Food Fit for a Dog

“How do I know what food to choose for my dog?”  “Can’t you just tell me what brand to feed my dog?” I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked these questions! And I wish I could answer them with a simple and easy solution for my owners.

There are several challenging factors to consider in answering these questions. The obvious ones are the specifics about the dog – age, breed, body condition, activity level, health issues, etc.  Next there is the ever-changing ownership of many of the food companies, which means ingredient sourcing and quality changes without warning. Even if a brand is not sold, market conditions may lead to changes in their recipe or formulation, without any change in the name of the food or appearance of the packaging. And there’s also the imprecise nature of food manufacturing, as evidenced by studies showing ingredients not listed on the label being in the food, and ingredients listed as being in the food missing upon analysis.

So to answer the “which food” question for my owners, I came up with four simple criteria a product must meet for me to consider it something I would feed my own dogs. If I would not put a food in my own dog’s bowl, how can I recommend it for your dog?

First, human quality ingredients. The pet food industry is allowed to use adulterated and non-human quality (AKA feed grade) ingredients in pet food, despite federal laws. These feed grade ingredients may include animals that died by means other than slaughter, or other ingredients which are spoiled, moldy, or otherwise deemed inedible by federal inspectors.  

Second, human quality processing. The product should be made in a facility meeting human standards, including an inspector on site. This is a crucial part of the full human quality claim. 

Third, the food must be appropriate for the dog’s biology. The dog’s digestive system is designed to eat prey – something moist, with a high protein content, a moderate amount of fat, and low carbohydrate/starch content. Minerals would come from bone, and key nutrients from various organs. The commercial product (or DIY recipe, for that matter) would emulate this as closely as possible.

Finally, the food must supply all necessary nutrients, in proper amounts. Those nutrients may be delivered in every meal, or in a rotational plan that provides them over the course of a week or less. 

Those of you following the latest pet food news know that there is a purported link between grain free “boutique and exotic” foods and dilated cardiomyopathy is dogs, especially Golden Retrievers. Of course this is a tragic situation for many dogs and their people, who thought they were choosing the best products for their dogs. There’s much we still don’t understand about why this is happening to some dogs, but not others, despite eating the same foods.

Many veterinary nutritionists are making blanket recommendations about what to feed in the wake of this crisis. Their general recommendation contains three criteria: first, the food is made by a big company that’s been in business a long time; second, that the company has a boarded nutritionist on staff; and third, that the company does feeding trials to AAFCO standards. Quite a different focus on this list than mine…

Being a big company and having been in business for a long time does not mean you necessarily make a better product, only that it sells well. Conversely, being a new and smaller company does not mean you can’t make a superior product. Is Walmart always superior to a smaller store or service provider? Wasn’t every successful company new at one time?

Having a nutritionist on staff at first may seem a wise idea. But should that be a criteria for judging a brand, given that many expert formulators work as independent contractors? They work with many brands, and many raw materials and types of foods. I would venture they are more experienced and knowledgeable by virtue of working on a variety of food projects than the formulator who works for a company whose first ingredient is usually corn, across many, many formulations. Other than knowing when they take their coffee breaks and whether they go for the bagels or donuts in the break room, I don’t see any advantage to a formulator being on the weekly payroll over a contract basis. Using a variety of independent formulators could bring in new ideas and perspectives, enabling production of better products.

Finally, there is the view that AAFCO feeding trials “prove” the food is safe worthy of feeding to your dog, every meal, every day of his life. But the basis of the AAFCO feeding trial is keeping six dogs alive for six months, without significant weight loss, and passing a physical examination and testing of four blood parameters at the end of the trial.  Oh, and these dogs are typically laboratory Beagles, living in a closed colony (think kennel), not in a private home. Hardly an accurate comparison to the average family dog! How can six Beagles accurately tell a company what a pit bull, a Shih Tzu, a hound mix from Tennessee, or a goldendoodle should eat? How can those Beagles predict what my show dog, agility dog, or working police K9 needs? Let’s be honest – an AAFCO food trial, (as defined in the Model Regulations for Pet Food and Specialty Food Under the Model Bill), is merely a test of survival. Food trials are hardly meaningful if your desire is to have your dog live a long life of glowing health and vitality.

 Choosing what to feed your dog should not be hard. Choose food (human quality) over feed (less than human quality). Focus on what’s in it, not who made it.  Feed your dog according to his biology, and choose a product or feeding plan calculated to meet his nutritional needs. It’s not hard. It’s just food.

Need some resources to help you? Check out the links below.

Truth About Pet Food’s 2019 List of Approved Foods. Companies on the list are transparent with their sourcing and production methods, and companies were willing to share proof of their products’ quality. Proceeds from the list support consumer advocacy and pet food safety efforts.

Prefer to do it yourself, with ingredients you choose? Check out these books with complete and balanced recipes!

Please visit my page at Amazon to see my preferred dog health products. And be sure to leave your questions and comments on my Facebook page.

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