Selecting Quality Dog Food
There Are Some Really Good Pet Foods Out There
For dog owners, dog food is a confusing world of information (some of it bad) and advice (much of it also bad) on the Internet, in advertising, and from well-meaning friends who really don’t know much, if any, more than they, the owners, do. In a career spanning three decades of dealing with pet owners and their pet food choices, I’ve never seen it this confusing. Pet owners are overwhelmed by all the choices, and don't know who to believe when gathering information.
Surf the right sites (I like the ones that end in dot edu or dot gov) and you can get some great information. But there’s also a lot of misleading and inaccurate information out there. And some from sources you’d expect to be able to trust.
For example, there’s a manufacturer that makes a very good holistic pet food, and in their advertising they send you to their web site for a food comparison. The problem is they compare themselves to lower-quality foods so, sure, they look great.
If they compared themselves to any of the other holistic brands, it would be a wash. So, there’s a site you’d expect to trust, but they spin the information to their advantage. All the data they present is accurate, but they’re comparing apples to oranges.
In this pet food primer, I want to help you separate the science from the myths and marketing so that you can make intelligent, informed food choices. To begin with, let’s bust a few myths about pet food.
Myth # 1: The Great Taste Dogs Love
Dogs lack enough receptor cells on their tongues to discern tastes. On that aisle-runner-tongue of theirs are about 1700 taste receptors. By comparison, on our stubby little tongue are over 10,000 taste receptors.
When you offer a treat to a dog, he'll sniff it and make the decision to accept or reject it based on its aroma. Sometimes they'll reject food or treats based on how they feel in the mouth, which comes under the heading of texture.
Thus, palatability is driven by aroma and texture. If it passes the sniff test, it’s going down, unless it doesn’t feel right in their mouth. Think about it. When they accept food or a treat, it's a chomp and a swallow. They never let food dissolve in their mouth, so as to enjoy the flavor, and if they could taste would they...you finish the sentence!
Cats, by the way, have a little poorer sense of taste, and generally favor things acidic. They have about one-twentieth of the taste receptors that we do. They’re unable to detect sweet because, researchers discovered, they lack the "sweet gene," a protein that would give them a “sweet tooth.”
So that pretty much blows the age-old theory that dogs and cats drink anti-freeze because it tastes sweet. Cats can’t taste sweet and dogs practically can’t taste anything at all. Manufacturers exploit the fact that flavor is huge to us, the decision makers, and it usually works.
When referring to a food's appeal to a dog, the word "taste" fits better than the word "smell," so it's widely used in advertising and even by vets and nutritionists, who know better. It's just easier for pet owners to wrap their minds around.
Myth # 2: Meal Is A Low-End Ingredient
Chicken (muscle meat with its water content intact) is about 70% water. Think of it as a boneless chicken breast. It's sent to the cooking unit with its water content intact. Chicken meal is the same meat but dehydrated to a moisture content of about 8-10%. If you have a pound of chicken in your left hand and a pound of chicken meal in your right hand, your right hand is holding a lot more meat. Meals have up to 300% more protein than the raw meat. They're sent to the cooking unit after almost all of the water has been removed.
When chicken is listed first on the ingredient panel, look for chicken meal to be next. Some foods use chicken by-product meal or, if they dumb it down more, poultry by-product meal a few ingredients later. Because chicken (which is water dense) is the first ingredient, it requires a back up protein to bring that nutrient to the levels stated in the package’s guaranteed analysis. Of those that list chicken (or any species-specific meat) first, the better foods use species specific meal as the second ingredient.
Think of it this way: your grocer’s meat department takes a half-pound of sirloin steak and a half-pound of stew beef, grinds them into a pound of hamburger and charges you $8.99. The meat is satisfactory nutritionally, but it’s $5.99 meat, not $8.99. So, having chicken and chicken by-product meal as your pet food’s protein is good quality protein, but it’s sort of like getting chuck at sirloin prices.
When chicken meal is listed first, they don’t need to back it up because its nutrient density is sufficient as a stand-alone protein. The exception would be holistic pet foods, which inherently have multiple protein sources and often use the meat, not the meal. The additional meats can make up the protein difference that meal would provide.
I give Earthborn Holistic® formulations a slight edge over other holistics because they use the meal, which is a more nutrient dense protein. Their Primitive Natural formulation, for example, lists turkey meal and chicken meal as the first two ingredients. A third meat concentrate, whitefish meal, is added a few ingredients later. You won’t often find that quality, although multiple whole meat proteins are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Multiple protein sources are a blessing and a curse. If the dog develops an allergy, and the vet thinks it's a food allergy (which is almost always to a protein), the matter gets more complicated. The elimination diets can take months and months to complete.
Myth # 3: Beet Pulp Stains The Coat Red
Beet pulp, a by-product of the processing of sugar beets, is actually black and is an appropriate fiber source in pet food. It also has prebiotic qualities. Porphyrin, a compound found in tears and saliva, reacts to UV light and can cause staining below the eyes and around the mouth of dogs. If he frequently licks his paws, you'll see staining on his paws as well.
Myth # 4 A Certain Brand Is The Best Dog Food
I hear a lot of pet owners proclaim that "X Brand" is the best food. Not true. There's no such thing as "the best" food. The truth is, within genres, the brands are quite similar in formulation and nutritional value, and will nourish your pet equally.
Now that we’ve given you something to argue with your friends about, let’s look at pet foods from another angle.
Appealing To The Emotions of Pet Owners
Most pet owners make decisions regarding their pets based more on emotion than science. Manufacturers of pet products are very much aware of this (they call it the humanization of pets) and most always aim their advertising messages at the heart, not the brain.
To illustrate how huge a factor marketing is, consider that there are only two standardized formulations of dog/cat food: one is growth & reproduction and the other is adult. Period. Everything else; Large Breed, Senior, Low Fat, Super Premium, Holistic, etc. is at the discretion of the manufacturer.
That can lead to some confusion among consumers. One manufacturer, for example, may consider senior dogs to be couch potatoes while another may recognize that many senior dogs are still quite active. Each can formulate a "senior" formulation accordingly.
There are, however, generally accepted industry descriptions for different genres of foods, such as grocery, super premium, holistic, organic, and grain-free. Keep in mind that there are no legal or regulatory definitions of these types of food. Let’s look at each genre individually.
Generally, a grocery brand’s ingredient panel starts off with corn and continues with inferior or unspecified ingredients such as poultry by-products, meat and bone meal, animal digest, animal fat, beef tallow, wheat, soy, sorghum, artificial colors and chemical preservatives such as BHT or BHA. Below is an ingredient panel that is typical of a grocery brand dog food. Most contain the same, or similar, ingredients and not usually in the same order.
Dogs and cats have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates. Cats (and ferrets) are, in fact, obligate carnivores because of their taurine requirement. In the wild, cats and dogs would live almost exclusively on animal protein and animal fat.
However the manufacturing process of dry dog and cat foods does require carbohydrates. Without them, you'd end up opening a bag of crumbs. They're the "glue" that holds the kibble together.
In low end foods you'll see wheat, corn, soy, sorghum and other carbs that can be problematic in that they can contribute to skin and digestive issues. The high end foods use carbs such as oatmeal, rice, barley and rye. They're not known to be problematic and can actually have some value as supplements for skin, coat and digestion. The grain-free foods use carbs such as peas, potatoes and tapioca.
This Ingredient Panel Is From One of the Grocery Brands
The Pluses and Minuses of Each Genre
Advantages Of Feeding Grocery Brands: You can conveniently pick them up when shopping for your own needs. You thought I was going to say “economy” huh? Nuh-unh. For every cup of a grocery brand you feed, you’d generally feed about a heaping half cup of a super premium and a level half cup of a holistic food.
Disadvantages: Dogs on grocery brands often have drier, itchier skin, shed more, are more susceptible to body odor and doggie breath, produce larger volumes of soft stool, will clear a room with their gas, and their various organs and systems don’t get the level of support they’d get from better quality ingredients.
More On What You Feed Your Dog
- Most Vets Say "No" To Raw Diets
While they're gaining in popularity, raw diets for dogs and cats aren't as common as some would have you believe. At less than 2% of the pet food market, raw diets are frowned upon by some professional veterinary associations. Here's why.
- How To Report Tainted Pet Foods & Treats
If you think your pet's health was compromised by tainted food or treats, there's a right way to report such matters, and this article tells you how to do it.
- What Is Bloat in Dogs and How Can You Prevent It?
This fast moving, life threatening, emergency condition can kill a dog in just a few excruciating hours. Learn what it is, how to recognize it, why speed is of the essence, and tips on how to prevent it.
- Knick-Knack-Paddy-Whack Give The Dog A Bone...Or Not
Natural bones as chew toys; either yer fer ‘em or agin ‘em. And so are veterinarians, breeders and various professional organizations. There are valid arguments on both sides, so what’s an owner to do?
Super Premium Brands
Super premiums are meat-based and the better ones use the meal form of protein such as chicken meal, lamb meal, etc. as the first ingredient. Other high end ingredients could include chicken fat, flaxseed, rice, beet pulp, mixed tocopherols and chelated minerals (look for the word proteinate or chelate after the minerals). Chelated is pronounced kee’-layted, by the way
Chelation serves to maximize and equalize the absorption of minerals. When the dog’s gut breaks down the minerals, they can build up a positive or negative electrical charge, bind to anything else inorganic and be excreted in the stool.
In chelation, the manufacturer pre-binds the minerals, either to proteins or carbohydrates, rendering them electrically neutral. They don’t build up that electrical charge and therefore become more bioavailable.
Advantages Of Feeding Super Premiums: Because of the higher levels of better quality essential fatty acids, the animal’s skin is more supple, holding the coat better and resulting in less shedding. Stools are smaller and generally better formed, gas, body odor and doggie breath are pretty much eliminated, and the animal enjoys generally better health.
Disadvantages: Cost a little more than grocery brands and may not be as conveniently available. Most can be purchased online, too.
Since there are no legal or regulatory standards for "holistic" foods, we can't define them for you. But, there are some common threads that run through the brands that consider themselves holistic.
Holistic foods generally have two or more high quality protein sources, probiotics (they read like diseases on the ingredient panel), prebiotics (they support the probiotics while in the bag), botanicals such as blueberries and cranberries (in there for their antioxidant, urinary and cancer-fighting properties), and chelated minerals.
They typically use only whole grain rice, oatmeal, rye and barley for grains, eliminating the harsher grains such as wheat, soy, corn, and sorghum.
Grain-free foods are holistics but without the rice, oatmeal, rye and barley. The better ones use the meal form of the protein. If not, they immediately back up the first meat protein with a species-specific meal and are still high-end. Foods labeled organic are certified by an agency such as Oregon Tilth to be around 75 per cent organic.
That means that most of the ingredients were raised or grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones or other chemicals. Maybe it’s just me, but is there a value to an organic meal when the dog washes it down with a few gulps from the toilet bowl, grabs a quick dessert from the cat’s litter box, then plops himself down for a long, leisurely butt lick?
Advantages of Feeding Holistic Brands: The same as feeding super premiums, but bumped up a notch. Nutrients are added that target specific organs or systems, such as glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health or probiotics for digestive health.
DISADVANTAGES: Are significantly more expensive than grocery brands, a little more expensive than super premiums, and generally only found in pet specialty stores and online.
"Complete and Balanced" Isn't A Marketing Term
The value of commercial dog foods is that they are complete and balanced. Complete means that they contain all the nutrients necessary to maintain health; balanced means that those nutrients are in proper proportion to each other. If they’re not, some dangerous imbalances could occur, such as a calcium-to-phosphorous ratio that’s out of whack.
Making good pet food isn’t simply a matter of collecting a bunch of high quality ingredients and putting them in a bag. Animal nutrition is a complex and sophisticated specialty with its own degree program, board certification and professional organizations. The pet food manufacturers do a pretty good job, but as you’ve learned, not all pet foods are created equal.