Identifying a top quality dog food is not that difficult, but it may be difficult to find dog foods of this quality 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 the dog food brands listed; quality pet food ingredients cost 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 food and make the switch to products of this quality.
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. 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 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.
– AAFCO statement (which tells you whether the food has met the requirements of a “complete and balanced” diet, and if so, by which standard: by meeting the required nutrient levels, or by completing an AAFCO feeding trial).
Hallmarks of Quality
Now it’s time to scrutinize the ingredients list. 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 fresh 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 fresh meat is first on the list, another source of animal protein should be listed in the top three or so ingredients.
– Whole vegetables, fruits, and grains. Fresh, unprocessed food ingredients contain nutrients in all their natural, complex glory, with their fragile vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants intact. Don’t be alarmed by one or two food “fractions” (a by-product or part of an ingredient, like tomato pomace or rice bran), especially if they are low on the ingredients list. But it’s less than ideal if there are several fractions present in the food, and/or they appear high on the ingredients list.
– A “best by” date that’s at least six months away. A best by date that’s 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 as much as two years past the date of manufacture.
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.