Dog Nutrition, Those Bags Are not All The Same
There you are, in the dog food aisle, dizzy from the choices. Your neighbor tells you that you must buy this one brand, your vet recommended another, still you look at this one bag over here and because it has vegetables on it, you think it's the right one. Sorry, you're probably wrong. In terms of the vegetable bag... dead wrong. So which one do you choose? You'll have to read some labels to answer that question. Lucky for you, I'm here to help.
In the pet supply store I work for we group brands in 3 types: Basic, Premium, and Natural/Organic. There is a tier underneath basic that we don't carry, we refer to those brands as the dreaded Grocery Store brands. The stuff you get at grocery stores (excluding natural grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's) is too crappy to even talk about. If you're buying substandard food for your dog at the grocery store because it's convenient, consider how convenient $1,500 vet bills are. Dogs' digestive tracks can be compromised by awful food and that can cost a lot to fix or cut short your dog's life; plain and simple. When I talk to people about this, they get very defensive; even my friends who will ask me dog questions from time to time will feel uncomfortable when I lay the truth out there like that. If you can't afford to buy suitable food for a dog, you shouldn't have a dog.
The brands in the Basic category minimally meet nutritional standards. They are made in the USA, they have a minimum guaranteed protein, and they can sustain a dog when and only when the correct daily intake is consumed. Daily intake, or feeding instructions is an important feature on dog food bags that often gets ignored. Your dog must eat all of the daily requirement in order to obtain the the guaranteed nutrition (also featured on dog food bags). For most Basic brands daily intake can be up to 3 cups for medium dogs. That is an incredible amount of food for a medium dog. Of course, if you have a dog that inhales their food, you might laugh at that amount, but it is a lot. The reason why these brands require so much food to be consumed is because they use products that are not easily digestable and protein sources that do not have a sufficient amount of nutrition. More often than not you will see the first ingredient listed is corn or a corn derivative. The first protein source you see will often be a by-product or by-product meal.
You might have heard some media about by-products. If you've read that they're bad... it's true. A by-product actually contains no meat, but is used as a protein source. By-products are organs, blood, and intestines. These ingredients are not as easy to digest as meat, and often contain a host of nasty bacteria. Think about it, an organ's job is to filter out the bad stuff, I certainly wouldn't want to eat a chicken's kidneys. By-product meal is even worse because it's all of those things, plus cartilage and hooves, ground down and dehydrated. It has no flavor and that's what attracts dogs to their food. Basic dog food companies use these ingredients because they are cheap. Think of it in terms of human food. Think of that footlong hot dog at the gas station. Do you know if it's all beef, or all beef meat for that matter? It probably isn't. It's probably made up of many and varied gross things. You buy it if you're starving enough, but if you lived on that 3 meals a day for the rest of your life, you wouldn't live very long. Aside from by-products Basic brands use a lot of fillers and additives (to keep the fillers from spoiling). All of those fillers showing up in the ingredients list is the reason for having to feed your dog large amounts of the food. Yes, those ingredients will make your dog feel fuller, but your dog's body won't be able to utilize all of that stuff. Whatever your dog's body can't utilize within 24 hours gets pooped out. Dogs who eat Basic brand food generate amazing amounts of poop that you have to eventually clean up.
Some Basic brand names are: Pedigree, Purina, Iams, Eukanuba, and Beneful. I bet you've seen the Beneful commercial on tv and thought, "That looks so healthy, look at all those CGI vegetables falling into the bag!" It's not healthy. At all. And in terms of vegetables, unless you consider corn as a suitable vegetable, you aren't going to find much in this bag. It's one of the biggest shams running. Commercials have a powerful effect over consumers, and because most of us want what's best for our dogs, we just kind of blindly obey the marketing without asking questions.
I'd like to show you the first 15 ingredients (top 1/3rd) of Beneful's Healthy Growth formula for puppies: GROUND YELLOW CORN, CHICKEN BY-PRODUCT MEAL, CORN GLUTEN MEAL, WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, ANIMAL FAT PRESERVED WITH TOCOPHEROLS (FORM OF VITAMIN E), CHICKEN, MILK, RICE FLOUR, SOY FLOUR, SUGAR, PROPYLENE GLYCOL, ANIMAL DIGEST, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, PHOSPHORIC ACID.
Feeding Instructions: 13-20lb, 5-7 month old needs 2-2 3/4 cups a day
PROPYLENE GLYCOL is an ingredient in ANTIFREEZE! Yikes!!!
I dialed the 1-800 number on the bag to ask someone to explain to me what "animal digest" was, but the number on the bag did not work. So I guess I'll never know. Steer clear of foods that do not list the specific animal source, because "animal" could literally mean rats.
Premium nutrition is slightly better than Basic, but essentially not worth the pricepoint. You'll still get some fillers, additives, and by-products, but not as much as with Basic brands. Premium's claim to fame is that that they are "scientifically formulated." You'll see Premium brands saying that they are either specially formulated for certain breeds or that they address specific dog ailments such as sensitive stomachs and skin conditions. My response to dog foods targeting specific breeds is why is it more important for a German Shepherd to have their own special food than for a Bernese Mountain Dog? Bernies aren't as popular as German Shepherds, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have the best dog food out there. Again, it's a neat marketing trick. If you have the breed that the food caters to... it makes you want to buy it. That's silly though. Dogs are dogs, they are all one species. It's the same as humans, although we have many ethnicities, we are one species. Can you imagine food that is specifically manufactured for white people? Well, there's Panera Bread... What I mean is, if you were in a food aisle at the supermarket and saw a box cereal that said it was for white people next to a box that said it was for hispanic people, you'd call bullshit, and then you'd call the Anti-Defamation League. Some breed specific food will contain extra glucosamine to prevent hip dysplasia, or salmon oil to help a coat shine. But those things should be in all the bags, not just one target breed.
As for Premium brands targeting a dog's condition, yes I do believe that specific nutrition can address those specific needs sometimes, but if the dog was getting proper nutrition in the first place, then it is unlikely for them to have these conditions at all. Think for a minute about baby formula. Baby formula companies say that they are every bit as nutritious as breast milk and some of the organic brands are. But with the other brands you have to give that baby all sorts of additives and fillers in order to get that nutrition it promises. Additives are what contribute to infant digestives troubles such as colic and diarrhea. And which companies do you turn to to cure colic and diarrhea? The same companies you buy the formula from! See the vicious cycle? Your dog might be itching and flakey because he's allergic to an additive in his food. Or, your dog might have digestive problems because the carbs in her food are not processed enough. Read your labels. I don't even think foods which address ailments are all that drastically different than the stuff they have for regular dogs.
You might think that the Premium stuff is better than the Basic because its more expensive. Again, it's a clever marketing ploy. It makes you believe that you're a good pet parent because you're paying a small fortune to feed them. You just have to read the labels and go from there. If in the top part of the ingredients list you start reading words that are unrecognizable, then there is a better dog food brand out there for you.
Here are some examples of Premium Brands: Royal Canin, Nutro, Science Diet and of course, many Basic brands have upgraded formulas that get a Premium rating. Are you surprised that Science Diet doesn't make the top tier? That's because you've probably heard your vet say that you should buy it because it's the best. Your vet is paid to say that. Hill's Science Diet has a huge national contract with most veterinary clinics. Now I will say that Science Diet does make prescription strength food for things such as UTI's. If your dog has a UTI, it will need medicinal foods for the time being, and for that, you need to purchase it with your vet. That and any non-prescription purchases of Science Diet at the vet will get the vet a sizable kickback. So they have a good incentive to tell you that's the brand you want. As long as we are talking about vets, their knowledge of nutrition is somewhat limited. In fact in order to just ring a register at the store I work at you need to put in more study hours regarding nutrition than a vet would to earn a Veterinary Degree. Crazy, right? That being said, I do love vets, they have a hard job to do with little resources. So you can usually look them in the eye and say, "what would you feed your own dog" and get a solid answer out of them.
First 15 ingredients from Science Diet's Healthy Development Original Puppy Up to 1yr: WHOLE GRAIN CORN, CHICKEN BY-PRODUCT MEAL, CORN GLUTEN MEAL, ANIMAL FAT PRESERVED WITH MIXED TOCOPHEROLS AND CITRIC ACID, DRIED BEET PULP, CHICKEN LIVER FLAVOR, BREWERS RICE, DICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, FISH OIL, FLAXSEED, SOYBEAL OIL, IODIZED SALT, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, L-LYSINE, CHOLINE CHLORIDE.
Feeding instructions for a 10lb 4-9 month puppy is: 1 1/2 cups a day.
There are some good ingredients in there, but they don't appear at the top. The top (meaning most of the bag's make up) resembles the Basic brand while there are small amounts of good things thrown in down at the bottom. Ahh... the tell tales of Premium brands. They're so tricky!
So what should you invest in? Natural/Organic, obviously. And when I say invest, I mean it. It's expensive, but you are investing in the health of your dog, your buddy, your furry family member. Natural brands contain no by-products, they list a hormone-free meat as the primary protein source, they have no fillers, and the preservatives are natural plant derivatives. Organic brands are made with no pesticides and can easily be traced to the farms that produce the ingredients. It's hard to find true organic foods because to get the USDA Certified Organic stamp, 90% of the ingredients must qualify. We actually only carry one and it's Castor and Pollux. Natural brands are just as great. They offer complete nutrition and appeal to a dog's appetite.
I get a lot of people telling me that their dogs are finicky eaters and asking me what they should add to the food to get them to eat it. I usually reply with, " a real meat source." Dog's aren't finicky, really, they don't have enough tastebuds to have the luxury of being finicky. But they typically won't eat what they can't smell. It's hard to smell by-product meal, which is why Basic and Premium brands use such things as Animal Digest and Animal Fat to lure dogs to eat it. Natural brands use meat, or better yet deboned meat, as the first ingredient; meaning that ingredient has the most volume (prior to cooking) in the bag. You may see a meat meal as the secondary ingredient but meals aren't terrible. A by-product meal is god know's what; chicken meal is just chicken meat ground and dehydrated. It's that second meal source that will actually be what most of the bag of food will be comprised of after cooking, because while chicken meat has lots of water in it, after the cooking process, the overall volume of that will be reduced, whereas the meal already has no water in it. What I'm saying is, don't be freaked out by meat meal.
Why doesn't everyone buy Natural dog food? Mainly because of the sticker shock. Some people just don't feel comfortable spending that much on their dog when they probably don't spend that on themselves. But besides prolonging your dogs life, buying Natural has other benefits. When you think of it, the price isn't all that steep when you realize that you can actually feed your dog less food while still getting the full nutrition. Your $15.99 bag of Natural food will last you longer than the $8.99 bag of Basic. Natural brands don't use raw carbohydrates in their formulas, they use processed carbs which increases the digestability. Carbs that are easy to digest will cause less problems in the digestive track saving your rugs, and saving you on vet bills. Also, because this food is so utilizable, your dog will put out less waste, saving your back for having to clean up giant piles of crap.
When your dog is eating the right amount of food, with the complete nutrition directly linked to a reputable protein source, with added vitamins and minerals to increase performance, and highly digestable grains, you will have a healthy dog who will be more comfortable, more happy, and live longer. My favorite Natural brands are: Blue Buffalo, Wellness, Merrick, Halo, Solid Gold. If you are super fancy, the Nature's Variety raw diet looks better than what I eat. If you do have a pet that has a sensitive stomach Natural Balance is the bag for you; they have multiple single protein choices available to ensure you find the right formula.
All of the ingredients from Wellness' Super 5 Mix Just for Puppy: DEBONED CHICKEN, CHICKEN MEAL, OATMEAL, GROUND BARLEY, SALMON MEAL (A SOURCE OF DHA) GROUND BROWN RICE, CANOLA OIL PRESERVED WITH MIXED TOCOPHEROLS, TOMATO POMACE, RICE BRAN, TOMATOES, NATURAL CHICKEN FLAVOR, RYE FLOUR, CARROTS, SPINACH, SWEET POTATOES, APPLES, BLUEBERRIES, GROUND MILLET, GROUND FLAXSEED, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, VITAMINS (VITAMIN E SUPPLEMENT, BETA-CAROTENE, NIACIN, D-CALCIUM, VITAMIN A SUPPLEMENT, RIBOFLAVIN, VITAMIN D-3 SUPPLEMENT, VITAMIN B-12 SUPPLEMENT, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, ASCORBIC ACID (VITAMIN C), BIOTIN, FOLIC ACID), MINERALS (ZINC PROTIENATE, MANGANESE SULFATE, SODIUM SELENITE, CALCIUM IODATE), CHOLINE CHLORIDE, MIXED TOCOPHEROLS, TAURINE, CHICORY ROOT EXTRACT, GARLIC POWDER, YUCCA SCHIDIGERA EXTRACT, DRIED LACTOBACILLUS CASEI FERMENTATION PRODUCT, DRIED LACTOBACILLUS ACIDOPHILUS FERMENTATION PRODUCT, ROSEMARY EXTRACT.
Feeding instructions for a 10lb 5-7 month old is 1 1/2 cups a day.
The reason why I included all of the ingredients was to show you how recognizable (if you read your own multi-vitamin label) they were. With the previous 2 brands, after 15 ingredients, what they listed was an unrecognizable tangle of complicated words which would have taken me hours to type out. What I left out back in the other brands were additives and preservatives. You can see here, there are only natural preservatives (tocopherols), and no additives or fillers. Every ingredient is useful to the dog.
Other things to think about:
1. If you are planning on switching your dog food brand, and I hope you do, remember that you must blend the new stuff into the old and gradually transition out of the old. Straight up switching can give your dog an upset tummy. To help with this you can give your dog a probiotic supplement.
2. Dry, flakey, itchy skin is usually caused by a food allergy. When someone brings a dog into the salon complaining of those symptoms and I can't find fleas the first thing I ask is what are you feeding your dog. You'd be surprised how many dogs are chicken intolerant. The only way to find out if your dog has a protein allergy is to do a protein trial where you eliminate one protein source at a time to see if conditions improve. If it's not an allergy and you just wan to improve your dog's coat, feed them a food that has fish or duck in it.
3. What about grain-free food? I'm on the fence about grain-free and or high protein stuff. If you know how to use it properly, than yes, by all means. But would you go into GNC and start buying muscle building supplements willynilly without doing your research? No, because you might end up getting fat which is the opposite of what you wanted. Dogs on grain-free diets will require fiber sources to help push food through. A high protein diet dog will require way more exercise to get rid of all that protein. If you feed your a high protein diet like Blue Buffalo's Wilderness line and don't give them adequate exercise, they can gain excess weight and/or become very hyper and tear your house apart.
4. Improper nutrition can lead to two obnoxious behaviors, begging and corpophagia (poop eating). When your dog is full of proper nutrition, they are less likely to beg for your food. But when they are eating food that has a bunch of fillers in it but no flavor or scent, and you're eating delicious smelling food, they are going to beg. Corpophagia is either caused by boredom, curiosity, or a lack of enzymes in the intestines. A cure for the latter can be pineapple chunks or juice. However, complete nutrition (meaning your dog is getting all the nutrition from their daily food intake) is a measure of prevention.
5. Rawhides are the worst! I will repeat, THE WORST!! Now, I grew up in the 80's and 90's and that's all we gave them to chew on. We know now, that was the wrong thing to do. If you give your dogs rawhides, the best case scenario is that they just put out large quantities of poop for you to pick up because rawhides are undigestable and therefore do not break down in the body (much like chewing gum); worst case scenario is that your dog chokes to death or dies of a bowel obstruction... because they are undigestable and the body can't break it down. Same goes for pig ears and hooves. They don't break down. Bully Sticks are slightly better than non-digestibles but because they are dehydrated cattle or pork penises they aren't completely digestible. If your dog is a chewer, the better option is real bones. Just remember that real bones can splinter and might require supervision. Antlers work too, it's just you need to sell a kidney to afford them.
6. There is another option out there if you if you do some good research on it and that is buying fresh food from a store specializing in dog gourmet. These stores are usually private enterprizes, and for that reason, I want to tell you, before you buy anything ask them for these three things: (1) Feeding Instructions (2) Ingredients List and (3) Guaranteed Nutrition percentages. Make sure they know what they're doing. You can always make your own dog food too, but you must remember, dogs need a different balance of protein, fat, carbs, water, vitamins, and minerals than humans do so if you're going to attempt to make your own dog food, consult a professional or get a dog cookbook.
7. Always adhere to your dog's life stage when choosing a dog food. Puppies MUST stay on puppy food for at least 1 year. If someone tells you differently they are wrong. All puppies (big and small) need the extra protein in the puppy food to develop their muscles, organs, and their brain. After a year dogs need adult food. A dog becomes a senior at 7 years and it's imperative that you switch out their adult food for senior food, even if you think your 7 year old still acts like a puppy. At 7 years their metabolism changes and if they are still getting the same amount of calories and protein, they can put on weight and be at risk for heart problems. Pregnant dogs should be given puppy food because the extra protein will help her body maintain gestation.