A few weeks ago, I asked the owner of my local pet supply if they had a frequent buyer program for the brand of dog food I usually feed my two pitbull mixes. By the look on her face, it seemed I had said something wrong.
“We actually don’t recommend that brand,” she said. “They were acquired by a bigger corporation, and their food safety standards changed, so we stopped carrying it.” I was shocked. I had been feeding my dogs this brand for several years, assuming it was fine, but I hadn’t known the full story. The woman sent me home with samples of other foods to try, and I vowed to do some research into just what I was feeding my dogs.
It’s hard to know where to start when choosing a dog food. What ingredients should you look for? What ingredients should you avoid? What’s up with raw feeding, anyhow? Thankfully, the team at Reviews.com have conducted a multi-month comprehensive research project to illuminate the realities of the dog food industry and make it easier than ever for consumers to make healthy decisions for their pets.
Check out our overview below, and be sure to visit their post, The Best Dog Food for a Safe and Healthy Dog, for even more details and specific recommendations.
How Dog Food Research is Done
The Reviews.com team gathered experts across all areas of dog care: veterinarians, animal behaviorists, dog trainers, researchers, and authors. They read hundreds of articles and studies about pet food, and reviewed the ingredients lists for thousands of brands. Then, they surveyed 300 regular dog owners to gain insight into how most people approach choosing a dog food. After more than two months of full-time research, or 1400 man hours, they came to some incredible (and frightening) conclusions.
Their first discovery: over 70% of dog people don’t know what’s in the food they give their dogs. Thankfully, this study into the composition and safety of dog food aims to help dog people understand what goes into dog food so we can make safe, healthy decisions for our best friends.
What Makes Some Dog Food Unsafe
According to the Reviews.com research, bad ingredients equal bad dog food. Pet food ingredients are regulated by two sources: the American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which decides what nutrients animal food should contain, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which determines the quality of ingredients. However, “quality” can be relative, and the FDA approves ingredients for animal food that may actually be dangerous for your dog.
For instance, there are no regulations prohibiting ingredients from “rendering facilities,” where dead animals are broken down for use in other products. Rendering facilities handle everything from dead livestock to expired meat, and as Reviews.com notes, “It’s almost impossible to tell what’s being rendered: it can be road kill, zoo animals, and sometimes even spoiled meat from the grocery store that’s still wrapped in plastic.” You wouldn’t want to eat that stuff, so why would you feed it to your dog?
Healthy Ingredients Lead to a Healthy Dog
In order to choose the right food for your dog, start by learning what the wrong ingredients look like on a label. You can avoid rendered mystery meat by not buying food with generic ingredients like “meat meal” or just “meat.” Ingredient lists that start with whole, easily identifiable proteins are best. For instance, chicken and chicken meal are better than the more generic “chicken by-product.”
It’s also important to know which ingredients dogs need for complete nutrition, and different dogs require a different balance of nutrients. As the study results state, “Dogs need the right combination of protein, fat, moisture, fiber, and nutrients to live healthy, happy lives.” The right combination may vary based on your dog’s life stage and health, and your vet can help you determine what to watch out for.
The wrong combination of ingredients can lead to health issues like digestive problems and allergic reactions. The dog experts interviewed by Research.com all agreed that bad food can also lead to bad mental health. According to one trainer quoted in the study, “If not healthy and feeling good the dog cannot focus or concentrate.” It makes sense, especially if you think about your dog’s diet compared to your own: in general, healthful meals make us feel better, and junk food makes us feel, well, junky. It’s the same for dogs.
As the graphic above indicates, the ingredients you should be feeding your dog are easily-identifiable whole foods and supplements. The ones you should avoid include foods known to be toxic to dogs, such as onions and grapes, as well as poorly-sourced meat products and grain-based “fillers” that offer no nutritional value. Corn is among the most popular pet food fillers, and among the most damaging to dogs who are not built to process it. Dog food with a high corn content is akin to a fast food value meal: cheap, filling, but nutritionally empty.
Narrowing Down the Dog Food Choices
Even if you know what ingredients to look for, it can be daunting to walk down the aisle of a pet supply store and try to determine which product is best for your pet. As a final step in their dog food research process, Reviews.com set out to make a list of the best commercially-available dog foods.
How did they decide what made the cut? They looked at the ingredient list, of course. Any food that relied on too many fillers was out. Formulas that had a meat protein listed first stayed in.
Reviews.com’s research team started with 2,219 dog food formulas comprising 115 brands, then narrowed down the list to a final recommended 115 formulas representing just 25 distinct brands. You’ll find the full, sortable, searchable list on their website.
Choosing the Right Dog Food for Your Lifestyle…and Your Budget
Of course, commercially available food isn’t the only option for your dog, and for budget-conscious pet people, premium packaged dog food can seem overly expensive. It’s true that better ingredients tend to cost more. But the fact is, spending a little more money on food now can mean spending a whole lot less on vet bills down the line.
The same goes for investing time to prepare healthful dog meals at home: extra time now will mean less worry later. And in fact, homemade and raw diets tend to be incredibly cost-efficient if you shop smart (and in bulk). As a bonus, if you make your dog’s food, you’ll know exactly what’s on the ingredient list!
The Next Step for You and Your Dog
Whether you decide to shop smart, make dog food at home, or go all out on purchasing the top-rated premium brand, hopefully this dog food study will help you feel prepared to make healthy decisions for your dogs. It’s not too hard: read labels. Look for whole, recognizable ingredients. Pay attention to what goes into dog food, and thereby into your dog.
Looking through this study, I realized the dog food my neighborhood pet supply store warned me about was manufactured by a company that recalled products almost ten times over the past several years, and had some less-than-ideal ingredients. Needless to say, I’ve switched brands, and will be much more vigilant about what I feed my best friends moving forward. Thanks to these researchers’ hard work, and a little extra care and attention on my end, my best friends will thrive for years to come.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Top image via Flickr/periapex