Over the past few years, there has been a lot of awareness and controversy surrounding dog food. Pet owners are paying more considerable attention now more than ever to the ingredients in their dog’s food, which has led to a massive market of premium pet foods and products.
As more dog food enters the market, how do you know which one is right for your dog? Just as humans need a well-balanced diet, our dogs do too. The good news is that pet food is regulated by the FDA, FFDCA, and has undergone rigorous testing by veterinary specialists.
What to Look For & What to Avoid on Dog Food Labels
As pet owners, we want the best for our dogs. We also want to trust that the dog food we buy them has all of the nutrients they need to lead healthy, happy lives. Unfortunately, like many packaged and processed foods for humans, just because we can eat them doesn’t mean that they’re good for us.
Knowing how to read and interpret dog food labels is key. Products labeled as “dinners” or “entrees” or “nuggets” typically contain about 25% of the actual meat content. Products labeled as having only “flavorings” or “with _____” contain just trace amounts of the actual meat content.
When labeling reads “meal” of any kind (poultry is most common), they’re using the animal byproducts in the food. If they don’t say “poultry meal” but say “meat meal” then it could be any form of meat or a mixture. While dogs can digest most animal parts, that doesn’t mean they are good for them. In fact, when dog food has the word “byproduct” or “meat meal” on the label, you can’t identify the parts or types of animals that are in the food. Additionally, byproducts also contain things like cancers that were cut out from “human grade” meats.
It is also helpful to look and see if they identify ingredients outright. Do they name the specific meat that is being used in the food? Do they identify if the base is corn, rice, wheat, etc.? When a company is transparent about their ingredients and density of those ingredients, they are much easier to trust.
The ingredient list of most dog food brands will also have a list of things that you want to avoid feeding your dog. Some examples to look out for include:
- Solvents or preservatives like BHA, propylene glycol, BHT, and ethoxyquin
- “Byproducts” or “meat meal”
Be warned that while there are some regulations with dog food, just like with food we eat, the word “natural” is not regulated. Instead, it would help if you look for “organic” labeling. Buying organically labeled dog food will guarantee a few things:
- Free of antibiotics
- Free of synthetic hormones
- Free of pesticides
- No preservatives
- Ingredients cannot be grown in chemical fertilizers or irradiated
Like humans, dogs can also have allergies, dietary restrictions, and need to eat to match their activity level. For instance, a mid-sized dog that runs daily will need a higher calorie diet than a small dog that only gets walked once a week. Their size and activity level will impact the calories and amount of food they eat. All of these factors contribute to your dog’s diet.
Finding a Balanced Diet
As the owner of an adopted dog, we went through a wide variety of dog foods before we found a diet that worked well for my dog. One tell-tale sign that the dog food isn’t right is that your dog doesn’t like eating it. Whether he consciously does it or not, my dog doesn’t eat foods that don’t sit well with him, cause dry skin, or cause any other reaction. This helped me out a lot throughout our trial and error food-finding process.
Each dog is different though, and each dog has specific dietary needs. The one thing that will be the same across the board though, is that all dogs need to be eating a variety of foods.
Dogs are not strict carnivores. Although meat does make up most of a dog’s diet, dogs can derive nutrients from grains, fruits, and vegetables. The best dog foods will contain a combination of meat, vegetables, grains, and fruits that are high-quality.
One of the easiest ways I’ve found which foods my dog favors or dislikes is giving him bits of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins as treats (always be sure they’re safe for dogs to consume). If he doesn’t like them in their whole form, cooked or uncooked, I won’t buy dog food or treats containing that ingredient.
All in all, dogs need a healthy, balanced diet, just like humans – unless they are suffering from an allergy. Consult with your veterinarian to determine if your dog is subject to any allergies and to have them recommend the best food to fit your dog’s individual digestive needs.
Which Food Should I Choose?
Now more than ever, it is easy to get your dog high-quality and even organic food. You have the option to choose from dry foods, wet foods, and even homemade foods. To apply the information that we laid out above, we will describe some of our most recommended dog foods below.
Dry Dog Food
Buying dry dog food is by far the most common choice due to accessibility and convenience. While some dry dog foods are well made, you need to read packaging and ingredients carefully. Most of what is outlined in the first section is talking directly about the wording used on dry dog food bags.
In recent years, one significant shift in the dry dog food industry has been “grain-free.” This is primarily due to suspicions that grains were being used as fillers and possibly lead to certain heart conditions in dogs. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information or credible research out there to back-up many of these claims so it is unknown if this is true or not.
One good thing that has come out of this “grain-free” movement is that there is more awareness about knowing what is in dog food. Now, we are not advocating for a “grain-free” diet by any means, but you should be searching for a balanced nutrition base and go from there.
Some of the dry dog food brands we recommend include:
. . .
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If you do decide to feed your dog dry food, try to include mixers and toppers into the meals. These can be as simple as a fried egg, some chickpeas, or some fruits and vegetables that are safe for them to eat. We do not recommend giving them leftovers from your meals directly. These meals often contain high levels of salt and may have spices/ingredients that are harmful to your dog.
Wet Dog Food
Wet dog foods can be an excellent alternative to dry dog foods. These will generally be more expensive, and they can sometimes contain more water than anything nutritious, making them hard to justify buying. As with dry dog foods, you need to read the labels on dry dog foods to ensure you’re feeding your pet high-quality ingredients and getting your money’s worth.
You can find a variety of wet dog foods that come in cans, and there has been an increase of “wet” dog foods being sold as whole ingredients. One primary example of this is the Farmer’s Dog. They essentially are a home food delivery system for dog food that sells human-grade food mixtures specially designed for your dog’s dietary needs.
Another example of this is FreshPet. You can find their products in most major supermarkets and pet stores. They’ll come in little resealable baggies or tubes and will list all of their ingredients clearly. If your dog needs a high protein diet, these primarily consist of meats like chicken. You may want to prepare a grain to use as a mixer to add some extra calories and nutrients.
Homemade Dog Food
Due to specific dietary requirements and accessibility of where I used to live, my dog used to eat homemade dog food. Now, he eats a mixture of homemade and dry foods. This can be a tricky endeavor, and I do not recommend it to all dog owners. It takes extensive research and planning to begin this process, and it will likely lead to trial and error.
When you plan to make your dog’s food yourself, be sure that you consult your veterinarian about how to design their diet to match their necessary calorie intake and meet all of their nutritional needs.
If you’re considering transitioning to homemade dog food, check out one of these books. They’re filled with easy, nutritious recipes your pup is sure to love.
Planning to Switch Your Dog’s Diet? See How and Why to Transition Slowly
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