How do you know if a food is right for your dog? There are so many dog foods on the market today and millions of dollars spent by manufacturers in advertising trying to convince us that their product is the best.  So, how do we choose the right food for our dogs?  Just walk into any pet store and the number of foods available is enough to leave your head spinning.  Fortunately, there are some things that can help you narrow the search and hopefully take some of the guess work out.  

MOST IMPORANTLY - READ THE LABELS! You can learn a lot about foods by just reading the label. The ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight. By regulation, no reference can be given on the label to ingredient quality or grade in the ingredient list so once you’ve read the label you need to review several other factors, which are found in the Guaranteed Analysis.  Finally, consider the reputation of the manufacturer, statements and claims made by the manufacturer and the performance of the food.  Start with the label - let’s take a look at some adult dry foods and what they are really made of.

Here are the basics about INGREDIENTS:

  1. 1. Meat & Meal.  This isn’t as bad as it sounds.  Actually “meal” means the rendered product from the animal tissue, exclusive of the blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure and stomach contents.  Just make sure you see the word “chicken” or specific animal before the word “meal”.  “Meat meal” is not the same.  That can be anything from diseased animals to road kill.  The bottom line is that “chicken meal” can actually be better than “chicken” (the whole meat) because they weigh the meat and THEN dry it out.  Since all meat contains lots of water, the food is probably getting much less meat content than what it appears.  

  2. 2. By-products.  A lot of foods have by-products, which are the pet grade meat, usually bones, heads, necks, feet, stomach contents, and organs. These are the parts not desired for human consumption but doesn’t include hair, horns, teeth, feathers, manure and hooves.  That sounds terrible but in truth dogs would eat most of these things in the wild so it probably isn’t as bad as it sounds.  It just isn’t the preferred ingredient and does not have the nutritional value that meat and/or meal have.  Again, make sure it is specific (chicken, beef, lamb, etc.) and not just “meat by-products”.

  3. 3. Corn.  Corn is a protein source used in dog food that has little nutritional value (along with potatoes).  Since corn is not highly  digestible most of it will end up in your yard (i.e. poop!).  Also, corn can be an irritant/allergen to some dogs and can lead to ear infections, itching, butt scratching and licking the feet. 

  4. 4. Wheat. The availability of nutrients a dog can get from wheat (along with beans and oats is poor).  Wheat can also be an irritant allergen to dogs.

5.  Rice.  Of all of the grains rice is the best because it has the most nutritional value and is more easily digested.

  1. 5. Preservatives.  Pay close attention here and read that label!  Most all dog foods have preservatives and some can be potentially harmful.  Some of those are: Ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT and Propyl Gallate. You want the food preserved with mixed Tocopherols, which is added to the fats in food at extremely low levels to prevent rancidity and, thus, prevent the unpleasant odor, loss of palatability, and destruction of vitamins that can occur when fats go rancid. These are USUALLY listed on the label.  But a dog food company DOES NOT have to list a preservative that they themselves did not add. What that means is there still could be Ethoxiquin or other chemical preservatives in that dog food. For example, US Coast Guard regulations state that any fish meal must be preserved with Ethoxyquin.  Some tests have shown that ethoxyquin promotes kidney carcinogenesis, increased incidence of stomach tumors and enhanced bladder carcinogenesis in dogs.  While this is controversial and most all dogs’ food may contain small amounts of this and other chemicals, you just want to make sure you don’t see it on the label (which means it was added to the food).

  2. 6. Glucosamine & Chondroitin.   These have been used for years and are proving to be some of the safest and best treatments for crippling effects of joint disease in dogs.  They are also used as an aid in the treatment of spinal disc injuries and post operatively in dogs that have undergone joint surgery. These are actually naturally occurring substances found in many food products and fall in the same class as vitamins.  They are at their highest concentration in cartilage.  Many dog food manufacturers are now adding both glucosamine and chondroitin to their foods.

The guaranteed analysis on the information panel of the dog food label lists the minimum levels of crude protein and fat and the maximum levels of fiber and water. The protein and fat are listed as crude sources and not as digestible sources. The digestibility of protein and fat can vary widely depending on their sources. The list of ingredients should be examined closely to determine how digestible the sources are.  The other factor in determining actual protein and fat percentages is the amount of moisture present. While the guaranteed analysis is a start in understanding the quality of the food, be very careful about relying on it too much. A pet food manufacturer made a mock product that had a guaranteed analysis of 10% protein, 6.5% fat, 2.4% fiber, and 68% moisture, similar to what you see on many canned pet food labels. The only problem, was that the ingredients were old leather work boots, used motor oil, crushed coal, and water!  So, look at the ingredients first and then compare that to the Guaranteed Analysis.  Without good, quality ingredients, the Guaranteed Analysis does not matter.

1.  Protein.  Protein is one of the most important parts of dog food, as well as one of the least understood.  Most people have a misconception that the amount of protein the food contains is the most important factor.  Actually, it is the amount of protein the dog can use that is most important.   To determine the amount of usable protein, we must break protein down into its component parts.  These parts are called amino acids.  There are two classifications for amino acids of dietary protein: 1. essential: those that the dog’s own body cannot manufacture in sufficient quantities 2. non- essential: those that the dog’s body can manufacture in sufficient quantities.  It is the presence, balance and quality of the essential amino acids that determine the bio-nutritive value (% of usable protein) of the protein in the dog food.

All the amino acids, both essential and non-essential, have very specific nutritional jobs within the dog’s body; such as the building of the muscle tissue, the regulation of antibodies within the immune system, and the transfer of nerve impulses, etc. 

Here are the ten amino acids that are essential for a dog's dietary requirements:

Arginine:  Stimulates immune system response by enhancing the production of T-cells, has the protective effect of toxicity of hydrocarbons and intravenous diuretics, is related to the elevated ammonia levels and cirrhosis of the liver by detoxifying ammonia, and induces growth hormone release from the pituitary gland. 

Histidine:  Releases histamines from the body stores, is associated with pain control, is associated with arthritis, and widens small blood vessels; thus aiding early digestion by stimulating stomach acid secretion. 

Isoleucine and Leucine: see Valine these three amino acids work together.

Lysine:  Promotes bone growth in puppies, stimulates secretion of gastric juices, and is found in abundance within muscle tissue, connective tissue, and collagen.

Methionine: Assists gall bladder functions by participating in the synthesis of blue salts, helps to prevent deposits and cohesion of fats in the liver due to lipotropic function, is related to the synthesis of choline, balances the urinary tract pH (in its dl form), and gives rise to Taurine (an important neuroregulator in the brain).

Phenyalanine: Stimulates chaleceptokinin enzymes and thus is related to appetite control, increases blood pressure in hypotension, works with minerals in skin and hair pigmentation, gives rise to Tyrosine, and produces adrenalin and noreadrenalin.

Thereonine:  Regulates energy draw requirements, works with Phenylalanine in mood elevation or depression and skin pigmentation, manufactures adrenalin, and precurses Thyroid hormone.

Tryptophan:  Produces Serotonin that induces sleep, precurses the vitamin Niacin in treating and preventing pellagra, and is a vasoconstrictor that appears to aid in blood clotting mechanisms. Studies indicate a lack of tryptophan and methionine together can cause hair loss.

Valine: Work together with Isoleucine and Leucine and are classified as "branched-chain" amino acids. The three combine to regulate the protein turnover and energy metabolism, are stored in muscle tissue, and are released to be converted into energy during times of fasting or between meals.

Other factors to consider concerning a specific dog's protein requirements are:

(1) The age of a dog can change its protein requirements. Both puppies and geriatric dogs require lower amounts of protein and higher carbohydrate %'s in their food.

(2) The dog's activity level or stress level (due to environment or working conditions) can change its protein requirements.

(3) A bitch during the gestation and lactation period has her own very specific requirements.

2.  Fat.  Fats are concentrated forms of energy.  However, compared to protein and carbohydrates, fats contain approximately two and a half times the amount of energy per pound, so adding a little bit of fat adds a lot of calories.  Fat must be given in the proper amounts to be useful.  Feeding too little will deprive your dog of energy and cause the dog to have a dry, brittle coat and flaky, dry (and itchy) skin.  On the other hand, dogs fed more fat than is needed get fat.  Dogs that carry excessive amounts of weight may be at greater risk for several disease conditions including some orthopedic diseases and diabetes mellitus.

Fat also supplies the essential fatty acids required by dogs for maintaining healthy skin and coat and serves as a carrier for fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and essential fatty acids.  An optimal range of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty-acid ratios is between 5:1 and 10:1, to enhance skin and coat quality and help nutritionally manage skin and coat conditions.

Although there are many kinds of fatty acids, a few are important to coat health and appearance:

Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6 fatty acid for dogs and is necessary for healthy skin. It is found in beef, pork, chicken and some vegetable oils.

Omega-6 fatty acids, including linoleic acid, can be found in the fat or oils provided in ingredients such as chicken and maize in your dog's food.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish oils and in linseed. Although not essential to a dog's diet, they have been found to help nutritionally manage skin and coat conditions and promote a shiny coat.

3.  Fiber.  Fiber refers to a type of carbohydrate that isn’t digested by enzymes from the dog’s gastrointestinal tract.  Fiber is important for the health of dogs, providing build to move intestinal contents.  Some fibers can be broken down by bacteria in the intestinal tract.  This process creates short-chain fatty acids, which are an important energy source for the cells lining the intestinal tract.  

4.  Vitamins & Minerals.  Vitamins and minerals in the proper balances are essential to a dog’s health. 

Calcium and Phosphorus. These two minerals are responsible for the structural rigidity of bones and teeth.   Calcium is required for blood clotting and nerve impulse conduction. Phosphorus is involved in almost all metabolic processes in the body.  The ratio of calcium to phosphorus is extremely important. The optimum ratio lies in a range of 1 to 2 parts calcium to one part phosphorus. Upsetting this ratio results in bone and growth anomalies.   Most commercial foods contain a sufficient amount and you should not supplement.

Calcium and Magnesium.  The balance between calcium and magnesium is essential for nervous tissue, heart and skeletal muscle functions. Additionally, magnesium plays a role in modulating sodium and potassium levels and is inherent in many essential enzyme reactions.

Potassium.  Potassium is necessary for growth, nerve impulse transmission, fluid balance, muscle metabolism and heart regulation. Prednisone, a steroid commonly prescribed in veterinary practice, causes both a loss of potassium and retention of sodium, which in turn may exacerbate potassium loss. Protein-rich diets require correspondingly greater amounts of potassium. Deficiencies are rare because of the many nutritional sources for potassium.

Sodium and Chloride.  These two minerals usually are found in dog food in the form of sodium chloride, also known as table salt. They are the electrolytes of the body's fluids and deficiencies are rare in normal commercial diets.

Trace Elements: Iron, Copper, Manganese, Zinc, Iodine and Selenium. These minerals are considered trace elements because, as necessary as they might be, they are needed in small amounts to maintain a balanced diet.  These elements can quickly become toxic if ingested in excessive quantities.  Still, small amounts are necessary.  Iron deficiency results in anemia and reduce oxygen transport.  Copper is involved in many biological functions, including iron metabolism. Manganese is not well understood. However, it is known to activate many enzyme systems and thus is involved in a wide variety of reactions. A deficiency of this mineral results in impaired growth, reproduction and disrupted lipid (fat) metabolism. Zinc is essential for protein synthesis and certain enzymatic processes. Zinc requirements are affected by the presence of other minerals.  Zinc deficiency appears as poor growth and skin and coat problems. Iodine is involved in synthesis of thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism. Deficiency results in goiters and disruption of the thyroid's hormonal production.  Selenium is acutely toxic, paradoxically an excess produces the same symptoms as a deficiency. This micro-nutrient has a complex interrelationship with Vitamin E and the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cystine. Selenium also helps protects cells from free radicals that cause damage to cartilage, cell-membranes and genetic material.

5.  Moisture.  The levels of moisture can vary.  This is important in helping to compare crude protein and fat between brands.  The listings on the label are for the food as it is, not as it would be on a dry matter basis.  So without converting both brands of food to dry matter basis you will not be able to compare them accurately.  

As a guide, our adult dogs do well on a food with a protein amount of around 23-26% and a fat content of around 13-16%.

A few other things to consider.

Once you’ve gotten past the Ingredients and Guaranteed Analysis take a look at the caloric intake and recommended feeding.  Cheaper foods with less nutritional value require the dog to eat larger amounts of food.  Simply put, this means more fillers and more waste… poop!  You also need to compare the recommended feeding amounts when comparing prices.  A higher quality food that recommends 3 cups a day vs. a lower quality food that requires 6 cups a day means you are feeding TWICE as much of the cheap food and that is usually no savings.  Remember, fillers = no nutritional value = non-digestible waste = more poop. 

1.  Calories.  Calories are stated in terms of metabolizable kilocalories per kilogram (ME kcal/kg) of food and may also be expressed as calories per unit of household measure such as per cup or per can. Manufacturers may determine the calorie content of their product through calculations based on laboratory analysis of the product or through feeding trial procedures established by AAFCO.  

2.  Recommended Feeding.  As mentioned above, must be considered when figuring out the cost per day.  But the recommended feeding should be considered to as it is a "rule of thumb" of how much you will need to feed your dog. Actual feeding amounts will depend on age, activity, size, environment, stage of life and body condition.   

Just a few misconceptions:

The vet sells it so it must be the best.  Nope.  That is not always the case.  Vets are given incentives for selling dog food by the manufacturers.  This is not to say that vets don’t sell good, quality foods but you have to compare the labels and not just trust that the food is the best one available.

The more expensive the food, the better the food.  Price is not a good way to judge the food and this can be deceiving.  Expensive foods are not always the best foods and may not be the right food for your dog.  Compare the labels and the prices and you will be surprised.

Foods listed in articles of magazines or other sources are good.  These sources usually do not do actual testing of the foods themselves but base their opinions on what others have said, what the manufacturers have said or on the list of ingredients.  If you want to rely on what other people say you should ask a reputable breeder.  Still, you have to try the food to know if it works for your dog.

The food is “human grade”.  If a company claims their food is "human grade", it just means they buy their food from the same places that sells food for human consumption – it doesn’t mean the food it actually fit for humans.  The AAFCO does not recognize nor presently address this form of labeling.

So, which foods are best?  We’ve listed some dry adult foods in the chart below for you to compare.  These are in random order and do not contain all of the information you need to choose the right dog food.

Choosing the Right Dog Food