It can be confusing when trying to work out what food to choose for your dog. Many commercial dog foods have lists of ingredients on them, which can be quite hard to fully understand. How do you know which ones are safe and which ones could be bad for your pet? This article explores this a bit further.
How is pet food regulated?
The Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacture of dog food and treats in America. The FDA makes sure that all of the ingredients used in pet food are safe and included for an appropriate reason.
The FDA also stipulates certain information that must be included on the label for pet food, including the name of the product and manufacturer and the proper listing of the ingredients, ordered from most to least in terms of weight.
Some states also insist on further information to be included on packaging, following a model from the AAFCO.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association made up of individuals that regulate the sale and distribution of animal feed. This association also helps to define standard ingredients and nutritional requirements for pet foods.
Products that came with AAFCO approval have a statement on the packaging which confirms the diet is suitable for pets based on their life stage and that nutritional claims made by the manufacturer are true.
This statement should give owners confidence when purchasing their pet’s food that it meets the standards for which it claims which can be a starting point when looking at which food to purchase.
How to Read an Ingredients List
The list of ingredients on a packet of any food, human or animal, is a legal requirement and tells us what the product contains. Ingredients are ordered in decreasing amounts (based on weight), such that the ones that make up the bulk of the diet are listed first, with the other ingredients following in decreasing order.
It doesn’t, however, give us any details on where these ingredients came from, or their quality. There is a risk of over-analyzing these lists without them giving us a huge amount of information.
Types of Ingredients to Avoid and Why
Chicken meal vs chicken breast
Some foods contain things like ‘chicken meal’ which is a concentrated form of protein produced by cooking and drying out chicken meat. This allows it to be ground down into a concentrated form that can be used in dry kibbles.
This product contains a higher quantity of protein than the equivalent amount of fresh chicken breast, yet it doesn’t sound quite as appealing. For our pets, this less tasty-sounding ingredient may actually be more nutritious for them, so there is no need to avoid it.
Chicken breast vs chicken meal also doesn’t tell us anything about how that chicken was reared and what the quality of the meat was originally.
Ingredients Added for Marketing Purposes
A pet food manufacturer might state proudly on the front of the packet that it contains something exciting like venison or blueberries, but you may find that it only makes up a very tiny part of the diet. It also allows them to charge more than a similar food that doesn’t contain them. So, consider carefully what these ingredients add in terms of nutrition, and whether they are present in a large enough quantity to have any impact.
By-products are the parts of animals that are less popular for humans to eat such as the heart, kidneys, and spleen (it does not include hooves, hair, and horn, this is a common misconception). Organs such as these are all perfectly safe to eat and are highly nutritious for our pets. They are high in protein and various vitamins and minerals, so there is no need to avoid them if you see them listed on pet food packaging.
There is no standard definition as to what filler means, but some people think these are ingredients that are high in starch and low in protein, used to bulk pet food out. However, even carbohydrates have value in your dog’s diet so don’t rule them out of hand completely. Corn and rice are examples of healthy nutritious fillers, but corn syrup and MSG (monosodium glutamate) are perhaps less good. Choosing a diet with fillers that appear lower down in the ingredient list might also be a good idea, with meat, meat meal, or meat by-products appearing above this.
Additives and Preservatives
Some of the ingredients further down the list can sound a bit scary and chemical-like. These tend to be preservatives such as ascorbic acid or butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). Other ingredients are thickeners, conditioning agents, or flavors, like sodium hexametaphosphate or carrageenan.
Even some of the amino acid additives (building blocks of protein) can sound complicated, such as DL-Methionine, L-Lysine, and DL-Tryptophan. However, all of these ingredients are perfectly safe for your dog and will have been approved for use.
Avoid known allergens
Grain-free diets are heavily marketed but only dogs that have true allergies need to avoid grain. Dogs are omnivores, which means eating grain is fine for most pets and provides part of their nutrition. Furthermore, there is also evidence suggesting that grain-free diets can contribute to a serious heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy, but research into this is ongoing.
But if your pet does have an allergy that has been diagnosed (usually through a veterinary lead food trial), then you should of course avoid diets containing ingredients that may trigger symptoms in your pet. Read the ingredients list carefully when choosing a diet for a dog with allergies, as even foods that state they are chicken or chicken flavored, may for example still contain beef as well. This could cause a flare-up of symptoms if that ingredient is what your dog is sensitive to.
The AAFCO has some useful information on how to further interpret the ingredients list.
How to choose the right dog food and treats for your dog
1. Choose an AAFCO diet suitable for your dog’s life stage
You can narrow down your choices by making sure that you try and purchase AAFCO approved food, and pick a diet that is suitable for the life stage of your pet – puppy, adult, or senior.
Also, some dogs with medical conditions will need a diet specifically to help manage this, which your veterinarian will be able to guide you on.
2. Choose a good manufacturer
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) constructed a list of recommendations for pet owners to use when trying to select a diet. These look into the background, qualifications, and quality control methods of different food manufacturers.
There is a comparison page on the Pet Nutrition Alliance’s website where some of the WSAVA’s questions have already been put to manufacturers for you.
3. Decide whether to feed wet or dry food
Consider whether you prefer to feed your pet wet food or dry food (or a combination). Dry foods tend to be easier and less messy to feed than wet foods, but some animals prefer the texture of wet food, so there is no right or wrong answer.
4. Decide on your budget
Cost can play a big part in dictating what diet many owners buy. There is a variation in price between different manufacturers which can be confusing when knowing which one to go for. A way of thinking of this is that a budget burger and sirloin steak are both technically meat, but one is a higher quality product than the other.
That being said, don’t be lured into a diet just because it contains exciting-sounding ingredients or is extremely expensive. Adding ‘exciting’ ingredients or buzz words like ‘whole’ and ‘holistic’ can drive the price of a food up without adding extra, nutritionally.
5. Beware of exotic ingredients
Don’t be lured into a diet just because it contains exciting-sounding ingredients. Whilst things such as flaxseed, kale, or emu sound very appealing to us, they probably don’t add much nutritionally for our pets. Whole foods or exotic ingredients may also only appear in minute amounts in the diet, but this still lets the manufacturer advertise how exciting the diet is, as well as charging more.
6. Feed the correct amount
With any diet, you should feed according to the manufacturer’s guidelines to maintain appropriate body weight. Under or overfeeding your pet can lead to issues. Keep this in mind when buying additional treats and snacks for your pet on top of their normal diet.
What ingredients to look for
As a general rule, a good quality dog food will have animal-based protein ingredients at the top of its list, such as meat, meat meal, and meat by-products. This means the diet contains a good source of protein and lower amounts of other carbohydrate-based ingredients. As well as the ingredients list, remember to always look for AAFCO approval to increase your confidence when choosing your dog’s diet.
When purchasing FDA-approved pet food there are no specific ingredients that you need to avoid. All of the ingredients will have been permitted for use in your dog’s food and will be safe for him to consume.
Instead, focus on buying a good quality complete diet that is appropriate for his life stage (ideally AAFCO-endorsed) and feed according to packet guidelines to ensure a healthy weight is maintained.
If you are still confused it is worth talking to your veterinarian to see what products they would recommend for your pet.