Pet dogs are like family, and they deserve all the love and care they can receive. That care starts with the basics, which include food. However, that has been compromised by the current state of the dog food market. Today, nearly every dog food formula uses ingredients that have been flagged by the FDA as risky to pets. You cannot trust any dog food you buy from your favourite store regardless of the brand. The main reason for the prevalence of this problem is the ineffective federal laws guiding the industry. As such, people take advantage of the opportunity to fatten their pockets at the expense of our pet dogs.
The purpose of this article is to bring you up to date with what is happening within the dog food market. We understand that you care for your dog, and that is our priority as well at ConsumerAdvocate the brain behind this Educative Approach for Evaluating dog food . They had had previously listed several brands that they trusted at one point in time, which they believed were safe for consumption by the respective dogs. But since then they have been forced to retract some of their recommendation due to various reasons. This research touches on specific reasons.
You should, however, note that all the explanations that they submitted below are as a result of deep and unbiased research and recent reports posted by the FDA. These claims came out in July 2019, and they were directed at some of the brands that had included in their recommendation list. Apart from learning about various brands flagged by FDA, this article will also act as an insight to help you make productive decisions. At the end of the day, the marketers are after money, and you should be the one ensuring the safety of your beloved dog. One of the topics contained in the research work is how to read the packaging and what all the numbers and letters mean.
At Buzzsharer, we did our due diligence and the first thing that we love about this research was the acknowledgement by the researchers that they made mistake in the past. That is instructive and it takes honesty to acknowledge such in a body of research.
WHY WE DECIDED NOT TO RECOMMEND ANY DOG FOODS
The dog food industry is a mess. Frequent recalls over the last decade and a half have eroded public trust in a business long plagued by accusations of unsavory fillers and mystery meats. In a desperate search for safer formulas, consumers have turned to alternative diets, some of which could inadvertently put dogs at risk for significant health issues.
As it stands, half of all pet dogs are obese and canine cancer rates are climbing. Renal failure and other complications from Vitamin D overload are also increasingly common–a frequently cited reason for recalls. Meanwhile, lax or outdated federal guidelines on ingredients and labeling and aggressive industry lobbying in favor of the status quo all but ensure that these problems will persist.
Early in our research into dog foods, we realized that there are a ton of bad dog food formulas out there. Many companies that put out decent formulas are plagued by recalls or substandard ingredients. Others that haven’t had recalls put out nutritionally unbalanced food.
We began our search for the best dog food formulas by dismissing about 50 brands out of hand due to recalls, substandard ingredients, and other serious issues. We then took a hard look at 65 more that passed this initial culling. After hours of research, we came up with what we thought was a pretty good list of dog foods.
At least, that is, until July 27th, 2019, when a new FDA report came out strongly suggesting a link between certain ingredients in dog food and canine DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy), or enlarging of the heart. DCM causes fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and even sudden death. Two of the brands we recommended were specifically cited in the study, and our other two recommendations contained ingredients directly linked to DCM.
And so our team decided to scrap our best-of list and completely reevaluate our top dog food formulas. Consistent with the FDA’s new recommendations, we concluded that it would be best to err on the side of caution and drop all formulas from our best-of list that contained peas, lentils, potatoes or sweet potatoes, or legumes. Those ingredients–in the order listed above–along with grain-free formulas were cited by the study as the top risk factors for canine DCM.
From large companies to small, independent providers, the FDA study touches an enormous amount of dog food formulas.
We were left with few good options. In researching replacements for our best-of list, we found that the overwhelming majority of dog food formulas either contain DCM-linked ingredients or have a meal rather than meat within the top three ingredients. Meals–which we discuss later in this article–can contain tissue from sick animals, or animals that died before they could be properly slaughtered. Even worse, there are rumors of meals containing roadkill and even euthanized cats and dogs.
Since 90-plus percent of dog foods are either nutritionally unsound, potentially unsafe, or contain ingredients that may cause a dogs’ hearts to enlarge, we were at a loss for what to recommend.
We chose four more formulas, this time from big brands with… complicated histories. By taking a more conservative approach to canine nutrition and using traditional ingredients (including grains), the larger companies produce dog food that’s more in line with current scientific and veterinary thinking than many of their smaller competitors. But while these formulas are all “ok,” they are still rather far from great.
The response from our readers was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. “Sellouts,” we were called, and far far worse. And while we’re used to a certain amount of passionate pushback on our recommendations, this cut us to the bone. Most of us here at ConsumersAdvocate have pets, consider them family, and would do just about anything for them. We researched this topic as much for ourselves as for our readers.
Honestly, we were stumped. In trying to find something–anything–that met a certain criteria of safety, we had turned our focus away from trying to find truly good foods to ensuring that the foods we recommend didn’t contain certain ingredients. Those foods might be safer, but they weren’t necessarily all that great.
After days of deliberation, the obvious solution finally struck us: we don’t have to recommend anything. If our research tells us that there are currently no good options on the market, what’s to stop us from saying so? We don’t hand out good reviews to companies unless they genuinely put out great products.
We should say that while the data in the FDA report is persuasive, the science on the causes of DCM is still not completely settled. In fact, the FDA concludes its report by saying that it is “continuing to investigate and gather more information in an effort to identify whether there is a specific dietary link to development of DCM and will provide updates to the public as information develops.”
Which is not to say that this study is based on nothing–a dietary link with DCM has been suspected since the mid 90s. At issue is the fact that determining a causal relationship between diet and DCM is complicated by numerous factors, including the age, health, and breed of the animals in the study. It may be that certain breeds are more susceptible to dietary-induced DCM, or certain feeding habits increase or decrease the risk of developing the disease. Such a study will require years of painstaking work to eliminate all the statistical “noise” and determine the truth of the matter.
Until such a link is either confirmed or dis-confirmed and until regulations tighten up, we’ve decided that we cannot in good conscience recommend any dog food formulas. As more research is done and new facts come to light, we will revisit this topic and revise our recommendations accordingly.
OUR TOP PICKS: DOG FOOD REVIEWS
What follows is our best of list for dog food as originally published. After the recent FDA findings on DCM, we are not fully comfortable recommending anything at this time. As this story unfolds, we will be closely monitoring the most up-to-date research as well as changes within the industry as a whole in order to provide you with the most accurate information. We are leaving up our original recommendations for the sake of transparency.
On a pleasant early summer morning, our crack team of canine specialists ventured into the park for a very informal test of our top dog food picks. A special thanks to Israel Vázquez, Content Creator & Photographer realpeoplepr.com for these amazing dog pictures!
Best for Puppies
We were impressed by how Honest Kitchen decided to earn a human grade food qualification from the FDA for all of their formulas, even though doing so is neither common, nor mandatory. Though dogs have different nutritional needs than humans (as we’ll discuss in our full write-up of dog food), human food standards are higher than animal feed standards. This means typically superior ingredient quality. In addition, facilities that process human-grade foods are held to higher sanitation standards, so there’s less chance of contamination.
Though not every ingredient in this formula is certified organic, at least half are, and the chicken is free-range and antibiotic- and hormone-free. In addition, the first three ingredients contain a whole meat and an organic grain. Consistent with a puppy’s nutritional needs, the formula isn’t loaded down with protein and calcium, and has a higher than average estimated carbohydrate content.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
Ingredient Sourcing and Cooking
We’d prefer Honest Kitchen sourced all its ingredients from the US and was more specific about its international sources. Though a few nations have higher food safety standards than the US, keeping track of ingredients coming from multiple countries with different standards can be difficult. Sourcing everything from the US is an easy way to ensure consistently high-quality ingredients.
That said, Honest Kitchen’s transparency about these shortcomings is refreshing. Honest Kitchen could have punted by releasing a statement saying “most” of its ingredients were sourced in the US, and left it at that, but instead decided to share the unembellished truth. In addition, all their sources are required to follow a set of fairly strict quality standards.
Honest Kitchen formulas are generally steam cooked over low heat in order to preserve nutrients before being dehydrated. Potatoes and grains are separately flash-heated to break down hard-to-digest cellulose before being incorporated into the rest of the formula.
Since this is a dehydrated formula, water must be added to it before being served to your pup. This means a lighter package and a longer shelf life. Also, it puts the consumer in charge of how much moisture to include in the food–useful for both regulating appetite and increasing hydration.
Best for Large Breed Puppies
Founded more than a century ago as, among other things, a ginseng farm, Fromm Family Foods has long been at the vanguard of numerous canine health and nutritional discoveries. In addition to taking an instrumental role in the development of dry formula (”kibble”), Fromm’s pioneered the use of non-artificial preservatives in pet foods and developed the first vaccine for canine distemper in 1939.
Today, Fromm’s Large Breed Puppy Gold contains a low maximum of 1.47% calcium to prevent bone and joint problems during the rapid-growth phase of puppyhood that worsen in old age. Further, the formula is designed to prevent the kind of unhealthy accelerated growth associated with these conditions.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
With whole chicken as the first ingredient and a variety of whole grains picking up the rear, this formula provides an excellent balance of proteins, fats, and healthy carbs. There are a few too many trace ingredients in the list for our liking, but we do appreciate how the website for the formula provides information on the nutritional composition of each individual ingredient.
Production and Procedures
Fromm owns all its production facilities and testing labs and has in place stringent quarantine rules for both incoming ingredients and outgoing food products. Raw ingredients are tested for contamination and cleared before entering the facility. Before any dog food bags or cans can leave the facility, they are rigorously tested for contaminants and pathogens.
Though Fromm’s website contains excellent information on processes, company history, nutritional science, and other topics, it’s curiously missing any statement on the sourcing of ingredients. The only facts it provides in that regard are that nothing is sourced from China and no artificial ingredients are used. Fromm claims human-grade ingredients and production, but provides little evidence of such.
Best For General Feeding
Of the 13 ingredients listed before the vitamins section, all but one are certified organic. Because there’s no organic standard for animal feeds, pet formulas with an organic certification are actually qualified as human grade foods. This makes for a great, high quality general feeding formula for small to medium-sized dogs of all life stages.
We generally don’t advocate a grain-free diet because whole grains are actually quite good for dogs unless they have an allergy–which is rare. However, there is a satisfactory amount of healthy carbs in this formula derived from organic, non-grain sources, meaning it’s suitable for dogs with and without allergies. Since the protein sources are antibiotic- and hormone-free, you can rest assured that you’re feeding your dog higher quality ingredients.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
Tender & True provides scant information on the origins of its ingredients, noting only that its products are “prepared in the USA,” implying an international pedigree. While we prefer greater transparency in food sourcing, certified organic ingredients do demonstrate a high level of overall quality and food safety standards.
Multiple Dog Households
The Guaranteed Analysis of this formula points to a nutritional profile designed to meet the needs of a wide variety of dog breeds, sizes, and life stages. We’d hesitate to call this formula generic, because it certainly isn’t. Instead, we prefer to think of it as highly versatile–ideal for households with multiple dogs. Since it is grain-free, you can feed it to both dogs with grain allergies and those without, so no more shopping for different formulas for each one of your dogs.
If yours is a household with a number of dogs with different dietary needs, you can always use this formula as a base meal to build from. Used in conjunction with wet food formulas or toppings developed for specific breeds or stages of life, this formula can be a cost-effective primary staple for multiple dogs
Best for Older Dogs
It may seem like this entry contradicts our full write-up of dog foods. After all, Orijen is a Canadian company whose website suggests dogs are virtually indistinguishable from wolves, and has the word “raw” placed prominently on that website a number of times. However, the truth of the matter is that this formula is extremely well-suited to older dogs precisely because of these points.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
Generally, meat-intensive formulas are a bad idea because they don’t provide the carbohydrates necessary for a balanced doggy diet. Senior dogs, however, have a higher protein requirement and lower carb quota than do younger dogs. What would usually be considered an unbalanced formula is right on the money in this case.
“Raw” is a bit of a misnomer here considering this is a dry formula. Don’t expect to open the bag and find a couple of raw, wet chicken cutlets floating around among the kibble. Instead it pertains to the fact that meats arriving at the Orijen production facility are uncooked and lightly processed or completely unprocessed before being prepared onsite.
The biggest mark against this formula is that it contains a number of ingredients in the under 1% range, meaning they’re more about marketing than nutritional substance. However, the formula is quite strong without those negligible ingredients.
Canadian Food Safety Standards
Health Canada’s–our northern neighbor’s government equivalent to the FDA–food safety regulations are at least as strict as the FDA’s and in many cases much more so. This is partly by design–Canada is the US’s second largest trade partner, so food goods need to be able to pass through the shared 5,500 plus miles of border pretty freely–and partly because Canadian consumers genuinely appear to care more about how their food is sourced.
The Orijen website provides details about the sources of all ingredients (all Canadian), as well as comprehensive information about production facilities and processes. The FAQ section in particular is one of the best we’ve ever seen, with six sections of thoughtfully curated and answered questions.
MORE INSIGHT INTO OUR METHODOLOGY
When our team started researching this article to unmask the top dog in the industry, we thought we could wrap up the mystery in half an hour, just like Scooby and the gang. But after a lot of miles in the Mystery Machine and a whole lot of Scooby Snacks, we realized that it was a lot more complicated than we’d expected. So complicated, in fact, that we decided that we couldn’t confidently make any recommendations in the end.
With literally thousands of dog foods available online and in stores, we quickly decided there was no way we could properly assess them all. Instead of looking at individual formulas, we decided to focus on brands. Brands that used the best ingredients, labelled their products with the least amount of hijinks, and showed the highest regard for the health and safety of their shaggy clients earned our top rankings.
In addition, we found that the public forum on dog food is littered with bad information, myths, and fiercely held beliefs lacking in any factual basis. To say that people love their dogs is a bit of an understatement. For many Americans, their pets are as much a part of the family as a brother or sister. It makes sense, then, that they’d have very strong feelings about what goes into their food.
Our task, we realized, was not to arbitrarily crown one brand or formula as somehow the best in a complicated industry. Though we originally provided recommendations for best brand for certain categories before the FDA’s landmark DCM report came out, we realized that our real job is to educate consumers. We want to help them cut through false and irrelevant information so that they can make confident, informed decisions regarding the health of their beloved dogs.
To make a complicated situation worse, our research made it clear that even with FDA regulations and AAFCO nutritional statements in place, the true nutritional measure of a formula is extremely difficult to come by. In many ways, the dog food industry is like the wild west and there’s an extremely lucrative gold rush going on.
Luckily, there are a few things the discerning consumer can look out for on dog food packaging that will help make purchasing decisions easier.
TOP THREE INGREDIENTS
The ingredients in dog food are listed by order of weight, as is also the case with human food. Therefore the top listed ingredients will comprise the greater bulk of the total formula. As such, those ingredients should contain at least one whole meat (we’ll discuss what that means later), and no fillers, additives, or nutritionally inadequate ingredients. If the top three ingredients in a formula are meat meal, a heavily-processed carb, and something you can’t even pronounce, we encourage you to keep moving down the aisle.
As the scientific consensus on canine nutrition matures, some ingredients that were previously thought to be beneficial have become linked to a number of adverse conditions and diseases. These include the ingredients linked to incidents of canine DCM in the recent FDA study. We decided that until these links are conclusively proven or disproven, we would exclude formulas containing the questionable ingredients just to be on the safe side. Foods that have been known to be harmful to dogs–garlic, avocado, etc.–were obviously cut from consideration from the start.
It has become very popular for dog food formulas to boast of containing absurd levels of protein or nutrients. Grain-free and other niche products are also taking up more and more shelf space. However, canine nutritional requirements are far more complicated than “meat–and lots of it.” A balance of protein, carbs, and fat are all necessary for a complete, healthy diet for your dog.
It’s good practice to familiarize yourself with the needs of your dog based on age, breed, size, and whatever specific health factors he or she may have, and look for formulas balanced accordingly. A dog’s body takes what nutrients it needs and passes the rest out as waste. If a formula boasts anything more than 100% of the daily requirement for a vitamin or nutrient, don’t buy it. Not only will the excess be eliminated naturally, but your dog’s liver and kidneys will have to work harder to process and excrete the overage.
SO WHAT DOES THAT LEAVE?
Unfortunately, not much. Though these three criteria are essential to weeding out the bad formulas, they eliminate almost everything out on the market today. We’re not saying you can’t feed your dog store bought formulas, or that doing so is an entirely unsafe choice. But it does mean that you’re going to have to make some tough decisions about your priorities. It may be that your best bet is one of the larger brands. But then you’re talking cheaper, non-organic ingredients and, historically, more risk of recalls.
HELPFUL INFORMATION ABOUT DOG FOOD
THIS IS SPOT. SEE SPOT CHOOSE. SEE SPOT CHOOSE THE BEST DOG FOOD.
In 2017 the pet food market in the US was a $26 billion a year and growing business, generating more revenue than the entire GDP of Iceland. Visit any public park in the country and it’s not hard to see why. Americans simply love dogs and they’re more and more willing to spend serious money on them. Services like doggy day care, mobile grooming vans, and even dog psychics are popping up in storefronts across the country.
With roughly 90 million pet dogs in the US today, there is about one dog for every three and a half Americans. To put it in perspective, there are about seven million more dogs in America than there are people in Germany. That number is expected to rise as more millennials adopt dogs as lifestyle accessories and Boomers look for companionship and the measurable health benefits associated with pet ownership. Regardless of who’s adding dogs to their families, all those furry friends need to be fed every day. Pet food companies are trying to grab as much of that pie as they can by convincing consumers of the need to buy increasingly specialized formulas based on questionable information.
While there are many companies advertising the positive benefits of their products, there are also plenty of others willing to use pet owners’ fears against them. Not-so-subtle suggestions that a conventional formula will result in a shortened, unhappy lifespan for your beloved pooch are becoming increasingly common. Fear tactics and a reliance on inconclusive and inaccurate nutritional science are rampant in an industry with out-of-date and overly-permissive regulations.
It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between fear tactics and cautionary, good advice from experts. But a good rule of thumb is to consider who stands to gain from these warnings. If you are being told to buy something or else something terrible will happen, that’s a fear tactic. If, instead, you are told to avoid buying something and make your own purchasing decisions–whatever they may be–based on that information, that’s probably neutral advice.
Photo of Dr. Bob Esplin courtesy of Adams Street Publishing, Toledo, Ohio.
While we can teach you the difference between good information and bad, remember, we’ve never met your dog (as much as we’d love to!), so we can’t speak to his or her individual needs. You should always talk to your vet about what’s best for your pet. To that end, we reached out to Dr. Bob Esplin to ask him about dog food and the dog food industry. Dr. Esplin has almost fifty years of veterinary practice, founded the highly-regarded Sylvania Veterinary Hospital in northwest Ohio, and has a keen interest in pet nutrition.
MYTHS ABOUT DOG FOOD
The greatest myth about dog food rests on a flawed assumption about what dogs are. People either think that what’s good for humans is good for dogs, or that dogs should be eating the same things as wolves. The truth is that dogs have their own specific nutritional needs, which fall somewhere between the plant-heavy omnivorous human diet and the exclusively raw meat diet of their wolf ancestors.
“The dog has been domesticated for over 30,000 years,” Dr. Esplin told us, “and their digestive system has adjusted to the way we eat and feed the same as our digestive system. We’re not out eating wooly mammoths.”
Indeed, dogs and humans have been intimately involved in each other’s lives for thousands of years. Though there are a number of theories about the specifics of how this relationship developed, all share common elements. What’s generally agreed upon is that wolves began scavenging from human settlements as an easy way to supplement their diet.
As trust grew between humans and the bolder/less aggressive wolves, the two species entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement. Wolves were provided with a stable food source, while humans gained valuable hunting allies and guard animals. As an added benefit to both, humans and wolves found in each other an extremely gratifying companionship. “Man’s best friend” isn’t just a cutesy slogan–it’s a prime part of our history.
As this friendship developed, so too did dogs themselves. Eventually dogs emerged as a new species, physiologically distinct from wolves. As a result of their long relationship with humans and human foods, dogs have developed the ability to metabolize carbohydrates, which wolves lack. Meanwhile, as every dog owner knows, such common human foods as chocolate and grapes are highly dangerous. When thinking about the nutritional needs of dogs, it’s important not to confuse them with the needs of either humans or wolves. Though not genetically or taxonomically related, it’s useful to think of dogs as one would bears: opportunistic carnivores with a typically omnivorous diet.
MARKETING VS. FACTS
As is often the case with human food and diet fads, there’s a lot of marketing noise getting in the way of the facts. A lot of the claims made on dog food packaging are either irrelevant to dogs’ actual nutritional needs or appetite preferences, or are intended to make the product more attractive to the owners buying it.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
“Some of the supplements that they put into the dog foods–as much as I would like to think it’s for nutritional purposes, I think it’s more for advertising purposes,” said Dr. Esplin. “It’s all hype,” he added.
Other, non-nutritional additives are there simply for looks. Dyes, for instance, are often added to dog food to make it look more palatable to human eyes. Though dogs aren’t nearly as colorblind as is commonly believed, they will happily swallow even what we’d consider the ugliest food items, as every dog owner knows all too well. If the only difference between a $10 bag of food and a $20 bag is how appetizing it looks to you–a human–save your money. Spot won’t spot the difference.
Trace ingredients (usually appearing after vitamins way down at the bottom of the ingredients list) with minimal or no nutritional value exist only to lead buyers to believe that a formula is more nutritious or “balanced” than it really is.
What information on your dog food label is important and what is marketing or misdirection? It can be extremely difficult to look past the bogus material to find the truth. Luckily for you, we’ve done the work of figuring out what you need to know, and what’s hype.
IS GRAIN-FREE REALLY THE WAY TO BE?
The term “grain-free” is a bit misunderstood when it comes to dog food formulas. Most people understand this to mean carb-free, or food with only animal-based ingredients. In fact, grain-free means exactly what it says: this particular formula contains no grains such as wheat, rice, corn etc. This does not mean the formula won’t contain plant-based ingredients such as peas, potatoes, squash, carrots, as well as fruits and a number of other vegetables. If you think you’re getting a carb-free formula, you’re probably wrong.
Which is actually a good thing, because not only can dogs metabolize carbs, as we mentioned above, but starches have become a key part of their balanced diet. Canine nutritional science is not yet as advanced as its human counterpart (part of this is due to the great variation in dog biology based on breed), so there is still some disagreement about what the doggy food pyramid should look like. However, most researchers and veterinary associations agree that carbs should actually make up a larger percentage of a dog’s diet than animal-based proteins, though this changes as dogs get older.
Again, assumptions about dogs and wolves are leading many people away from what they wrongly consider to be useless filler calories. In fact, dog foods that are too high in protein can stress your pet’s kidneys, causing serious long term problems. Though, again, every dog has different needs. If your vet determines that your dog is allergic to grain–this is rare, but no more common than canine allergies to certain kinds of poultry or meats–a grain-free formula is absolutely the way to go. However, the most popular alternative to grains have been linked to DCM, so finding a safe grain-free formula might prove to be a bit of a challenge.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
As with humans, the best carbs for dogs are whole grains, which are more nutritious than refined grains and raise blood sugar more slowly. Also, the dietary fiber found in whole grains helps sate appetites and prevent obesity as well as providing a host of additional health benefits, including maintaining colon health, and regulating intestinal bacteria.
For those preparing their own, homemade formulas, remember that cooked carbs are easier to digest than raw. You’ll thank us when it’s time for walkies.
A Note About Diet and DCM
On June 27th, 2019, the FDA released an update on an ongoing study into links between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. DCM is an enlargement of the heart that prevents effective blood flow through the body, causing fatigue, shortness of breath, fainting, and is linked to a higher incidence of heart disease and increased mortality.
Such a link between diet and DCM had previously been convincingly proven for cats, but only anecdotally established in dogs. Though the update doesn’t state an unequivocal cause/effect link, the data suggests it is very likely. More definitive studies may be forthcoming in the not too distant future. We will continue to monitor the situation and update this article as necessary.
The report specifically calls out grain-free diets as being the second highest linked factor to cases of DCM, though it’s worth noting that it’s more likely that the ingredients put in place of the grains are the real culprits. Peas, lentils, legumes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are specifically called out.
Incidence of DCM linkages by protein source is also covered in the report with chicken taking up the lead. However, since the bulk of dog food formulas contain chicken, it would be hard to draw any concrete conclusions about a link.
Until a definitive ruling is issued, we recommend avoiding formulas with the suspect ingredients.
WHAT ABOUT RAW FOOD?
Along with grain-free options, raw foods have become quite popular in the last few years. While some swear by it, others cite safety concerns associated with unrefrigerated raw meats or chicken. Due to the scarcity of peer reviewed science on the topic, we’ve decided to withhold judgment until there’s more data to support a conclusion one way or the other. Though it’s worth reiterating that our research has shown that meat-only diets and uncooked grains are not beneficial to a healthy dog’s diet.
HOW TO READ DOG FOOD PACKAGING
Everything you read in the ingredients and nutrition facts sections on dog food packaging is regulated by the FDA, though these regulations are woefully inadequate, with loopholes large enough to drive a dog sled through. The FDA oversees every step of pet food safety from raw material sourcing to production, to the language used to describe every ingredient, to how that ingredient’s nutritional value is calculated. As you’ll soon learn, however, these regulations have some rather disconcerting weaknesses.
The FDA often uses recommendations and model regulatory legislation proposed by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (a nongovernmental organization that provides nonbinding recommendations about animal feed and pet food) when drafting pet food safety laws. The thing to keep in mind here is that much like the legalese in your cellphone contract or the user agreements you come across in your daily life, the true meaning of a lot of the terms on these labels is a bit different from what you think they mean.
For instance, the name of a given dog food can tell you a lot about its contents. According to AAFCO language, a formula named “Beef Dinner” is only legally required to contain 25% beef, while something named “Fido’s Choice Select with Beef” only has to be 3% beef. That’s because terms like “dinner,” “platter,” and “entré” are basically legal code words to say that this particular food isn’t entirely, or even mostly, beef. The word “with” tells you that some unnamed ingredient or ingredients make up the vast majority of a given dog food and that a little bit of beef has also been added. Only products with unambiguous names like “Charlie’s Beef Dog Food” will contain at least 70% of that ingredient by weight, with water content factored in. Anything with “flavor” in the name contains only trace amounts of the advertised ingredient.
The reason for all this is that in terms of dog food marketing, “beef” is a much more attractive ingredient than corn, meal, or practically anything else. Brands would quickly go out of business if they gave their products names like “Daniel Dog’s Mostly Corn Meal With At Least 3% Beef.”
Additionally, words like “holistic,” “natural,” “quality,” etc.–basically any positive adjective you can think of–have no legal definition. There is literally nothing preventing a dog food company from claiming that its subpar formula, made of the lowest quality ingredients, is the very pinnacle of nutritional science. Hyperbolic claims of quality should be ignored.
Because of this permissiveness in descriptions and ingredient lists, many people advise paying more attention to the AAFCO nutrition statement found on most dog food packages. Though this too, is not without its problems as Dr. Esplin told us that “[AAFCO] minimum standards don’t necessarily relate to the biological availability of the nutrient. Or the bag doesn’t talk about the quality of that nutrient that goes in.” In short, what the bag says has very little relation to its contents.
MEATS, “MEATS,” & MEALS
Regardless of the fact that carbs make up a large part of a dog’s daily diet, when we think of dogs eating, everybody thinks of one thing: meat. With the exception of vegetarian formulas, dog food is classified primarily by a headlining protein; often beef, chicken, or salmon, with other options making up a minority segment. It should come as no surprise that not all meats are created equal.
Ingredients labeled as some variety of “meat” (beef, bison, etc.) are mostly what you’d expect: animal muscle tissue, though with heart, tongue and esophageal muscle also included sometimes. These are considered the Cadillac of ingredients. Consequently, they come with a higher price tag.
Next on the list are meat byproducts, which can include organ tissue such as kidneys, lungs, stomach, etc. These parts are considered less desirable by Western standards, even though organ meats are seen as human delicacies worldwide. Also, you don’t see picky carnivores turning up their noses at internal organs in the wild.
In addition, AAFCO guidelines include a substantial loophole that may mean byproducts are of a higher quality than full meat. The requirements state that byproduct meat must be slaughtered, but there are no such requirements for meat. This means that euthanized animals, or animals that have died of disease before they could be slaughtered can make it into the final product labelled as the “meat,” with literally no distinction from a healthy, premium animal.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
At the bottom rung is “meal”–a highly processed product made by mincing meat and meat byproduct scraps and rendering them at high temperature. This results in a large amount of the fat and water content being removed from the final product. Essentially, you’re left with concentrated meat. Though that may not sound terribly appetizing, considering the bulk of animal meat is simply water, meal is actually a more efficient nutrient delivery method, packing more protein in a smaller, lighter package.
The downside to meal is that FDA regulations about what’s going into it and the nutritional content of the final product are pretty lax. That means that it’s up to the dog food manufacturer to decide how much information to volunteer. For instance, if something is marked simply “meal,” or “meat meal,” you won’t know what animal or animals it comes from, or what quality it started out as. At the very least, a quality dog food should announce the source of its meal protein, such as “beef meal,” or “lamb meal,” etc.
FEEDING RECOMMENDATIONS & OBESITY
Exact figures vary, but numerous authoritative sources claim that about half of all pet dogs in America are overweight or obese. What accounts for these staggering figures? If you look at the feeding recommendations (or daily feeding guide–names vary, but the information is the same) of your dog food, you’ll see why. Typically this information comes in the form of a chart with different portion suggestions based on a number of weight classes.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that there is often a range of portion sizes offered for each weight. If, for example, you’re seeing a suggested portion of ¾ to 1¼ cups for dogs in the 11-15 pound range, that’s an increase of 67% (that’s a real number we pulled from a bag of dog food, by the way). Since dogs are highly motivated by food, it’s only natural that their owners would make the connection between more food and more love, and base their daily feeding on the high end of that range. More food means more love, right?
Overweight dogs may look cute–who doesn’t love a rolly polly pug, after all? But as with humans, the extra weight comes with a host of health issues, including diabetes, increased risk of cancer, hypertension, and a shortened lifespan.
Except in cases of certain disorders, canine obesity is usually pretty easy to combat. To begin with, cut down on portion size to limit caloric intake, then take Fido to the park and throw a tennis ball around for an hour or so. “Diet and exercise” isn’t just for people.
You can tell when your dog is at a healthy weight by a few visible cues. From the side, you should be able to slightly see and feel your dog’s ribs, and his or her belly should tuck up at the waist. From above there should be a bit of an hourglass shape, but the hip bones should not be visible. You should be able to maintain the correct weight by paying attention to these signs.
As noted, the legal definition of an ingredient leaves considerable room for interpretation. Many dog food reviews tell you to look for a whole meat within the first three ingredients. This is definitely advisable–we advise it ourselves–but it doesn’t tell the whole story. We know that, for instance, the term “chicken” without a modifier legally describes pretty much the same parts of the animal that a human eats. However, it says nothing about the quality of that chicken, or the conditions under which it was processed. It could be chicken that failed inspection for human consumption, or meat from diseased animals or animals that died under non-slaughter conditions.
Many people point to the nutritional adequacy statement or AAFCO statement as the better indicator of overall dog food quality. However, even this doesn’t provide a terribly accurate picture. Because the AAFCO is not a regulatory agency, it only provides guidance on industry best practices. All of the nutritional testing and feeding trials are done by the dog food manufacturers themselves, and not by an independent and impartial third party. In addition, the methodology of these tests has come under intense criticism from a number of quarters for scientific laxity and allowing the suppression of unflattering results. If this seems like a recipe for skewed data, you may well be right.
While there are efforts underway to improve regulatory protocols–to close loopholes that endanger the health of your pets–for now the best you can do is to read labels with a critical eye and do your research. Also, there’s nothing wrong with calling a dog food manufacturer and asking them in-depth questions about their products and processes.
CERTIFICATIONS: WHAT DO THEY MEAN?
Ingredients and nutritional profile aside, the basic manufacturing and legal requirements for dog food have some similarities to human food. In fact, where animal-specific regulations don’t exist, human standards are used. For instance, there is not yet an organic standard for pet food in America, so the AAFCO suggests that the same organic guidelines for human food be followed. Thus, the USDA Organic sticker found on certain dog foods pertains to a human standard of organic production. Typically standards for human health and safety are higher than for animals, so this borrowing of regulations shouldn’t be considered a problem.
A Certified Vegan label is awarded by the organization Vegan Action when a manufacturer proves that no animal parts or byproducts are present in a formula, and that no animal testing has taken place. We take no position on whether a vegan diet is nutritionally adequate for a dog–the debate, unfortunately, is based more on strong opinions and beliefs than conclusive proof. We leave that decision up to you and your vet.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a non-profit that awards pet and human foods with a certified sustainable seafood sticker once a successful independent audit has been performed. In recent years, the MSC has come under fire from a number of environmental agencies for perceived conflicts of interest and relaxed sustainability standards. If you have concerns about the sourcing of a given brand’s seafood, or about seafood sustainability in pet food in general, there are plenty of other protein options available.
In addition to these certifications, you may notice a number of other badges adorning dog food packages. These are often marketing gimmicks intended to convey the idea of superior quality. Take a second look to see if any organization or regulatory agency is named on them. If nothing of the sort is found, ignore the badges–they’re just advertising hype.
SO WHICH DOG FOOD IS RIGHT FOR MY DOG?
The short answer is “it depends.” Unfortunately, the long answer isn’t much different. Think of your dog for a minute as a human, then ask yourself what diet would be ideal for him or her. That would depend on age, sex, weight, health history, and a number of other factors, wouldn’t it? So what’s the right answer?
Just as with humans, the first step is to speak to his or her doctor–or vet, in this case. You might run our recommendation for the category that best fits your dog by your veterinarian–who has examined your dog personally–to see if we’ve made the right pick.
DIFFERENT BREEDS, DIFFERENT NEEDS
We’ve already discussed how dogs and wolves have different nutritional needs. However, those needs can vary notably from breed to breed. Larger breeds, like Great Danes for instance, are often prone to a variety of bone disorders, such as hip dysplasia. Counterintuitively, that condition has been linked to too much calcium in their diets as puppies. Essentially too much calcium at an early stage hinders the animal’s body from breaking down old bone. This, in turn, disrupts new bone development at a critical stage in the dog’s growth, leading to lasting health problems throughout his or her life.
Large and giant breed dogs grow incredibly rapidly during their first year of life. Again using the example of Great Danes, who are generally 1-2 pounds at birth, in their first year they can reach a weight of between 90 and 140 pounds. Such rapid growth–up to a 90-fold increase in body weight–puts great strain on their joints. It’s now recommended that large and giant breed puppies have their daily calorie intake reduced to slow their growth rate and take some of the pressure off their joints. Obviously this does not mean you should starve your dog–just that you should maintain a body mass on the slimmer side. Again, keep an eye on those ribs and hips.
Activity level is another important factor when it comes to dietary needs. Bulldogs, for example, lead fairly sedentary lives, and thus have lower calorie requirements than similarly-sized breeds. Metabolism–which varies not only by size, but breed as well–determines daily calorie needs, and changes throughout the different life stages of a dog. Age is probably the most important element to consider when coming up with a feeding plan for your dog.
As dogs age, their nutritional needs change substantially. This, too, is dependent on breed, as larger dogs tend to age faster than smaller ones. Much like older humans, vitamin requirements increase as more birthdays go by. Probably the most noticeable change, though, is in protein intake. Puppies have a much lower need for protein than adult dogs. As they continue into old age, that need continues to increase. Obviously with rescue dogs it can be difficult to determine exactly how old the animal is, but luckily a ballpark estimate will do.
Photo by Israel Vázquez
WHAT SHOULD I BUY? WET FOOD, OR DRY?
Let’s face it, pet parents can have some very strong opinions when it comes to the health and well being of their favorite companions. Honestly, we can’t blame them for being so passionate–we’re talking about family, after all. But it’s important to separate bad information and wishful thinking from facts. Where it comes to the single most asked question in the dog food debate–wet or dry?–our research determined that it’s more a matter of personal style than one being absolutely better than the other.
Wet food is often considered “tastier” than dry food, though how that’s quantified is unclear. What is true is that the canning process allows for a longer shelf life using fewer preservatives, and comes with built in portion control. Depending on the size of the can and size and appetite of your dog, you might go through a can a meal or a can a day. How easy is that? In addition, the extra water content in wet food can be beneficial to dogs who are reluctant to drink enough water or those who live in hot or arid climates. Though everything in moderation. Wet foods with extreme water contents (above 78%) leave less room for the nutrients your dog needs.
Dry food has a shorter total shelf life, but once you open wet food, it’s only good for a few days and has to be refrigerated. Properly stored, dry food can last for weeks, which is why it commonly comes in sizes up to 40 pounds and beyond. In addition, dry food is somewhat helpful in mechanically removing plaque from your dog’s teeth. Though the overall benefit of this is often overstated and should not be used in place of proper tooth maintenance, including brushing and regular visits to the vet.
Most important, though, is to listen to your dog. If he or she only reluctantly eats dry food, it might be time to switch to a wet formula, or try a combination of dry food topped by wet. Switching between dry and wet formulas for the morning and evening meals is also a perfectly appropriate choice. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, then by all means, only buy the type of food you’re comfortable with. Happily, neither option is right or wrong.
HOW TO SWITCH UP YOUR DOG’S DIET
As dogs age from playful puppies to grey-muzzled old timers sleeping happily on the porch, it’s important to switch up their diets to suit their changing nutritional needs. But you may find that other food adjustments need to be made throughout the course of their lives. There is some debate about whether or not dogs get bored eating the same food every single day, but what can’t be denied is that sometimes your furry buddy just isn’t eating with the same gusto as before.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with changing up your dog’s diet to combat a lowered appetite, or simply to add some variety, but you have to be careful how you do it. It’s generally best to introduce new food–or a new combination of foods–slowly. Begin by mixing in a small amount of the new formula and then add in a larger and larger proportion over the course of a week or two. Because dogs can’t simply tell you how they’re liking their new grub, you have to look out for a few tell-tale signs. The single best method for judging how a dog is handling a new diet is, you guessed it… paying attention to their poop.
Diarrhea and loose stool, along with vomiting, lethargy, and rapid weight changes are undeniable signs that Rover’s new diet is not working out. If a return to the original diet doesn’t improve matters, go straight to the vet. Something more serious might be at play.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With so many choices on the market, and so much bogus information floating around, it can be pretty daunting picking the right dog food brand for your favorite mutt. However, once you understand the labeling tricks and have spoken to your veterinarian, you should be able to make healthier choices. Deliberately misleading packaging, scare-mongering and sensational claims can be defeated with a little common sense and by following a few straightforward rules.
Pet owners are a pretty demanding and vocal group–if a brand is putting out legitimately unhealthy food, you’re going to hear about it at the local dog park or on your Scottie Lovers Facebook group. Pet food brands understand who their customer base is, and marketing shenanigans aside, they know they won’t last long in this dog eat dog industry if they continue to put out a bad product.
As we’ve discussed before, the FDA report strongly suggesting a link between certain diets and a serious canine heart disorder (DCM) has made it all but impossible for consumers to feel 100% confident about their dog food choices. Until the industry catches up to the latest science, we recommend following these guidelines for choosing the best dog food possible.
Follow these simple guidelines and you can’t go wrong!
Certified organic formulas are recommended due to human-grade food safety standards.
Choose formulas with a whole, named meat as one of the first ingredients.
Ignore ingredients listed after vitamins as they provide negligible nutritional benefits.
Grandiose claims of superior performance are generally hot air—if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Avoid formulas containing DCM-linked ingredients (peas, lentils, legumes, potatoes and sweet potatoes).
Avoid exclusively protein formulas—carbs are an essential part of your dog’s diet, particularly when cooked.
Food allergies or sensitivities are more rare than you think—check with your vet before deciding Rover’s got an allergy.
The nutritional profiles of exotic protein sources aren’t as well understood as more conventional meats—it would probably be a good idea to wait a few years for the science to catch up.
Companies that employ PhD veterinary nutritionists generally put out the best product.
FAQS ABOUT DOG FOOD
Is dog food packaging safe?
Dog food packaging is safe as long as it doesn’t contain BPA or phthalates, which are known to disrupt the endocrine functions of dogs. It’s best to favor packaging labeled as non-toxic or BPA-free.
Is dry food or wet food the best?
Neither is particularly better or worse than the other, so you can’t go wrong. It really just comes down to a matter of preference.
Dry food is typically cheaper, comes in larger sizes and stays fresh longer once opened. Wet food is useful for portion control and its added moisture can be beneficial for dogs living in hot climates, or who don’t drink as much as they should. Wet food is also considered to have more flavor, though we declined to test that claim ourselves.
If you prefer one over the other for any reason, rest assured, as long as you pick a quality brand, you’re doing right by your dog.
I’m afraid to switch foods. Won’t it upset my dog’s stomach?
It certainly can. The best way to introduce a new formula is to mix it into the old one a little at a time over the course of a week or two while keeping an eye on the consistency of your dog’s stool. If they have diarrhea or loose stool, it’s probably a good idea to revert back to the original formula.
If you have a particularly picky pooch, start small. Don’t buy the 40 pound bag until you’re sure your dog likes–and can stomach–the new formula.
I’m worried about recalls. Are they common?
Large scale recalls are uncommon. The most recent one was in 2007 involving contaminated wheat gluten from China. Food safety laws tend to be stricter in America than they are in China, so it might be a better idea to stick with brands that source their ingredients domestically.
Single brand or single formula recalls are more common, though it’s worth mentioning that every industry experiences recalls. There are risks involved with any food purchase–it’s important to have a sense of scale and perspective. For an up to date list of pet food recalls, visit the FDA Recalls & Withdrawals animal and veterinary site.
I’ve heard onions and garlic are bad for dogs. Why do I sometimes see them listed in the ingredients of dog foods?
In high enough concentrations, onions, garlic, and other plants in the Allium family are toxic to dogs. The chemical culprit is thiosulfate, which causes anemia, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and a host of other unpleasant conditions. In high enough doses–and depending on the size of the dog–death results.
While some formulas use very small amounts of garlic or onions to add flavoring, remember that dog food producers are not in the business of killing off their customer base. If your dog were somehow physically able to eat the amount of dog food required for a toxic dose, they would have much bigger problems.
Is there horse meat in my dog food?
In a word, no.
Though the primary meat in American dog food up through the 1940s, horse meat was finally outlawed for that purpose in the 1970s. Horse meat for human consumption is considered a delicacy in a number of parts of the world, and sells for much more than it would as filler meat in your puppy chow. In short, it makes about as much economic sense to use horse meat for your kibble as it does Kobe beef.