What's Important When Choosing My Dog's Food?
When we are choosing a food for our dog, it can be rather intimidating! We want the best food for our dog that is within our budget-but what does that actually mean? Companies use TV ads with celebrity branding, doggy taste tests, fun music and charts and graphs to confuse consumers and to try to tell us theirs is the best food on the market. However, as the pet parent, we need to make sure that we look through all of the hype and get down to the facts about the brands we are considering.
We want to determine which foods are full of sugar and cheap fillers, and which are high quality, biologically appropriate diets. There are some special dietary requirements for giant breed dogs and for tiny toy breed dogs but the most important thing I would recommend for any dog is to feed a high quality formula or formulas that you can trust.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding on your dog's diet:
All dog foods, which carry the statement of "complete and balanced" must meet AAFCO requirements for nutritional adequacy. Unfortunately, the AAFCO requirements are very broad and haven't been substantially updated in more than 20 years, despite numerous nutritional advances in pet care. So, you will find foods with wildly varying levels of calcium or protein, but which are all considered complete and balanced.
A great way to make sure your dog gets a variety of all of the nutrients he needs is to try a rotation diet. This is what I do in my home, as do many other experts and nutritionists. At home, my husband and I feed 5 different brands of food to our 3 dogs and 3 different brands to our 2 cats. Within these brands, there are a variety of formulas, each with different levels of nutrients such as calcium, protein, fat, phosphorous and fiber.
Many pet owners are concerned about feeding a rotation diet because their experience has been that you should never switch a dog's food because it can make the dog sick. This can be true, but the logic is somewhat flawed. When a dog...or a person for that matter, eats the same thing day in and day out, the digestive enzymes which are each activated by specific nutrients will start to go dormant. Eventually, on the same diet, most of the enzymes become dormant and only the specific variety and quantity of enzymes to digest that specific food are active in the gut. By contrast, when a dog is accustom to a variety of foods, all of the available digestive enzymes and bacteria are active and engaged in the gut. This allows for better overall digestion and nutrient absorption of any food. If your dog is only used to one food, you'll want to gradually introduce new foods and new ingredients slowly, but with increased frequency.
There are hundreds of dog food brands available on the market today. They're manufactured by a variety of different types of companies. There are some with celebrity endorsements and that carry a celebrity namesake. There are some manufactured by major multi-national conglomerates and still others that are operated by large marketing firms. Unfortunately, many of these have the primary goal of profit over all else. Writing as the representative of a "for profit" organization, I completely understand that if a product isn't profitable, it can't continue to be produced. My concern, however, is that many of these companies are under increasing pressure from investors and shareholders to increase profit, which at a certain point means decreasing cost. In the food industry, there are only a few reliable ways to reduce cost, and most of them involve decreasing quality.
It's for this reason, many of the brands in Hollywood Feed’s stores are brands of which most people may have never heard. Fromm, Orijen, Mauri, Lotus and Answers are some of these brands. (Read more about these brands here: Fromm Orijen Mauri Lotus Answers) These companies were each begun with extremely high standards and have adopted a customer base that demands those standards. They're aware that a reduction in quality could make them more profitable in the short term. However, they also know that if they take this approach, their core customer base will abandon them for one of the other up and coming food brands.
When discussing quality, there is a lot to consider. Organic, grass fed and grass finished beef is typically going to be of higher quality than factory beef. However, if you want to get a 30lb bag of dog food with all organic ingredients and an appropriate amount of meat, you would have to spend hundreds of dollars per bag. On the other side of that coin, you can find some 50lb bags of dog food for about $16-but when your bag of dog food costs less than a bag of fertilizer, it's a pretty good sign that it's not going to be nutritionally sound.
Additionally, most of the ingredients on a bag of food must be specifically defined by AAFCO and those definitions are potentially misleading. For example, there are big differences between chicken, chicken meal and chicken by-product meal, but none of these ingredients are necessarily better or worse than the other 2, just based on their name. Suppliers can buy chicken by-product meal with various ratings, and the by-product meal could potentially be of higher quality than chicken meal. Also, when you consider that plain chicken is approximately 70% moisture, the volume and weight of that chicken product is reduced greatly when the food is cooked and/or dried.
Ingredients are listed on the back of the bag in descending order by their weight prior to cooking. If chicken is the first ingredient and rice is second, then after cooking chicken will lose about 70% of its weight but the rice will only lose 8 to 10% of its weight. So, looking at the food on a dry matter basis, it's easy to see that there is actually more rice than chicken in that formula. This is why I prefer foods that have a mix of a whole muscle meat as well as a meat meal (the dried form of the same, previously mentioned muscle meat). There are some foods which contain high-quality chicken by-product meal, but most brands have abandoned that ingredient due to customer perception.
Perhaps the best foods available to our dogs is a high-quality raw diet. Many people are concerned by raw diets due to potential pathogen contamination. While this is possible, it's much more of a risk for people than it is for our pets. The digestive tracts of dogs are naturally equipped to digest raw meat without regard to things such as e-coli or salmonella.
The veterinary and pet industries are divided on the benefits of raw diets, but I can personally attest to their benefits and safety. My 11 year old Lab/Golden mix was having some mobility issues, so I put him on a raw goat's milk fast for a month. His blood levels were tested before and after the goat’s milk fast and every single value was improved after the fast. Additionally, he has started eating an all-raw diet since the goat’s milk fast ended, and his health has continued to improve. Read more about Skeeter’s health problems and goat’s milk fast here.
The primary reason some veterinarians are against a raw diet is because they say there haven't been enough studies done to warrant the benefits. However, it's only been in the past 8 years that large companies have begun to look into raw diets. It's these large companies that can afford the expensive feeding trials and clinical studies, and most of them produce kibble so it's not necessarily in their best interest to research or promote a raw diet. History, on the other hand, has proven that dogs, wolves, foxes and other canine species have, can and will thrive on a biologically appropriate raw diet.
I know this is a lot to consider, and a lot of information to process, but remember: the associates at your local Hollywood Feed attend 60+ hours of training classes each year so that they can become experts on nutrition and different brands of food. Please ask them your questions and to help you pick out the right food next time you are shopping!
- John Sanders