How to Select Quality Dog Food
There Are Good Pet Foods Out There
For dog owners, dog food is a confusing world of information (some of it bad) and advice (much of it also bad) from the internet, advertising, and advice from well-meaning friends who often really don’t know much.
In a career that spans three decades of dealing with pet owners and their pet food choices, I’ve never seen it this confusing. Pet owners are overwhelmed by all the choices, and don't know who to believe when gathering information.
Surf the right sites (I like the ones that end in .edu or .gov), and you can get some great information. But there’s also a lot of misleading and inaccurate information out there. Some misinformation even comes from sources you’d expect to be able to trust.
For example, say a manufacturer makes a very good holistic pet food. In their advertising they send you to their website for a food comparison. The problem is that they compare themselves to lower-quality foods so, sure, they look great.
If they compared themselves to any of the other holistic brands, it would be a wash. So, there’s a site you’d expect to trust, but they spin the information to their advantage. All the data they present is accurate, but they’re comparing apples to oranges.
In this pet food primer, I want to help you separate the science from the myths and marketing so that you can make intelligent, informed food choices. To begin with, let’s bust a few myths about pet food.
What This Article Covers
- Myths about pet food
- How companies appeal to the emotions of pet owners
- What brands are in the grocery store
- The pluses and minuses of each food genre
- Facts about the super premium brands
- Facts about holistic brands
- What a "complete and balanced" meal actually means
1. Myths About Pet Food
Myth #1: "The Great Taste Dogs Love"
Dogs lack enough receptor cells on their tongues to discern tastes. On that aisle-runner-length tongue of theirs are about 1700 taste receptors. By comparison, on our stubby little tongue are almost 10,000 taste receptors.
When you offer a treat to a dog, he'll sniff it and make the decision to accept or reject it based on its aroma. Sometimes they'll reject food or treats based on how they feel in the mouth, which comes under the heading of texture.
Thus, palatability is driven by aroma and texture. If it passes the sniff test, it’s going down, unless it doesn’t feel right in their mouth. Think about it. When they accept food or a treat, it's a chomp and a swallow. They never let food dissolve in their mouth, so as to enjoy the flavor, and if they could taste would they...you finish the sentence!
Cats, by the way, have an even poorer sense of taste, and generally favor things acidic. They have fewer than 500 taste receptors. They’re unable to detect sweet because, researchers discovered, they lack the "sweet gene," a protein that would give them a “sweet tooth.”
So that pretty much blows the age-old theory that dogs and cats drink anti-freeze because it tastes sweet. Cats can’t taste sweet and dogs practically can’t taste anything at all. Manufacturers exploit the fact that flavor is huge to us, the decision makers, and it usually works.
When referring to a food's appeal to a dog, the word "taste" fits better than the word "smell," so it's widely used in advertising and even by vets and nutritionists, who know better. Professionals refer to palatability. The word taste is just easier for pet owners to wrap their minds around.
Pet food manufacturers employ ingredients known as palatants, whose only job is to optimize the animal's response to the food. Sometimes palatants are used in concert with fats, sometimes alone. About 80% of manufacturers spray the palatants onto the surface of the food, the rest bake them in.
You'll see palatants listed on the ingredient panel of your pet food as animal digest or natural flavors. Animal digest is a broth of slaughterhouse leftovers that's sprayed onto the food. It's not a consistent formulation. Natural flavors are scientifically formulated and consistent from batch to batch.
Myth #2: Meal Is a Low-End Ingredient
Chicken (the clean combination of flesh and skin with its water content intact) is about 70% water. It's pulverized into slurry and sent to the extruder (for cooking and shaping) with its water content still intact.
Chicken meal, often confused with by-products, is less than 10 per cent water. Instead of being pulverized into slurry, the chicken is cooked in water until all the water is cooked off. The meat is then baked until it crumbles into a protein dense powder. It boasts up to three times the protein as chicken.
If chicken goes into the extruder as a pound, it will cook down to 4 or 5 ounces. If chicken meal goes into the extruder as a pound, it will cook down to 13 or 14 ounces. The extruder, by the way, is the machine that cooks, shapes and cuts the kibble.
When a named meat is listed first on the ingredient panel, look for a named meat meal to be next. Some foods use, in descending order of quality, chicken meal, chicken by-product meal, poultry by-product meal, meat and bone meal, or add the supporting protein a few ingredients deeper in the ingredient panel.
Because chicken (which is water dense) is the first ingredient, it requires a back up protein to bring that nutrient to the levels stated in the package’s guaranteed analysis. Of those that list chicken (or any species-specific meat) first, the better foods use species specific meal as the second ingredient.
Think of it another way: your grocer’s meat department takes a half-pound of sirloin steak and a half-pound of stew beef, grinds them into a pound of hamburger and charges you $10.99.
The meat is satisfactory nutritionally, but it’s $6.99 meat, not $10.99. So, having chicken and chicken by-product meal as your pet food’s protein is good quality protein, but it’s sort of like getting chuck at sirloin prices.
When chicken meal is listed first, they don’t need to back it up because its nutrient density is sufficient as a stand-alone protein. The exception would be holistic pet foods, which inherently contain multiple protein sources and often use the meat, not the meal. The additional meats can make up the protein difference that meal would provide.
Multiple protein sources are a blessing and a curse. If the dog develops an allergy, and the vet thinks it's a food allergy (which is almost always to a protein), the matter gets more complicated. The elimination diets can take months and months to complete.
If you have a pound of chicken in your left hand and a pound of chicken meal in your right hand, your right hand is holding a lot more protein, as meals contain as much as 300% more protein than the meat.
And pet food manufacturers don't define ingredients, by the way. They're defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organization made up of representatives from local, state and federal agencies mandated to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and drug remedies. While they have no regulatory authority, their standards are adopted by most states and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and are published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 21CFR.
Myth #3: Beet Pulp Stains the Coat Red
Beet pulp, a by-product of the processing of sugar beets, is actually black and is an appropriate fiber source in pet food. It also has prebiotic qualities.
Porphyrin, a compound found in tears and saliva, reacts to UV light and can cause staining below the eyes and around the mouth of dogs. If he frequently licks his paws, you'll see staining on his paws as well.
Myth #4: A Certain Brand Is the Best Dog Food
I hear a lot of pet owners proclaim that "X Brand" is the best food. Not true. There's no such thing as "the best" food. The truth is, within genres, the brands are quite similar in formulation and nutritional value, and will nourish your pet equally.
Now that we’ve given you something to argue with your friends about, let’s look at pet foods from another angle.
2. Appealing to the Emotions of Pet Owners
Most pet owners make decisions regarding their pets based more on emotion than science. Manufacturers of pet products are very much aware of this. They call it the humanization of pets and most always aim their advertising messages at the heart, not the brain. Back on the block we called it anthropomorphism.
To illustrate how huge a factor marketing is, consider that there are only four AAFCO standardized formulations of dog and cat food. Their nutrition statement can be found near the ingredient panel on bags and cans and would indicate that the food "was formulated to meet" or that "animal feeding trials using AAFCO procedures substantiate that" the food provides complete and balanced nutrition for one of the following life stages:
- Gestation and lactation, often listed as growth and reproduction. This is puppy or kitten food.
- Large breed puppy, is AAFCO's definition of a dog that will be 70 pounds or more at maturity.
- Maintenance, is adult dog or cat food.
- All life stages, means that the food is complete and balanced for dogs and cats from weaning through adulthood, "except for" or "including" large breed puppies, depending upon how the manufacturer formulates the food.
Everything else, such as Large Breed Adult, Senior, Small Breed, Limited Ingredient, Weight Control, etc. is at the discretion of the manufacturer. If you look at the AAFCO Nutrition Statement on any of these foods, it will say that the food meets the nutrient profiles for maintenance or all life stages.
That can lead to some confusion among consumers. One manufacturer, for example, may consider senior dogs to be couch potatoes while another may recognize that many senior dogs are still quite active. Each can formulate a "senior" food accordingly. You'll have two "senior" foods that are very different, nutritionally.
There are, however, generally accepted industry descriptions for different genres of foods, such as grocery, super premium, holistic, organic, and grain-free. Keep in mind that there are no legal or regulatory definitions of these types of food. Let’s look at each genre individually.
3. Grocery Brands
Generally, a grocery brand’s ingredient panel starts off with corn and continues with ingredients commonly considered to be inferior (such as beef tallow, wheat, soy, sorghum, artificial colors and chemical preservatives such as BHT or BHA), or unspecified ingredients (such as poultry by-products, meat and bone meal, animal digest, animal fat),
Below is an ingredient panel that is typical of a grocery brand dog food. Most contain the same, or similar, ingredients and not usually in the same order.
Dogs and cats have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates. Cats (and ferrets) are, in fact, obligate carnivores because of their taurine requirement. In the wild, cats and dogs would live almost exclusively on animal protein and animal fat.
However the manufacturing process of dry dog and cat foods does require carbohydrates. Without them, you'd end up opening a bag of crumbs. They're the "glue" that holds the kibble together.
In low end foods you'll see wheat, corn, soy, sorghum and other carbs that can be problematic in that they can contribute to skin and digestive issues. Some grains are high in protein but don't contain the level of amino acids found in animal protein.
The high end foods use carbs such as oatmeal, rice, barley and rye. They're not known to be problematic and can actually have some value as supplements for skin, coat and digestion. The grain-free foods use carbs such as peas, potatoes and tapioca.
This Ingredient Panel Is From One of the Grocery Brands
4. The Pluses and Minuses of Each Genre
- Advantages of Feeding Grocery Brands: You can conveniently pick them up when shopping for your own needs. You thought I was going to say “economy” huh? Nuh-unh.
For every cup of a grocery brand you feed, you’d generally feed about a heaping half cup of a super premium and a rounded half cup of a holistic food.
- Disadvantages: Dogs on grocery brands often have drier, itchier skin, shed more, are more susceptible to body odor and doggie breath, produce larger volumes of soft stool, will clear a room with their gas, and their various organs and systems don’t get the level of support they’d get from better quality ingredients.
5. Super Premium Brands
Super premiums are meat-based and the better ones use the meal form of protein such as chicken meal, lamb meal, etc. as the first ingredient.
Other high end ingredients could include chicken fat, flaxseed, rice, beet pulp, mixed tocopherols and chelated minerals (look for the word proteinate or chelate after the minerals). Chelated is pronounced kee’-layted, by the way
Chelation serves to maximize and equalize the absorption of minerals. When the dog’s gut breaks down the minerals, they can build up a positive or negative electrical charge, bind to anything else inorganic and be excreted in the stool.
In chelation, the manufacturer pre-binds the minerals, either to proteins or carbohydrates, rendering them electrically neutral. They don’t build up that electrical charge and therefore become more bioavailable.
- Advantages of Feeding Super Premiums: Because of the higher levels of better quality essential fatty acids, the animal’s skin is more supple, holding the coat better and resulting in less shedding.
Stools are smaller and generally better formed, gas, body odor and doggie breath are pretty much eliminated, and the animal enjoys generally better health.
- Disadvantages: Cost a little more than grocery brands and may not be as conveniently available. Most can be purchased online, too.
6. Holistic Brands
Since there are no legal or regulatory definitions for "holistic" foods, we can't define them for you. But, there are some common threads that run through the brands that consider themselves holistic.
Holistic foods generally have two or more high quality protein sources, probiotics (they read like diseases on the ingredient panel), prebiotics (they support the probiotics while in the bag), botanicals such as blueberries and cranberries (in there for their antioxidant, urinary and cancer-fighting properties), and chelated minerals.
They typically use only whole grain rice, oatmeal, rye and barley for grains, eliminating the harsher grains such as wheat, soy, corn, and sorghum.
Grain-free foods are considered holistic but without the rice, oatmeal, rye and barley. The better ones use the meal form of the protein. If not, they immediately back up the first meat protein with a species-specific meal and are still high-end. Foods labeled organic are certified by an agency such as Oregon Tilth to be around 75 per cent organic.
That means that most of the ingredients were raised or grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones or other chemicals.
Maybe it’s just me, but is there a value to an organic meal when the dog washes it down with a few gulps from the toilet bowl, grabs a quick dessert from the cat’s litter box, then plops himself down for a long, leisurely butt lick?
- Advantages of Feeding Holistic Brands: The same as feeding super premiums, but bumped up a notch. Nutrients are added that target specific organs or systems, such as glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health or probiotics for digestive health.
- Disadvantages: Are much more expensive than grocery brands, a little more expensive than super premiums, and generally only found in pet specialty stores and online. Much of the price difference is negated by the fact that you feed less and spend less on supplements and, perhaps, health care costs.
7. "Complete and Balanced" Isn't a Marketing Term
The value of commercial dog foods is that they are complete and balanced. Complete means that they contain all the nutrients necessary to maintain optimum health; balanced means that those nutrients are in proper proportion to each other.
If they’re not, some dangerous imbalances could occur, such as a calcium-to-phosphorous ratio that’s out of whack. Making good pet food isn’t simply a matter of collecting a bunch of high quality ingredients and putting them in a bag. Veterinary nutrition is a complex and sophisticated specialty with its own degree program, board certification and professional organizations.
To become a veterinary nutritionist you must first earn your doctorate in veterinary medicine and pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Next comes a residency program overseen by a Veterinary Nutritionist who is a board certified diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists (ACVN). The program consists of one year of internship or clinical experience and two years of residency involving research, teaching and clinical studies in veterinary nutrition.
The application process for board certification also requires documentation that the applicant has met teaching and clinical experience requirements, completed at least three case reports, and published at least one article in a peer-reviewed journal. Finally, the applicant must sit for, and pass, a grueling two-day exam; similar to a lawyer taking the Bar Exam. Once board certified, veterinary nutritionists must complete annual requirements for continuing education.
So, unless they're following a diet formulated by a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist, pet owners who make their own homemade diets are, in my opinion, playing fast and loose with their pets' health. To formulate a complete and balanced diet you must be aware of the synergy between ingredients, and laypeople just don't have that knowledge.
As an example, many believe that a raw egg makes a dog's coat shiny. In reality there's a protein in raw egg whites, called avidin, that binds the vitamin biotin, a B-vitamin (aka B7). The result is usually a duller coat and other consequences of biotin deficiency. If you take statin drugs for cholesterol, you can't have grapefruit or grapefruit juice because they intensify the potency of the statin, possibly resulting in symptoms associated with an overdose. It is this type of synergy that can cause serious health issues when not recognized and maintained.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Bob Bamberg