How do you choose the best dog food for your pup? The endless selection of dog food products with promising marketing claims make the task of selecting dog food incredibly challenging. Do you go with the dog food brand that claims it only uses all-natural ingredients? Is organic better? And what does "all-natural" even mean!?
We're here to help you understand how to choose what is right for your dog. In this article we discuss how to identify the highest quality dog foods and what to look for in dog food labels. We also clarify the meaning of "organic" and "all-natural" and address recent headlines about grain-free dog food and its link to canine heart disease. As always, leave any questions and thoughts in the comments below! We love hearing from you and appreciate your feedback.
High quality and healthy dog foods use wholesome, natural ingredients and are processed to preserve the nutritional content of those ingredients. When considering a new dog food, start by simply reading the first few ingredients listed on the package. These ingredients are a good indicator of overall product quality.
The most important ingredient for dogs is high quality animal protein, so make sure a specified animal protein is listed first on the package, i.e. chicken, turkey, or lamb. Specified meat meal, i.e. chicken or lamb meal, is also quality protein and may be the first or second ingredient.
You should also read the ‘Guaranteed Analysis’ label. All dog food brands are required to list this breakdown of protein, fat, moisture, and fiber content. Dry dog food should offer a minimum of 18% protein for adults and 22% for puppies.
Next, see what sources of fat are used. Look for specifically-named animal fats like chicken fat and salmon oil. Healthy fats and oils such as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in particular promote a healthy, shiny dog coat. You may see a plant-based fat as well, but make sure it is not the only source of fat.
Lastly, review the dog food’s carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential for energy - they are the body’s main source of fuel - and digestion. Look for whole grains like rice, oats, barley, potatoes, sweet potatoes and peas. These are healthy carbohydrates high in fiber. Avoid grain fragments and flours (i.e. rice flour) which lose most of their nutritional value during processing. Ingredients like rice flour and corn gluten are common ingredients in low-quality dog food brands and are used as cheap, incomplete protein sources.
Animal-based protein is the most important part of a dog’s diet. It is also the most expensive ingredient for dog food brands to source. The dog food you select should have one or two specifically-named meats at the top of the ingredient list (i.e. chicken, beef, turkey, duck).
In many cases, meat or fish meal (i.e. chicken meal; lamb meal; salmon meal) is used as the first or second source of protein. Meat meal is concentrated protein powder made by overcooking and essentially dehydrating (aka “rendering”) meat. Some forms of meat meal are good sources of protein. These include chicken meal, beef meal, lamb meal, duck meal, and venison meal. Steer clear of “by-product” meals and meals that do not specify which animal or fish it is made from. Examples are “animal meal”, “meat meal”, “animal by-product meal”, “fish meal”, and “meat and bone meal”. These types of meal are often made up of animal waste materials: heads, hooves, bones, etc.
Lower quality dog food makers will skimp on (or completely exclude) high quality animal protein sources and opt for subpar alternatives like “animal digest”, “animal by-products”, “animal fat”, unspecified meat meals, and even corn. Yep, you read that correctly… Many low quality dog food brands use corn and corn gluten meal to fulfill the required ‘protein’ content in their dog food.
There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to organic vs. natural dog food. And rightly so! Many dog food brands market themselves as “all natural” or having “100% natural” ingredients. This “natural” dog food must be incredibly healthy, right? Not so fast…
Dog food can only be labeled “organic” if every ingredient meets strict standards enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Natural”, on the other hand, is a vague term with no true definition enforced by the USDA. The phrases “natural”, “all natural”, and “100% natural ingredients” are widely used by dog food brands to suggest their food is unprocessed and made without artificial ingredients. This, however, is not always the case. What is more, “natural” does not apply to the way meat, eggs, and dairy are produced. In other words, “all natural” meat can come from cows or chickens that were given growth hormones, antibiotics, and forced to live in unsuitable, cramped quarters.
Organic meat, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones; the animals eat organic feed and must spend time outdoors with enough space to live comfortably. Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and ionized radiation.
Foods cannot be labeled “USDA Organic” unless (1) a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to ensure the farmer is meeting all required standards of the USDA and (2) the contents of the food are at least 95% organic.
To confuse you further, some dog food brands market themselves with a "Made with Organic ***" label, i.e. “Made with Organic Corn”. This does not mean they are “USDA Organic” but rather contain organic forms of that one ingredient.
It depends. Some dog food brands that market themselves as “natural” are healthy options for your pet. Many of these dog foods are made with high quality ingredients and strictly avoid the use of preservatives, chemicals, and artificial ingredients. When we talk about "natural" dog foods here in this article, these are the products we are referring to. Unfortunately, there are many low quality dog food brands that market themselves as “natural” without adhering to any standards.
Because the term “natural” has no enforced definition, your best bet is to read the full ingredient list before purchasing any new dog food.
Not necessarily! While feeding your dog a 100% organic diet sounds ideal, it is not always practical. Organic dog foods are often very expensive! Mike and I (Steph) aim to feed Django an incredibly healthy diet, but we frankly can’t afford to follow the 100% organic route. Rather, we choose the highest quality and healthiest dog food brands we can find. We also frequently supplement Django’s dog food with high quality, human-grade sources of protein like organic egg, wild alaskan canned salmon, and fresh boiled chicken.
There is a lot of confusion around grain-free dog food. Is grain good for dogs? Bad? Does it cause heart disease? We’re here to set the record straight.
Grain-free dog food has grown in popularity over the past few years. Suddenly pet store shelves are overflowing with “grain-free chicken and egg” and “grain-free beef and lentil” dog food recipes.
Why the sudden surge in grain-free dog food? It started with humans…
These days, a gluten-free diet seems to be the most popular health trend in the United States. Dog food manufacturers saw that humans were increasingly choosing grain-free diets and figured dog owners would want a similar diet for their canine companions. This implies that humans believe (1) dogs are allergic to grains and/or (2) grain is bad for dogs. Neither of these are necessarily true.
Although dogs can have grain allergies, most do not. In fact, domesticated dogs have evolved over the centuries to properly digest grains and other starches like potatoes and rice. This means that the majority of dogs digest and receive nutritional benefits from grains. Assuming your dog does not have a grain allergy and you are already feeding him or her high quality food, there is no proven benefit to giving your dog grain-free food.
What about the recent headlines suggesting there is a link between grain-free dog food and canine heart disease?
There has recently been an increase in heart disease in dogs, and preliminary studies suggest diet may be a contributing factor. Specifically, it is thought that certain boutique dog food brands with exotic ingredients (i.e. kangaroo, fava bean, tapioca) may not provide proper nutritional levels and are ultimately leading to taurine deficiency in dogs. Taurine is an important amino acid, and a deficiency in taurine promotes heart disease.
What does this mean for you and how you select dog food?
First, refrain from buying dog food just because it looks fancy and claims to be "the best choice" for your pup. Unfortunately any dog food brand can make such unsubstantiated claims. The best approach is to understand what makes a healthy dog food and properly review the dog food's ingredients and nutritional label before pulling out your wallet. The FDA published a great resource on pet food labels.
Second, speak to your veterinarian. Your vet can analyze your dog’s diet and nutrition needs better than anyone. He or she will be able to confirm whether a grain-free diet is the best option for your dog. And if you have any questions about a particular dog food brand or recipe, take a screenshot of the nutritional label and show it to your vet before buying it.
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