grains and low-quality protein in these foods. These things lead to allergies, poor skin and coat condition, gastroenteritis, loose stool, and other general health problems that can cost you hundreds (thousands?) to diagnose and treat with a vet.
If your dog doesn't have any of these problems and is on a diet with fillers and additives, great! But that doesn't mean that she wouldn't do better on a higher quality dog food, maybe grain-free or even raw. You would probably see an improvement in coat quality (less shedding, shinier, not oily or dry) and smaller poops almost immediately. Dogs on high quality dog food also have higher energy levels.
You will also spend less on food because you will be feeding less. That's right. With higher quality food, you have to feed your dog less because he has to digest only the good stuff. He'll get filled up faster, and you won't have to break the bank.
Best of all, though, they're healthy! They're less likely to have digestive problems or allergic reactions to their food. And the high quality dog foods without fillers weren't recalled and are less likely to be, so you can rest a little easier with that.
A Vet's Counterargument
My mother's vet, stereotypically enough, argued that Hill's Science Diet is the best brand of food out there (Hill's notoriously pays for the only nutritional education that most vets receive in school and pays vets for recommending and selling their food in the office).
When she responded with some of the information I had given her, he said, "People anthropomorphize their pets too much and try to feed them human-quality food. They're dogs, and this dog food is good for them."
Insert sarcastic stare here.
I don't over-humanize my dogs; I know the limitations of dogs' cognition and everything, but I still consider them a part of my family. And I want what's best for my family.
Dogs may historically be scavengers and have strong stomachs, but why feed nutritionally useless chicken beak when I can feed quality chicken meal kibble? Why pay for a digestive problem later when I can prevent it with good food now?
What's the Best Food Out There?
There is no Greatest Dog Food Ever, unfortunately, or we'd all be buying it. People spend a lot of time arguing what is best overall, but when it comes down to it, there is no food that is the best possible food for every single dog. There probably isn't even one food that is the best possible food for most dogs.
But there are things you should look for in a dog food that can let you know if that food might be great for your dog.
What are the primary protein sources? They should be species-named meat or meat meal and within the first few ingredients on the list. They should not be byproducts or "hydrolated," and they should not use general terms like meat, poultry, or animal. We're looking for "Lamb Meal" or "Chicken" with no extra words like "byproducts".
If there are grains, they should not be the first ingredient, and they should be whole grains. Corn should really be avoided.
Whole vegetables and fruits are good but not necessary (dehydrated vegetables are not particularly great).
(In the interest of full disclosure, I'll say that I currently feed my hound mix dog Innova EVO food, but had him on Canidae All Life Stages until he finished growing because of protein concerns.)
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Should I Feed My Dog Raw?
Maybe. Just as not one diet is best for every dog, not one diet is best (or possible) for every human to feed their dog. But feeding raw is not as complicated, expensive, or confusing as people assume it is.
It requires some research and some decision-making, but you've already been doing that by reading this hub, and that wasn't so hard, was it? You might want to buy a book or two, but that's not necessary because there's plenty of information on the internet. There are excellent methods of support for feeding raw out there, too, especially in Yahoo groups.
The "pros" to feeding raw? Easy. You control the food that goes into your dog's body to ensure that he's getting absolutely everything he needs. The downside? Nothing, really, except that you'll have to do some extra reading.
(If you want to prepare your dog's food, raw is the best way to go. Dogs have a shorter digestive tract and can therefore withstand more bacteria in their food, and cooking the meat will actually leech ingredients out of it.)
What It Boils Down To...
...is that you probably want to do what's best for your pet, for you, and for your wallet. For all three, the best thing is to feed your dog a super high quality food.
You won't have to pay for allergy medicines or treatments, surgery or treatments for digestive issues your dog develops later in life, and countless other vet bills that come from a life of improper nutrition.
Your dog will be healthier overall (and great kibble is not much more expensive -- if at all -- than terrible kibble), so you'll be able to enjoy his life for much longer.
Some Further Reading
- Dog Food Analysis.com
An excellent, unbiased site that rates pretty much every dog food out there based on a great rating system. See how the food you're feeding stacks up and maybe get a great idea about some new food to feed!
- Myths About Dog Nutrition
An excellent explanation of every myth you can imagine related to dogs and how/what to feed them. Browse the rest of The Dog Food Project, too, it's a great site!
- Dog Owner's Guide: Bones and Raw Food Diet
An excellent starting point for researching a raw diet: how to ensure your dog is getting the best nutrition possible.