We all love our dogs deeply and want them to live a long, happy, healthy life. The food you feed your dog plays a significant role in that quality of life. Therefore, choosing what to feed your dog can be a challenging and overwhelming decision. Here are some guidelines to help you choose the best food for your beloved pet.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” ~Ann Wigmore
Different Types of Food When someone mentions “dog food,” we all think of kibble. Although kibble is the most popular type of dog food, there are a surprising number of other (often healthier) options. Homemade raw, premade raw (such as Answers), air-dried raw (such as Ziwi Peak), dehydrated raw (such as Honest Kitchen) and freeze-dried raw (such as Open Farm) can all be fantastic options, but will typically be more expensive and potentially more work than kibble. If you’re interested in learning more about raw feeding, check out this blog post! Raw offers countless benefits (see some of them here), but it isn’t practical for everyone. If you have done your research and have decided that kibble is for you, there are plenty of options to choose from!
What to Look For
On the food label, pay close attention to the ingredients list and guaranteed analysis. This information will help you determine the quality of the kibble.
Quality You are what you eat and so is your dog, so quality ingredients should be the highest priority when choosing a food. “Dogs are identified as facultative carnivores (not omnivores) because while they can survive on a plant-based diet, they thrive on a carnivorous diet.”¹. Therefore, the majority of their diet should be meat.
Meat as the first ingredient is not enough to determine a kibble’s quality. Ingredients are listed by predominance and descend by weight. This can be deceiving though, because those ingredients are listed including their moisture content. Meat has a high moisture content, so without the water weight, the meat ingredient could fall much lower on the list on a dry matter basis. So if ingredients are listed as: Chicken, Rice, Whole Grain Wheat (as in this Pro Plan variety), meat is actually not the first ingredient. When you subtract that moisture weight from meat (chicken is ~70-80% moisture), rice and whole grain wheat make up the majority of that food. Not meat!
You will see a lot of kibble contains some kind of “meat meal,” such as beef meal or chicken meal. “Meat meal is a dried end-product of the cooking process known as rendering. Rendering is a lot like making stew — except that this stew is intentionally over-cooked. With rendering, you start with a meat stew, cook away the water and bake the residue. And you end up with a highly concentrated protein powder — or meat meal.”² Meat meals can be a good source of protein and if it’s high on the ingredient list, it makes up a good portion of the food since it doesn’t contain water weight. Meat meals can be high or low quality; look for specific protein meals (such as beef meal) and avoid lower-quality meals that don’t list the protein source, such as “meat meal,” "poultry meal" or “animal meal.”
All kibble will contain carbohydrates, but the amount and the source are very important. Carbohydrates are sugars and starches that are broken down into the simple sugar, glucose. Carbs are a source of energy, but it’s important to note that dogs have no nutritional requirement for dietary carbohydrate.³ They can acquire all the energy they need from protein and fat alone. Carbs are used not for the benefit of your pet, but because they are a cheap filler and are used to bind the kibble together so that it maintains its shape through processing.
Natural foods, such as fruits (~6-8% starch), vegetables (~4% starch) and meat (0% starch), are low in starch, but most kibbles contain anywhere from 30%-60% starch⁴. This means that all dogs eating a kibble diet are experiencing carb overload. Excess carbs (sugars) cause inflammation and are linked to a variety of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cancer, elevated blood sugar, inflammation, allergies, maldigestion (excessive gas, bloating, diarrhea), imbalanced gut bacteria and immune system imbalances. So why is kibble so high in carbs? For one, all kibble will contain some starch since it is used to bind the kibble together to maintain the shape. In addition to keeping kibble together, carbohydrate-rich ingredients are included in many commercial dog foods because of their relatively low cost, caloric contribution (4 calories/gram) and ease of sourcing. This helps keep the price of the food attractive to cost-conscious dog owners.⁵ Finding a kibble with low starch (30% carbs and lower) could help avoid some of these issues related to carb overload. *Keep in mind that grain-free diets are not necessarily lower in starch. They typically just replace one kind of starch (such as corn, rice or oats) with another starch (peas, potatoes, tapioca).*
Quantity We can make an educated guess about the quantity of the ingredients based on the label, but the quality is a little trickier. For instance, a kibble can be high in protein, but if it’s plant protein instead of animal protein, it could be hard for dogs to digest and lacking essential amino acids.
“There are several amino acids that are essential. That means your dog can’t manufacture them and absolutely needs to get them through his diet. But plants and grains are an incomplete source of the amino acids your dog relies on. And they might not be as easily digested and used as the animal proteins your dog was made to eat. But pet food makers love plant-based proteins because they’re much cheaper than animal protein. So they’ll try to use these poor quality ingredients to boost the protein content of the food. This helps the food to meet minimum requirements as cheaply as possible but it leaves your dog open to potential health issues when he can’t use these low quality proteins."⁶
The quality of the carbohydrates is also important! Many companies use cheap fillers to keep the cost low, but these offer very little nutritional value, such as corn and rice. In order for corn to be digestible for dogs, it needs to be processed, such as in corn gluten meal (the dried residue from corn after the larger part of the germ and starch has been removed, the separation of which is made by a process used in the wet milling manufacture of corn starch or syrup; an inexpensive by-product that serves mainly as a binder and a source of protein)⁷. Processing corn may make it digestible, but it will also raise the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a value assigned to a food based on how much it increases your blood sugar levels. In humans, high glycemic index increases the risk of breast, prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease⁸. “To give you an idea what this means, consider the fact that meats generally have a GI rating of 0. Barley is rated at 25 and oatmeal at 49. Whole corn has a GI rating of 53 and corn meal has a rating of 69.”
Guaranteed Analysis The guaranteed analysis will list the minimum percentages of the kibble. “At minimum, many state regulations require a pet food to guarantee the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. The "crude" term refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself.”⁹ Protein and fat content can help gauge the quality of a food to an extent, but keep in mind that the protein could come from plant protein which would be considered significantly less quality than meat protein for dogs. Since dogs have no requirements for starch, they should be getting most of their energy from fat. High quality food will reflect that with a good amount of protein and fat, often seen in ~25-30% protein and ~15-20% fat. Not all dogs will require that much fat, but the lower the protein and fat, the higher in carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are not listed on the guaranteed analysis, but can easily be calculated. In order to calculate carbs, you can subtract protein, fat, moisture and ash from 100. So if we have a kibble (Victor High Pro Plus) that is 30% protein, 20% fat, 9% moisture and 8.7% ash, 100-30-20-9-8.7 = 32.3% carbs.
AAFCO Approval The Association of American Feed Controls Officials is an organization that sets the standards for animal and pet foods in the United States. In order for a pet food to be marked as “complete and balanced,” meaning you don’t need to add anything else to the diet, it must meet the requirements of one of the AAFCO nutrient profiles or pass a feeding trial using AAFCO procedures. It’s important to note that AAFCO approval does not represent the quality of the food, only the quantity of the nutrients. As mentioned earlier, a kibble could pass AAFCO requirements for the appropriate level of protein, but if that protein comes strictly from plants and not meats, that is a very poor quality protein for dogs. So although it is important to choose a kibble that is AAFCO approved, it shouldn’t be the only requirement in choosing a good food.
When deciding what to feed your dog, there is an abundance of information to consider, from your own lifestyle to your dog’s individual needs. Consulting with your veterinarian is a great first step, but an educated owner is always the best advocate for their beloved pet. For more information on how to choose a kibble, check out Part 2 of this series which will put all of this information into practice as we go over some popular choices.