Feeding a balanced diet to dogs can be a lot more complicated than simply choosing any bag of food that is labelled as a “complete diet,” and not all dog foods are created equal. You may have wondered if there really is much difference between some of the highly priced premium diets and lower cost supermarket brands, or if the higher cost and smart packaging of more expensive foods is simply a marketing gimmick. Tag lines such as “endorsed by vets,” “high protein” and “wheat free” all sounds like they have a lot to recommend them, but in reality, do they make any difference to how best to fulfil your dog’s nutritional needs?
If you need help sorting the wheat from the meat, read on for our eight top tips of good and bad ingredients and processing methods to look for when buying your dog food.
Ingredient listings on food (both canine and human) in the UK are organised in order from the largest component ingredient to the smallest. So the first item on the ingredient listing of your dog food should be meat, the main protein source of your dog’s diet.
Choose a food that lists a single meat source as the main ingredient, ie one that says “chicken” rather than simply “meat,” as this indicates a higher standard of meat content than one that is composed of multiple and often varying sources.
Many dog owners do not know what “meat meal” actually is, or how it differs in its nutritional makeup from whole meat. Meat meal is a by-product of the butchery process, and consists of component parts such as mechanically reclaimed meat (scraped from the bones) organ meat, and skin and soft tissue. In comparative terms, the difference between meat and meat meal is like comparing a steak to a sausage! Meat meal is also processed much more than fresh meat, and is cooked and dried before addition to the food. Also, as fresh meat has a high moisture content while meat meal is much drier, an ingredient listing that shows meat meal followed by a grain product will actually have a larger amount of grain in the food than meat after drying and processing.
Grains (such as wheat, corn and rice) are commonly used in pet foods as a bulking agent and for their nutritional content, although some grains are more suitable and valuable as a food source for dogs than others. Many wheat products and ingredients such as corn gluten are processed to the point that they serve only as a filler and have little or no nutritional value for your dog, while grains such as rice can make a positive addition to the diet.
Fruit and vegetables are often carefully selected for addition in dog food due to their vitamin and mineral content, although often, fruit and veg alone will not fulfil all of your dog’s nutritional needs in processed foods. Most dog foods will list added vitamins and minerals lower down the ingredients listing, and you should pick a dog food that has a good vitamin and mineral content and that fulfils all of your dog’s nutritional requirements.
Any store-bought pet food will by necessity contain some preservatives, to provide it with a long enough shelf life to be viable. However, avoid artificial preservatives, and choose a food that contains only naturally occurring compounds to extend their shelf life. This kind of information is normally highlighted on the packaging of foods that go the extra mile in ensuring only natural preservatives are used.
Cheaper brands of dog food are often brightly or unnaturally coloured, which is not only unnecessary but can sometimes trigger allergies and sensitivities in dogs, so avoid foods that use colorants to improve the visual appearance of the meal, and again, check the ingredient listing carefully.
Good quality nutritionally complete dog food manufacturers understand that in order to provide a balanced and nutritious diet, the source of the ingredients within the food should be identifiable.
Pick a food that indicates a type of meat rather than just using the generic term “meat,” and one that shows the source of fats and other ingredients, ie “soybean fat” or “poultry fat” rather than just using the generalised term “fat.”
There are many different ways to process the grains commonly included within dog food, and some manufacturers use this fact to their advantage in order to artificially skew the customer’s perception of the meat content within the food. If a grain that is processed in two or more different ways is included within the ingredient listing of dog food (such as rice flour and rice germ listed separately) consider the fact that when you combine both of these rice products in one pack, they are likely to compose a greater percentage of the total content of the food than the meat that is actually listed as the main ingredient. Good quality dog food that genuinely has a high meat content will group all grain products of the same family together, as one ingredient component.
Good quality dog food is rich in meat, which provides the main part of the flavour that your dog enjoys and that encourages them to eat with gusto, and so will not require a huge amount of supplemental flavouring. Poorer quality foods that are light on meat and not particularly flavourful often use artificial additives as flavouring, or increase the appeal of their food to dogs by using sweetening agents such as fructose, corn syrup or molasses, none of which are particularly good for your dog and can lead to dental problems and weight gain from empty calories.
Similarly, avoid foods that are high in salt, and anything that has a large amount of E-numbers or unpronounceable flavouring additives listed towards the bottom of the ingredients table.