The choices you make in selecting which foods to feed your pooch are probably more important than any others in terms of your influence on your dog’s health, no question about it. And yet, trying to get some straight information about how one can identify and select a high-quality, healthful dog food is like trying to get the president of the United States to admit he’s done something wrong: you’ll hear lies and innuendo, you’ll be led down false trails, you’ll hear conflicting information. You’ll also hear some true statements. The problem is, you’ll never know which statements are true, and which aren’t.
The dog food industry, like our nation’s capitol, is a fragmented and bizarre community. In one corner, you have the establishment. These companies, representing the majority of the industry, could be described as entrenched conservatives who have a large stake in preserving the status quo: protecting the interests of the industry leaders while paying lip service to meeting the needs of the people – or, in this case, dogs. We’ll not be coy; we’re talking about the Purinas and the Pedigrees and the Science Diets and the Iams of the dog food world.
In our opinion, the foods these companies make are not “what’s best for your dog.” Their foods contain more grain than meat (the ancestral food of canines), and the majority of the grain they use consists of heavily processed fractions – leftover scraps from the human food industry – rather than healthful (and more costly) whole grains. The meats they use, too, are low quality leftovers; you can identify the low grade sources by their euphemistic names (see “Is A Rose By-Product Still A Rose?”, page 4). And many of these industry giants use sweeteners and artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors, hallmarks of poor-quality foods.
What’s ‘good enough’?
Of course, it’s hard to convince some people that most grocery store and pet store foods are not “good” for dogs. After all, they argue, dogs aren’t dying from eating these foods, and the industry is regulated, isn’t it?
According to holistic veterinarians, dogs ARE dying from substandard foods; they just aren’t dying right away. Most veterinarians will tell you that the number of dogs they see with allergies, skin problems, behavior problems (aggression, separation anxiety, etc.), autoimmune and immune-deficient conditions, cancers, and diseases of internal organs are on the rise. Just because a dog doesn’t exhibit a nutritional deficiency doesn’t mean it is vibrantly healthy.
And while there is an agency looking over food makers’ shoulders, it doesn’t really have the resources or the regulatory “teeth” to police the industry. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), is a non-governmental advisory committee that sets the standards that all foods must meet. Dog food makers must comply with one of two types of AAFCO standards, and state which type of standard they met on the food label. The problem is, the standards are really not all that tough.
The first is a feeding trial, wherein a small number of dogs (it’s less than a dozen) are fed nothing but the food in question for six months. For the food to pass the trial, none of the dogs can lose more than 15 percent of their body weight, die, or be removed from the test due to “nutritional deficiencies,” although two dogs may be removed from the test for other reasons. When a food passes this test, the label can state, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedure substantiate that (this food) provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages.”
The second standard is when a maker formulates his food to meet the nutritional requirements set by AAFCO as a sort of minimum daily allowance for dogs. When a maker has met this standard, the label will state something like, “(This food) is formulated to meet the nutritional level by the AAFCO dog nutrient profiles for all stages of a dog’s life.”
Here’s the problem: Virtually no one (aside from the food makers I’ve labeled the “establishment”) likes AAFCO’s dog nutrient profiles. The profiles are a product of tests (some of which were conducted decades ago) wherein a certain nutrient was decreased in the diet of a population of research dogs until tests (or poor health) indicated a deficiency. The minimum level of the nutrient in question was then determined to be just above that point. In some cases, a maximum level of a nutrient was similarly determined. But these tests were not about what is optimum for canine health; indeed, such a test would be difficult to conduct.
Foremost in our minds is the question of how two foods whose ingredients are of vastly differing quality could be regarded as equals by the regulators, just because their vitamin, mineral, protein, and fat levels fell within an acceptable range. It seems to us that there ought to be some official grading of dog food quality, some way for the average consumer to tell the difference between a food containing the cheapest, worst-quality castoff fractions and a food filled with high-quality, healthful, whole foods.
So far, we described only the establishment. It should come as no surprise that we think that most of the truly good- and high-quality foods are produced by the minority group of radicals and activists of the industry, small (or even tiny) companies. These companies are truly trying to formulate and sell healthy food, shunning the shoddy ingredients that their larger rivals routinely employ. They set out to make food from clean, fresh meat and whole ground grains and vegetables.
Unfortunately, many of these companies’ founders quickly learn that it’s not easy to make a great dog food at a price people are willing to pay. Quality ingredients are expensive, and when consumers realize that the price of a food with high-quality meats and vegetables and grains in it may well cost more than buying high quality meats and vegetables and grains, many of them either settle for a lesser-quality food, or begin preparing their own food from scratch.
So, in order to keep the price of the food in line with what they know they can get people to pay – and still keep the business in the black – most food manufacturers compromise on some ingredients. They cut corners on the ingredients that are less critical (in their eyes) to the overall value of the food, so you’ll see a food that has fantastic protein sources, say, whole, human quality chicken meat, and one or two whole grains, but also has a grain or vegetable “fraction” rounding out the formula. In a purist’s eyes, this compromises the quality of the food; from our perspective, these foods are still light years ahead of the “establishment” foods, which contain NO whole foods.
All of this goes to explain why, on the next pages, you’ll see foods on our “Top Picks” list that have qualities that are on our “Foods Should Not Contain” list. Unfortunately, foods that have ALL of our “Food Should Contain” items and none of our “Foods Should Not Contain” items don’t seem to exist.
Things you should know
Before we discuss our selections, there are a few things you should know: First, we do not conduct either feeding trials or laboratory tests on the foods. We selected our favorites by conducting a thorough label review, and holding this data up to the criteria listed in the “Foods Should Contain” and “Foods Should NOT Contain” boxes below. We suggest you use the same criteria to analyze any foods you do not see listed here.
We have not selected foods on the basis of protein or fat content. Some food makers have tried to promote the concept of high-protein foods as being of higher quality; this is not necessarily so. It’s true that higher-quality protein sources (beef, say) will provide more digestible protein in higher amounts than lower-quality sources (corn gluten meal, for instance). But high-protein diets are contraindicated for some dogs, giant breeds, for instance, where too-rapid growth can cause health problems. And some dogs shouldn’t have diets that are too high in fat. Note the amounts of protein and fat in your dog’s old and new foods, and monitor his weight and condition accordingly. (To help you determine how much fat and protein is best for your dog, see “What’s the Best ‘Zone’ for Dogs?” WDJ July 1999.)
Space precludes our listing every ingredient in every food, but this is unnecessary. According to law, ingredients are listed on dog food labels in descending order of weight; the ingredient responsible for the greatest amount of weight in the bag is listed first. The items that are 10 or so ingredients down the list are far less meaningful to the overall food quality that the first few ingredients. The exception to this rule is the presence, no matter how small, of chemical preservatives, color, and flavors. We don’t think they should be present in dog foods at all.
Be aware that food manufacturers often “split” lesser-quality foods into two components, in order to list them in smaller quantities than another, higher-quality food. For example, if a label reads, “Beef, ground yellow corn, rice, corn gluten meal,” it appears that there is more beef than anything else in the sack, but the total weight of the corn (ground yellow corn plus corn gluten meal) may outweigh the beef. And because the labels don’t have to list the relative percentages of each ingredient, it’s impossible to know how much more corn than beef there may be.
A note about allergies: NO dog food ingredient in the world can cause “allergies” in every dog. ANY food can be an “allergen” to some dogs. Allergies are an individual thing. One dog may be allergic to potato; another, to tomato. True, there are more dogs that are allergic to wheat and corn than any other ingredients. But the vast majority of dogs can eat wheat and corn without problems.
Finally, remember that we have not seen every dog food on the market. New foods emerge on a monthly basis, some are available on a regional scale only. We’ve tried to list foods that are good examples of the kinds of foods you should be looking for. But for those who refuse to compare their own dog food’s list of ingredients with our list of items a food “Should Contain” and Should Not Contain,” we’ve prepared a short list of foods we don’t like, and the reasons why these foods appear on this list.
To view WDJ’s Approved Dry Dog Food List, click here.