Choosing the Right Top-Quality Dog Food
Understanding how the foods listed on Whole Dog Journal's 2013 Dry Dog Food Review met our selection criteria.
Sixteen years ago, when Whole Dog Journal first assessed the “premium” segment of the dry dog food market, we didn’t find many products that met our selection criteria (click here for this year’s “Whole Dog Journal's 2013 Dry Dog Food Review”). In 1998, the companies that made dog foods that we had considered to be the highest quality were small and not well known. The vast majority of dog foods on the market contained abominable ingredients (such as “meat and bone meal” and “animal fat”) and the companies that produced them were not very consumer-friendly. Even the top dog food manufacturers that offered the highest-quality products on the market were reticent about their ingredient sources and manufacturing locations.
That was then; this is now.
Today, the segment of the top quality dog food market commonly referred by the pet food industry as (variably) natural, holistic, or super premium (none of those being legal definitions) has experienced absolutely explosive growth. The entire pet food market has grown, but the performance of the type of products that meet our selection criteria has been remarkable.
“Consumer demand” gets the credit for these recent improvements in formulas at larger-scale pet food makers. After years of defending their ingredients, formulas, and products, the smart pet food companies have found ways to offer products with the kind of ingredients that discerning pet owners want to see on the label. It’s doubly smart, because these changes actually give them a leg up on their competition, even if they are new to the “super premium” niche; it helped them gain a spot on this year’s "Approved Dry Dog Foods" list.
Identifying a top-quality dog food is not that difficult; I’m going to tell you how to do that in this issue of Whole Dog Journal. But it may be difficult to find these top quality foods if you live far from an urban center or an independent pet supply store run by someone with more than a passing interest in canine nutrition. It may be even more difficult to afford some of these foods; quality costs more. But it shouldn’t be at all hard to see the improvements in your dog’s health if you’ve been feeding a low-quality dog food and make the switch to products of this quality. We have some suggestions if you are considering making a switch in your dog’s diet.
- Whenever possible, shop at well-trafficked independent pet supply stores. The staff and/or management is usually far more helpful and knowledgeable about products that would be best for your dog at your budget. Next best: chain pet specialty stores.
- If you wear glasses to read fine print, bring ’em! You are going to study the label of each product in your price range for the following:
- Ingredients panel (where the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight in the product).
- Guaranteed analysis (which lists the minimum amounts of protein and fat and the maximum amounts of fiber and moisture, and sometimes, other nutrients). You need to know how much protein and fat your dog’s food at home contains, and whether he should get more or less. If you’ve been feeding a low-quality dog food with, say, 19% protein and 8% fat, you don’t want to switch overnight to a sled-dog fuel with 40% protein and 28% fat.
- “Best by” date/code (and sometimes, the date of production, too – it’s ideal to have both listed). Look for the freshest food possible, with the “best by” date at least 6 months away.
Hallmarks of Quality
Now it’s time to scrutinize the ingredients list as we did in this year’s "Whole Dog Journal's 2013 Dry Dog Food Review.”
Look For These Things
The following are desired traits – things you want to see on the label.
Lots of animal protein at the top of the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed by weight, so you want to see a lot of top quality animal protein at the top of the list; the first ingredient should be a “named” animal protein source (see next bullet).
A named animal protein – chicken, beef, lamb, and so on. “Meat” is an example of a low-quality protein source of dubious origin. Animal protein “meals” should also be from named species (look for “chicken meal” but avoid “meat meal” or “poultry meal”).
When a whole meat is first on the ingredient list, there should be an animal protein meal in a supporting role to augment the total animal protein in the diet. Fresh (or frozen) meat contains a lot of water, and water is heavy, so if a whole meat is first on the list, another source of animal protein should be listed in the top three or so ingredients.
Avoid These Traits
The following are things you don’t want to see in the ingredients.
Meat by-products or poultry by-products. Higher-value ingredients are processed and stored more carefully (kept clean and cold) than lower-cost ingredients (such as by-products) by meat processors.
A “generic” fat source such as “animal fat.” This can literally be any fat of animal origin, including used restaurant grease. “Poultry” fat is not quite as suspect as “animal fat,” but “chicken fat” or “duck fat” is better (and traceable).
Added sweeteners. Dogs, like humans, enjoy the taste of sweet foods. Sweeteners effectively persuade many dogs to eat foods comprised mainly of grain fragments (and containing little healthy animal protein).
Artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives (i.e., BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin). The color of the food doesn’t matter to your dog. And it should be flavored well enough to be enticing with healthy meats and fats. Natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract, can be used instead. Note that natural preservatives do not preserve foods as long as artificial preservatives, so owners should always check the “best by” date on the label and look for relatively fresh products.
Adjust As Necessary
You may have been told that it’s bad to switch dog foods, or you may have had a bad experience when your dog ate something different and erupted in gas or diarrhea. With most dogs, the more you change foods, the more robust and capable their digestion becomes. We suggest switching foods every few months (or even more frequently; we switch our dogs’ food with every bag). Switching foods frequently also helps prevent the development of allergies, and helps provide nutritional “balance over time.” If your dog ate the same food for months and years, the nutrient levels – particularly the mineral levels – become literally entrenched in your dog’s body. This can be particularly harmful if the food you feed contains excessive or insufficient levels of certain vitamins or minerals.
Finally, watch your dog! Let her tell you how the new food works for her. Keep track of what foods you’ve tried (when the bag is empty, we cut out the ingredients panel and tape it to a calendar). This way, you can continue to make adjustments and improvements in your dog’s diet – and, we hope, huge improvements in her physical condition, skin and coat, and overall energy level.
To learn more about the "mass market" pet food makers that are now offering super-premium formulas, subscribe to Whole Dog Journal today. You will then have access to premium subscriber-only content and the full version of this article.
The subscriber-only version of this article also includes a discussion of the changes in the pet food industry that have made it possible for a mass market food manufacturer to offer these high-end and mainstream-quality products.
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