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What Should You Look for in a Dog Food?

Not that many years ago, the pet food industry became a convenient place for the human food industry to dispose of its waste products, without paying landfill fees. Pet food makers were pleased to have ready supplies of inexpensive ingredients. Owners were happy to buy something to feed their dogs that was so convenient to store and feed. Dogs, as they have been for centuries, were thrilled to get whatever their humans would share with them. The ingredients panel on a bag of dog food was rarely considered.

But today, we’re putting the pieces together: diet affects health. Consumers are responding to the positive changes they’ve seen in their dogs on improved diets, and many companies are responding to consumers’ feedback. But the only way to distinguish the passionate, committed, knowledgeable food makers from the posers is to start looking at, and understanding, the ingredients panel.

Hallmarks of quality (what to look for)

Animal protein at the top of the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by weight, so ideally a food will have one or two animal proteins in the first few ingredients.

Named animal protein source – chicken, beef, lamb, and so on. “Meat” is an example of a low-quality protein source of dubious origin. Animal protein “meals” (i.e., “chicken meal”) should also be from named species.

When a fresh meat appears high on the ingredients list, an animal protein meal in a supporting role, to augment the total protein in the diet. Fresh or frozen meats do not contain enough protein to be used as the sole protein source in a dry food (they contain as much as 65 to 75 percent water and only 15 to 20 percent protein. In contrast, animal protein “meals” – meat, bone, skin, and connective tissue that’s been rendered and dried – contain only about 10 percent moisture, and as much as 65 percent protein.)

Whole vegetables, fruits, and grains. Fresh, unprocessed food ingredients contain wholesome nutrients in all their naturally complex glory, with their fragile vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants intact. Don’t be alarmed by one or two food fragments, especially if they are low on the ingredients list. But if there are several present in the food, and/or they appear high on the ingredients list, the lower-quality the food.

Organic ingredients; locally sourced ingredients. Both of these things are better for our planet.

Signs of corners cut (what to look out for)

Meat by-products or poultry by-products. Higher-value ingredients are processed and stored more carefully (kept clean and cold) than low-value ingredients (such as by-products) by the processors. The expense of whole meats and meat meals doesn’t rule out poor handling and resultant oxidation (rancidity), but it makes it less likely. For these reasons, we suggest avoiding foods that contain by-products or by-product meal.

Added sweeteners. Sweeteners effectively persuade many dogs to eat foods comprised mainly of grain fragments (and containing little healthy animal protein).

Artificial preservatives, such as BRA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. Natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (forms of vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract, can be used instead. Note that natural preservatives do not preserve the food as long as artificial preservatives, so owners should always check the “best by” date on the label and look for relatively fresh products.

Artificial colors. The color of the food makes no difference to the dog; these nutritionally useless chemicals are used in foods to make them look appealing to you!

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