Whole Dog Journal’s 2012 Dry Dog Food Review

How we analyze and decide which dog foods belong in the top tier of quality – and which to feed to our own dogs.

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When you think about it, most of us dog owners do it all backward: We get a dog, and we feed him whatever he came with, or whatever we can find to feed him that day. And then we tend to keep feeding him that same food. Only later – perhaps after he’s developed some health issues, such as incessant itching and scratching, recurrent ear infections, or dramatic weight gain or loss – do we start to think about what we should feed him.

Whole Dog Journal’s 2012 Dry Dog Food Review

Don’t worry if this describes you; you have to start somewhere. But once you realize that you ought to steer the ship of your dog’s vibrant good health, instead of towing it off the rocks every so often, you need to know which is the best direction to start looking toward. High-protein? Grain-free? Small breed? Senior dog?

Click Here to Download the 2012 Approved WDJ Dry Dog Food List

The absolute first step you should take should be across the threshold of the best-stocked independent pet supply store you can find. If there are none in your area, the next-best option would be a chain pet specialty store such as Petco or PetSmart. You need to be able to look at a lot of dog food bags – and not just the pretty pictures on the front. Bring your reading glasses, because you need to read the fine print on the backs, sides, and even the bottoms of some bags. You’ll be focusing on the parts of the bags that are required by law – the most informative parts. We’ll describe them below, and tell you what to look for.

-Ingredients panel. All the ingredients that are present in the food are required to be listed in this panel. If there is something in the food that’s not on the label, there are supposed to be serious consequences for the company whose name is on the label. (However, surveillance, testing, and enforcement varies widely from state to state. Sigh.)

The ingredients of the food are listed in order of the total percentage of their weight as they entered the giant mixing bowls at the dog food factory. So, there is more of the first ingredient on the list in the bag than anything else, right? Right – with one important exception. Fresh meats, such as chicken, pork, fish, etc., contain a lot of moisture, which is relatively heavy. The water in that meat will evaporate out of the food in the cooking and drying process. What’s left in the finished product may not be present in the highest amount of all the ingredients.

That’s why most companies who include fresh meats in their formulations also include a meat “meal” – a grainy powder made from meat (and bone, skin, fat, and connective tissue) through a process called “rendering.” For example, chicken meal is mostly made from chicken “frames,” the carcass of the chicken without the head, feathers, feet, guts, and most of the big pieces of meat (these are mostly stripped off for human consumption). The frames get ground into a pulp, and then the mass is cooked in giant vats, with most of the fat getting skimmed off and the rest getting heated until most of the moisture in the product evaporates. The result is ground again for a consistent powdery, grainy texture: chicken meal!

Fresh meat generally contains about 15 to 25 percent protein, and about 65 to 75 percent water. Meat meals contain only about 10 percent water, with about 65 to 70 percent protein. The inclusion of fresh meat really increases the dog food’s palatability – but to get the food’s total protein levels high enough, the formula is generally bolstered by, ideally a “named” meat meal (see sidebar, page 5) or another protein source.

-Guaranteed analysis. In this section of the label, you’ll find values indicating – roughly – the amount of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in the food. Why  “roughly”? Because the amounts listed for protein and fat are minimum values; the amounts listed for fiber and moisture are maximum values. The protein and fat levels may be higher than what is listed on the label – and we’ve found that in many “premium” foods, the levels are much higher. The fiber and moisture levels, in contrast, are usually close to the guaranteed amounts.

(Note: In the 2012 Approved Dry Dog Food List, we’ve listed the Guaranteed Analysis percentages for each highlighted food. Keep in mind that the protein and fat values are guaranteed mini-mums, and the moisture and fiber values are guaranteed maximums. )

-“Best by” date/code. We also recommend looking for the stamped or printed code that tells you when the food should be purchased by. Fresher food is better; fats go rancid over time and many vitamins start to lose their punch.

Ideally, the code also includes the date of the food’s manufacture, so you know exactly how long it has been formulated to last. Naturally preserved foods don’t last as long as foods that contain artificial preservatives. Most companies that use natural preservatives indicate that the products are best if used within a year of manufacture, although we’ve seen some with “best by” dates that were 18 months later than the date of manufacture. We wouldn’t knowingly buy and feed foods that were close to their best by dates.

-AAFCO statement. If a food has met its state’s requirements as a “complete and balanced” diet, it is re-quired to say so on the label. (For more information about the various methods that a food maker can use to get its foods to qualify for this statement, see “Whole Dog Journal’s 2007 Dry Dog Food Review,” WDJ February 2007.) AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and its suggested standards are the basis for formulating a “complete and balanced” diet for puppies, breeding dogs, and the maintenance of adult dogs. If the diet is not complete and balanced, it might be labeled as suggested for “intermittent or sup-plemental feeding.”

-Contact information for the pet food company. It shouldn’t be difficult to reach a human being when you have a concern about your dog’s food. Food labels are required to include the company’s name and location; including a toll-free number and website address ought to be another requirement. Of course, there should also be an informed person at the other end of the phone. It’s no use if you can only leave messages for a company, and no one ever calls back.

Assess and Compare
Now it’s time to go home and look at the label of the food you’ve been feeding to your dog. Note the in-gredients, and the protein and fat levels in the food. How do they compare to the foods you saw at the pet supply store? (If you want to have some real fun, check out the labels on foods in grocery stores and espe-cially the lowest-cost foods at big box stores. What a contrast, yes? The stuff in these locations barely re-sembles food, once you know what real foods look like.)

Now take a good long look at your dog. Is she the quintessential “picture of health”? Lean, fit, mentally sharp, with a glossy coat, clear eyes, and a reasonably pleasant odor? Are her poops medium-firm, neither rock hard nor gloppy piles of goop? If not – if she’s fat or too-thin, her coat is a smelly, greasy, or patchy mess, and she’s prone to itching, sores, incessant self-grooming, weepy eyes, endless farting, constipation or diarrhea, you need to choose a new food!

Use the information on the right for hints about what you should look for – or look out for, in the case of undesirable attributes.

We’ve used the same information to assess the product lines of all the 48 companies, representing hun-dreds of different dry dog foods, that appear on our “approved dry dog foods” list, beginning on page 6. All of the products listed there meet our basic selection criteria for top-quality foods, and could potentially form a list of good products that you could try for your dog.

Please note that the products are NOT rated or ranked; they are listed alphabetically by company. So, for example, if you are looking for Origen, look under its maker, Champion Pet Foods.

Don’t choose a new food for your dog just because you like the look of the bag. You should have some rationale for your purchase. For example:

-If your dog is overweight, for example, you may not want to switch to a grain-free food that contains (at least) 30 percent fat! Instead, it would make more sense to look for a food with a higher protein content (but not high in fat) than the one you currently feed. The goal is to replace carbs with protein, without increasing fat. Though pet food makers are not required to list the caloric content of their foods, many of them report this information voluntarily, and this can help you determine whether you might need to feed more or less of a particular food.

-If your dog is itchy, look for a limited ingredient food (a single protein and a single carb source, preferably not a grain) that contains none of the ingredients that his current food contains.

-If your dog is too thin, look for a food with a higher fat content, particularly if the food you’re feeding now is low in fat.

-If your dog seems to be losing condition as she ages, look for a food with more protein and higher-quality protein sources than the one she’s eating (chicken and/or chicken meal, rather than chicken by-product meal or corn/corn gluten).

-If your dog is having digestive problems, try foods with less fat, a different protein source, or no grains, de-pending on what works for your dog.

-If your dog is a couch potato, don’t feed high-fat foods.

-If your dog acts hungry all the time, look for a food with higher fat content (and maybe more protein as well).

-If your dog is a picky eater, try rotating foods more often, and offer foods with different protein sources to see which are most appealing.

Adjust as Necessary
You may have been told that it’s bad to switch foods, or you may have had a bad experience when your dog ate something different and unauthorized (by you) and erupted in gas or diarrhea. With most dogs, the more you change foods, the more robust and capable their digestion becomes. When fed a limited diet, the breadth of their production of digestive enzymes and the variety of the bacteria in their guts are reduced. You can speed the adjustment by adding digestive enzymes, probiotic, and prebiotic supplements, to help the gut recolonize itself with digestion-aiding agents.

Then, watch your dog! Let her tell you how the new food works for her. Keep track of what you’ve tried, so you can continue to make adjustments and big improvements in your dog’s diet – and, we hope, huge improvements in her physical condition, mental acuity, and overall energy level.

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