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Commercial Dog Foods

Photo of dog surrounded by bags and cans of dog food

Selecting the best commercial foods

Here are the things that I look for in a commercial food:

No generic fats or proteins (e.g., animal fat or meat meal) -- instead, look for named sources such as beef fat, chicken fat or lamb meal (the generic term indicates a mixture coming from a number of sources, a sign of a very poor quality food). I don't consider poultry fat as bad as animal fat, but chicken fat is better. Never feed a food that uses the generic ingredients "meat meal", "meat and bone meal", or "animal fat".

Human grade ingredients (USDA approved). This item is somewhat controversial, as dog foods by law cannot be labeled human grade unless they are made in a human-grade facility, but I look for companies that use human grade meats (not meats that were rejected by the human food industry). For even higher quality, look for hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, especially those that are free-range or pasture-raised (note that all poultry is hormone-free, as it is against regulations to give hormones to poultry).

Avoid foods that contain corn gluten meal or wheat gluten meal, cheap waste products from the human food industry that provide incomplete protein for dogs. I consider these ingredients to be one of the hallmarks of poor quality foods, as they are used to make the protein content seem higher than it really is. Wheat gluten meal is one of the ingredients that caused illness and death due to contamination in the 2007 Menu Foods recall. Rice protein concentrate, which was also involved in the pet food recalls, is a little better quality than the other two, but still provides incomplete plant protein rather than the more desirable animal protein. Soy protein has the same problem.

No meat by-products or digest (meal is OK). There is some disagreement whether whole meat is preferable to meal. Meal has been rendered, but it is also dried, so if a meal is listed as the first ingredient, there is greater likelihood that the food contains more meat than grains. When whole meats such as chicken, lamb, turkey, etc. are listed as the first ingredient, there may actually be much less meat due to the weight of the moisture in the meat. Both whole meats and meals are considered acceptable as long as they are identified and not generic (e.g., not "meat meal" or "meat and bone meal"). By-products may be OK if the company specifies that they are human-grade organs such as liver and kidney, but otherwise they usually signify parts not considered fit for human consumption.

No BHA, BHT or Ethoxyquin (artificial preservatives), another sign of a low quality food. Ethoxyquin is banned from use in foods for human consumption except for the use of very small quantities as a color preservative for spices. Note that ethoxyquin is used to preserve fish meal, which will not be disclosed on the dog food label since it is added before the fish meal reaches the manufacturing plant. In general, unless the manufacturer provides a statement on their web site that the fish meal in their food does not contain ethoxyquin, you can assume that is does. Contact the manufacturer if you are unsure.

See Risk Ingredients Not Listed on Pet Food Labels for more information.

Keep in mind that natural preservatives are not as powerful as these chemical preservatives are, however. It's best if the foods have an expiration date that is no longer than six months from the date of manufacture. Protecting food from light, heat and air will help keep fats from becoming rancid.

No artificial colors, no sugars and sweeteners (such as corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin), no propylene glycol (added to some chewy foods to keep them moist, toxic in large amounts).

As few grains as possible (a whole-meat source should be one of the first two ingredients, preferably two of the top three) -- watch for splitting, such as listing ground yellow corn and corn gluten meal as separate ingredients that together might add up to more than the first ingredient. Note that canned foods often have fewer grains than dry. See Corn, Wheat, Soy and other So-Called Common Allergens below for more information.

Added taurine. Taurine was added to cat foods in the 70's when cats began going blind and dying due to taurine deficiency. Taurine is thought not to be an "essential" amino acid in dogs because they can convert carnitine to taurine. However, links are now being found between problems such as dilated cardiomyopathy and taurine deficiencies. Some dog food companies have begun adding taurine to their foods, and this is probably a good idea. Taurine is affected by heat, so there would not usually be enough natural taurine in processed dog foods, though foods that have a lot of meat will have more natural taurine. See the following for more info:

Meets AAFCO Specifications. Although I do not consider AAFCO to know everything there is to know about nutrition, if a food specifies that it meets AAFCO specifications, it should be a complete diet. It is fine to use foods that do not meet AAFCO specifications as part of the diet, but you cannot rely on these foods as the sole source of nutrition without adding other foods and supplements to the diet.

There is some question as to whether it's best to look for foods that have done feeding trials rather than just relying on a nutritional analysis to meet AAFCO guidelines. I think that the feeding trials done for adult maintenance foods are pretty much meaningless. The number of dogs included is so small (8), the feeding trial so short (26 weeks), and the qualifications they have to meet so limited (not too much weight loss or other physical signs of deficiency) that even foods with some pretty glaring problems would likely pass. In this case, a nutritional analysis might be more likely to show many problems with food than a feeding trail would.

The same trials done for food approved for all life stages, however, are far more pertinent. Nutrient deficiencies (or excesses) are much more likely to show up with puppies or pregnant and lactating bitches. For them, six months is a long time. Therefore, I think that feeding trials done on foods approved for all life stages are more reliable than nutritional analysis alone.

High Protein, Moderate Fat. Most dogs do best on a diet that is high in protein with moderate amounts of fat. Look for foods where the percentage of protein is about twice that of fat. Dogs that are very active may need more fat, while some dogs with digestive problems do better on low-fat diets.

Note that I am not overly concerned about menadione, a synthetic form of vitamin K that has many people worried (see The Dog Food Project, for example). See the section on Menadione in one of my articles on homemade diets for more information on this topic.

See Also:

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Best Diet?

There is no "best" food for all dogs, as each dog is an individual, and what works well for one dog may not work at all for another. In addition, it is better for a dog to get a variety of foods, rather than just one food for its whole life. Feeding different commercial diets can help fill in nutritional gaps that a particular food or brand might have, as well as making it less likely that your dog will develop food allergies.

Rather than trying to find a single, "best" food, I recommend that you choose at least two or three different brands, using different protein sources, and rotate between them, anywhere from a daily basis to every few months. Variety is always better than feeding any single food, as it helps to guarantee that all of your dogs' nutritional needs are met and is more interesting for your dogs. The only warning I have about feeding a lot of variety is to not feed every exotic protein available (duck, rabbit, venison, etc.); always reserve one or two in case you ever need to do an elimination diet using a food your dog has never had before to test for food allergies.

In addition, I suggest adding some fresh foods to the diet, no matter what you feed, including eggs and meat (raw or cooked), canned fish with bones (jack mackerel, pink salmon, sardines), dairy (yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese) and healthy leftovers (see Adding Fresh Foods for more info). This can be used to improve the quality of whatever diet you feed.

When you feed the same food continuously for a month or more, be sure to make the switch gradually to avoid digestive upset, but dogs that are used to getting different foods all the time rarely have any problems with it.

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Exotic proteins

Just a note about using foods with exotic proteins, such as duck, venison, buffalo, rabbit, trout, kangaroo, ostrich, emu, beaver, goat, quail, pheasant, eel, etc. These foods are formulated to be able to offer proteins that a dog has never had before for dogs with food allergies. I do not recommend feeding them to healthy dogs who have no allergies. If you feed these foods routinely, then if your dog does develop food allergies in the future, it is going to be very difficult for you to find a protein that he has never had before in order to try an elimination diet.

I would reserve most of these exotic protein foods for dogs who  have food problems and need a special diet. Also, if you have a dog with digestive problems, don't just keep trying different foods, as they are more likely to become allergic to new ingredients while problems are occurring. If the first new diet doesn't work, you'll need to talk to your vet about using medications to get the problem under control before introducing any more new foods.

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Corn, wheat, soy and other so-called common allergens

Foods considered to be "common allergens" for dogs are simply the foods most commonly fed. In other words, dogs are not inherently more likely to be allergic to corn, wheat, soy, rice, beef or chicken, etc., but they are more likely to be allergic to common ingredients in foods that they've been fed. Food allergies are also more likely to develop if the dog is fed the same food all the time.

There can be other problems with certain foods, especially grains. Gluten intolerance can cause digestive problem for some dogs. Sources of gluten include wheat (including Kamut and spelt), barley, rye, and triticale; oats are considered questionable (oats are gluten-free but processed oats can be contaminated with gluten), while buckwheat, corn/maize, and rice are gluten-free. See Is Gluten-Free Dog Food Better? for more information.

Certain grains can contain molds or storage