SELECTING A HIGH QUALITY DIET
Just like for humans, a well balanced high quality diet is vital for any animal to maintain good health. Our pets depend on us to make the right decisions. However, the average person has no idea what their pet is actually consuming on a daily basis. Some go to the grocery store and simply pick the bag with the most attractive design. Others strictly follow their vet’s suggestion. Unfortunately, some of the most well recognized brands are nothing more than vitamin-fortified sawdust. Once you’re familiar with the basics, it’s easy to narrow down the endless choices that are out there and find a diet your pet will truly thrive on.
A comprehensive list of Paws and Learn recommended brands can be found here.
Variety & Health
Most of us have been taught to feed a brand that is "nutritionally balanced" and stick to it for the life of the animal. Let’s say a protein bar was labeled "100% nutritionally complete." Would you consider feeding your child that same protein bar 3 times a day every day for the rest of his life? Of course not. You’d still want to feed a wide variety of fresh, wholesome food including fruits and vegetables. The best way to ensure your pet gets all the nutrients they require is to feed a varied diet so their body can draw different substances from different sources. They can’t do this when they’re fed the same meal every day of their lives, especially when it’s low quality. Now imagine a snack bar made up of only sugar and corn, and eating only that every day of your life. You might not starve to death, but you’ll most likely suffer from a variety of medical problems over time. The low quality brands of food out there often resemble the sugar/corn diet. Yes, they can live on it. But over time our pets can have a similar fate. Oftentimes dogs who suffer from ear infections, skin problems, itchy paws, voluminous stools, runny eyes, bad breath or other common ailments find their symptoms clear up once their diet is improved. When their bodies are receiving all the nutrients they need, they’ll have a healthy coat, a good energy level, and be better equipped to fight off illness (which saves you trips to the vet).
In order for a brand to label its food "complete and balanced," it must have the "AAFCO" label (Association of American Feed Control Officials). The AAFCO label is better than no label at all, but people need to be aware of its shortcomings. This approval can be achieved in 3 different ways. To pass a feeding trial, the food must keep a certain number of dogs (as few as 8) alive and reasonably well for a certain amount of time (usually 26 weeks for adults, 10 weeks for puppies). The problem with this method is that it doesn’t take into account the long term effects of the diet. Diets vary considerably in nutrients, and prolonged exposure to these deficiencies or excess levels can adversely affect their health. Another testing option for companies is getting a nutritional profile. The food undergoes a lab analysis showing that the nutrients fall within a range of values set by AAFCO. However, nutrition is constantly evolving and absolute evidence that all dogs need a set amount of specific vitamins and minerals simply does not exist. Dietary requirements also vary from one dog to the next. In addition, labs don’t test for digestibility, which is the extent to which the stomach can actually absorb the food. AAFCO does not have input as to the ingredients used (as evidenced by the recent food recall), neither do they test the sources of protein, fiber or fat. Recently AAFCO added a third way to be approved, referred to as the “family rule”. It allows manufacturers to conduct a feeding trial on a parent food, and then formulate a new diet that is similar to the original on paper; the new one gets approved without actually being tested, so the bioavailability of the nutrients are unknown.
Dry, Wet, Raw and Homemade Diets
At the bottom of the food pyramid is regular dry kibble - this is the least nutritious way to feed your pet on a regular basis due to both the low quality of ingredients used, and the manner in which it’s manufactured. Kibble undergoes extreme processing methods that damages and alters the nutrients in the food. Dry foods actually can’t be more than 50% meat or other animal products otherwise the machine that makes it into the kibble shapes stops working. The next step up the pyramid is feeding a "premium" brand kibble. Their products are made to fixed formulas and the ingredients are always the same. Inferior brands keep a constant nutritional value, but their ingredients vary from batch to batch according to what is food is currently available at the cheapest prices. This also makes it harder to maintain your pet’s proper weight or prevent exposure to ingredients he’s allergic to. Premium canned food is a step higher than dry, but it is still exposed to high temperatures which damage nutrients. However, canned diets tend to use higher quality meat than dry food. The meat is usually fresh or frozen and listed as the first ingredient. Canned foods also tend to be more nutritionally complete, and usually contain fewer additives, preservatives and fillers than dry food, although it doesn’t exercise their teeth and gums like kibble can. The 70 - 80% moisture content of canned food is also beneficial to dogs with kidney ailments.
The top tier of the food pyramid is a diet with fresh, unprocessed ingredients. These can either be raw or cooked. There are a variety of ways to do this depending on one’s budget, personal comfort, and convenience. While a homemade diet is the healthiest to feed, a good commercial diet is better than a poorly researched homemade diet. Dogs can’t live on just meat alone, so you need to do some homework before you start. If the diet isn’t well balanced you can do more harm than good. The benefits of a homemade diet include knowing where the ingredients come from (eliminating food recall scares) and tailoring the diet to the specific needs of your dog, especially if he has allergies or health issues. The first step is to read a few of the wonderful, easy to read books on dog nutrition which makes this option easier and less time consuming than one might think. For those who want the benefits of a raw diet but worry over making it complete, there are several high quality frozen commercial raw food brands available. You simply thaw, and serve! In addition, there are a variety of pre-mix diets available as well. Some are designed to have fresh meat or other ingredients added to become complete. Others are already complete and balanced, but are formulated to permit fresh foods being added. (Note: some foods should never be added to our pets’ diet due to safety or toxicity. These include, but are not limited to, cooked bones, chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts and onions).
So what is in the food your feeding? That all depends on the brand. The best manufacturers only use nutrients fit for human consumption. They use whole, fresh meat which is the most natural protein source for dogs. They also use unprocessed grains and vegetables which have the best chance of surviving the food-making process with more of their nutrients in tact. The worst manufacturers simply use the cheapest protein sources available. This includes food from 4-D sources unsuitable for human consumption – tissues from animals that are dead, dying, disabled, or diseased when they arrive at the slaughterhouse. Some dog food can also contain roadkill, or dead animals from vet hospitals and animal shelters. This means your pet is also consuming the antibiotics and drugs these animals were given to help treat them before their death. Slaughterhouse wastes can include moldy, rancid, or spoiled processed meats and tissues riddled with cancer. The quality of fat sprayed onto dry food can come from a variety of sources as well. Some companies purchase used restaurant grease. Others use tallow, which is the fat that bubbles to the surface of the vat when carcasses are rendered. Expired grocery store meat is sometimes added to the vat as well, and by law it can also contain up to 2.5% polyethylene from the plastic wrapping and packaging materials!
Understanding the Ingredient List
Marketing companies have become extremely skilled at making awful diets appear gourmet. So it's important to learn how to read a food label so you can decide for yourself if it's a quality brand, rather than be fooled by clever advertising. Companies are required to list ingredients individually according to weight before processing, but they aren't required to give the total amount. While the ingredient list isn't a guarantee of quality, it’s a good indicator. So if the first ingredient listed is a whole meat, you're off to a good start. However, if the meat is then followed by 3 or 4 grains, it's likely there’s way more grain than meat. Some grain in the diet is okay for most animals, but many manufacturers overdo it because grains are a less expensive protein source than meat. You want to see a superior protein source – like lamb, beef, chicken, or turkey, or a single source meat meal (like chicken meal instead of poultry meal) as 1 of the 2 first ingredients. Two in the top three are even better! You should always be able to tell specifically what animal the food came from (like turkey instead of "poultry" or beef instead of "meat"). The terms meat, meat meal or animal protein are unacceptable. Ideally, you also want to see whole, unprocessed veggies, grains and other foods like rice, instead of fragments like rice flour, rice bran, or brewer’s rice. These are low cost by-products of other food manufacturing processes, and quality brands contain minimal amounts. (*Note: While dogs are capable of utilizing grain, they don’t require grain or any carbohydrates in their diet. Grain-Free lines of dog food have been created specifically due to the large number of dogs who are intolerant of or allergic to grain.)
There should be no meat or poultry by-products listed (and especially no animal by-products). While by-products are not always bad, it’s difficult to determine their quality. There are enough brands out that won’t use them, so it’s easier to simply avoid them altogether. If they are included, by-products should fall below the top 5 ingredients - it should NOT be listed as the main protein source. Other signs of low quality food are "generic" fats or proteins, like "animal fat" instead of chicken fat. Artificial preservatives or colors are used only to make the food more appealing to humans. Our pets don’t care what the food looks like, so they shouldn’t have to be exposed to a lifetime of unnecessary chemicals. A healthy diet will not contain propylene glycol, which is known to make animals sick. It is used to maintain moisture content but it causes the most health problems of all the preservatives, such as dry, itchy skin, hair loss, dehydration and tooth and gum problems. Sweeteners are added to increase the appeal of low quality ingredients, but dietary sugar can aggravate health problems, including diabetes.
The key to a healthy diet is variety. Do not feed your dog one brand of food for its entire lifetime! Find 3 or 4 great brands your dog does well on, and rotate between them every few months. Every dog has their own nutrient requirements. By switching brands, you can help your pet avoid deficiencies or excess levels of these nutrients. Rotating brands can also help prevent your pet from developing a stubborn preference for one kind of food, as well as help them avoid developing food allergies or intolerances. Be sure to switch your pet’s food gradually over a period of 4-10 days to eliminate gas or diarrhea; this also gives their digestive bacteria time to adjust to the new food. Keep in mind that "what's best" for your dog might change over time. As they age, your pet might have different nutritional requirements, might have difficulty digesting grains or can develop allergies at any age. Don’t get so attached to a brand that you fail to notice it’s no longer "what's best" for them.
Although the cost of food does not always determine if the food is good or bad, it is often a good indicator of quality. High quality ingredients simply can not be purchased cheaply. Although the most expensive brands are not necessarily the best in the store, the really inexpensive ones always indicate the maker paid next to nothing for the ingredients. It’s only fair that a manufacturer who paid a lot for quality will pass some of the cost along to the customer. However, an animal needs a smaller quantity of food that’s higher in quality than one that isn’t. Higher quality diets are more digestible; therefore, less food is needed. So although you might pay more per bag, the bag often lasts longer. You can either pay for quality food now, or pay vet bills later.
There is no single best brand! Dogs are individuals, and even with a food made from quality ingredients, one dog might thrive on it and another might not do as well. Better brands are usually not found in supermarkets. They tend to be sold in smaller pet stores since the makers usually can’t supply the needs of a large chain supermarket. A company’s website can give you the location of a local retailer. There are many great pet food companies out there. Keep in mind, veterinarians often recommend certain products simply because they are the most familiar with them from veterinary school. Some of these diets can be poor or mediocre at best. Do your own research!