It can be a real challenge to choose a dog food. Go to any grocery store or pet food store and you will find dozens if not hundreds of dog food options. If you research dog food online, you will find people who claim that feeding anything other than a raw diet is tantamount to killing your pet. Talk to people on the street and someone will explain that those raw bones will most certainly kill your dog and you best stick to scientifically tested kibble. Ask your vet and they may well try to sell you an expensive prescription diet with an indecipherable ingredient list. How on earth do you decide what to feed your canine friend?
For the purpose of this note, we are going to focus on prepared, commercial dry dog food (kibble) – raw or homemade diets deserve a separate discussion of their own.
The first thing to remember is that no diet is right for all dogs. It is important to choose a diet that your particular dog does well on. Once you have figured out what works for your dog, try to rotate between several good foods or at least between several formulations from the same manufacturer. Dogs that are regularly rotated between several different foods will be less likely to have stomach upset in response to diet change. It also provides a level of protection against dietary imbalances when compared to feeding the same formulation for years at a time.
There are several factors to consider when choosing a dog food including your dog, your budget and product availability in your area. Dogs have different nutritional requirements depending on their age, breed, activity level, food sensitivities and health needs. There are formulas to meet the needs of growing puppies, large breed dogs, dogs that struggle with their weight or have food sensitivities and many more. People with multiple dogs frequently need to feed multiple foods to meet the needs of the individuals in their household.
It’s important to be realistic about your budget. Truly top quality dog food is not cheap. If you are feeding several dogs or large dogs, budget may become even more of an issue. Investing in a high quality dog food will save you money in the long run so you don’t want to skimp here but you also need to choose a food that fits your budget. You may need to choose a good food that isn’t super premium but is one your dog does well on and one that you can afford.
Product availability can be a concern in some areas. In our area, it frequently requires an hour drive to get to a pet store that offers premium dog foods. This limits some people’s ability to purchase high quality foods. Other people are more willing or able to drive long distances or pay for shipping to get the food they want delivered.
When choosing a dog food, your best bet is to turn the bag over and read the ingredients list. There are certain key ingredients to look for and other ingredients that you will want to stay away from. Ingredients are listed in decreasing order so the ingredients listed first will be present in the highest amounts based on weight before processing.
Ingredients to look for:
You want to see a named meat or meat meal as the first ingredient (ie., lamb or lamb meal). Meat meal is cooked and dried prior to processing the kibble so a named meat meal will provide significantly more protein by weight than whole meat will. However, you want to look for a named meat or meal (ei., “chicken” or “lamb meal”) versus “meat” or “meat meal” because “meat” and “meat meal” can include just about anything.
Look for whole grains rather than several grain fractions. Since the ingredients are listed in decreasing order, the addition of several grain fractions may mean that there is significantly more grain than meat in a kibble even though the meat is listed first. Sometimes a grain fraction will play a specific role in a kibble but you don’t want to see too many of them or too high up on the list. A whole grain should be listed as such (whole oat flour, whole ground corn) while a grain fraction is comprised of only part of the grain (rice bran, corn gluten meal).
Ingredients to avoid:
Corn and/or wheat gluten meal may be added to increase the protein content of foods. These should be avoided in favor of named meats and meat meals because corn and wheat proteins do not provide a complete amino acid profile. While they bulk up the protein percentage of the food, it is not high quality protein and may not be metabolized well by the dog. The presence of corn gluten meal isn’t a deal breaker but I wouldn’t want to see it too high up on the ingredient list.
Most dog owners already know that meat by-products are an ingredient to be avoided. Personally, I’m not offended by the idea of non-muscle animal parts in dog food. I’ve seen some of the things my dogs will happily pick up and eat and I’ll tell you, they aren’t squeamish when it comes to beaks, feathers and feet. However, by-products are generally comprised of low nutritional value parts of the animal. By-products are also of lower value to the processor so they are generally handled and stored with less care and more likely to become rancid or tainted. Whole meats are more expensive and therefore much more likely to be handled carefully. As with meats and meals, if by-products are included in a food, make sure they are named (chicken by-product meal) versus generic (meat by-product meal) and they shouldn’t be too high up on the ingredient list.
Avoid artificial preservatives like BHA and BHT. These can be allergens for many dogs. Ethoxyquin is another artificial preservative. Look instead for natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E), vitamin C or rosemary extract. Make sure you check the best by date on the label and buy fresh products.
So you’ve gone to the local grocery store, turned over all the bags of dog food and none of them look great, right? Unfortunately that’s a common problem. Most grocery stores don’t carry high quality dog foods, you’ll have to go to a pet store to find most premium brands. The best choice in the grocery store tends to be Purina One. Most Purina One formulations have real meat as the first ingredient. Unfortunately, the ingredient list isn't fabulous from there with grain fractions and some lower quality ingredients rounding out the list. However, if price or availability preclude a higher quality dog food, lots of dogs do well on Purina One. In fact, their Sensitive Systems formulation has done great things for several dogs I’ve known including my own Ben.
After the grocery store, you might be tempted to go by your vet’s office which likely carries Science Diet products. When you get there, make sure you read the ingredient list. Most Science Diet ingredient lists are dominated by grain-based, low-quality components. Science Diet has done a fabulous job of marketing their product to veterinarians and is one of the few companies the produces prescription diets specifically targeting the needs of dogs with health problems. If your dog has a chronic health problem that dictates a prescription diet (pancreatitis, chronic urinary tract issues, etc) Science Diet prescription diets may be beneficial. However, for healthy dogs your best bet is to read the ingredients list and make your own decision. There are better options available, especially at the price point that Science Diet sells at.
So what do you do now? You make your way to a pet store and find several brands whose ingredient list meets many or most of the criteria we set above. Choose several brands or formulations within a single brand and slowly switch your dog’s food to the new food. Keep a record of what food you are feeding including the protein source and grains in the food. Note how your dog responds to the food – is he excited to eat it? How is his energy level? How does his coat look and smell (some dogs with food intolerances will smell excessively “doggie”)? Is he experiencing any itchiness, minor infections (eye, ear and skin especially), or gastric upset like vomiting, diarrhea or gassiness? When you rotate to another food, keep track of any changes. You may notice that he does better on some proteins than others or with certain carbohydrate sources or grains than others.
That brings us to another point. You can now get dog food with all sorts of interesting and exotic ingredients like bison, duck or even kangaroo. Unless you have a compelling reason (like food allergies), avoid these proteins in favor of the more traditional beef, chicken or lamb. This way, if your dog ever needs to go on an elimination diet at a later point in time, you will have these as novel protein sources to use.
Several brands now offer grain-free kibble formulation. Is a grain-free kibble better than a traditional kibble with grain in it? Unless your dog has an actual sensitivity to grains, a traditional kibble is probably just fine. Many dogs, particularly those from the herding and sporting breed groups, have traditionally been fed a highly grain based diet with very little meat in it. While this diet may not have been ideal, many of these dogs tolerate grains very well. In fact, some individual dogs seem to do better on a slightly lower quality dog food versus a super premium food, probably for this reason. For some dogs with skin and coat issues, it may be worth trying out a corn-free or grain-free formulation to see if it helps improve their condition. Grain-free kibbles still have plenty of carbohydrates, they just come from starches other than grains like potato or sweet potato. If you are avoiding carbohydrates in the diet for a medical reason, your best bet would be to research a good, balanced raw feeding option.
So which dog food is the best for your dog? Only time, research and trying a variety of kibbles will tell but start by turning that bag over and reading the ingredients list. Then, keep a close eye on your dog and let him tell you which foods are right for him.