Good Dog Food Ingredients
In our opinion, the most important factors to consider – the starting place for the search – are the food’s ingredients. 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 in pet food, just like human food, are listed in order of the weight of that ingredient in the formula, so you want to see a top-quality animal protein at the top of the list.
Importantly, that animal protein should be identified by species – chicken, beef, lamb, etc. “Meat” is an example of a low-quality protein source of dubious origin. “Poultry” is more specific but not specific enough!
Animal protein “meals”are made through a process called rendering, wherein the animal tissues (muscle, fat, skin, connective tissue, and some smaller amount of bone, hair, and/or feathers, depending on the species) are ground, and then heated to separate the fat and reduce the moisture. If it’s made from rendered chicken, the resulting product is chicken meal; if made from lamb, it’s lamb meal, etc. Just as with the fresh animal protein, look for a named species (i.e., “chicken meal”) but avoid “meat meal” or “poultry meal.”
When a fresh, named meat is first on the ingredient list (such as “chicken”), there should be a named animal-protein meal (such as “chicken meal”) in a supporting role to augment the total animal protein in the diet. The closer to the top of the ingredient list that this supporting meal appears, the better. The ingredient list of the best foods will start out with something like, “Chicken, chicken meal . . .” and go on from there. Fresh meat contains a lot of (heavy) water, so if meat is first on the list, it acts like a diluted protein source; while it adds an appealing flavor and aroma to the food, it doesn’t actually contribute that much protein. That’s why another named source of animal protein should appear in the top three or so ingredients.
Whole-food ingredients: vegetables, fruits, and/or grains or other carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, peas, chickpeas, or sweet potatoes. Fresh, unprocessed food ingredients contain nutrients in all their complex glory, with their vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants intact. Don’t be too alarmed by one or two “fractions” (a byproduct or part of an ingredient, like tomato pomace or oatmeal), especially if they are lower on the ingredient list. But the more fractions present in the food, and the higher they appear on the list, the lower quality the result.
We also think it’s important that you know some ingredients to look out for. Avoid the following:
Meat byproducts and poultry by-products, meat byproduct meal, or poultry byproduct meal. Some of the animal tissues that go into the ingredients that are identified on labels as animal byproducts are highly nutritious, such as lungs, spleens, kidneys, brains (of some animal species, not all), livers , blood, bone, fat, and emptied stomachs and intestines. Poultry byproducts also includes necks, feet, and underdeveloped eggs. In addition, poultry byproduct meal may contain poultry heads.
However, believe us when we say that these ingredients are not handled as nicely as the higher-value cuts of meat of which they are “byproducts.” Because they are not headed for human consumption, these products are not kept clean and chilled through processing and transport; it’s a given that whatever bacterial burden may flourish during this time will be reduced by later processing. As they become oxidized – rancid – these animal tissues develop a certain level of peroxide. Pet-food producers may specify byproducts with lower peroxide values, but these cost more.
A “generic” fat source such as “animal fat.” This can literally be any mixed fat of animal origin; it need not have originated from slaughtered animals. Meaning, it can be obtained from renderers that process dead animals. “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 less healthy animal protein and fats).
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.
Give It A Try
Along the bottom of these two pages is a list of relatively well-known dry dog foods and their first five ingredients. They appear in order of how we would rank them in quality, with the lowest-quality foods on the left, and the better-quality foods on the right.
Why have we put them in this order? First, understand that we wouldn’t buy any of the foods on the left page. Not a single one has an animal-protein source at the top of its ingredients list. Instead, each uses corn as its major source of protein. (Note: There is absolutely no difference between the designations each uses for “corn.” All those phrases mean the same thing.) The array of amino acids that make up the protein in corn are not as beneficial for dogs as the amino-acid profile of animal proteins; while dogs can survive on it, it’s an unnatural and low-cost protein for them.
We have Kibbles ‘n Bits ranked below all the rest, due to the fact that its source of animal protein, the very low-quality “meat and bone meal,” appears lower on its ingredient list (third) than the next foods. Even its low-quality, artificially preserved fat source appears lower on its ingredient list than its competitors. (These things are reflected in its low protein and fat percentages.)
The next two foods are nearly identical, with one small difference: Pedigree uses an artificial preservative on its low-quality fat, so we would rank it lower in quality than the Purina Dog Chow. By the way, corn gluten meal, which appears third on both of these products’ ingredients lists, is a concentrated protein made from corn – again, a lower-cost, lower-quality nutrient for dogs than an animal-protein source.
Beneful has a significantly better animal-protein source than its predecessors; chicken byproduct meal is at least a named animal protein. And it’s present in a higher amount than in the preceding foods; see the higher protein content?
We’d start to consider foods that appear on this page. They meet our basic criteria as described above, displaying some of the good traits (a named animal protein first on the list, whole grains, a named supporting animal-protein meal) and minor infractions with the “undesirable ingredients” (brewers rice, a food fragment). We’d call the Hills and the Iams product nearly a tie, with the edge in quality going to the Iams food, with the credit given for chicken meal in the fourth spot on the label (rather than fifth, as in the Hill’s food). Again, this is reflected in the total amount of protein seen in the food.
We jump upward in quality with the next two foods. The Taste of the Wild product is a grain-free food, so remember to expect it to be higher in protein and fat – not something that every dog can handle. But look at those nice named meat sources – one fresh at the top of the list, followed immediately not one, but two supportive named meat meals. Nice!
We will take another upward jump with the highest-quality product on this list, Orijen. Five ingredients down and there are still no grains or other carbohydrate sources on the ingredient list. It’s packed with high-quality named animal proteins, and this is reflected in its high protein content.
By the way, don’t be afraid of feeding protein to your dog; he’s well suited to utilize it. If you’ve been warned about the dangers of too much protein, please see our article “When to Say No to Low-Protein” in the May 2005 issue of WDJ.
Hopefully, you feel comfortable now in reading an ingredient list. Here are just a few more things to look for when considering a new food for your dog.
Many of the other things we want you to read the label for are neither good nor bad, just things you need to be aware of when shopping for your specific dog. Remember, each dog is an individual, and while its great when it works out that all of your dogs do well on the same food, dont take this for granted.
You will need to become aware of how much protein and fat your dog thrives on how much is too much, and how much is too little. Top-quality foods contain a lot more protein (and often, more fat, too) than lower-quality foods, so you may have to reduce the amount of food you feed quite a bit if you switch from a low-quality food to a really good one. (One upside is that good foods are much more digestible, and your dogs poop should shrink a lot, too.)
Look for a best by date thats at least six months away. A best by date thats 10 or 11 months away is ideal; it means the food was made very recently. Note: Foods made with synthetic preservatives (BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin) may have a best by date that is 18 months or more past the date of manufacture.
Grain-free or not? Be aware that grain-free foods generally contain higher protein and fat levels. Also, keep in mind that grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free; another carb source has been employed to take the place of grain (you cant make kibble without any carbohydrate at all). Be sure you can identify the carb used in the food you choose the most common ones used today are potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, and chickpeas and keep track of how well your dog digests it.
Some companies use a small amount of dehydrated or freeze-dried meats in their formulas. These unprocessed ingredients add both concentrated protein and taste to a finished product, but are wickedly expensive, so they arent often used in dry food.
LIST OF APPROVED FOODS
Here is the reward for those of you who have applied yourself to learning to fish. On the following pages, weve listed a number of companies that make foods that meet our selection criteria. Some of them make just a few foods; some make dozens and dozens of different formulas. Some sell a relatively tiny amount of dog food; some sell quite a bit.
Only a couple of companies on this list could be considered corporate titans and in the case of the ones you may identify as such, you need to look carefully to see which line of their products has actually met our selection criteria. We predicted a decade ago that if the largest pet-food companies ever wanted to put a lot of small companies out of business, all they would need to do is to produce a few formulas that more closely resemble the higher-quality products formulated and marketed by the boutique companies, but with the economy of scale and efficiencies of their large production facilities and ability to write big contracts with ingredient suppliers and you should be able to see that this is happening. Many of you dont trust the big guys, but Im here to tell you that youve never seen cleaner, more professionally run manufacturing facilities and fantastic in-house labs than those operated by big food.
The FDA has a site where all the pet food recalls since 2008 are listed (its here: fda.gov/animalVeterinary/safetyhealth/recallswithdrawals/default.htm). Weve indicated which products on our list have had a recall since 2008, what it was for, and when it happened. Keep in mind that we are not terribly concerned about recalls for Salmonella in dry dog food. (To understand why, see Do You Recall in the April 2013 of WDJ, as well as Why Are There So Many Recalls? in the October 2013 issue.)
We also included information about the foods price, but this is fairly unscientific, given that retailers vary wildly in their markup. We gathered prices from a variety of retailers brick and mortar and online. We also checked prices on each variety, in large bags and small bags; the price per pound is much less in large bags than small bags, but not everybody buys (or should buy) large bags. We averaged these prices per pound and came up with these categories:
$ Food is less than $2.50/lb.
$$ Food is $2.50 to $3.50/lb.
$$$ Food is more than $3.50/lb.
Because of the number of variables, the price range may not be accurate for all foods in all places, but rather a rough guide to help some of you identify which foods may or may not be in your budget. Just remember: To some extent, price does equal quality. While its highly possible to pay a lot for a mediocre food, you cannot buy a great food for less than the cost of the superior ingredients that are needed to make it.
Finally, look for your favorite foods alphabetically under their makers name. So dont freak out when you dont see Orijen under the Os; its listed under the name of the company that owns it: Champion Pet Foods.