Part 2 : Labels and Choices
The ingredient list is the window into the real criteria by which you should make a decision. It’s important to know what to look for in a label. There are massive reports and highly detailed information located at a great web page called “The Dog Food Project” that will teach you everything you wanted to know and more about reading labels. I’m going to offer up a subset of this knowledge to give you an idea about how to understand what you’re reading in general.
Ingredients on the bag are listed in order of their weight -before- processing. There is some math to be done to account for water loss when the foods are cooked and made into dry food. This can skew your perception of a food’s quality. When looking at a label that contains a specific meat, that’s the ‘wet’ weight being used. Once the food is dried, that ingredient may actually account for less of the total weight in the food than some of the ingredients listed after it. A good food may not have meat as the very first ingredient on the list, especially if the meats are listed as their dry form (like a “meal” – see below).
The Dog Food Project’s author suggests reading down the list until you find the first source of fat (called fat or an oil of some kind). Everything before the fat source is a major component of the food and should factor into your decision making process about that food. Keep that wet vs. dry concept in mind, too, and understand that you’re taking the list of ingredients up to the fat as the major components of the diet.
I hear this term a lot when food is discussed. I’m not certain what ‘filler’ means to each of us, but the implication is that food companies are dumping something like sawdust into the food to ‘bulk it up’ in some way. This really doesn’t make any sense to me. With more understanding about the fact that certain required components of a dog or cat’s diet can come from different sources, we can do away with the ‘filler’ concept altogether and talk about what ingredients are actually in the food. It’s a far better way to assess quality.
Now that we know which ingredients make up the majority of a given food, we can start assessing those ingredients for quality. This can get a little tricky, so I’ll try to break it down into a simple list of tips.
• Look for actual food names like “Chicken” as compared to “Poultry” (or “Salmon” as compared to “Fish”) and avoid “by-product” if at all possible. When a food lists “Chicken,” you know that actual chicken meat is going into the food. By-products are parts left over after some type of processing, so the choicest parts are not likely included in the food.
•”Meal” is not necessarily a bad thing. Meal simply means that whatever is listed before it has been ground up and is included in a mixed form. For example, “chicken meal” is chicken meat and bone ground up together. That’s fine! In the wild, bone is consumed with the prey animal’s meat — and having it ground into a meal provides some of that ‘whole prey’ goodness to our pets.
•”By-product meal” is probably about the lowest end of the spectrum. By-product meal is ground-up leftovers, essentially. So, when you look at something like “chicken meal” compared to “poultry by-product meal,” the chicken meal is the better ingredient.
Here’s a label with higher-quality ingredients:
Choosing Primary Ingredients
Now that you know how to distinguish between higher quality ingredients and lower quality ingredients, you’ll need to decide on the primary ingredients you want to feed your pet. For example, you’ll have to decide if you want to feed your dog a “Salmon and Potato” food or a “Chicken and Rice” food. There are a LOT of options here and many of these choices can influence the veterinary care of your pet as well. This is also where I’ll express my opinion about how we should be feeding our pets. Keep in mind that this is just my perspective. If what I say happens to contradict what one of the other doctors has said to you during a visit at the hospital, please feel free to ask about the differences!
I feel that we should be aiming to have a low-grain or grain-free diet for our pets. This means that I prefer sources of protein to be animal meat. Carbohydrates should be things like potato or rice when possible. Corn is often used as a source of protein for foods, and that’s ok, but it’s probably not the best way to go. I don’t have a strong preference for the animal meat source.
It was eye-opening to see what was out there on the shelf for folks to choose from. Pet food companies have clued in to the use of limited-ingredient diets to help vets diagnose food allergies. When a dog or cat has a food allergy, we have to find a food with ingredients that the pet hasn’t eaten before. Since most basic foods use poultry, beef, pork, corn, and rice, we have to select a diet that has other ingredients. The pet is given that food for 8-12 weeks to see if the symptoms of the food allergy go away. The testing food is either a prescription diet hypoallergenic food, or a limited antigen diet like fish and potato, or venison and pea. The fact that owners can buy foods with these atypical ingredients can sometimes complicate my work to clear up a food allergy. However, these diets also tend to be the ones that meet my criteria for low- or no- grain foods. Hypoallergenic foods are vet-only, so I still have those to fall back on. It’s certainly OK for you to choose a fish or venison diet for your pet.
I noticed something that’s VERY important as you’re choosing a food that I want to mention here in detail. What the food says on the FRONT of the bag may not be the whole story about what is IN the bag! I found numerous foods that advertised limited ingredients on the front of the bag. When I read the label, however, it was a different story. Be sure to read the entire label to look for other animal or grain sources that might be included in the food! It could really throw off a food trial if one of the vets is trying to diagnose a food allergy. Even a tiny bit of an ingredient that a pet is allergic to can cause problems! A specific example is shown in the photos below.
DIY and Raw Diets
With the right amount of research and with exceptional care taken for food safety, it’s possible to cook for your pet at home, or to use a raw-food diet. In a perfect world, we’d do this for all of our pets, as it’s probably the absolute best way to treat them. However, without the assistance of a veterinary nutritionist, a homecooked diet can be dangerous for your pet. Vitamins and minerals have to be balanced in a specific way, protein and fat requirements need to be met, and so on. It’s not safe to cook a one-protein, one-carb diet for your dog for longterm use. Tossing in a vitamin won’t make up for things properly, either. There are a number of safe, balanced, pre-prepared fresh food/raw diets out there that can be purchased. I think that these are great alternatives to bagged foods if owners have the time and money to commit to doing them right.
It’s rare that I’ll come right out and make a blanket statement for caring for my patients. Each of them is a special case that requires individual attention. It’s not fair (nor is it good medicine) to state that every patient will perform the same on a given diet, treatment, or preventative medicine program. We custom-tailor health care for your pets, and feeding them is one of the single largest things we do that influences health. That being said, I’ll try to answer the perennial question: “What food do you recommend.”
Good: Nationally recognized brand names like Iams, Eukanuba, Purina, Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin, etc. are acceptable foods. There are lots of formulas under these larger companies’ labels, some of which included high-quality ingredients. Use what you’ve learned here to evaluate your choices based on the ingredients and your budget. You won’t be hurting your pet by feeding a basic brand.
Better: High-quality dry food brands with a low-grain or no-grain formula. We offer Orijen foods at the hospital. In addition, Blue, Evo, Wellness, Canidae, Flint River Ranch and Fromm are foods I’m familiar with.
Best: Raw diets that are appropriately balanced and fed in accordance with strict food-safety guidelines. We carry The Honest Kitchen foods at the hospital. I’m not directly familiar with the other brands out there, so if anyone is feeding a raw diet that they like, let me know so we can share it with other interested clients.
Whew! I think we made it through the food discussion! I’m sure folks will have questions. Please leave a comment and I’ll try to keep up!