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You’d never feed your dog kibble that could cause cancer, make him sick, or be full of junk. But chances are, you might be.
Finding a quality dog food these days is almost like finding a four-leaf clover—deceptive marketing claims and unclear ingredient lists make it near impossible to know what is really in your dog’s food. And it’s enough to make you want to try your hand at making your own dog food.
Decoding dog food ingredients
The pet food industry is largely self-regulated and for this reason, manufacturers like Hill’s, Del Monte, Mars, Nestle, and Proctor & Gamble can stack the deck heavily in their favor. This means some less than desirable ingredients may end up in your pet’s food, including so-called 4D meat (dead, dying, diseased, disabled).
“These corporate giants mass produce incredibly large amounts of pet food with the biggest possible profit margin, largely using leftovers that fall by the wayside for foods manufactured for human consumption,” Contreras says. “While some of these by-products are not necessarily bad for dogs, they are often not handled or refrigerated properly and are already heavily processed at least once before they even make it into the kibble ‘dough.'”
What to look for:
- Specified meat meal—names the meat ingredient, such as chicken, turkey, duck or salmon, and increases the protein content of the food.
- The first fat ingredient—since pet food companies do not have to list exact percentages of ingredients used, a good rule of thumb is to find the first fat ingredient. Most of the food content is what comes before that first fat ingredient.
What to avoid:
- Non-specified meat meal—4D meat is legally allowed to be used in non-specified meat meal.
- BHT, BHA, Ethoxyquin—artificial preservatives believed to cause cancer.
- Artificial dyes and colors—can cause allergic reactions and potential tumors.
- Animal by-products—literally what is left over after all the edible parts of the animal have been used. Specified and non-specified alike, these ingredients are highly questionable. Hoofs and bone? Yum.
- Corn or soy—foods that list corn or soy as main ingredients are generally low quality. Not only do some dogs have trouble fully digesting these ingredients, but a quality protein should be the main ingredient.
You can also follow Contreras’ comprehensive list of ingredients to avoid.
All about dog food advertising
Would you be shocked to know pet food companies can make claims about their foods that are misleading? Even if a manufacturer labels a food as premium or natural, there is no legal definition for what that is, so there is no guarantee that higher-quality ingredients are used.
“Although pet owners have become more aware of these issues since I began investigating the commercial pet food industry 12 years ago, confusing label laws and almost non-existent prosecution of false advertising still make it difficult for people to understand what they are really buying,” Contreras explains.
If you’re hoping for more regulation in the production and marketing of pet foods, don’t hold your breath.
“Although more pet owners have become vocal and are demanding more transparency, I’m not sure we will see meaningful change in the way pet food is regulated anytime soon,” Contreras says. “It’s barely happening for human-grade products and the animal feed industry has a powerful lobby.”
Foods found on supermarket and box store shelves are typically the ones most heavily marketed—and the ones you should probably avoid.
“It used to be you could only find good quality foods at independent pet food retailers, but that’s no longer true,” Contreras says. “You still won’t find anything great at regular grocery store or mass retailers like Target, WalMart, or Costco, though.”
PETCO and PetSmart have increased their offerings, but you will have to do some research to sort through the claims made by pet food companies and find the true quality foods.
“Choose products with ingredients that are processed as little as possible,” Contreras advises. “Canned food over dry kibble or even better, fresh frozen, dehydrated, or freeze-dried items. The closer you can get to foods in their fresh, whole state, the better.”
Does all this information have your head spinning? It might be easier to just go raw—raw food that is. Contreras highly recommends a raw diet for better health.
“It addresses many health concerns, including dental care, digestive health, skin problems, obesity, and more,” Contreras explains. “Feeding raw isn’t for every dog but the average dog will benefit greatly from eating a raw diet instead of processed kibble.”
Eating raw can be convenient, too. More stores have started to carry raw food in freezers, and if you make your own raw diet, you can keep it frozen for convenience too.
“If you would rather not do the homework to research a well-planned DIY raw diet, it’s better to rely on a quality store brought brand,” Contreras says. “You can still add some raw meaty bones and other odds and ends yourself.”
Look for trustworthy brands like Primal or The Honest Kitchen and if you can’t find your brand on the shelves, ask the store to start carrying it or order online. If you’re worried about your dog getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs, there’s just one thing to look for.
“As long as you choose a food that shows the statement that it meets AAFCO requirements, it is balanced under the same industry guidelines,” Contreras explains.
Keep in mind your dog will need time to adjust to any new food. Gradually wean your dog onto the new diet and watch to see how he reacts to the new food.
“Most dogs can be switched within two or three days,” Contreras says. “Let the dog be your guide; if there are no adverse side effects except maybe a bit of loose stool, you can move right along, but if the dog has a more difficult time, take it slowly.”
The bottom line
Brands like Pedigree, Iams, Science Diet, and Purina are not high-quality brands. Even brands that seem healthy, like Natural Balance, are not the best foods on the market. If you see it on TV, don’t feed it to your dog. Learn what you are really feeding your dog to keep him healthier and alive longer.
“My most important piece of advice is don’t skimp on food quality,” Contreras says. “You can pay for better food now or for vet bills later. Do your homework, compare information from manufacturers, and if cost if a really big factor, look into the ‘budget’ labels of trustworthy companies.”
Jacqueline Bennett is a journalist and TV meteorologist. After becoming a first-time pet parent to two rambunctious puppies, she was inspired to launch Yellow Dog Blog, a one-stop dog website with expert health and training tips. Jacqueline lives in San Francisco with her boys, Yellow Dog and Sundown, and recently added a third Doxie mix, Mocha, to the pack.